Saturday Story 16: Fall from Grace
The baobab tree stood in exactly the same place. Its gnarled trunk still contained the small footholds we used, to climb it. Just enough to fit six little girls. This was our ‘adda’, our secret hideout, a world away from the world. Of all the places on the TIFR campus, this was the one which held the most memories. And here I was, 40 years later, reliving it all.
Visiting the campus after so many years was both a shock and a delight. It seemed to have stood still, frozen in time. The majestic Bhaskara building with its airy colonnade. The hostel block populated by long-haired young men and women. The grounds where we played dodgeball and baseball. Only the slides and swings had changed, and for the better.
I spy a familiar board: ‘Maharashtra Aikyavardhak Co-operative Stores’. How many times I had fought with my mother, when she asked me to run down and get some provisions. I would go, of course, after extracting a concession. She would let me keep the change and I would use the 20 paise to buy some mints, or a pack of Poppins.
The store is in the basement of ‘A’ block. I climb down the stairs, savouring the old, familiar smells, but the door is locked. Oh, it’s already 8 pm. But what about ‘B’ block basement, where the kids played carrom and table tennis? I traipse down the steps two at a time, half-expecting to see Vasant, the dhobi, ironing clothes in the alcove.
No dhobi, no table tennis – the door is firmly locked. Did kids even play those games anymore?
With sadness in my heart, I climb back up. I stand on the colonnade which once bustled with boys and girls playing basketball and skating (when Appadurai uncle wasn’t around). The absent-minded professors walking past, discussing mathematics. And silently, unobtrusively, a man in frayed banian and shorts, mopping the floor with concentration.
Patrick – he would be dead and gone by now. God bless his soul.
Now, I could see the staircase leading to ‘C’ block basement. But where was the giant ladder, which was our chor-police headquarters? Broken, dismantled, lying rusted in a scrapyard… I walk down the stairs and immediately get the sharp odour of paint and limestone. Yes, this was the maintenance office, which looked into leaking taps and errant garbage chutes.
I am back on the colonnade now, enjoying the night breeze in my hair. ‘D’ block lies ahead. I know the basement is a storage area, rarely opened. But now, I feel compelled to walk down those stairs… putting my hand on the Godrej navtal 7 lever lock. Just feeling a sense of reassurance. That some things never change.
Like this stately row of concrete pillars, where we used to play hide and seek. Lost in thought, I reach the end of the colonnade. ’E’ block, the last block… always so dark and foreboding.
Children, stay away from E block! All the mothers used to say.
I feel a strange sensation in the pit of my stomach. I close my eyes and take a deep breath. And suddenly, I hear that plaintive voice. From long, long ago.
Come, play with me.
The tubelight overhead starts flickering… and then, I am plunged into darkness.
My heart pounds as I search for the flashlight icon. I fumble. The phone slips out of my hands and clatters down the stairs… blinking at me. Mocking me. Daring me to walk down those steps.
I have no choice. My knees tremble as I descend, one step at a time. I hear the voice again.
Come play with me.
My throat has gone dry. My hand is clammy and cold now, it slips from the handrail. There, at the bottom of the landing is a ghostly little figure. Holding my phone and waving it gleefully.
Come play with me.
She is coming up now, towards me. Wearing the same blue frock and red ribbons.
Go away Gayatri, GO AWAY!
And then, I feel icy fingers on my back, pushing me forcefully. I hurtle into a chasm of darkness.
31st October 1979
At last, I had the perfect hiding place – the one place no one would dare look. And then, I saw her. That silly little Gayatri. Always tagging along. Asking to be included.
Why, yesterday, she had even stolen my spot on the baobab tree.
“Go away, Gayatri, GO AWAY,” I whispered.
That little minx, she just wouldn’t listen. Brushing past me, she started skipping down the steps. That made me mad. Really mad.
You are ALWAYS in the way!!!!!
They searched for 3 days, before they found her body. An unfortunate accident, they called it. The six of us climbed up the baobab tree, held hands and cried for days.
I became one with them. I got away with it.
I am walking out of the campus now, not much worse for the wear. It was just my mind playing tricks. The phone rings, I swipe it absent-mindedly and put the instrument to my ear.
Come play with me… please. Come, play with me!
I stand in the middle of the road, frozen in shock, as a truck hurtles toward me. No.. no… NO!!!
Don’t miss the audio file ‘Inside the Author’s Mind’: Why I wrote ‘Fall from Grace‘.