Even today after so many years he remembers the game. Not constantly but occasionally .When he looks back at his life. Like an oasis in a desert , initially the memory is hazy. He quickly reaches there and everything takes shape,solidifies.
He is spending his vacation at his Mama’s. It is the year before his Matric exams. Or may be after. But the school has summer holidays.
His Mama’s house is a bit away from the town,- surrounded by trees – Gulmohar,Bananas, Berries .. . a cluster of four five coconut trees standing tall in the corner.
Mama’s office is on the groundfloor. So is the drawing room. On oneside is an old creaky staircase. Up the stairs is the upper hall. It has a small balcony facing the road.On the other side are two small rooms.
The corner room is his the cupbard graoans under the weight of books. Illustrated books of Ramayan , Mahabharat. He is idly turning the pages of Mahabharat one lazy afternoon , lying on the bed.
There is a window next to the bed. He gets up the bed, gazes out of the window. In the adjoining row of bungalows is a squat house. Framed in the window is the girl. Suddenly their eyes meet. From the window she can only be partially seen.She is wearing a blue blouse with yellow flowers. Her face shines in the window through the darkness inside. The light falls on her blouse.
There is a small lane between the houses. A group of kids passes noisily by. A hazy shaow of the trees on either side makes patterns on the ground. Some kids settle under a tree , talking.
He is aware of all this but continues staring at her and she at him.
The stairs creak someone is coming up the stairs. He can hear the footsteps . The Mahabharat book is lying open on his lap.The breeze wanders through the windowt and flutters through the pages.His eyes are on her face .She is still in the window like a picture. Suddenly she melts away in the darkness inside.
The next day he has returned from somewhere some women have gathered in the house. Green mangoes are lying in a heap on oneside. Some are being cut. Mami and her ladies are getting them ready for the pickle. His eye takes in all of this. The girl from next door is also there dressed in a blue ghagra choli.
He goes on up the stairs to the upper hall. Goes to the balcony for a while. As he turns to enter the hall, he starts.
The girl in blue is in the hall. When did she come? The stairs hadn’t creaked, maybe he hadn’t heard them.
The girl stands quietly holding her right index finger in her left hand. There is a cut at the tip of her finger. Red blood is gathering. “Mami says there is ‘katha’ upstairs. She told me to put it and bandage.”
Hearing this he enters in his room . She floats in behind him. He takes out katha and turns around .She is right there, holding out her finger. He sprinkles katha on her wound.
“Ooh!” Her lips press together in pain. He dabs a cotton swab on her finger and tears out a cloth . He holds her hands in both of his hands and brings her wrist to his chest .Tries to tie the cloth; his elbow moves ; brushes against her shoulders , her breasts. The nimble finger cannot be bandaged .The cloth slips away. She giggles. Once more he pulls her hands closer, determinedly trying to bandage. She is dangerously near. Her clothes are touching him. Her hand is on his chest. He notices the golden hair on her arms, the bluish green veins. Her warm breath tingles his cheeks, neck. It smells of fresh green grass.
He somehow finally manages to tie the cloth.
He presses her hand to his chest to check whether the bandage is alright. She stands staring at him. He doesn’t leave her hand. She doesn’t squirm.
A bullock cart passes down the lane. Bells tinkle. Women’s voices float up from downstairs. Upstairs the clock strikes.
Both stand together. The cupboard’s glass door throws a faint reflection. He doesn’t move. Neither does she. The stairs creak the footsteps grow louder with each step. Someone is coming up. He lets her hand go. She moves away but does not leave.
Mahadu, the servant has come up. He starts sweeping. Cleaning noisily, shifting chairs. She picks up the illustrated Mahabharat lying on the bed. He looks directly at her for the first time. Her face is longish and oval. Her clean, clear eyes shine brightly, making her face glow. The eyes aren’t big, but they look upon the world with wonderment. Without blinking her eyelids, she looks at the pictures. Her lips are parted. Sweatbeads have gathered on her nose, forehead and above her lips. There’s a single yellowish pimple on her chin. It makes the chin look reddish. Her hair is tied in a single loose plait. Stray curls play on her forehead. The loose ghagra choli is concealing her body. He cannot make of she is fat or thin. He keeps staring. She looks up.
“Do you have story books?”
“This book is good. I want to see the pictures.” she says.
“Not now. Tomorrow.”
She keeps the book on the cot. Slowly gets up and leaves the room. He strains his ears to listen to her descent. But the stairs don’t creak.
The next afternoon he is just lazing about on the bed. On the street outside, children throw stones at the fruit tree, screaming and shouting.
He turns on his side and she is there, standing in the door. He gets up. He almost doesn’t recognize her. He looks transformed. She is wearing a parrot green sari with pink border. A tight purple blouse. Two plaits. Earrings. She looks grown up and young. Her face looks fresh, childlike. Her body looks big, ripe. She has squeezed herself into the sari. She drifts in through the door. The sari makes her sway.
“Let’s see the book.” she says.
“He hands her the book. There’s no bandage on her finger. She takes the book and sits down on the chattai, bringing both her legs to one side. She bends over the book, turns pages. He sits on the bed looking at her. She has oiled her hair. He can smell the fragrance. He sits there dangling his feet.
“Shall we play the picture game?” she asks.
Their eyes meet. He doesn’t know the game. There is ahint of laughter in the corner of her eyes. She pushes back the hair falling on her forehead. Her bangles tinkle. He notices- yesterday she had one bangle, today she has four.
“I mean, identifying pictures. There are captions below. One of us blocks the names, the other identifies them.”
