Monday, October 09, 2006

Number Nine Bungalow - Part 3

Number Nine Bungalow, part 3...

The day before Father left on operations, he always spoke to Ruchi separately. The words were different each time, but the message was always the same. They would walk down to the shaded pine-walk, hand in hand, walking carefully on the needles. “You must take care of Mother. She worries too much. So you must be brave and take care of her.” Ruchi always nodded seriously and held her Father´s hand tighter. They would slowly walk back home.

The night before Father left, there was always a big dinner with all his favourite dishes. And Mother made a special treat: ice-cream packed with raisins, wild berries picked from the bushes on the slope and shreds of tangy-sweet plums from the tree in the garden. The three of them would sit together over dinner, talking softly about unimportant things such as a new doll for Ruchi, or Mother´s need for a new pressure-cooker. Sitting up so later, Ruchi would almost fall asleep on the table. Unlike other days, she wasn´t told to go to bed.

Late in the night, Father would carry her to bed and tuck her in. He would stroke her forehead softly and kiss her cheek. Ruchi knew that on nights before he left, Father stayed up later to talk to Mother. She would lie half-asleep in her bed, listening to the murmurs, the rustling of sheets and the incomprehensible, hushed moans that came from her parents´ room. At some point, as she tried to make sense of the sounds, she would fall asleep.

In the morning, when she awoke, Father would have already left.

Which is why she needed to carry out her Death-trapping plan before Father took her for a stroll to the pine-walk. She had already heard the whispers, listening in secretly to the things that grown-ups said at dinners in the officers´ mess when they thought that the children could not hear.

“High casualties on the eastern sector..four companies decimated...full out war this time...Major Rai and his boys just cut down at the dam...poor Mrs. Rajan, after only one month of the wedding, he has been sent on ops...”

Mother had already told her that Father would be gone for a long time. “This time, the operations will last a long time, Ruchi. But maybe we will go down to the plains and see your cousins. We can even go to Nani´s house.” But Mother had tears in her eyes as she said this, and Ruchi knew that Death would march with Father and his men on these operations.

But she wouldn´t let that happen.

For days she had thought of a plan. She had watched carefully the lock on the big trunk under the bed. It was the only lock in the house, a big shiny yellow circle with a dull steel handle. And its key – in a large round ring with lots of other keys – stayed in the top drawer of the high mahogany dresser in her parent´s bedroom.

She had tried to take the shiny brass key for the lock out of the ring that held so many other keys together. The whole bunch was very heavy and loud, clanking with every movement. But the ring was tight, its spirals almost impossible to prise apart. In the end, she took the whole bunch, deciding to return it after she had locked Death in.

Removing the lock from the trunk under the bed had been easier. Mother knew that Ruchi often played under the bed and never disturbed her. “She is afraid,” Mother had told Father, “it is all this uncertainty all around.” But the lock was heavy, making her arms ache when she carried it – gripped with both hands – up the mountain. The keys clanged loudly in her pocket.

“Baba, where are you going?” Gompo-la called after her. She nearly cried in frustration at being spotted. He caught up with her easily, loping after her with his long stride. For a moment, she hesitated.

“To Number-nine bungalow,” she whispered, unable to lie to the concerned face above her.

“Gompo-la was surprised. “But no one goes there, Ruchi-baba.”

“Oh, I know,” she declared airily, trying to hide the lock behind her back. Gompo-la had already seen it. He didn´t ask any more questions. Instead, he squatted down before her, balancing on the balls of his feet, waiting for her explanation. Ruchi stared at him, wondering if he would laugh at her, or worse, stop her from carrying out her plan.

Finally, she decided. “I am going to lock Death in the house. Then he can´t march with the soldiers tomorrow. It’s a secret and you have to help me.”

Gompo-la seemed surprised. But he didn´t laugh. Or even ask any more questions. He nodded wisely, his narrow eyes suddenly shiny and moist. “In the old days, in Tibet, we did the same. Before a war, the lamas locked away all the evil spirits. Come, I will help you.”

So, they walked hand in hand up to Number-nine bungalow. Gompo-la volunteered to go and find out if Death indeed was home. As he sneaked up through the garden, Ruchi watched the silent house. Its windows were bolted shut again. From a distance, she thought she saw a shadow move inside. Scared, she huddled down further, clutching the lock tightly.

Then Gompo-la came back. “Yes, he is inside. Give me the lock. I will go put it on the door.” He held out his hand. But she shook her head. Only she knew the secret words. Or rather the meaning of the sacred words that had to be said after she locked Death in.

“No, I have to put the lock myself.”

Gompo-la nodded again, his eyes shining brightly. “Good officer always do first what he asks the jawans to do,” he said, stepping aside.

to be continued....

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