The balloon went off with a blasting voice. I, who was on my bed, sleeping peacefully, got shocked for once and sat upright on my bed. I rubbed my eyes and saw two girls whom I recognized as Chinnu and Ammu.
The two girls looked alike, except for the height difference. They were wheatish in complexion. Their faces were heart shaped and lovely. The elder one who wore a red sleeveless blouse and a long tight skirt had ponytails on either side of her head, tied tightly with red lace ribbons. The younger one had a white hair band on her head. Her green emerald eyes seemed to reflect the green frock she had put on. She had a row of chocolate brown teeth, minus a front one. Both of them were giggling uncontrollably, their hands on their mouths.
“Giggling must be made illegal”, I thought, as I squinted to look for my spectacles. The idea of waking me up by blasting a fully blown balloon with a pin right under my ears should’ve been Chinnu’s.
Now, for those of you who don’t know Chinnu and Ammu, I shall give a brief introduction. The girls are my uncle’s daughters and therefore, my cousins. The elder one, Chinnu is 10 years old and the younger one Ammu is 6 years old. Both of them were born and brought up in Riyadh. Today, they have come to my home during their two week visit to Kerala.
“You promised us that you will take us to the beach”, Chinnu reminded me. Before I could set my foot on the floor, Chinnu caught hold of a pillow and began hitting my face. Ammu took another pillow and did exactly what her sis did. The girls are a lot more lovelier without the pranks.
“Okay guys. Stop this”. I said with an air of authority.
They stopped hitting.
“I will take you to the beach this evening”, I declared.
They were overjoyed. They hadn’t seen a beach in their whole life, apart from the quick view from hundreds of metres above, while the plane landed in Mumbai airport.
Now, both of them kissed me hardly, one on each cheek. Looked like both of them were genuinely happy in torturing me.
“Sorry Neethu. My girls are naughty. Shouldn’t have let them wake you” , their mom said, while entering the room.
“It is okay, Aunty. Shall I take them to the beach?”, I asked.
“I’m afraid, you can’t Neethu. These girls will eat off your head. You won’t be able to manage them”.
On hearing this, Chinnu got hold of her mom’s saree and stated pleading. Ammu soon joined.
Finally, after about an hour of pleading, whining and weeping, we were granted the permission to visit the beach. The girls jumped up and down in ecstasy.
We left the home at 4 O’ clock in the evening. I let the girls enter the car through the back door. The back of the car had my medical books, stethoscope, lab coat, compact discs and a laptop. “Sorry for the mess, I said absentmindedly as I made space for them amidst the rubble on the backseat. They fastened their seat belts carefully, Chinnu helping Ammu. I too buckled my seat belt, copying the kids, although I did not have the habit of wearing them. I stepped on the clutch and as I was about to reverse the car, the girls’ mom said, “Take good care of them, Neethu”.
I nodded in accent. I turned back, winked at the girls, and set off to the city. On the way, I slowed down the car when we reached my college (Medical College, Calicut) and Chinnu remarked that my college was bigger than her school.
I showed them the Mananchira square, Railway station and Lion’s park. The girls, who used to question each and everything asked no questions this time, each one steadily looking through the side window. Ammu had her face pressed to the window glass. It was for the first time that they were passing through Calicut city. What they were thinking, I could not say.
We stopped at an ice cream parlour. The parking lot was crammed with cars of the families who had come to the theatre for the film show.
I led them to the parlour. Ammu spelt letter by letter, P…U….S….H, and Chinnu said ‘PUSH’ on seeing the PUSH sigh on the door. They weren’t as playful as they used to be, the strange surroundings would’ve bewildered them. It is not easy to adjust to India once you are used to the comforts of Riyadh.
“Which flavor do you prefer?”
They stared at the selections, Ammu straining on tiptoe, Chinnu with her mouth slightly open and her tongue planted in one corner of it. I lifted Ammu and placed her on top of the counter in order to give her a better view.
