I would wonder what kept bringing them back to me. With their fists clenching and unclenching softly in unknown anticipation, they would look at me, their lips apart, panting as if to about to say something extremely exciting. But they would be silent just like my pursued lips as I shoved them away. I still remember the grime that they would be covered with. Was it their fault? Is not dirt and dust the rule of the world where there are no walls nor roofs?
Childhood is a fancy world to live in. Everything is important. You know everything and life is a wonderful story unfolding before your eyes. You are happy to believe that the world is a small place with a set of rules that you know well how to bend to your wishes. You have textbooks and goals. You have manners and ambitions. You know poetic verses by the heart and your imagination is vivid.
It is often at such an age that you believe you are going to change the world for good one day. You see problems and you see solutions. Simple solutions, believable, achievable, doable. And then you set out to make things right. There’s a fire within that burns, and you believe its insatiable till you make your journey right, and get the goal you aimed so hard at.
One morning, as I stepped out of the home to make my routine walk towards the playground, Neela broke her silent companionship, which I never realized when I was endowed with, by asking if they could play with us. I did not hesitate, I was not the one who would. I was rebellious, going against the dictates my parents had presented me with about staying away from them.
e4 … e5
We would play often after that day. On rainy days my friends would fail to show up. It was for the reason that their catching cold was an unsuitable proposition to their mothers. Who was I to complain, who had been branded unruly by his parents? And why would I complain, when I had another set of friends who would simply join my walk towards the park, springing out of nowhere with something interesting to share every day. They liked to ask about my day. I liked talking about my day.
Nf3 … Nf6
I once took a gift for them. It was not much, just a pack of Uncle Chips (yes, this story is of old days, and that brand was all rage back then). It was delicious, and it would crack on the tongue inside the closed mouth as the upper jaw pressed close on the lower. The tiny specks of salted potatoes was a bliss. I gave it to them when they appeared, while I was on the way to the park. Did they love it? Yes! Which kid does not love Uncle Chips? I promise myself to bring more for them in future. Not like I would get it every day myself, but 2-3 days of cajoling and good behaviour in the house did the trick.
One day Zimmidar asks out, enquiring the cost of the pack of Uncle Chips which we had devoured a few minutes back. I revert back with the 10 rupees price of the item. He is lost in thought for the rest of the evening, often missing the catch to my annoyance. Later at home, when I retrospect over the incident, I realize he must feel I was doing some sort of favour to them by sharing the chips with them. I decided not to do that again.
d4 … Nxe4
My regular ‘forgetting to bring’ the Uncle Chips must have made them suspicious. One day the first words Neela greets me with is if I can bring some Uncle Chips the next day. She goes on to describe how tasty it is and how they are missing it. She even says that she has had dreams of the Uncle on the green packet coming to life.
I ask her to bring one herself for a change if she was missing it so much. Her smile falters for a moment but then is back in a flash. Next day she carries a small tin tiffin box. I wonder if that contains Chips. To my delight it contains kheer. They refuse to have a share, saying their mother sent it especially for me. I am delighted, and the weight of the Uncle Chips lifts slowly, as the tiffin empties.
Bd3 … d5
But something had changed. I would carry the Uncle Chips less often now. Something coming from Neela and Zimmidar’s home was more frequent now. It was on a similar walk to the park when Zimmidar excitedly told me that his mother was getting a new child. That was thrilling, and I immediately expressed my interest in seeing the newcomer kid.
Neela looked less excited. Her face carried marks of weariness. I brought this up with the question of whether she didn’t want to have another sibling. She stayed mum. I joked that then they would have to share my Chips with another person. Maybe it would be better if I instead gave the entire pack to them. There was a momentary glint in Zimmidar’s eyes which I didn’t quite catch. It kept haunting me for the rest of the night. Was it happiness? Or jealousy? I decided to confront him about this the next day. He told me it was generous of me to think of giving the entire pack to them. I thought I registered some pain in his tone and asserted I was only joking. He said his life was full of jokes. I found it funny so we had a good laugh.
Nxe5 … Nd7
Nxf7 … Qe7
The innocence of childhood comes with the gift of forgetting. It was several days before I noticed Neela was very frequently absent from our playtime these days. I asked her about this the next time I met her. She asked me who takes care of me when I am sick. It was the mother, I replied. And who takes care of mother when she is sick, as asks. Father, I answered. And when both mother and father are sick? I told her that never happens but I thought about it for a long time. I concluded her parents were sick. I decided to visit them at goodwill.
