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The Pram That Walked

2006-07-14 00:11

  “Ma! Ma! Give me something to eat, quick, then I am off,” I said breathlessly as I rushed home from school.

  I stopped at mother's bedroom door. I could see her in the mirror, coiling her hair into a bun. She was wearing a cream-coloured sari with a dark purple border. “That is a going-out sari, Ma.”

  “I am going to the Flower Show,” said mother. “But who said you are going out?”

  “There is kite-flying contest on the hill behind the park,” I said with a pleading look at her reflection. “Sameer and Ranjit against Biddoo and his gang. I must go, Ma. Only far a couple of hours.”

  “Couple of hours, nothing,” said mother, pushing yet another pin into her bun. “Anju, how do I look?”

  “Perfect, perfect. Ma…”

  “I told you about the Flower show a week ago,” said mother. “I will be back at seven, Anju. Since your father is away, you will have to say at home and look after Preeti.”

  “But I promised Ranjit and Sameer that I would be their runner for the contest,” I said, dismayed. “Why don't you take Preeti to the Flower Show? She will be thrilled. She loves Flowers.”

  “Don't be ridiculous,” said Mother. “It is not often that I ask you to look after your little sister. Don't forget to give her milk when she get up.” She swung round on her heels and looked out of the window. “Renu has come! I must go now. There is upma for you in the kitchen, and bananas. `Bye, dear.”

  Mrs. Pathak breezed in with a waft of perfume and breezed out with Mother. I was left crestfallen, in a lingering sea of perfume. Minutes later, Ranjit and Sameer cycled in through the gate. “Anju! hurry, you slowcoach! It is for already.”

  I beckoned them in glumly and pointed to the pram in the bedroom. “I can't come. Got to look after Preeti.”

  “Baby-sitting?” grinned Sameer.

  “I have got no choice, have I?” I said trying hard to stop the trembling of my lower lip. “Mother has gone to the Flower Show at Lal Bagh. I am stuck till seven.”

  “We could always find a way out,” said Ranjit rubbing his chin thoughtfully, “unless you don't want to come.”

  “Of course, I want to,” I retorted.

  Ranjit was staring at Preeti who was sleeping snugly under the blanket. “Then she better come along with us!” he said, rubbing his hands together-he usually does that when he has had a `flash`.

  Ranjit had his bright moments but this I felt surely was not one. “She is only ten months old,” I said, glowering at Preeti as if it was her fault. “You know she can't walk.”

  Ranjit approached the pram, held its handle and gently pushed it into the living room. “The pram can,” he said, eyes twinkling. “See what I mean.”

  “If we take the pram along , Anju can baby- sit and help in the kite contest at the same time” cried Sameer. “Brilliant.”

  “But when Preeti wakes up and finds out…” I said doubtfully.

  “At that age they don't know the difference between inside a house and outside,” said Ranjit wisely. “At least I didn't.”

  “Nor did I,” added Sameer. “Come on, what are we waiting for?”

  I was thrilled we had found a way out. Ranjit and I pushed the pram carefully while Sameer wheeled both their cycles to the end of the road beyond which was the park. We managed to avoid bumps and reached the park without having upset Preeti a bit.

  The kite contest was to take place on the hilly slope behind the park. As we neared the slope, Sameer called out, “Biddoo and his gang are here already!”

  “Let us leave the pram here,” said Ranjit, wheeling it beneath a large, shady tamarind tree on the hill. “We can see it easily and hear her if she wakes up.”

  “Thank goodness little kids sleep so much,” I said tucking the blanket carefully around my little sister. She was blissfully asleep and looked like a pretty doll in her pram.

  Four kites were taking part in the contest. Biddoo and his gang were the best at kite-flying, but we had practiced for days-no, weeks. I say 'we' because I was the runner for Sameer and Ranjit. The 'runner' has to be ever- ready to dash forward and retrieve the kite if it strays too far and falls down. It is an important job.

  The next hour was unforgettable. The four kites took off at the same time. Our gorgeous green and gold, Biddoo's yellow and red, a pink and brown, and a blue and white-a rainbow of colours, like four large butterflies in the sky. The wind tugging, kites flying, hands pulling, boys and girls racing and cheering-it was a heady, exciting game.

  Biddoo's kite was poised for a win. It seemed so sure of itself and kept rising up like a huge red and yellow bird. But we were not going to give up easily.

  “Come on, Ranjit! Come on! Ooooh…”

  Our green and gold kite was now almost neck and neck with Biddoo's. He tried one trick too many and suddenly his kite swerved, fluttered, dived downwards and perched on a telegraph pole. Our green and gold beauty was still rising gracefully up…up…up!

  We had won!

  What clapping, cheering and thumping of backs. We were very tired and sore but oh so happy!

  “Time to get back,” I said, suddenly remembering. “I had better take Preeti home before she starts howling for milk.”

  Glowing with happiness, I raced back to the tamarind tree to pick up Preeti. When I got there I stared. I stared so hard that I could feel myself staring. I blinked and looked again.

  The pram was gone.

  Gone!

  I am usually not a panicky sort but I shrieked so long and hard that Ranjit and Sameer came dashing across. “What is wrong?”

  “The-the pram-Preeti-gone!”

  “W-H-A-A-A-T?”

  It was really awful. The joy of our victory was suddenly deflated like a balloon by the terrible fact that my little sister Preeti was missing.

