She stopped me as I ran. Held my hand, refusing to let go. I just wanted to run, chase after my brother and cousins, bow in hand, arrows scattered around the compound. “Promise me you’ll never play with those things.” my aunt held out her free hand. Weighing my options, I knew I had none to weigh. The grip was too strong and I wasn’t going to be let go unless I promised. Why wouldn’t my grandma or another aunt call her away?! The only other aunt around was standing there, watching eagerly to see how I’d respond. My brother stood there at the other end of the compound, taking aim at me. With all the precocious wisdom of an 8-year-old I knew I wasn’t in range. Anyway, I was the better marksman, so he didn’t stand a chance once I wriggled free. But then, this was more existential. What would I do if I promised! And it definitely was not fair on her part to make only me promise and let my brother and cousins, including her own son run around scot-free bow and arrows in hand. I would need something to defend myself!
And how was a kid supposed to play once he had renounced the only game the other kids played? The glass panes had been broken recently and cricket was definitely out of the question for a week at least until people had moved on from broken window panes. Bows and arrows made with broom sticks of the kind made from coconut leaf fibres were the in-thing. They were thin, easy to make and nasty fast! Of course, there were also tiny cuts and bruises that we had to deal with and parents who got angry seeing them. We also had to deal with mom making a big fuss about having to buy brooms more often than usual in summer!
And then the newspapers! As if we didn’t have enough problems already, they had to report that a kid playing with bows and arrows made out of sticks in some obscure village in UP (Where UP == any random place we couldn’t care less about) had been blinded by one! Now, one kid in some far away village who was stupid enough to put his eye up for target practice meant that parents all over the country ran around paranoid trying to nip the game in its bud!
But now, I had a problem to deal with. The grip was unrelenting. “Promise me!” she ordered. There was nothing much I could do. I put my palm against hers and walked back home sulking. The bow and arrows had been taken over by her. I heard them crackling as she broke them into tiny pieces before throwing them to the plants on the side disdainfully. I thought of my mom and her anxiety over wasted broomsticks. At least I would have returned them to the broom and saved some money for my parents! Made me sulk more. I went in and sat down, head hanging down. Thatha sat there looking at me, chuckling and not betraying any signs of being delighted. Somehow the sight of children playing and running around made him angry. My aunt came in talking about bringing the other kids to book too, mentioning arrows and eyes again! It made thatha even happier. Somehow that was oddly comforting for me too and I volunteered to bring them around. The proposal was immediately shot down by thatha with an innocently snarky “You please just sit there!”.
My aunt walked around to the back door. I waited for a while for the rest of the gang to turn up. After a while I heard my aunt’s voice. It was from the kitchen and she was laughing with my other aunt about something. My heart sank as I realised that she had never bothered hunting for the rest. They had been playing all this while and would continue to do so for the rest of the evening. I looked up. Thatha was reading something. I decided to make a run for it. It beat me what I’d do without bow and arrow even if I managed to. I’d just be a sitting duck even if I managed to join the game. I stood up slowly to test the waters. “Where exactly will you be coming from sir?” he asked with patented innocence feigning genuine interest in my destination and trying to avoid the inauspicious “Where are you going?”. I sat down again. He made some ‘jokes’ about my efforts to escape and laughed to himself. The day couldn’t get worse and I resigned myself to sitting there and sulking the rest of the day.
The weekend came and passed and my aunt and cousins left. Monday morning, I was left with only my brother to play and a renunciation I was
already still repenting. Thatha was busy doing his japams and dad had left for work. The sticks had been freshly removed and their ends tied together with threads from mom’s sewing machine kit. And he had made 2 bows. “I promised her I won’t play with those” I declared solemnly as if I had promised away everything there was to live for. “Shut up and pick up one and come!” he ordered and left one of the bows in front of me with a few arrows and ran out. Thatha sat there looking at me from the corner of his eyes. I looked around. It was a tough choice to make. My aunt had gone back to wherever she had come from. It was just me and my conscience now. I looked outside. My brother stood there aiming at a wary crow. His aim sucked and the arrow went nowhere near it. The crow let out a disgusted caw and flew to a higher perch, not willing to take any chances on his next attempt.
My brother looked at me. “Pick that up and come here da!” he screamed. Thatha increased the volume of his chanting. He wasn’t going to be goaded into angry words during prayer. I looked at my brother with an expression of pure and utter discomfort in my stomach. Do I hold onto a promise to an aunt who had gone away or do I deal with my brother who was right there, and was going to be there for the rest of the month till school opened and when we anyway won’t be able to play. And most importantly, what would my brother do if I refused to play? Poor chap. This wasn’t a moment to be selfish. I picked up the sticks in front of me and ran after him, taking aim at the unsuspecting crow to get warmed up.
“Kids!” thatha muttered before continuing with the Sahasranamam.