There she goes again! Not a day of my study holidays has passed without me hearing a shriek from that girl. That’s Manu for you, the little brat next door. Hardly six years old, she would easily give you the impression that it was she who was born before you.
Back to what I was talking about, this person who is being yelled at, is her poor grandfather. Given that even her grandfather, Mr.Ramamurthy, who retired from the railways, is acknowledged only by his first name, how can I, a mere 20 year old neighbour doing her graduation, even dream of being spared? Manu calls me Sundari, right royally, as if she had given me the name.
Let’s return to the story of our little princess. The shrieks are not uncommon on a weekday morning. The battle is for the remote control. While Ramamurthy Sir would want to watch the news bulletin at 8, Manu would want to watch Scooby Doo in Cartoon Network. “What thatha, today Scooby will drive that ghost away and you don’t want me to watch it?”
Obviously, thatha understands nothing of the world of cartoons and would beg, “Five minutes, Manu, I will just look at the headlines.”
Manu, however would have none of it. “Thatha, you don’t know anything. Do you know what detectives do? You don’t understand anything,” Of course it goes without saying that our daring princess wins the ensuing battle. The ‘Ei Ramamurthy,” comes at an instant when she would grab the remote.
And mind you, she doesn’t stop with that. The intelligent girl would thrust the daily newspaper in her grandfather’s hands and settle down before the idiot box with her plate of tiffin.
Ramamurthy Sir is an epitome of patience. He is the ideal picture of a retired man, living his life in peaceful resignation. Always dressed in a white shirt and dhoti, his freshness is only enhanced by the fragrant sacred ash that runs generously across his forehead. He would never fail to wish a brisk good morning to my dad, his neighbour, while both of them are busy picking flowers for the morning puja in their respective homes. Once in a while, he would dutifully enquire about how my studies were progressing and would mumble a sincere blessing when we parted.
“Someday, even Manu would grow up to be like you,” he would smile and continue, “for all you know, she would grow so quiet then. I really don’t know whether I can bear to see her quiet.”
At about quarter to four in the afternoon, he would finish his coffee and walk up to Manu’s school which is ten minutes distance from where we stay. Manu would come rushing out of the gate towards thatha, tell him stories of all that happened in school that day, in one excited breath that would calm down only when they reached the gate of their house, with thatha paying rapt attention, all the way. It’s such a pleasure to watch the old man walking slowly along side a small kid, two people at two extreme ends of life’s spectrum, bound together by a tender understanding called love. The calm and maturity of the aged and the excitement and frivolity of a kid, to me would seem, as one of the rarest pairs of opposites that glows with an exquisitely subtle beauty.
Today’s morning has been unusually quiet. I saw Manu leaving with her Dad for school. No fuss, no noise. Something ought to be wrong. While am wondering, Dad informs me that Ramamurthy Sir has been down with high fever since last evening.
In the evening, I tell Manu’s mother that I would go and pick her up from school. “Don’t bother Sundari, I will manage,” she says. “No, no aunty, absolutely no problem. You take care of Ramamurthy Sir. I am anyway bored, I will get her back from school,” I convince her.
Manu comes running, in an expectant mood but I can read the disappointment in her face when she sees it isn’t thatha but I, who has come to pick her up.
I take the lunch bag from her and we begin walking.
“Sundari, Why hasn’t thatha come? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing Manu, thatha needs some rest, that is all. Tomorrow he will be fit as a fiddle,” I tell her. She isn’t convinced. We walk back home quietly.
Back at home, she dumps her bag, washes her feet and runs towards her grandfather’s room. She stands close to him, as he lies on his bed, his hands resting on his stomach. “Thatha,” she calls out softly and pauses, unsure whether she was disturbing him. “Thatha,” she calls out once again, a little louder this time.
As I stand in a corner, I turn a passive observer. I see Manu’s little fingers holding as much as she can of thatha’s fingers. Slowly, she places her head on his chest and I see tears running down her cheeks. “Thatha,” she says amidst sobs, “You watch whatever news you want on TV, I won’t ask for the remote,” and she gently strokes his chest as she gets up. Thatha holds her hand and then ruffles her hair, “Manu Kanna, I will be alright soon,”
“Really?” she questions sobbing, “When?”
“Tomorrow,” he replies. She hugs him and runs out of the room, while the overwhelmed grandfather lets out a small laugh. I stand here, stupefied, struck by the purest form of love and innocence - a small face with large eyes, an almost unnoticeable nose, a soft, round mouth, and two small pony tails behind those tiny ears, the sweet innocence called Manu that jumped and ran out of the room now.
It’s been a week since I witnessed that touching moment. Within two days from then, I saw grandfather and granddaughter back in action and Manu does seem to be keeping up her promise. No more s-h-r-i-e
Now, wait, what’s that? Did I say no more shrieks? I am afraid not, for it seems, the battle has begun yet again!