Thursday 1 September 2016

Short Story 2016 Featured Viplove Sharma

The Boy in a Green Hat

Bhadthu Valley was at its scenic best on that bright summer day. The afternoon wind was working hard to push the remaining two clouds in an otherwise blue sky beyond the Karali Dhar Mountains. Right opposite to the snow-capped Himalayan giants stood a range of almost-ignored mountains that were not big enough to be named. The only thing that the two mismatched neighbours shared was a temperamental river called Sonwa – the river of gold, as the name literally translated to. The river of gold it was, on that beautiful day, as it sparkled under the smiling sun.

The valley was filled with a spirit of joy. The river had turned into a wild musician, throwing itself hard at every rock that came in its way, and in effect, composing thundering tunes that echoed back and forth between the mountains. The birds acted as a perfect chorus by lending their cheerful chirps to the concert. While bulbuls declared the start of summer by taking dips in ponds, koels sang their hearts out in a perfect synchrony with their comrades. The pine and deodar trees danced to the tunes filling the valley with the distinct scent of their leaves. The landscape of the valley appeared to be straight out of a school kid’s drawing book.

In the middle of the valley, at the feet of the two mountain ranges, by the river bank, was located a small village called Chaleripur. It was one of those villages where people were outnumbered by cattle. However, that did not prevent the elders in taking pride in ruling the largest village in ‘their world’. On that pleasant afternoon, the villagers decided to celebrate. Not a word was said and they all fell in line, as if it was a ritual that was imbibed by their generations. The entire population of the village, except the cattle, lied down on charpoys in their front yards. And they all slept. The blend of cosy warmth and refreshing breeze was intoxicating enough for them to nap more than they usually did. For the next hour or so, not a word was heard in the neighbourhood, except the moos and baas of course.

Amid the sleepy calm that had taken over the village, there was one little girl who was also quiet but wide awake. She did not break the ritual as she was not a Chaleripuri. It was her first visit to the place that once saw her father grow up and then go away to a better world. She was born in that better world, or as it was popularly called, a city. She was a city girl who slept every night wishing to wake up in a world far, far away. 367 kilometres to be precise. For almost a decade, she did not go to bed without Daddy telling her a story of her dream world. It was where red and black ladybirds sat on her hands and cuddly lambs bleated in her arms. It was where she swung from tree branches and slid on snowy slopes. After all those years of dreaming, she was finally there to live her dream.

But she was very quiet. She was pretty much the same ever since she entered the biggest house of Chaleripur. It did not take much time for Maina to figure out that she was tricked. She was not there to embrace her dream world but her annoying relatives. Three days back, she had taken a 10-hour rocky ride in a car, making her vomit twice, but she had never stopped smiling out of the window. She had pestered Daddy asking about every story that she remembered, and when he had dozed off, she had learnt even more about the valley from the driver. It had been more than two days since she had stepped down the car. The two days that saw her excitement die a slow death. The paradise that Daddy had built for her over the years was at a touching distance, but she could not touch it.
Maina stood leaning onto the balcony railing, lost in her thoughts, as a pigeon fluttered past her. Failing to capture her attention, it sat on the ledge below the balcony. After ignoring it for a few seconds, she turned towards it. The red eyes of the bird were aimed at Maina as if trying to say something. To which, she said – “You lucky bird!” The bird was friendly, and so did Maina decide to be. She grabbed a fist of rice from the kitchen and poured it in front of her new friend. Before she could watch the pigeon eat it, two more pigeons and three sparrows crash-landed on the ledge. In a battle of sizes, the sparrows could only watch food getting wiped off in front of their eyes. Maina felt bad for the tiny birds. She ran back in and got two fists of rice that time – one for pigeons and other for sparrows. The buffet continued for a while. Watching the birds jump on each other brought an occasional smile on the chubby face that had looked swollen for the last two days.

The nappers of Chaleripur were done celebrating though Maina’s family was still snoring. Maina’s blank eyes aimlessly revolved around the birds when she heard a bell ringing.
Tring, tring!
She looked out of the balcony, scaring a few birds away, and tried to follow the sound. It came from behind the hill on which her grandpa’s house was located.

