Thanks perhaps to the slowdown in real estate, construction work in an upcoming gated community near home has halted. The developers first levelled some land and built a wall enclosing it, and then, when the money dried up and customers disappeared, abandoned the project, leaving behind an excellent playground for boys looking for an informal game of football or cricket in the evening.
It’s a bit chaotic, like almost everything else in these parts. Sections of the playground are reserved for the more serious cricketers, with the requisite numbers of stumps, and a proper bat and ball. There are, of course, no clear boundaries, and the balls often end up in the wrong section, but are retrieved peacably. And, in one corner, where I like to sit on the stump of a pillar and watch, is a small area for the younger children, below twelve or so.
On the evening after Diwali, which was a little quieter than usual, I got there early and found the children’s section empty. At the same time last year, an area like this would’ve been littered with the charred remnants of sparklers and flowerpots and rockets and god knows what other firecrackers. This time the litter continued, but it was much less.
I was reflecting on how nice a cracker-free Diwali night would be when three youngsters arrived, a nine-year-old, Arjun, an eight-year-old, Shyam, and Arjun’s five-year-old brother, Varun. Varun doesn’t really play with his brother and the rest: most of the time, he just watches the others swat a ball around, and is occasionally granted the privilege of retrieving the ball when someone hits it out of the designated area.
There weren’t enough lads present to start a match, so the two older boys went off to practice an arcane two-player form of the game governed by rules known only to them, and involving much shouting. When Varun tagged along, Arjun told him firmly, and, I thought, with some anger, to stand back, as he was too small.
Varun trudged back to my stump, and I scooted over so he could share it. He looked at me suspiciously for a moment before resting half his little bottom on the stump, keeping a few inches between us, just in case I tried to attack him.
“Did you enjoy Diwali?” I asked him after a few moments of silence.
He looked up at me and shook his head, clearly unhappy.
“Did you quarrel with your brother?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Arjun’s angry at Appa and Amma,” he said.
“Why?” I asked.
“No crackers,” he replied disconsolately. “Arjun and I wanted crackers but they didn’t get us any. We had some last year, but...”
“Isn’t that good?” I asked. “Less noise, less smoke.” I pointed at a pile of litter. “Less garbage.”
He shook his head a third time, firmly. “No,” he said. Then, after some consideration, “I like the sparklers best. The ones with colours.” “What else do you like?” I asked. “Besides crackers.”
By now he had decided I wasn’t going to attack him. He wriggled closer to make himself more comfortable, and the inches between us disappeared. “Chocolates,” he said, confidingly. “But Amma doesn’t give me enough. She says they’re bad for my teeth.”
“She must be right,” I tell him. “I’m sure she knows.”
He looked up at me, doubt in his eyes. Meanwhile, a couple with a girl of about five walked past us on the path behind. “Do you know Vaidehi?” he asked, looking at the girl.
“Yes,” I replied, for that was the little girl’s name. “Her mother told me she’s five. The same age as you.”
He drew back in horror. “She’s not the same age as me,” he said vehemently. “She’s only five, and I’m five and a half. I’m going to a regular school next year. She won’t.” After a pause, he continued, “She’s a baby.”
“Why do you think so?” I asked.
“She’s afraid of crackers,” he explained. “She doesn’t like atom bombs. She’s so scared she gets asthma.”
Atom bombs, in these parts, are insanely powerful round crackers guaranteed to rattle windows at a hundred paces. Bursting them is a sign of manhood, a sort of rite of passage for teenage boys. “I don’t blame her,” I said. “I’m a little scared of them myself.”
“Really?” he asked. “But you’re old, and old people aren’t afraid of noise. Appa and Amma aren’t.”
“Well,” I said, “I’m afraid. They’re very loud, and they leave a horrible smell behind.”
He sniffed experimentally, but the winds had diffused the stench of the few crackers burst here yesterday. “Yes,” he said slowly. “The smell’s not good.” Then, “But Arjun likes it. All the big boys like it.” Unspoken was the thought that if you wanted to be a big boy, you had to like it, that fearing loud noises and smoke was somehow childish, and altogether contemptible.
After a few seconds, he looked up and asked, “Are you really afraid of crackers?” “Yes,” I said. “Of the noise and the smoke.”
For the first time he looked unsure of himself. “Maybe I am, too,” he said. “Just a little. Not really scared, but...” His five-and-a-half-year-old vocabulary didn’t include a word for his feelings. He seemed disturbed, and I was content to let him work it out for himself.
At sunset, it was time for him to go home, and as I watched him skip along to keep up with his brother, I thought that maybe Vaidehi and I might get to enjoy Diwali next year....