"Ooooh, ooooh," Sumit came home wailing. Mrs Das looked at her cry-baby son disgustedly and instead of gushing forth consoling words, landed two juicy whacks on his bottom.
This had become a daily ritual. Saji, the next-door bneighbour's son, had established himself as the undisputed leader among the neighbourhood children and any kid who dared challenge his leadership had to face his ire.
What Saji uttered, became the rule. If he said the children were to play cricket, so it had to be even if the others were more inclined for a game of hide-and-seek. If he said they were to play hide-and-seek, no one would venture to bring cricket gear into the field.
And while playing cricket, Saji refused to be declared out even if all the three stumps were uprooted. The reason: The bowler, according to him, had bowled a no-ball. Who could question him? Saji batted the whole day without getting out while the others slogged it out by bowling to him or chasing the ball that he had hit for four. Any protest would be met with violent retribution. It was no wonder therefore that Sumit came home almost every day howling. Mrs Das did not wish to interfere in the children's affairs, but her son's inability to confront the bully disgusted her.
While Mrs Das considered herself to be the incarnation of Goddess Durga who had been sent forth into the world to vanquish evil, Mr Das, in contrast, was a mild-mannered gentleman who liked one and all with the exception of politicians. Politics was a subject which greatly interested Mr Das and he spent his leisure time reading the newspapers. But merely reading newspapers was no fun unless you could use that knowledge to indulge in healthy debates. Mr Das was lucky since his next-door neighbour Mr Nair shared his interest.
After returning home from work and scrutinizing the newspaper, Mr Das would wait impatiently for Mr Nair to step out of his home to water the plants in his garden so as to engage the latter in a sparring match, while Mr Nair would wait for Mr Das to do the same. Neither was willing to be the first one to step out since a pretense of indifference is important in such matters. But impatience would get the better of one of them, and on occasions it would be Mr Das to step out first while on other occasions, it would be Mr Nair.
Having stepped outside, Mr Das would yell at the top of his voice, "Sumit have you sat down to study?" This was, of course, not indicative of Mr Das's concern for his child's academic pursuits but was rather a signal to the rival, "I have taken to the ring. You too come out."
In fact, Mr Das never dared to take Sumit's lessons. The children these days study so many subjects which are alien to Mr Das. He had once peeked into Sumit's school-bag to discover books on computers, biotechnology and what not. So, whenever Sumit wanted him to help in his studies, Mr Das would dig away furiously in the garden and excuse himself saying he was busy.
Upon hearing the signal, Mr Nair would emerge dutifully.
"How are the rose plants doing?" This inquiry is from Mr Nair.
"Oh! They are coming up fine." This from Mr Das.
But, yesterday, the wife wanted some marigold for her puja and I had to get them from the market as I have no marigold plants in my garden. Do you know how much they cost? Fifty rupees a kilogram!"
"What is the world coming to?" Mr Das wanted to know from Mr Nair.
"Today you have to pay through your nose to buy flowers which are God's natural gift. Tomorrow you will have to pay for the air that you breathe," Mr Das fumed. "This is because of the rascal politicians," he shook his head vigorously in annoyance.
"If only the Communists come to power in the country, there would be equal distribution of wealth. No one would be allowed to get rich by selling marigold." This was from Mr Nair.
His father and grandfather had always voted the Congress, so Mr Das did the same. He, therefore, had to come to the aid of the party. The prices of marigold have risen because of the Communists who are supporting the government from outside, he countered. The Communists want the marigold seller to acquire as much wealth as the automobile sellers and the government has no option but to listen to the Communists, else they will withdraw support, Mr Das reasoned. The Congress must acquire power on its own. This was wistful thinking from Mr Das. So the ground was laid for a juicy battle which would continue till 8.30 pm, which was dinner time.
When Sumit came home bleating the next day also, Mrs Das could take it no longer. "Why don't you complain to Mr Nair about Saji. A good scolding will do the boy good," she suggested to her husband.
"Just wait. This cannot go on. I will tell Mr Nair to deal firmly with Saji," Mr Das promised and stepped out into his garden. "Sumit have you sat down for your studies?" Mr Das let out his customary battle cry and Mr Nair emerged from his house in response.