Tring, tring!
It was a bicycle bell, but she couldn’t spot any bicycle. She kept stretching her neck to all possible directions but she didn’t catch anything. The bell then stopped ringing. After a few moments of quiet, Maina dropped her shoulders with a flip of her lower lip. She looked at the birds, and gave them a piece of her mind.

“Go away! Don’t you have a home?”
In a couple of tries, she shooed all of them away. She wondered about the ringing bicycle bell.
“Was it the Cotton Candy Man on the bicycle?”
Daddy had told her that cotton candy melts in mouth. Her mouth watered by just imagining the experience. And then the imaginary cotton candy slowly went down her throat.

Tring, tring!
That time, it was even louder. And there it was, the bicycle. But not the Cotton Candy Man, not even a man. It was a skinny boy, probably in his early teens, who zoomed his bicycle that looked a little big for his size. But he rode it with a masterful ease on the so-called road that was a mere puzzle made of rocks and potholes. Maina was impressed to see him criss-cross his bicycle on a road that was deemed too dangerous by Daddy for her to walk on.

The road went all the way down the hill just the same way a long snake would do. Maina’s eyes rolled to left, and then to right, as they followed the bicycle. The bicycle seemed to have reached its finish line, the mouth of the snake, where the so-called road met the main road. He jumped off the bicycle as he was not tall enough to get down from it. Maina’s eyes were now on the boy. He walked a few steps towards a water spring. As he drank straight from the spring with his open mouth, Maina wondered – “That must be so fun!” That’s what Daddy had said too. At that moment, however, she loved her grandpa for building a home with a bird eye’s view. Maina, the bird, was loving the view.
As if the boy had heard Maina’s wish, he decided to head back. Not only he was quick but he was strong too. He pedalled hard to ride at almost the same speed at which he had cruised when going down the hill. The city girl who rode an automated scooter on cemented walkways was super impressed. As her hero came closer to her, she noticed that he was riding the bicycle barefoot. His jeans were too worn out to be considered stylish. His shirt was not really a shirt but more of an undershirt, exposing his bone-like arms. There was one thing that shone bright on him. The green hat. Daddy had told her about the green hat, and what it meant for the people of Bhadthu Valley. It meant a lot for Maina too. She wondered if she was looking at her ‘boy in a green hat’ that she knew from all those years? Not on a white horse but on a shaky bicycle, not in churidar pyjamas but in a hard-to-define attire. With less than a day left in her dream world, she could not afford second thoughts.
The bicycle zoomed past Chauhan Nivas once again. Only that time, it was the boy who noticed Maina. The unaware eyes squinted a little to explore the wide open ones. Maina blinked. Another blink, and the boy disappeared with his bicycle. Behind the hill that was once expected to send the Cotton Candy Man to her. The hill that took back what she had not expected it to take back. She could only stare at it. She stood there all by herself. The pigeons and the sparrows were gone too. It was quiet again. Maina thought to herself – “Okay, Maina. So that was Chaleripur!” She dragged her unwilling feet back into her room. 

Tring, tring!
The sound of the bell brought out a curbed scream from her as she sprinted back to the balcony. A couple of bells later, her hero entered the arena but he was not the same boy anymore. His body language had changed from that of an oblivious wanderer to a chivalrous knight. As he looked up at Maina, she spotted an addition to his attire – a blue and green peacock feather that rested perfectly on his hat. That was not all on offer. What he did next made her jaw drop. He took off his hands from the handlebar, clapped twice, took off his hat with his right hand, and let the fingers of his left hand feel his hair. The bicycle continued wheeling down the road without any bother, until the showman tried to pull off his next trick. He half-stood on the pedals realizing that his partner didn’t approve of his stunt. His unsure legs quivered a bit, and the furious bicycle wobbled even more. The end of the show appeared inevitable. And then it happened. The showman came down crashing, rather unheroically, into the bushes on the side of the road. Bang!
Maina had her hands on her face as she tried her best to muffle her laughter. The fallen hero made his way out of the bushes, put his hat back on his head, and started walking towards the balcony. His swagger was still very much intact. The hands went down as Maina wasn’t laughing anymore. The fallen but not broken hero stood right in front of Chauhan Nivas with his chin up, feet far apart and hands resting on his waist.