Her speech is clam, collected. Almost flat. No ups and downs.
He goes and sits next to her. Her sari, her body are close enough. He puts his hand over the caption. She bends to look.
He removes his hand.
The game begins. Pages turn. She goes on guessing the names. His chest touches her back. His hand falls on her hand. Her tight sleeves puff out below the cloth. His chin rubs against it.
The game is in full swing. He unknowingly moves closer to her. They are oblivious to it all.
Mami is shouting at the servant. A stone thrown by the children bangs on the tin roof. Someone shouts at them. Sun rays move in through the window. The motions continue. Jis thigh is closer to her thigh. Steadily it comes closer. He leans on her. His lips caress her ears, cheeks, delicately. Both seem unaware of it.
The pages turn. She bends forward to see the pictures. He leans over to cover the names.
The afternoon slowly fills the room. It’s too bright. Her nose becomes red. Her face starts to glow red. Drops of sweat trickle down her neck. Her underarms are wet. His throat seems parched.
One after the other she identifies the pictures and names them. Yudhishthir, Nakul, Duryodhan, Bhishma, Virat, Vidur. Some are wrong, some are right. They don’t care.
The stairs start creaking. Somebody is coming up. He seems to know exactly the number of creaks required for a person to reach the top. Both can hear the creaking but they stick to each other. The game goes on. His left hand is on her back. She now sits leaning on it. Both become aware of each other’s heat. His breath flutters her hair.
The stairs stop creaking. Mami calls, “Hey, send those children away. They’ve been throwing stones for a long time now.”
He doesn’t move. Their game goes on. Pages turn. After a while, she lazily gets up. Goes down. He doesn’t mind.
He knows she’ll come the next day. Because their game is fixed now.
Every afternoon the clock strikes two. And after a while, she enters his room like a shadow. Everyday she wears a new sari. Green. Pink. Orange. Yellow. Generally the book lies on the bed. Otherwise in the cupboard. She sits down with it. Turns pages. Her bangles tinkle. Sometimes he is on the bed, or in the hall, or downstairs, or asleep on the bed. Wherever he is, he always know when she has arrived. Slowly he walks to the room. Sits down beside her. Their game begins. Sometimes she covers the names and he identifies, the roles keep changing.
Ocasionally his hand rests on her back, moves to her arm. Stays there.
Her shoulders touch his chest. Her elbow falls on his thigh, rests there. Sometimes she turns her head and her lips brush past his nose, his cheeks.
The game goes on and on.
The game stops although the stairs haven’t creaked. The sun rays stream in through the window and reach across the room, over their heads, and sometime after that, she closes the book. She picks it up and puts it on the bed or the cupboard. Then leaves without a word. He gets up, walks around, or lies down on the bed. After sometime he goes down for tea. Their game doesn’t make any difference to their routine. Looking at the pictures together becomes a part of it.
Actually, during the first couple of days they’ve finished reading the whole book. But they take the same book again. Not Ramayan. Not any other illustrated book on Shivaji or Ramdas, which is in the cupboard. They just never remember to change it. But that doesn’t affect their game at all.
One day as he enters his room, she is sitting on the bed with the book in her lap. She is wearing a mauve sari bordered with red flowers. And a light yellow blouse. She is lying on the bed. When he comes, he can see her full form. He wordlessly sits beside her. She starts turning pages. He starts the guessing game. Slowly she stretches herself and rests on the window wall. He too stretches with her. Relaxes against the window.
Sometime later she’s half lying down. She keeps the book in front and lies on her stomach. He too lies down beside her. He is aware of her entire body, stretching very close to his. His hand moves on her back. Her leg is over his. Both seemingly do not notice anything. They are busy turning pages.
Now when he enters the room, she is already lying on the bed, leafing through the book. Wordlessly, he goes and lies next to her. Puts his hand around her. The game begins. If he is in the room, when she arrives, he immediately stretches out on the bed and opens the book. She comes quietly to lie next to him and turn pages.
Both the windows of the room are wide open. The door at the back is completely open. The hall is clear. The balcony door is open. Anyone can go anytime, anywhere. Even to his room.
But come noon, they are still on the bed next to each other. Their game goes on endlessly. Outside everything goes as usual. Vhildren shout. The sound of clothes being washed drifts in from the well. Mami bargains with some hawker. Suddenly a sparrow enters the room and flutters around. Crows are cawing outside. A strong breeze bangs on the doors. As these things happen, their hands move on each other’s bodies. His legs brush against hers. Their shoulders touch. Cheeks rub against cheeks. Breaths mingle.
Then when the noon sun fills the room, she yawns. He stretches his arms to yawn. She rises, gets down from the bed. Goes out. When she leaves, the room suddenly feels empty. Her presence does not even linger there.
He doesn’t remember for how many days they looked at the pictures. Or how often. Suddenly one fine day, she doesn’t come. Or the next day. He looks out the window only to see the opposite window closed.
At dinnertime, he overhears Mami telling Mama, “Sane’s neice has gone back to Baroda.” He washes, and wiping his hands climbs up the stairs. He knows that Sanes stay in that house. He has seen the nameplate. He learns about the girl being Sane’s neice for the first time.
Now, after all these years, he remembers the game. He is quite amazed that inspite of playing the game for such a long time he never bothered to learns her name.
Even today, he sometimes wonders what her name could be. He cannot know it now. He keeps imagining what her name should be.
He knows the names of all the Mahabharat characters by heart, but not hers.
By Rajendra Banhatti