Saji and Sumit had a fight today," Mr Das told Mr Nair at the appropriate time and kept the promise to his wife.
"Boys will be boys," dismissed off the latter while recalling the camaraderie that existed between the children of his days. "Nowadays, the kids are influenced by violent serials on television," Mr Nair noted. "You need a strong information and broadcasting minister who can deal firmly on such matters. This can happen only when the Communists come to power," Mr Nair said and the discussion veered along favourite lines.
Mrs Das, who was leaning against the door and listening to the conversation, realised that her husband was not up to the task. She herself will have to take up the matter with Mrs Nair. So, as the men engaged themselves in a lively discussion, Mrs Das walked into the Nair household to confront the lady of the house.
"Your son .......," began Mrs Das. But before she could complete the sentence, Mrs Nair had thrust a plate of idlis before her. After digging into those delicious idlis, you cannot very well complain about the son's behaviour. So, Mrs Das returned home defeated. Sumit came home bawling the next day, and the next day, and the next day .....
The schools had closed for Diwali vacations and the children had now more time to fight. Mrs Das' heart bled to see her son coming home every day with a black eye. She hit upon an idea to keep the children away from mischief and under her direct supervision.
Mrs Das, a great theatre lover who had herself acted in many plays during her childhood, gathered all the kids and suggested that they should stage a drama. The idea was greeted enthusiastically. An ardent reader of mystery stories, Mrs Das sifted through various literary magazines in her house and finally chose the story which was about a thief who had stolen an expensive piece of jewellery and how a sharp constable detected the thief.
Saji was adamant. He wanted to play the role of the police inspector. Mrs Das had to explain that there was no inspector in the play and the hand of law in question was merely a police constable who had only recently joined the force. The thief's role was more challenging, she said and Saji was convinced. The constable's role was bagged by Sumit.
The rehearsals started in right earnest and were held on the verandah of Mrs Das's house. Mrs Das lent her imitation jewellery to Rohini who was playing the role of Mrs Bhatia whose house was to be burgled by the thief. After much search, a long piece of thermocol was obtained which would serve as the constable's cane. Other accessories too were acquired.
Finally the day dawned when the play was to be actually staged. The playground was chosen as the venue. For some unknown reason, there was a mischievous grin on Sumit's face and Mrs Das scolded him and asked him to wipe off the grin as detecting crime was no laughing matter. All the neighbours were invited to attend the show which was to begin at 6 pm. All of them gathered because at least one child from each family was playing some part in the drama and the parents were eager to witness the acting skills of their kids.
The story had been well chosen and the audience found it gripping. The children, too, were good actors. The materials required for the play were kept on a table that was kept away from view behind a tree. As and when anything was required, the actors would pick it up from the table before going to the stage. The thermocol cane awaited its turn. It had not been required till then but with the thief having been caught, the constable would need it now.
Sumit hurried to the table to get the cane but instead of picking up the thermocol one, he fished out a real cane that he had carefully concealed among the branches of the tree.
"Yeeeeee....wow," howled Saji as the constable caned him. The audience broke into a loud applause. What a realistic yelp of pain! The child has talent! He has the makings of a good actor, the audience marveled. "Mark my word, Saji will make a name for himself in the world of celluloid," Manjit Singh, who was sitting next to Mr Nair, told the latter.
There was another whack of the cane and another howl of pain from Saji. There were broad smiles on the faces of Mr and Mrs Nair. Their son had done them proud.
After a third whack and a third realistic yelp of pain, the thief was finally handcuffed and the play ended.
One by one the neighbours came up to the children and congratulated them on their performance. But it was Saji who won the most accolades and was the toast of the day. He was subjected to a lot of patting and praise. There were real tears in the boy's eyes! What a performer!
At first Saji had wanted to declare that the pain was real but after receiving all the eulogies, good sense prevailed on him and he let matters rest at that. The truth would have taken out all the fizz from his performance! So, like a brave man he kept his lips sealed. As for Sumit, he was grinning from ear to ear and since the play had ended, Mrs Das tolerated the smirk.
Needless to say, Sumit never came home howling again as Saji was wary that Sumit may spill the beans. In fact, the boys had turned the best of friends just like their dads.