“What’s so funny?”
Maina cleared her throat before she could respond.
“I saw you laughing.”
“No, I did not.”
There was a pause in the conversation, as the boy contemplated his next words and Maina chuckled, waiting for him to speak. He finally did.

“Where are you from? I have never seen you before.”
“Aha… City girl. I guessed so.”
“How did you guess?”
“I am smart, you see.”
“Right. I saw that a few minutes back.”
Another pause, and this time an awkward one, as the chin went down, the hands got off the waist and the feet started walking back. Maina felt bad as she decided to break the ice between them.
“What’s your name?”
He replied but in a lower tone that time.
He tried to raise his voice.

Maina had heard it clear the first time but she wanted to hear the brave bicycle rider say it again. Pappi. That’s what she planted on her Daddy’s cheeks every morning before going to school. Kiss, in Hindi, is Pappi. There were no hands on her face concealing her laughter that time. Pappi was obviously not amused.

“What’s wrong with you? Are you crazy?”
That was not enough to stop her laughter.
“Hey! Pappi is not my real name. It’s what everybody calls me.”
Maina coughed a few times and got back to sanity.
“Okay, Pappi.” A chuckle. “What’s your real name?”
“Pahaad Singh.”
Pahaad, in English, is Mountain.
“Pahaad, and you? Hahaha!”
Pappi tried to divert the focus away from him.
“What’s your name by the way, city girl?”
She proudly announced her name.
“Maina Chauhan.”
“Is that your real name?”
“So you are a city bird. What do people call you?”
“Everyone calls me Maina.”
“No, I mean what’s your nickname?”
“I don’t share it with strangers.”

Pappi could only respond with a smile, a wry smile. He looked back at his grounded bicycle that had given up all hopes of regaining its partner’s attention. He raised his hat, rolled his fingers through his hair, and started walking back towards it. Half way down, he heard the city bird tweet.
He turned his head towards her, rather reluctantly, as the rest of his body continued walking.
“I want to see the village. Can you…?”
Maina wondered what made her blurt out that question. Pappi, however, didn’t look surprised at all. He stopped. One of his eyebrows rose and the other shrunk down. His chin was up again.

“Can you what?”
“Show me the village?”
Pappi stomped his right foot a few times as if trying to show who the boss was.
“Alright. But you do what I tell you to. No funny stuff. Okay?”
“Yeah. Okay!”
More than the rules of her guide, she was worried about sneaking out without Daddy’s permission. The guide was already on his bicycle circling around the edges of the road. The tourist however stood confused looking back and forth.

“What happened?”
“Nothing. Just that I am not sure if I can go out without telling my parents.”
“Hahaha. You pampered city girl.”
“It’s not funny!”

“Yes, it is. But if you want to see the village, you should hurry. It will get dark soon.”
His last words added to her panic. She had, never in her life, done anything without Daddy’s blessings. But then he did not keep his word. All those years, every night, he had promised her that he would show her the village one day. The day had arrived, but the promise was not fulfilled. She looked at the boy in the green hat. He was not the one she saw in her dreams, but he could be the one who would show her the world of her dreams. She looked at him again. Not completely assured, but she put an end to the debate in her mind.
“I’ll be down in two minutes.”

Her path to the front door was not straightforward. She had to cross three big rooms and ten sleeping people, some on beds and some on the floor. She took off her slippers, carried them in her hands and tip-toed through the zigzag puzzle. She held her breath near the hurdles making sure that the snoring patterns did not change. She didn’t look back as she stepped out of the front door. After a small pause, then a deep breath, she sprinted towards the front yard. Her slippers still hung from her elated hands as she approached the gate. The tall, black and shining wrought iron monster stood between Maina and Pappi. She slapped her hand on her forehead as she stared at the big lock on the gate. The slippers were back to where they belonged and the hands held the bars tightly, rather pleadingly. The city bird badly wanted to get out of the cage.
“What are you waiting for?”
“It’s locked. And I don’t know where the keys are.”
“Then climb the gate.”

