Gopal dropped his bag and ran up the stairs, taking two steps at a time. He had heard that cry before. He walked around the terrace searching for the injured bird, but there was none to be seen. Had he imagined it?
Gopal gazed at the moving dots in the sky and sighed. This time next week, the kites will outnumber the birds in the sky. He already felt the frenzied excitement on the streets, in the markets, and at home.
The preparations for Uttarayan began nearly two months ago. The city’s streets were laced with threads stretched and dyed with bright colours, waiting to be coated with glass powder. Stalls were packed with a rainbow of kites. Gopal’s classmates talked nonstop about their kite-flying practice sessions.
Until last year, Gopal had been no different. He ate, dreamt, and slept Kites for at least a month before Uttarayan. Most days, he managed to control himself until lunchtime. But past lunch, it felt like he was sitting on pins. He checked the clock every minute. Was it time to go home yet? Why didn’t the bell ring for dismissal? And if his school bus got stuck behind slow-moving traffic, he pestered his favourite deity, Krishna, with innumerable prayers. “Pleeease, why can’t that car up ahead turn into one of the side streets and free up the road for my school bus?” And then, when the bus finally stopped on his street, Gopal leapt off the doorstep and ran to his house, his feet barely touching the ground.
Why? Because Nana was waiting for him with a stack of kites!
Given a choice, Gopal would have gone straight to the terrace, but no, he had to freshen up, eat a snack and take some more on a plate. Then and only then would he and Nana step out together. Some evenings, they went to the terrace. Nana may have looked frail, but he had been limber and full of energy. He climbed those two flights of stairs with ease. The two of them, a short, lean boy half the size of the thin, tall man in a white dhoti and kurta, would check for the wind before they unrolled the manjha.
On other evenings, Gopal and his Nana went to the open playground near their home. Gopal ran with the kite high over his head while Nana followed him, unraveling the manjha. With a shout, Nana would signal him to let go of the kite, watching it dance in the air as it rose to the sky. When It was Gopal’s turn to hold the firkee and unroll the manjha, Nana showed him how to be careful and not cut his hands on the glass.
Gopal looked down at his hands. He shook his head as if that would erase his memories. But they would not go away.
Ma found him slumped against the parapet wall. She bent down to place the plate of jalebis on the floor, and Gopal hid his face in her pallu.
“You must miss him a lot,” Ma pulled him close to her and wrapped her arms around him.
“It is not fair!” the little boy said hoarsely.
Mother and son sat in silence lost in their thoughts.
Nana died last year due to COVID. It had been so sudden. The worst was that Gopal couldn’t see him in his final days. He hadn’t said goodbye to Nana!
Gopal had been dreading Uttarayan for the last two months. Nani, Ma, and he were still mourning because it wasn’t a year since Nana passed away. But the sounds of the festivities around them made the emptiness seem more significant, like a black hole draining away every bit of happiness from him.
That Saturday, Ma thrust a shopping list into Gopal’s hand. There was no getting away from it. She wouldn’t take no for an answer.
Gopal twisted the cloth bags around his arm and kept his eyes on the road. For a while, that is. He wasn’t walking around with blinkers, after all! The street was a riot of colours, like a garden. Colourful pandals clashed with the rainbow of kites, and thick fat firkees hung row after row. There were Small stalls selling Chikki every ten feet. Children hopped from shop to shop, pointing to one kite after another. It was hard to resist being swept up in the energy around him.
Gopal left the bustling crowd on the main road and turned into a narrow side street. He squinted at the sign boards, looking for the right shop, when something dropped from the sky to his right. “Cha, bird poo!” Gopal moaned and looked over his right shoulder. No, nothing on his clothes! Then his eyes fell on a pigeon twitching on the road. Horrified, Gopal stepped back. Then he turned to take a closer look. The bird was bleeding from a gash near its wing. Gopal couldn’t bear the sight, and he shut his eyes tight. “Breathe!” he told himself and stood there gulping air. What could he do? The bird had flown into a manjha string.
There was nothing to do but walk away. But Gopal’s legs felt leaden. He couldn’t just leave the bird there on the road. So the little boy knelt down on the road and reached for the injured pigeon.
“Ruko, ruko! Wait!” a man spoke from behind. Gopal jerked his head up. Sameer Chacha from the mithai shop stood there with a stiff cardboard in his hand.
“Chacha! The bird is in so much pain. It just fell from the sky. I don’t know what to do…” tears rolled down the little boy’s face.
“Beta, you can do something to help this bird. Come with me,” Sameer chacha’s voice matched his gentle hands. He moved the bird onto the cardboard taking care not to jostle it too much. Then the two of them crossed the road to the mithai shop.
“Go wash your hand first.” Gopal ran to the sink outside the shop. When he came back, Sameer chacha was pushing hard near the wound. The blood-soaked manjha lay nearby.
“Chalo, knock on Saleem kaka’s medical store. Tell him what happened, and he’ll give you the things we need.”
Gopal had never moved this fast ever in his life. When Saleem Kaka peered through the glass door and saw his neighbour with the bird, He quickly put together a first aid kit and handed it over. Gopal’s heart raced as he helped clean the wound. “I didn’t walk away from you. You do your part, and Please, please, please live!” The prayers filled his mind. Aloud he said, “I hope the cream helps soothe the pain,” as he applied the antiseptic ointment.
“Beta, we must put a soft clean cloth over the bird. Can you ask the others in my shop to give you something clean?” Chacha said as he wrapped the wing lightly with the gauze.
‘Why cover the bird, chacha? What if it gets tangled up?” Gopal asked the older man.
“No, no! The bird has lost a lot of blood and is in pain. It will feel cold as the shock sets. But if we cover it with a soft cloth, it’ll help keep warm.”
“It’ll be alright now, won’t it? We’ve saved the pigeon, haven’t we?” Gopal pleaded.
“We’ve done all we can. Now we must find other help for the bird. I will ask around. Why don’t you go finish your errand?” Chacha reminded him.
“Oh, Ma is waiting for me!” Gopal covered his mouth with his hand. Once again, he ran.
A few days before Uttarayan, Sameer chacha came looking for Gopal.
“Didi, I’ll take Gopal with me to see one of his friends,” he smiled at Ma.
That’s how Gopal found himself at the rescue centre. A woman in a bright pink saree waited with a cage.
A pigeon sat there, bobbing its head impatiently.
“Is that…? Gopal’s eyes glittered with tears once more. But this time, they were tears of joy and hope.
“Yes, this is our friend,” Sameer chacha nodded.
Together, they opened the cage door and watched the bird hop out. The pigeon opened its wings. Would it fly again? The wings flapped slowly, and as if it drummed up some courage, the wings flapped harder. And Harder! And it was off! It was hard to say who was the happier of the two—the bird or the boy.
“I’m so glad you were there, chacha,” Gopal smiled at the man through his tears.
“Oh, I’m so glad you were there. It’s because I saw you cry that I came to check. Gopal, I also thought of something. You know, I’m going to take my granddaughter to fly kites. Would you like to join us? ”
“Really?” Gopal beamed.
“I must tell you; I don’t use manjha on our kites. Is that okay with you?”
“Oh, that is okay with me, Chacha!” Gopal had never been surer of something before. Gopal was sure his Nana would approve!