The game was on. Akansha had started to count. It was her turn to seek and our turn to hide. We, the children of Mehbulla Pur Dhaki slums had no other means of entertainment. At twelve, I was the oldest in the gang and the largest. This made it difficult for me to go unnoticed while hiding and thus was found easily.
25,26,27…….I could hear her. Another 20 to go. I was still trying to find a crevice in the garbage dumps to squeeze my heavy torso in. I picked out a cardboard waste from the side and covered myself, leaving a small gap to breathe, as I heard 50.
The stench was overpowering. I covered my nose with the dupatta to avoid sneezing. I could hear Akansha’s shrieks and footsteps nearby. I was determined not to get caught this time and hunched tightly, clutching my ankles.
I felt a slimy motion on the bare skin of my left foot, like a thin film of water. I stayed still. It would just be a while before Akansha would find someone and then we would all come out of our hideouts. My pride was at stake. I could not afford to be found.
The weight on my foot felt heavier and slimier as it crept up my ankle. I looked down and stared at a pair of tiny green eyes that glimmered in the darkness of the dump. My senses told me to jump before the reptile got into the act. I leaped out of the dump, screaming in terror. The movement was enough for its fangs to sink in deep down my ankle. What followed was an excruciating pain and I fell flat on to the dirty puddle in front of the garbage heap.
I saw Akansha approaching me. Relieved to have found some help, I heaved myself up. But to my dismay, Akansha ignored me and walked past. I was perplexed.
Akansha finally found someone and the game ended. The drizzle became heavier and the gang decided to end the game. They were calling out to me, searching and shouting my name. But I was just a foot away from them.
Suddenly, the realization shook me into disbelief. Did I die and turn into a ghost?
I felt myself. Yes, I was alive. I patted myself, felt my breasts, the belly, my thighs, and legs. Yes, I had legs, unlike the bhooth stories where the ghosts glided around in whites, with no legs. I cried, screamed and shouted. But my voices reached no ear. The gang walked away, and I ran behind them trying to make them see and hear me. I heard Akansha mentioning that she would tell my Abbu to fetch for me.
I realized that the bite from the reptile had somehow made me invisible. I sank to my knees on the garbage yard and prayed, rather cried to Allah to deliver me out of this ordeal.
The rain now was pouring in torrents. I shuddered in the cold wet weather and walked back home. I wished Ammi was alive.
I saw a sparse crowd under the umbrellas in front of my hut as Akansha was explaining my disappearance to Abbu. The meeting concluded with the assumption that I was somewhere taking shelter from the downpour and would soon return. The crowd dispersed into their shacks.
I went into my hut and started sobbing. I wanted to reach out to the top of the shelf and hold Ammi’s framed photo. The sound of cluttering anklets and fragrance of soap made me turn around.
A lady, who had wrapped herself in my towel, appeared from the enclosure that served as our bathroom. I slid into the corner of the kitchen, unsure and ironically afraid of being caught. I felt that I, and not she, had intruded into my home
Abbu came in and hugged her fiercely, rendering the towel around her purposeless. I buried my face in my palms and peeped through the gap between my fingers. Hugging him back, she enquired about the commotion outside. Abbu explained my “missing” incident to her and said he did not expect me to come before the downpour ceased and mentioned that this was a good “opportunity.” I saw them both move together into the only other room. I heard laughs and moans from the other room as I drifted in and out of sleep.
The clatter of vessels woke me up the next morning and I realized I had rolled into a ball and slept off. The rains had stopped. The lady was making tea and serving parathas to Abbu.
He sounded very upset.
“The moment I find her, I will skin her butt. Wonder with whom she spent the night? Before she breaks her hymen, I will have to send her to Mallik at Charbagh. The rates are good only for virgins. Should do it before she brings down her worth.”
And he looked at the lady and said, “And you can move in permanently after that.”
“Abbu” I screamed, and I felt a curtain lift off my shoulders.
Impulsively they backed away, looking at me shell shocked with my sudden appearance. I realized that I became visible again.
Abbu recovered first and got up menacingly. I ran out of the hut pushing him away.
I ran through the muddy puddles and reached the garbage dump where the gang was playing. Akansha was already counting 21,22…
But today, I was not here to play. I ran seeking the mountain of debris that had concealed me yesterday. I willed to be bitten again, become invisible and escape from Abbu’s sinister designs.
But the pile was missing today.
The bulldozers had leveled up the heap. I rummaged through the razed garbage. It was then that I saw a pair of tiny green eyes, no longer glimmering, for it was on the severed head of the serpent.
Allah! will I ever have a place to hide?
Dupatta- long piece of cloth worn around the head, neck, and shoulders by women
Parathas-Type of Indian Bread
Mehbulla Pur Dhaki & Charbagh – Places in Uttar Pradesh
Photo By: Alex Ivashenko