Maina looked up. The height of the gate was not the only thing that scared her. The sharp and pointed, sword-like bars on the top of the gate that convinced her that she could not reach the other side of the gate alive.
Pappi could guess what went on in her mind.

“What happened? You scared?”
“Yeah. A little.”
“Okay. I will help you.”
In a flash, Pappi climbed the gate like a monkey sat on the top of the gate, right in the middle of two swords. Maina was impressed, yet again.
“Wow! How did you do that?”

“I’ll teach you later. Now, come on. Climb up.” He said that with his right hand hanging down.
It took Maina a couple of fumbles and an embarrassing squeal to grab Pappi’s hand. He started stepping down on his side as he pulled her up. And then she was at the top, right in front of the deadly swords. She couldn’t even gather the guts to look at them. The thought of crossing over them was beyond her imagination.

“No! I can’t cross these.”
“Don’t worry. You can do it.”
“No way!”
“Okay. Just do what I say.”
“I am not listening to you.”

“But you promised to do what I tell you to. Remember?”
Maina was almost in tears as she agreed to budge. Pappi choreographed every inch of her moves, at times even asked her to close her tormented eyes. She did what he told her to. And she won the battle with the swords.

“See. I told you. It’s that simple.”
“Yeah, sure!”
“Now what are you waiting for? Jump!”
“Are you crazy? It’s too high.”
“Hahaha. Alright then, come down fast. Pappi Express is about to leave.”
“Pappi Express? What’s that?”

Pappi walked away from her and did what he always did. The hat went up, the fingers went through the hair, and the hat came down. That time however there was a musical background to his act. He whistled, or rather tried to whistle. Maina stumbled her way down the gate and then followed Pappi, who was by then holding onto his bicycle.

“So, ready to board Pappi Express?”
“What? Hahaha… No way!”
“Then how are you going to see the village?”
“I would rather walk than riding with you.”
“Look, city bird. We don’t have a lot of time. And once again. Remember?”
“Okay, but no stunts please.”
“Such a scared little city bird you are.”
Deal was struck, and finally, the guide and the tourist kicked off their tour.

Tring, tring!
Maina found the unpadded backseat uncomfortable but hung onto it. The uneven road made it even worse. She dug her hands into Pappi’s seat as she found the ride even more terrifying than the roller coasters back in Delhi. The sun was not too far up from the smaller mountains as Maina disappeared away from the horizon of Chauhan Nivas. Behind the hill that was supposed to deliver the Cotton Candy Man. The bird had flown out of her cage. And not even once, had she looked back.
She looked around. The more she saw, the more she hated the hill, for it blocked all the stunning views that she saw. She wondered if grandpa had not seen that part of the village when building his house. The houses on that side of the village were not at all like Chauhan Nivas. They were much smaller and muddy-brown in colour. She was amazed to see their slanted slate roofs. She wondered how those tiles would have been cut of exact same size, and then placed perfectly one above the other. She so badly wanted to hang around the cows and sheep the way she saw the children do. The vivid colours of the valley left her in awe. She noticed the contours drawn all over the hills. That made her wonder again, did someone sit down and design all those patterns before digging the hills? She was very sure that it was the case. Lost in her thoughts, she was brought back to the adventure as she bumped into Pappi’s back.

“What was that?”
“I had to stop.”
“But why?”
“Didn’t you see that?”
“See what?”
“Are you blind? A rabbit crossed our way.”
“So now I have to tell you what a rabbit is?”
“Shut up! Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Excuse me? I thought you had eyes.”
Maina let out a baby cry realizing what she just missed.
“I have never seen a real rabbit. And I missed it.”
“Don’t worry. I will show you another one. Now let’s go.”
The ride continued. Maina asked Pappi all possible questions about the rabbit. Its size, its colour, its eye colour, how many times it jumped. Pappi answered all of them, though most of them were made up. The bicycle stopped one more time, but not abruptly.

