One could perhaps describe Peehu as a precocious child, while others her age struggled to master the alphabet, Peehu could be found atop the tallest guava tree, engrossed in a book about foreign lands and stranger times. Her favourite haunt, however, was the cave formed by the entwining branches of the Malti plants. She spent several rainy mornings curled up inside her cave, watching the droplets drench the earth and change the colour of everything around her; she was untouched and invincible. All throughout the monsoon months, Peehu smelled of moist mud and Malti flowers, but in winters she was the bee that carried pollen from one chrysanthemum to the other.
Vivek was Peehu’s only two-legged friend; he shared her immense love for nature, particularly mud. They explored every nook and crevice of the garden to unveil the shyest mushrooms and the sneakiest squirrels. One day the duo even succeeded in capturing a frog, which they tied to a tree trunk with a thread, but soon let go because Peehu’s tender heart could not find amusement in imprisoning the marvellous creature. They also played make-believe games where they pretended to be merchants travelling through harsh deserts or fishermen out in a stormy sea.
One dull autumn morning when the leaves were brown and the ground was parched, Peehu decided that the garden needed a watering hole for its tiny inhabitants. Vivek was beckoned and the mission ensued with the little excavators digging through the soil with their bare hands and brittle sticks. They hadn’t made much progress when Peehu’s mother arrived at the scene and called off the operation after one glance at the children’s dishevelled hair and dirty fingernails. Knowing her daughter’s incorrigible spirit, mother knew that Peehu won’t be satisfied with the forsaken project and measures needed to be taken to transform the tiny hole into a proper pond. A hefty gardener, a giant shovel, and a pipe were procured, and soon where Peehu’s pond had stood for half a day was a much larger water body, capable of watering an entire field.
That night Peehu’s mother slept soundly, satisfied that she was able to fulfil her daughter’s dream of having a pond in their garden. Peehu, on the other hand, lay awake till the wee hours, pondering about how someone powerful might steal her ideas if she did not succeed in the first go.
Far from the humdrum of the town, stood the mysterious white clock tower, like a scarecrow in a barren field. The clock told the right time only twice each day but the faint whispers of tick-tock could be heard whenever the ravens went quiet. Owing to its conspicuousness amidst acres of dry grass, the tower was often frequented by lost travelers and hunters with broken down cars or inaccurate maps. These clueless wanderers were welcomed with much delight by the unanticipated residents of the clock tower, who gleefully charged them an obscene amount of money for shelter and food.
Children from the town would sometimes sneak out at night to pay a visit to the wizard and witch of the clock tower, much to the annoyance of Bholanath and Lata. The couple did not flinch when the staircase creaked while they lay in bed or when the wind howled but the branches didn’t sway, however, the sound of squealing children irked them to the core. They despised all human contact that came without monetary benefits, perhaps that was why they chose to stay in a crumbling down memento from the British era. The rare occasions when they visited town were to gather fallen fruit or useful garbage or to enjoy free lunch at the local Gurudwara.
Nobody knew where they came from, but the village elders recalled that they moved into the ghostly white clock tower soon after the last caretaker of the tower died and the government didn’t bother with appointing a new one. Evidently, the money of the people could be put to better use than the upkeep of a moldy tower, with disintegrating balconies that were only useful for a romantic death. The balconies did not fall apart though, much to the dismay of the authorities, who had to arrange for a bulldozer to make more room for a swanky new steel factory. The witch and wizard disappeared with their beloved abode.
The steel factory shut down decades ago, but if you follow the sound of ticking through the deserted building, you may be able to join Bholanath and Lata for an expensive cup of tea.
Grandpa was an opinionated man but also a people pleaser, this often resulted in conflicting emotions in his septuagenarian head when his orthodox beliefs were contradicted by his loved ones. In such dire circumstances, grandpa would seek solace in hiding beneath his favourite Pashmina blanket. This blanket possessed supernatural powers that shielded him from all sorts of lights, sounds, and emotions.