“That green one”, said Chinnu, pointing at pista flavored ice cream. The girl had an uncanny knack of choosing the most costly ice cream at the display. Ammu too wanted the same.
“Make it three”, I said the waiter, and chose the round table at the corner. The girls sat opposite to me, and the chair next to me was left vacant. They began eating enthusiastically, exchanging glances. Occasionally, the elder one gave the younger a few sisterly comments. Though I was just 19, I wondered, just then, what it might be like to have a child.
They took longer than me to finish their bowl, Ammu left hers half finished and announced that a second tooth is loose. So Chinnu ate the rest of the ice cream left in Ammu’s bowl as I held a napkin on Ammu’s jaw to arrest the bleeding. I put the loose tooth (a little, chocolate stained one) in my purse, and got up to wash and pay when we had finished.
Now Chinnu is going to pay the bill, I said, handing over a hundred rupee note. She curiously examined Indian rupees, since she hadn’t seen one ever since, or any currency, for that matter. She unfolded the bill and marched towards the cashier.
As I and Ammu stood away and watched, Chinnu tiptoed and placed the note on the counter. When she received the change, she said ‘Thank You’ to the waiter. That was her first transaction in her life.
“Now to the beach”, I said while igniting the car to life. They smiled.
As soon as I stopped at the drive-in at the beach, the girls ran out, on the sands, bare footed. I locked the car and followed, because they didn’t know how dangerous a beach could be.
I held Ammu by one hand and Chinnu by the other while we chased the waves. The sand seeping from beneath their own feet was a terrific experience for them, I guess, because whenever a wave receded, the two would shriek and squeeze my hand tightly.
Then, we built a sand castle, and named it ‘Daffodils’(that was the name of their house at Riyadh).While Chinnu was a great architect, Ammu kept interrupting our efforts by fitting lumps of sand at odd places and collapsing our little castle.
Afterwards, the Ammu wanted a ride, sitting on my shoulders. (this sadistic event has taken place twice a day ever since the girls arrived at our place. The result- backache) When I offered to lift her, she raised her hands and came into my arms. Meanwhile, Chinnu was collecting sea shells. After giving Ammu a ride on my shoulders, we sat down together and I told her about the tooth fairy. She checked my purse to make sure that her tooth isn’t missing.
“Hey, look!” an elderly man tapped on my shoulder and pointed to the sea.
The sight I saw caused my heart to miss one beat. Chinnu, looking for seashells, had gone so far into the sea and a giant wave had toppled her down. She was drowing.
Three men, who were playing volleyball, jumped into the sea for saving her.
The guys were expert swimmers, I guess. They got Chinnu out of water and laid her on the sand in no time. I checked her pulse, she was normal. I sighed with relief. Ammu cried loudly. Random people gathered around us, and I politely requested them to leave us at peace.
No one spoke while we drove home. I had to report the accident news to the girls’ mother without getting her faint. I was thinking of apt words to convey the news when Chinnu interrupted.
“Don’t tell the mom about the beach accident”, she said.
“But your mom ought to know”, I replied, without looking at her, while signaling an overloaded truck to overtake.
Chinnu told something, but I didn’t hear. Her small voice was muffled by the loud noise of the truck toppling on to our car.We were crushed under the weight of the huge truck. I felt an excruciating pain at the neck. All I could hear was Ammu’s stifled scream before I fell unconscious.
Silence was punctured by the beep-beep of cardiac monitors. Occasionally, I heard a few voices- could be those of the doctors and nurses. But I couldn’t open an eye or move a muscle. My abdomen was hurting badly. I lay there, on the bed, listening to voices around me. It didn’t take me a lot of time to guess where I were. I was in the casualty. At my college.
I tried to recall the accident. The very thought made me squirm and shudder. What would have happened of Chinnu and Ammu ? I didn’t know. I wanted to ask someone, but my tongue wouldn’t oblige.
There I lay, on the bed, unaware of the happenings outside, within the safety of the casualty – Half alive, or better, half dead.
Thanks to Adeeba Fathima for the title suggestion.