“Now what?”
“Well. This is the last stop of Pappi Express.”
Maina looked around. There was nothing special about the place, apart from some bushes with wild flowers. She was confused.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, it’s time to get down Pappi Express.”
“And then?”
“Come. I will show you.”
Pappi grabbed Maina’s hand and took her towards the bushes.
“Hey! Where are you taking me?”
“You will know.”
And then they stood right in front of the bushes.
“What is so special about these thorny bushes?”
“Close your eyes.”
“I said, close your eyes.”
“But why?”
“No questions. Remember?”
“Fine!” And she closed her eyes, just to get done with his prank.
Maina heard some noises, like those made when branches and leaves are crushed.
“Are we done?”
“Wait! One more second.”
“Okay. You may open your eyes.”

What Maina saw left her speechless. The bushes were still very much there, with its thorns and wild flowers. But in the middle of the bushes was the spectacle. Pappi had moved the bushes in such a way that it created a hollow frame to see through it. Maina had not realized that she had been standing on the edge of a cliff. But that’s not what fascinated her. It was what she saw through the frame. The Sonwa River, flowing in its full glory.

“You liked it?”
“Of course, I do. Wish I could go there.”
“Yeah. That’s the plan.”
“What? Are you crazy?”
“No, I am not.”
“How will we go down there?”
“How did you come down the gate?”
“Shut up! That was a 10 feet gate. And we are talking about… I don’t know how many… I am not going with you.”
“Well, then it’s your loss. I am going.”
“Hey! How can you just go?”
“Watch me.”
“Wait! I don’t know the way back home.”
“Hmm… So you are left with only one choice.”

The coarse whistle of Pappi was back, as it interfered with the melody played by the river in the background. Maina grumbled, but that was all she could do, as she followed his trail.
“Okay, listen up, city bird. This time, do exactly what I tell you to. And trust me, if you don’t, then you are not going back home without a broken bone.”

Maina knew exactly what he meant. She didn’t know what to reply with, as she stared down the slope. Till the point she could see, it was all bushes intermingled with each other. She did not expect any well-marked path to go down on but there wasn’t even any foot-trail for her to follow. She was pretty sure that the slope was at an angle of 60 degrees.

“This is so scary. I don’t think I can…”
“Trust me. You will be fine. In fact, you will love it.”
“I am pretty sure that I am dying today.”
“Okay. Listen now. The soil is loose, and as you go down it will make you slip.”
“Shut up and listen. Always keep your feet on your toes, not on your heels. It will help you not to skid.”
“Yeah, only if my feet remain on ground!”
 “Alright! I am going down first. Just follow my steps, and hold the branches that I am holding. Last thing, don’t use your brain!”
“Grr… Why am I doing this?”
As Pappi carefully placed his feet, Maina could see them losing grip on the loose soil. Her feet shivered and refused to budge. The more she saw him move, the more jitters she felt. He looked back and saw her standing.

“What are you waiting for? Come on!”
“Yeah.” That came out of her so low that Pappi could not hear anything.
“Nothing. I am scared.”
“Don’t worry, city bird. I will catch you!”
The statement was not assuring for Maina at all. Pappi sensed that he had to do something to bring her down. So he climbed up and outstretched his hand towards her.
“Hold my hand. Trust me, I will not let you fall.”
“If anything happens to me, I will beat you. And then my Daddy will.”

They finally started the trek. Pappi removed the bushes that came their way, as he continued to calm Maina down. Soon, her hand shifted from his hand onto his shoulder and then the other hand followed. She almost piggybacked him without actually climbing on him. The bushes were the densest she had ever seen. When the hill bathed in bright sunshine, Maina could not see a single ray of sunlight hitting her. The smell of the bushes was unique too – strong and fresh but without any flowery essence. They were surrounded in a closed world of wood, thorns and leaves. Halfway down, Maina started feeling confident as one of her hands came off Pappi’s shoulder, and then the other one followed. She even started talking.

“This is so amazing!”
“And you were not ready to come down.”
“Whatever. By the way, is this how people usually come down the hill?”
“No. Why would they?”
“So how do they come down?”
“They take the road. It’s very near to where we came down from. I will show it to you when we come back.”
“What? Then why did we come this way?”
“Because I like it.”
Maina dug her feet deep into the soil and stopped. She gave a good stare at Pappi who didn’t seem to bother.
“Alright, city bird. We are almost there.”