When grandpa became hard of hearing, he took to the habit of shouting on the mobile phone, notwithstanding the auditory health of the receiver of the call. These loud conversations did not seem to exhaust his vocal chords in the least but distracted me so much while I studied that I complained about it one day. After an hour of blessed silence, the screaming resumed, upon investigation I found grandpa wrapped from head to toe in his trusty blanket, yelling from underneath the woollen mound. Clearly, the magic of the blanket did not work the other way round!
Grandpa ran a cold storage unit to extend the longevity of the local potato crop and could be found chit chatting with the farmers, on any given day, regarding the health of the crop that season. He ensured that the potatoes were always abundant enough for him to shower indulgent presents on his children and grandchildren. He believed in unhesitatingly spending his hard earned money on the luxuries and comforts of life. He was the first in the village to purchase a refrigerator that loyally served as a cupboard for years due to the constant power outages. He also enjoyed collecting cars, which he had to park in the godowns owing to the lack of space. These cars were showpieces indeed, with their mats and pipes chewed off by the rats that needed a break from the sacks of wheat.
Grandpa was a connoisseur of Indian cuisine but refused to touch even a morsel until grandma assured him that he was known to like that particular dish. He strictly abstained from all kinds of healthy food and justified that he made up for it with regular physical exercise. His daily regimen consisted of walking down to the sweets shop half a mile away, where he sat for hours, cheerfully sipping on full-fat chocolate milk, before returning for his potato laden meal.
Being a fragile soul, he did not want to be informed about the gory details of the ailment that forced him to part with one kidney. He bravely soldiered on from beneath his blanket of denial, until he passed away on a cold October day a few years back. Not a single word was written about him, except for an inherited name on the billboard of his factory. Nevertheless, I am sure that heaven is receiving a fine harvest of potatoes ever since his arrival.
The Bazaar was a typical bustling marketplace except that it comprised of concentric circles connected by narrow lanes that gave it the appearance of a dream catcher. Being just a stone’s throw from the Railway Station, there were shops catering to all the needs of a weary tourist, from soap to safety pins, towels to umbrellas, there was even a shady looking tent in one of the lanes that claimed to house the cure to everything ranging from a broken heart to impotence. Narasimha ensured that I never ventured near the tent, but on any given day I could be seen gorging on crispy Jalebis at the sweet shop or revelling in the kaleidoscope of colors at the bangle store. I was always atop his trusty shoulders as we spiralled our way towards the heart of the Bazaar.
Like all the domestic help employed by the Indian Railways, Narasimha was named after a Hindu God, the deity with a lion’s head. I fondly called him Lion Uncle, to which his retort was to call me a dainty lamb; we were the best of friends. Narasimha had been around for as long as I could remember, to help my mother with the household chores and odd jobs around the house, but primarily to take care of his dainty lamb. It is still hard for me to comprehend that he had a wife and several kids back home while he showered all that love on me. He masterfully played several roles in my life, that of an elder brother, a protector and a friend (I was an extremely shy kid and could seldom befriend children my own age).
He walked me to school every day, in fact, he persuaded me to go to school. I was petrified of both the teachers and my classmates alike and would readily sign up for homeschooling if that was an option back in the day. I remember sobbing into his sleeve each morning until I finally reached the dreadful gates where Narasimha promised to stand all day long. I was convinced that he kept his word because there he was each afternoon, ready to scoop me up into his arms and carry me away from the dangerous world of black boards and wooden rulers. On our way back, I would cheerfully relate the day’s happenings, and he would patiently listen, gently chiding me in case I had picked up a bad word that day.
When my parents argued, he would distract me with a game of Hide and Seek or Seven Tiles out in the garden. I remember a particular altercation that resulted in a pickle jar being smashed to pieces against the floor. He silently swept away the shards of glass and tidied up as if nothing had happened, the next day the casualty was replaced by a brand new jar.
Adolescence arrived with all the promised aches and pains, along with a transfer order for my dad. I do not remember the last time I saw Narasimha, but the dosas were never as crispy and the afternoon chats never as engrossing again. Soon I learnt to nurse my own wounds and the hobbling man and his little companion were reduced to a distant memory. I cannot recall his face anymore; perhaps he was an imaginary friend, perhaps a guardian angel, perhaps a childhood dream.