  Ranjit did his best to take charge. “No need to panic, let us be calm,” he said looking anything but that. “Anju, are you sure Preeti can't walk?”

  I shook my head tearfully and pointed down the slope. “M-m-may be…”

  A little beyond the tamarind tree, the hill sloped steeply-at least a hundred feet into a thick undergrowth of trees and shrubs. Sameer went to the edge and peered down. “Yes, it is possible the pram rolled down on its own,” he shuddered. “My, what a drop.”

  Fear was like a lead ball in my stomach as we hurried down. We looked silently through the dark, thorny undergrowth. After a long, fruitless search, Ranjit said, “The pram hasn't rolled down, thank goodness.”

  “But where is it?” I asked as we panted up the slope. I was hoping it was all a dream and

  we would find Preeti in the pram happily asleep. But the space below the tamarind tree was bare.

  “She couldn't have vanished into thin air,” said Sameer, narrowing his eyes. “Let us face it. Preeti has been kidnapped.”

  At this I burst into a flood of tears. “Come on, let us scout the park,” said Ranjit taking my hand. There was no sign anywhere of the maroon-coloured pram. Ranjit looked at me with troubled eyes. “This is serious, Anju. We had better go and find your mother.”

  I sat behind Sameer and we cycled off towards Lal Bagh where the Flower Show was being held. “Do your parents have enough money?” he asked suddenly.

  “Why?”

  “Kidnappers ask for a huge ransom,” he said knowingly. “Ten lakhs are more.”

  I did not know how much father earned. He worked in an office and we had a scooter. “I guess we can manage,” I said bravely.

  At the Flower Show we spotted Mother with a group of ladies, all very excited over the flowers. “Ma.”

  She swiveled round and looked at me with eyes as big as saucers.

  “Anju! Where is Preeti?”

  “G-gone,” I stammered. “It is all my fault, Ma. I took her in the pram to the hilly slope where…”

  Mother's scream was louder than mine when I had found the pram missing. The next few minutes were dreadful. All the ladies shook their heads and said what a careless girl I was. I stood silently looking at the beautiful flowers around me but they all appeared blurred and hazy to my tear-filled eyes.

  When Mother had calmed down somewhat, we drove to the police station in Mrs. Pathak's car. Ranjit and Sameer who had been lurking outside, followed on their cycles. At the police station, Mother flounced into the main office crying, “Preeti! Preeti!” It took several policemen, a glass of water and the fan at full speed to calm her.

  “Relax, Madam,” said the kind police officer. “What is the matter?”

  “Relax?” said Mother, offended. “You ask me to relax when some cruel, vile villain has kidnapped my child!”

  The officer uncoiled in his chair like a spring. “Kidnap?” He beckoned to big burly policemen. “Malhotra, get the details.”

  “Preeti my bony baby…”

  “Calm down, Madam.”

  “Gone!”

  “Where?”

  “In the pram.”

  “Pram? Must be very young then.”

  “Preeti, my Preeti…”

  By now the police officer's face was red and perspiring. “Look, don't let us waste time. If a baby is missing. I want all details. Slow and clear.”

  “I will explain,” I said and related the events as clearly as I could.

  “A very careless thing to do, wasn't it?” said the officer, looking sternly at me. “We have better move fast, now. I will send my men to investigate. You said, a pink dress and maroon-coloured pram. Got it, Malhotra?”“Sir.”“It is best to go home, Madam,” the officer said kindly to Mother. “We have got your address and phone number. I will contact you as soon as we have some news.” He led us to the door. “Courage, Madam, please, courage.”

  We drove home in the car with Ranjit and Sameer following behind. A more miserable bunch you could never have seen.

  We had just got back when the doorbell rang. It was Mrs.Dotty Frances from next door. Mother fell into her arms, weeping. “Preeti, my Preeti, gone! Kidnapped!”

  We have known Mrs. Frances for years. She lived next and was a close friend of Mother. But what this close friend did now was most amazing. She was smiling, actually smiling, as Mother related the tragedy to her. And as we all looked at her in shocked disbelief, she burst into laughter.

  “Preeti hasn't gone far, my dear,” she said and going behind the front door, wheeled in the pram! There was Preeti chuckling away and waving her hands in welcome!

  After ten minutes of cuddling and kissing, Mother asked, “How did you find her, Dotty?”

  Yes, it was a mystery.

  “I had gone for my usual walk in the park,” explained Mrs. Frances, “when I saw the pram under the tree. Preeti was crying. I realized she was hungry but since the children were too busy with kite-flying, I wheeled her home, gave her milk and waited for you.”

  “Oh, you wonderful friend!” said Mother, wiping the tears from her eyes.

  The joy of finding Preeti was so great that I quickly forgot my anger at Mrs. Frances for not telling us when she took away the pram.

  “The police,” reminded Sameer. “They will still be searching.”

  Mother looked at me. “Anju, you had better phone the officer and explain since you got us into the fix.”

  I rang up the police station. “Good evening, Sir, it is me, Anju. Yes, yes, Preeti's sister. Preeti has come back. No, no , not walking. In the pram.” I explained everything.

  “One thing I have learnt,” said Ranjit, as we sat in the dining room eating upma and bananas, “baby-sitting is a full-time job!”

  I agreed! Tea over, we ran off to enjoy the success of our kite-flying contest, which was only two hours old.

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