The tunnel of bushes had ended, and there was light to welcome them. The last few lucky bushes, that received sunshine, made Maina realize how beautiful they were. She grabbed a leaf as she bid goodbye to them. She had to shut her eyes and hide them with hand as she came out. Even though it was past 4 pm, the sun was in no mood to mellow down.

“O Madam! Open your eyes. Check this out.”
She opened one of her eyes as the other one couldn’t gather courage to face the sun. The open eye could not believe what it saw. It blinked twice, and then it asked the other one to confirm. Soon, both eyes were wide open. It was Maina’s dream world, in real.

Mr Sun smiled right in between Mr Big Mountain and Miss Short Mountain, with Miss River bisecting the landscape. And there was Mr Shaky Bridge that had to be rebuilt every time Miss River got angry. While Christmas trees decorated Miss Short Mountain, Mr Big Mountain was painted white with snow. She was a bit scared to find Mr Scary Crow in a field not very far from her. She wondered where the fairies and the House of Magic was. Everything else that Daddy had told her was true but why was there no house where she lived. After a long time, she remembered him, and missed him. She knew that he would have found the house, because he was the one who built it for her.

“Hello! Where are you lost?”
“You like it?”
“That’s a stupid question!”
Pappi smiled and did what guides do.
“This is the only place in the entire village where you can get such a great scenic view. And for that, you have to roll down the hill.”
“I am so glad that I did.”
“You can thank me now.”
“I never thought I would say this, but, thank you!”
“Yeah, yeah. Whatever you city people say in response.”
“You say – ‘You’re welcome’.”
“Right. The same thing.”
For the first time, Maina felt happy with Pappi. Pappi on the other hand was continuing to take pride in showing her the village.
“Let’s go to the river.”

Maina followed Pappi but with a difference that time. She was loving doing what he did. When he rolled down a small grassy slope, she tried to do the same but failed miserably. He showed her what berries to eat and what not. He plucked them and she ate them – blackberries, raspberries, and berries that Pappi said were nameless. And then they stood in the front of the bridge. Maina popped up the nervous question.

“Does this bridge shake?”
“Oh no. It doesn’t. It’s a very strong bridge.”
“Really?” Maina was relieved.
“Yes. Come on.”

Pappi was already halfway across the bridge as Maina put down her first step. It was a narrow rope bridge that could accommodate only two people crossing each other. There was no concrete platform to walk on, instead it was a chain of loosely hanging wooden planks. The first step itself told Maina that Pappi was lying. The plank moved as her foot came down. Her hands understood the situation and they gripped the ropes as firm as they could. Before she could lay down her second step, Pappi came up with yet another guideline.

“Listen! Don’t look down. Did you hear that?”
“What?” The noise of the water hitting the rocks was very loud. Pappi shouted the next time.
“I said, don’t look down!”
“Just do what I say!”

She succeeded in walking four steps without looking down. And then she stumbled. She looked down to find the plank on which she had stepped to be broken. Apart from making her heart miss a beat, the broken plank also showed her what Pappi had instructed her not to see. The river. The sound effects made the river look like a monster that was ready to swallow Maina. Not only did she scream her lungs out, her hands and feet started shaking too, first due to fear and then due to the bridge. There was not a single part of the bridge that was not shaking. Pappi took control of the situation as he walked towards Maina and held her trembling hands. By that time, mighty tears had starting flowing out her eyes, eventually contributing to river’s might.

“Hey! You are fine!”
Screams, tears.
“Don’t look down! Look at me!”

Pappi pulled Maina’s chin up and looked straight into her eyes.
“Why are you crying? This bridge is not falling down, nor are you.”
“I am going to die!”
“Shut up! Nobody is dying. Now turn around. Let’s go back.”
“No, I can’t!”
“Fine! I am going.”
Pappi acted like going past her as Maina screamed even harder.
“No! Please, don’t go!”
“You silly city bird!”

