The gunny bag was torn in the centre. It hung from a blue rusted box that looked like an old trunk, hidden in the shadow of a large tree in the park. Most probably the gardener kept his tools in there. The squirrel sat in the gunny bag as if she was resting in a hammock.
The squirrel scratched her tail with her small mouth, looked left and then right as if checking for any signs of danger, climbed up the tree to fetch some berries and then slipped back into her hammock for another round of rest.
Soni had been watching her now since almost an hour. Totally captivated by her antics, Soni hardly moved from the shade of the tree. The park was just opposite to the house where her mother washed utensils and cleaned the house. The wait for her mother didn’t bother her as she intently observed the squirrel’s every move.
“Maa!” Soni clung to Usha grabbing the box of popcorns from her hand.
She started munching them right away. Popcorn fell on the ground, without a sound but it was enough to startle the squirrel. She jumped out of her hammock and halted just a few steps away from the popcorn, which certainly looked very tempting. Soni recedes, as if to say “Go ahead, enjoy the treat.” The squirrel held the popcorn in her two hands and began to munch it with her sharp teeth. Soni giggled.
“What are you laughing at? Let’s go,” Usha said while lifting her Ghaghra.
Soni looked forward to seeing the squirrel the next day. As days passed, the one hour wait in the park became the best part of her day. She had found her first friend in the big city of Delhi. She named her ‘Tukk-tukk’. Soni would talk endlessly to her. Tukk-tukk would look at her with shiny little eyes, as if she understood every word Soni was saying.
“I wish I also had a big gunny bag. I would tie it between these two trees. Then we would both talk while resting in our respective swings,” Soni said as she swirled around the tree.
“You know when we were in Hastinapur, I used to sit under the shade of the tree while Baba and Maa worked in the fields. Maa didn’t let me work. She thought I would get dark in the sun,” Soni sat down on the pavement with her hand resting under her chin.
“Back home, I used to see all kinds of bugs- red, blue, green and yellow. You don’t believe me Tukk-tukk? Next time, I will take you to my village. There are centipedes, spiders and scorpions. I hope you don’t get sacred. There are so many monkeys in my village. I even saw a snake once but squirrels? There are a very few squirrels,” Soni would chatter for the whole hour with Tukk-tukk every day.
“Meri chotti si gudiya will get dark playing in the sun,” Usha took Soni’s face in her two hands looking for signs of tanning.
She took out two biscuits wrapped in her dupatta. Soni gobbled them.
“Now I will also wash clothes. I requested madam to let you wait in the corridor of the house. You are coming with me from tomorrow,” Usha said as they walked towards their home.
Next morning, Soni insisted to be left in the park but Usha dragged her upstairs. She made her sit at the doorstep. Usha put a finger on her mouth, reminding Soni to be quiet and not to move.
“So, this is your daughter,” madam came out of the bedroom sipping her tea.
‘Isn’t she beautiful? I told you, she doesn’t look like she’s my daughter,’ Usha smiled as she looked at Soni with admiration.
“How old is she?” asked the madam.
“Eight. But she is far more intelligent than her age,” Usha had stopped mopping the floor. She looked at the madam expectantly. But she was already busy with the newspaper.
Soni missed being with Tukk-tukk and wondered what she would be doing as she passed her time observing the blades of the fan go round and round, the rise and fall in the voice of the madam as she chatted on the phone, the jingling and tinkling sound of the utensils being washed. Today the wait felt like long and endless.
Soni got up excitedly as she saw her mother join hands to say goodbye to madam. She ran down the stairs and rushed inside the park. Tukk-tukk was pulling out a strand from the gunny bag. Soni laughed at her new play.
“Come Soni. We need to go. Baba will be waiting for food at home,” Usha called.
Every day, Soni stole a minute to say hello and goodbye to Tukk-tukk. Earlier Usha found it a waste of time but when she saw the smile on her daughter’s face, she let the ritual be a part of the routine.
When Sunday came, Soni noticed that the house seemed different. A young boy and a girl ran from one corner to another. They must be madam’s children,” thought Soni. She was tempted to peek at the T.V, the siblings were watching, sitting on the sofa. But then she remembered, Maa had commanded her not to move.
After sometime, she noticed that the madam’s daughter had sat down with a large sheet and three small katoris. Soni saw the girl had begun to draw something on the sheet. She took out some sticky gum from a small white tube and applied it on the sheet. Then she took the green moong daal from the katori and started pasting it in the outline of the tree. Curious, Soni crawled towards the girl.
“My baba used to grow moong daal in Hastinapur,” Soni murmured.
“Really? Does it grow on trees?” asked the girl with curiosity.
“They are small plants with long beans. When you break open the pod, you can see seeds of moong daal,” Soni said with her eyes stuck to the sheet.
“What are you doing here? Go and sit near the door,” madam said annoyingly.
Soni walked back hurriedly. She sat there quietly observing the girl. Madam put some dark colored small chips like thing in the milk and cajoled her son to drink it. Soni saw him first refuse and then take one spoonful of it. Madam suddenly turned to look at her. Soni immediately dropped her gaze.
“Did you do something wrong? Madam told me not to get you inside the house from tomorrow. I wish your baba gets some work soon and you can go to the Sarkari School,” Usha wiped her forehead.
Soni slowly walked down the stairs. She paused outside the park and then pulled away her hand from Maa. Her steps did not have the usual excitement today. Perhaps there wasn’t much to say to Tukk-tukk or there was too much to share and the time was less.
When Soni didn’t see the gunny bag, she thought it may have fallen on the ground. She ran towards the blue box and looked frantically all around. It had not. Soni looked here and there; there wasn’t any trace of the bag. She looked up on the tree. Two squirrels were chasing each other. She looked at the ground. Some of the squirrels were sitting idly while some were climbing up the tree. Soni’s eyes searched for her friend. It was a large park, there were so many squirrels and they all looked alike. She knew it was impossible to find Tukk-tukk.
As she walked towards the gate of the park, tears sprung in her eyes. She felt lost, just like her friend that once lived in a gunny bag.