They were not ready to take me with them. I figured out they probably needed to get to know me better so I invited them to my place. I could go to theirs once they realized I was worth the trust. Mother would not like it at all if they floor were dirtied by their grime-covered feet, so I brought them two pair of my footwear – an old pair of shoe for Zimmidar who was nearly a foot shorter than me, and my bathroom slippers for Neela, who was the same height as me. I remember the china clay plate mother threw at Zimmidar when she saw him entering the house. The plate and my faith in my mother shattered with the same chime of destruction. Zimmidar and Neela broke into a run and me into a quickly defeated fight with my originator.
Nxh8 … Nc3+
I broke my piggy bank that night. With the clinking of coins in my plams I determined to make my amends to the relationship that had undergone a hard blow. The following day no one followed me to the park. I had 3 packets of Uncle Chips in my hand. This repeated for a few days, till the packets started thinning and I was worried they would get damaged. I decided to make a trip in the direction in which Zimmidar and Neela would disappear. I must have walked some 15 mins when Zimmidar came running up to me and asked me to turn back. I told him I had brought Chips. He refused them and insisted on me turning back. I was stubborn. But he had aimed a rock at me with a determined expression and I retreated.
Kd2 … Nxd1
My house then saw a few tense days, with me on an indefinite hunger strike. The perpetrators of crimes would have to make their penance. When mother made kheer and put it into a neat plastic tiffin box, I kept my part of the deal and acquitted her from the charges I had pressed against her. But Zimmidar had again held a rock at me, and I returned more defeated than my mother.
Re1 … Nxf2
That was almost everything I was going to try. The Uncle Chips packets were eaten in the comforting privacy of my room, and going to the park was a lonely affair. For a few days, this did feel good. I was free to do or to not do. What drew me towards the route to Neela’s house was the excitement of seeing the newborn baby.
I spotted Neela first. She was laughing, sitting on a very low stool beside a makeshift stove made from bricks, burning cow dung. She was talking to her mother, who lay on a cot dangerously near the burning stove. She had a huge bump on her belly, which I realized was the upcoming guest to the home. If that is what we could term the yellow plastic sheet in the shape of two-sided sloping roofs, with sticks propped up on either side holding it up.
Bxh7 … Ne4+
Neela spotted me a while later. She smiled weakly, looking more worn out than the last time I had seen her. She leaned towards her mother and murmured what I assumed was my introduction. Her mother motioned me to come closer, asked what was it that brought me there. I replied I was there to see the baby. She sighed and looked at her belly, then looked up at me and smiled, asked me to be patient as it would take a few more days. We talked for some time, mostly about how the baby could become a doctor or an engineer one day. And then I left for home.
Rxe4 … dxe4
A few days later which I thought would be enough to have a baby I went over to Neela’s place with a fresh set of 3 Uncle Chips packets. The cot was missing. And so was the occupant. Besides the brick stove lay Neela nursing a baby on a sheet of plastic taken from some soft drink commercial banner. The newborn too was grimy. It was a girl. Neela did not get up when I sat down beside her. Her eyes had sunk in and she looked like she had lost weight. I asked her where was Zimmidar. Runaway, she replies. Will most likely come back soon she improvises, reading my startled face. Father? Walked out some 3-4 years ago. And the mother? She cries.
Bg6+ … Kd8
I return home in agony. Life had been cruel to Neela. What would become of the baby? My mother declined the idea of adoption without a moment lost in thought. I tried to reason with her, I made promises of being good. I went to my friends’ places on rainy days to convince their parents. I tried collecting money. I did raise some but Neela was no more at her home. The brick stove was broken and the yellow roof sheet is gone.
Nf7+ … Ke8
Neela and Zimmidar turn up every now and then, in the faces of these kids who come clinging to my now grown pair of legs. Sometimes I even find the newborn. They keep coming back in some anticipation. I do not know what I could give to them. I can no longer buy them meals at the cost of an Uncle Chips packet.
Whatever fire had burned inside me about making a difference, about being a harbinger of change has died away. Or maybe simply buried in the layers of ‘understanding’ of the world I had developed. I no longer walk to the park, no one accompanies either. The Uncle Chips packets too are a rare sight. I have dreams now, ambitions and friends who can come out to me on rainy days. Every yellow sheet beside the rail tracks reminds me of a home in which lived a Zimmidar with no land and Neela who played mother when I was only learning to colour mountains green and rivers blue.
I let things be as they were. It was a stalemate of my today and past.