Pappi had had enough. He wrapped his right arm around her waist, and in a split second, he lifted her on his left shoulder. Either Maina had exhausted her screams or she was in a state of shock, she did not utter a single word till Pappi got off the bridge and brought her down. For the next few moments, it was only the river monster roaring along with a few birds flying over Pappi and Maina, who looked in opposite directions. Then Pappi turned around and broke the silence.

“You can say thank you.”
There was still no word from Maina.
“Listen, I had to do that. Otherwise, we both were going to spend the whole night on that bridge.”
“You said the bridge does not shake.” That came out from Maina instantly.
“Yeah. Well. You started shaking so the bridge did too.”
“Don’t say a word anymore!”
There was silence one more time as Pappi cracked his knuckles and Maina continued to breathe heavily. She finally broke it.
“We are going back home. Right now.”

That was the quietest word from him in the day. But he got back to his usual self as he requested Maina for something, the first time it had happened in the day.
“One last thing I want to show you. Please?”
Maina thought for two seconds before she laid down her own condition, the first time it had happened in the day. The shaky bridge had shaken things between them.
“I will not do anything that I don’t like to.”
“Deal! In fact, you don’t have to do much. You stay here. I will be back in a minute.”
Pappi vanished, Maina did not know where. Before she could get worried, he appeared, and she did not know from where. He had a piece of newspaper in his hand.

“What is that?”
“I believe you are smart enough to know what it is.”
“Yes, but what are we going to do with it?”
“Close your eyes.”
“I am not closing my eyes.”
“Remember what happened the last time you closed your eyes?”
“I don’t care.”
“Please?” Pappi sported a begging smile which melted Maina, a little bit.
Maina could hear newspaper-like noises without getting too curious about them.
“Alright! Open your eyes.”

Pappi had made two paper boats – one made of black and white part of the newspaper and the other made of the coloured part. That made her let out a restricted smile. Maina had to compliment him.
“Nice. Good to know that you have some talent.”
“What have you seen of me yet?”
With a raise of his green hat, he ran towards the river. Maina followed him slowly. She saw him bend over at the shore. She knew what he was up to. Boat race. She stood beside him as he prepared the boats.

“So which one is mine?”
“As you wish!”
“I will take the coloured one.”
“I knew you would.”
“How did you know?”
“Anyway. Take this stick.”
“What is this for?”
“This is to get your boat out when it gets stuck in rocks or bushes.”
“I am not going anywhere near the water.”
“Alright, Madam. I will do it for you.”

Maina noticed how soft Pappi had become. She wondered why, and then she did not care. But she did care for the boat race. She had to admit that she had never done that before. At the end, the boat race was a success. Pappi was able to extract from her a few chuckles and occasional cheering screams. He made sure that her boat won, which made her smile. Having chased their boats all the way from the bridge to where the river fell, they finally let them go. The boat race had helped Maina forget the shaky bridge, especially when it was far enough not to be seen.

“It was fun. Now, let’s go back home.”
“As promised. By the way, which way do you want to take?” Pappi smiled.
“You know my answer.”
“Oh right! I should have known that you love bushes.”
“Shut up!”
“Hahaha. Alright then, let me show you the boring way.”

As they walked back home, Maina did realize that the way was boring. Pappi tried to keep the walk entertaining with his occasional questions and pranks. The kutcha road went around the hill instead of climbing straight up. They had come down the hill in ten minutes. They took almost 45 to reach Pappi’s deserted bicycle. He was elated to see his partner.

“My Darling!”
“Poor bicycle. It was having time of her life, and now you are back.”
Pappi chose not to respond. He just nodded and smiled.
Maina was on the backseat once again. There was no fear like last time but there was no excitement either. Mr Sun had kissed goodbye to Miss Short Mountain as the blue sky had turned orange. Miss River no more looked as stunning as it did before. Flocks of birds could be seen in the sky flying back home. So was the city bird.

Pappi Express slowed down and then it stopped.
“Why did you stop?”
“What?” Maina said in a hushed voice.
“Look to your right. Next to the pole.”
There was a baby rabbit chewing grass near the electricity pole. Maina jumped on the backseat looking at it. Her bum wasn’t happy with her act but her eyes were glued with every move of the rabbit. The guide struck back.
“Looks like it’s the child of the rabbit that you missed.”
“Yeah. I am so lucky! Thanks for spotting it.”
“Oh well. What do you say?”

