It was a very fine day at Ravi & Son. The shop had got a very large order for a variety of packed provisions that day, for the tourists who had recently arrived in the village. Hari’s father, Ravi, was in the next village, conducting a routine survey of the supplies of wheat.
The tourists were not here for a visit and they were merely passing through. They consisted of a large man who called himself a Major, his wife and his daughter. In addition to this family, there were many perpetually sweaty men hauling their belongings along.
The Major was huge, and constantly wore a khakhi safari suit. He held a large air rifle in one hand, and a handkerchief in the other. Despite his bulk, he seemed full of stamina. He informed the bemused village folk gathered at Ravi & Son that they were on a hunting trip but they wished to do it in the traditional manner, without using any of the trappings of modern life. Precisely what they wanted to hunt, and what they would manage to, what with the government insisting that people should protect animals, it was never made clear.
Whenever this particular question came up, the Major’s wife stepped in. She was not a very tall woman, but every one of the villagers got the distinct impression that she was the one who had the more gravity. She would often survey the huffing and puffing workmen of their company in a magisterial manner, dabbing at her forehead, shaded by a wide-brimmed floppy hat, while her husband snoozed fitfully in the shade of the Banyan tree. She wore a bit too much make up, which she was able to maintain by turning away abruptly from a conversation and regularly adding another layer. She would declare that her husband was tired whenever she became confused, such as in the what-would-they-hunt question, and she would lead both the Major, and their daughter by the upper arm into the cottage made ready for their stay.
On the very last day, when they were due to leave, they turned up at Ravi & Son in order to replenish their stock of provisions, and it was the Major’s young daughter who walked up to the counter to check the order. At the time Hari was minding the shopfront. As the girl began to rapidly read items off a long list which trailed on the floor, Hari looked around from arranging the shelves; and froze.
The girl seemed about the same age as Hari. She had a vaguely round face, which had a glowing quality about it, framed by shoulder-length, curly hair and which Hari found immensely attractive. The girl suddenly looked up, aware of the attention she was getting. She blushed as she saw Hari’s transfixed face and said shyly, “It’s not polite to stare at people.”
“But you surely get this a lot.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” Hari blushed as well, “you’re very pretty you know.”
“What do you mean?”
But the girl definitely wasn’t slow, and was blushing more than ever now.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Hari,” replied Hari, “and yours?”
“My name is…”
Just then the Major waddled up. “What is taking you so long my dear?” he boomed at his daughter.
“Nothing, papa, nothing,” said she, obviously flustered.
“Oh, look, your mother calls. Here, I can finish off this infernal list…now why in the world do we need sandalwood oil!”
The girl left, and Hari was thrilled to see that she seemed to be retreating quite reluctantly. Hari tore his eyes from her with great difficulty. He glanced at the Major who was still muttering to himself and scratching at his forehead with the end of his air rifle. He sat down to wait until the Major had gathered his thoughts, occasionally leaning very slightly to the left so as to be able to see the girl. She was sitting under the Banyan tree with her mother, who seems to be persuading her to put on some lipstick. Hari had seen lipstick used only once before, as none of the village girls or women bothered with it. In his opinion, the girl didn’t need lipstick or in fact anything at all.
“…are you listening boy?”
Hari nearly fell off his stool. He had not noticed when the Major had begun to talk to him rather than himself.
“Er…yes, sir, yes,” he replied and quickly set about gathering various items off the shelves. He took down talcum powder, some attar, a set of coloured ribbons and several other things that he was pretty sure were meant for the Major’s wife. A few minutes passed and Hari filled them by scampering to and fro around his shop, fetching things for the Major.
The Major’s wife called out to him shrilly and he turned to talk to her. Presently, he walked off to his wife, and, mopping his sweating forehead, he entered in to what looked like an animated conversation, which seemed to Hari to centre around whether the sandalwood oil was satisfactory or not. He sighed and looked around the courtyard for the girl. He couldn’t seem to spot her. He stood up so as to be able to survey a wider area but he still couldn’t see her. Had her mother made her wait in their cottage? Would he see her before they left? And once they left, what then? Would he ever see her?
“Madhu,” said a voice at his shoulder.
Hari, who was craning out over the counter in his search for the girl, almost fell out of the shop.
He steadied himself and looked around. It was the girl who had spoken.
“I’m called Madhu,” she said.
“Oh, umm, yes and I’m Hari,”
“I know,” laughed the girl, who seemed delighted at his confusion.
In an effort to seem composed, Hari sat down on his stool. Madhu put her elbow on the counter and rested her chin in her hand.
“You’re quite dashing yourself,” she said.
“You…you think so?”
“Yes, I do.” Madhu blushed even deeper than she had before.
“Are you going to be coming back this way as well?” asked Hari, trying to sound casual, as if it was not a matter that greatly concerned him.
“You mean are we going to come back to your village? I don’t really know,” she sounded pensive.
“But we can still meet right? I mean after your trip?” Hari didn’t even try to hide the hopeful overtones of his question.
“Honestly, I’d like to. But I just don’t see how…” she straightened up and said, “I could give you my telephone number…you do have a telephone at your house right?”
“Yes, we do have a telephone!”
“What’s all this about telephones I’m hearing?” the Major had arrived.
Madhu jumped and took a few paces backward, bowing her head hurriedly.
“Well, sir, I…” Hari began, but the Major interrupted him.
“You like my daughter, do you? You want to make friends with her?” he boomed.
“Er, I didn’t mean any…”
“You can forget everything to do with her! She won’t be going around with village bumpkins like yourself you understand?” the Major was breathing heavily now, all this shouting seemed to be taking its toll.
“Excuse me, but who do you think you are, calling my son a village bumpkin?” came a cold, forceful voice from behind him.
The Major turned, red faced, to confront the intruder. “I’ll thank you to keep your nose out of…” He stopped abruptly. He had been looking at eye level, but now he tilted his head backward. He was faced with a tall man, hulking over him, muscles rippling in his neck as he raised his chin and looked at the Major down his nose.
The Major, startled, heaved his mass backward, hit the counter, and dropped his air rifle. It went off with a deafening CRACK, but the newcomer did not move. Everybody else jumped violently.
“Who…are you?” stammered the Major.
The newcomer pointed at the sign above the counter. “See the sign? I’m Ravi, and this here is my son. Who are you?”
Without waiting for an answer, he turned to the girl. “You like each other do you, Hari and yourself?”
Madhu nodded timidly.
“Good, good; Hari, you’ve made a new friend.”
“What do you mean good, don’t you…” the Major began, but stopped quickly at one look from Hari’s father.
“Will that be all young lady?”
“Yes, umm, sir,”
“That’ll be…three thousand and twenty-eight rupees. No need to pay the last eight,” said Hari’s father, smiling down at her kindly.
“Don’t be silly, eight rupees is nothing to us…” tried the Major, but again fell into an abashed sort of silence at a look from Mr. Ravi.
Eventually, the Major and his family gathered their possessions and their sweaty luggage bearers around them, and set off. Madhu waved sadly at Hari, who waved back forlornly.
“Father,” began Hari, “I think I’m in love!”
“Love!?” exclaimed his father, “What do you mean, love?”
Hari didn’t reply, he simply gazed at the retreating figure of Madhu in the distance. His father followed his gaze and seemed to understand.
“Don’t act like a fool, boy! You haven’t even exchanged two whole sentences. Friends, you may be, but there’s no love at your age!”
Hari sighed, and nodded. And that, as they say, was that.
Bruhad Dave is a Zoology student at St. Xavier’s College, Ahmedabad.
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