The rabbit didn’t seem to like their attention as it disappeared in the dark. It broke Maina’s heart. Her lower lip flipped yet again, accompanied with a heavy sigh that time. Pappi Express started rolling again. Chauhan Nivas was just a few minutes away. The twilight had struck the valley as the sky had started filling up with stars, just like they did in Maina’s dreams. For some reason, Maina was not too excited about them. She sat emotionlessly on the backseat, staring at nothing. She was lost in the sounds made by tyres on hitting the kutcha road. She knew it was all over. She would be back in her boring world the next day. It would take years for her to come back to her dream world, or maybe even ever.

Tring, tring!
“Hey! Are you still there at the back?”
The bell startled Maina out of her deep thoughts.
“We are almost there.”
“I know.”
“Sure, you know the whole village now! But before I drop you, I want you to tell me something.”
“What’s your nickname?”
“I told you, I don’t share it with…”
“Right, but I am not a stranger anymore.” Pappi smiled. Maina couldn’t see him smiling but she knew he was.

“Fine. It’s Gucchi.”
“What? Gucchi?”
“I know it’s a funny name.”
“No, it is not. Did you know that Gucchi is a famous and delicious mushroom?”
“What? Don’t make things up.”
“Fine! You don’t believe me? I will get it for you tomorrow morning if lightning strikes tonight.”
“That sounds like your fantasy. And it’s not going to rain tonight. Look at the sky!”
“And I say it will.”
Pappi braked just before they were about to appear from behind the Cotton Candy Man hill. Maina looked around half-heartedly hoping for another rabbit but there was none.
“Now what?”
“Get down.”
“Well, I am pretty sure your entire family is waiting for you. I don’t want to get killed.”
“And I thought you were a mountain, Pahaad Singh?”
“Go fly, city bird!”
And she went away. There was no handshake, there wasn’t any waving of hands. The city bird just flew away. Pappi talked to himself, and turned his bicycle around.

Maina’s painful journey back to her boring world was about to begin. Before the driver could start the car, Daddy reminded her of what she had to go through the previous night.
“Gucchi darling. I am very, very disappointed with you. You are a big girl now, and should take care of yourself.”
She continued to look outside the window as Mummy pitched in.
“Enough of it now. Now let’s start. We have a long way to go.”
The mood inside the car was very different from how it was three days back. The driver wondered what had happened to the curious girl. The car slowly started to slide on the snake. Maina’s eyes closed every now and then, and opened up every time the tyres went into potholes. She was fast asleep by the time they were on the main road.
After a few quiet minutes of their journey, everybody in the car was shaken up as the driver applied brakes with his full might. That made Daddy abuse him instantly.

“What’s wrong with you?”
“Sir, look.” The driver showed him what lied in front of them. A huge tree had fallen down on the road. That made Daddy abuse again.
Maina got curious too. Looking at the tree, she asked the driver, and not Daddy, about how that happened.
“Gucchi dear, it rained a lot last night. The winds brought it down.”
“What? It rained? But it was a clear sky when I slept.”
“That’s the magic of mountains, my dear!”
“That’s unbelievable. Was there any lightning?”
“Of course. A lot of it.”

As the driver carefully drove the car around the tree, with a few inches on its both sides, Maina thought about the lightning. Pappi was so right. How could he predict that? The magic of the mountains, the driver said. Was Pappi the magician? The more she thought about it, the more she was convinced about it. Crossing the gate, sliding down the cliff, coming back alive from the shaky bridge, he did actually weave all that. And was that rabbit simply pulled out of his hat, or his green hat? Oh boy! Oh yes, the boy in a green hat. Maina tried hard to go back to sleep, so that she could meet the boy in her dreams. But she could not. 
Back in Chaleripur, things were back to usual. Chauhan Nivas wore its typical deserted look that would probably not change for another year or so. The romance of Pappi and his partner continued as they strolled around hand in hand. There was just one thing between them that was not usual. The bunch of Gucchi mushrooms attached to the bicycle’s backseat.

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