Dadi may have been 79 but inside her bosom encased in an obese frame beat the coy heart of a teenager. She deemed herself in love and with Hrithik Roshan, no less.
Every afternoon she would plop her creaking bones on the comfy couch in front of the TV, recline and watch a Hritik Roshan film till sleep claimed her. Often the nodding off was accompanied by dreams of Hrithik’s lithe, muscled frame and sculpted arms. Today wasn’t any different. Dadi’s gentle snores were emanating in tandem with Hrithik’s tapping feet when her reverie was rudely interrupted.
“Dadi, Dadi…wake up…get up Dadi…Daaadi…”
Groggily she came awake to an ache in her thigh. Bittu, her 11-year-old pudgy grandson was plonked on it, his face puckered in consternation.
“Uff! Get off. You are too heavy now.” Rather unceremoniously she shoved his roly-poly self off. “What do you want?”
In a panicked, ‘Filmfare’ worthy expression Bittu blurted, “Dadi, we are all going to die.”
“That is why you woke me up?” She glared at him, the first spark of temper evident in her eyes. Bittu’s penchant for telling tall tales was insufferable. “I know already…okay. We are all going to die. It’s the circle of life. Get lost. Let me sleep.”
“Circle of life? You mean like Lion King?”
“Huh? What Lion…what King? Stop troubling me. Go, play outside. Go, shoo…” If only Joginder had married the girl I chose…
“You want spanking?”
Bittu’s mouth which had opened like a Goldfish gasping its last breath, clamped shut immediately. He shook his head in a vehement ‘no’.
I’d better leave her alone. Let her sleep only. She’s no use. No wonder, Mummy keeps praying for God to take her away somewhere. She knew all along and never bothered to tell me. How rude!
He scurried away, grumbling at the lack of consideration elders had for children. O teri*…my friends. They don’t know about this steroid thingy. Shit, I’d better go warn them. Poor guys, they’ll be horrified.
Infused with urgency to warn his friends, Bittu lumbered down the staircase, his double chin jiggling up and down on his tubby frame. He made straight for the building garden, calling out to those that according to him were his ‘bestest friends’.
“O Sunny…Sonu…O Bunty…”
The boys and a few others were clustered around the bicycle stand. Bunty was about to peddle off when Bittu wheezed to a stop, almost toppling him off his cycle.
“Oye Sardar*!” Bunty hollered, “you idiot…watch it! I could have broken my leg.”
“What thuh, thuh …stop stuttering.”
Bittu gulped in some polluted Delhi air and spat out, “The world is ending. In 120 days.”
His friends had been at the receiving end of Bittu’s fibbing once too often. They looked at him in exaggerated amazement.
“Again? The world’s ending again? Really?”
“What do you mean again?” Bittu huffed indignantly. “I swear I’m not lying. Why would I lie to you? My papa said so. He works for ISRO.”
“Ha, Ha…Sardar, your world ends every two days. Last week it was because of your math scores, the week before it was because Sweety sat with Vijay in class. What has happened now?” Bunty chortled. “Drama Queen.”
“Liar, liar…pants on fire,” mocked Sonu. The chant was picked up by the others.
“Fine! Be that way. Make fun of me now but you will see. When the world ends because of that steroid, don’t come running to me. I will be busy laughing at you then. Ha!”
“How will you laugh?” Sunny howled, “We’ll all be dead then, remember?”
Upset at being mocked and smarting at the insult, Bittu stormed off towards the playground. Huh! Laugh all you want, you morons. Always making fun of me…I’ll show you…when the world ends; I will have the last laugh. Just you wait.
En route, he bumped into Ravinder Uncle, his neighbour. “O ho Bittu. Hmm…What up? What is latest gup-shup*?”
Ravinder Uncle often spoke in rhyming couplets. It was an annoying habit that coupled with his limited English skills was quite grating on the nerves of all. But today, Bittu was too distraught to notice. He unloaded his fears on Uncle.
“Uncle, no one believes me. But, I’m telling the truth. The world is ending. I tried to tell Dadi but she shooed me away. My friends also did not believe me. They laughed. They think I am lying. But, I tell you I am not Uncle, I really am not,” Bittu prattled in annoyance.
Ravinder Uncle hid a grin. “Now, now Bittu puttar*, don’t be sad. Is not that bad.”
“It is,” he emphasized. “I heard papa tell Mummy that there are 120 days till impact. The steroid will hit earth.”
“O ho! A steroid, you say. No way!” Ravinder Uncle’s mouth twitched. “You know what is steroid?”
“Yes, yes… It’s a big space rock. When it hits us, we will all die. I don’t want anyone to die,” Bittu concluded in a mournful tone. “I don’t want to die.”
“Hmm…I see. No worry Bittu, no needs be scared,” reassured Ravinder Uncle, fighting to keep a sombre expression, “You go…play. I will talk your papa; see what he say.”
Relieved that at least someone, even someone as irritating as Ravinder Uncle, was taking him seriously, Bittu waddled off. I’ll go warn my other building friends now. Ravinder Uncle will speak to papa and they will take care of it. Good!
Much to Bittu’s dismay, at the playground when he tried to warn everyone, he was jeered at and booed off. ‘Get lost Bittu’, ‘you are an idiot’, ‘go tell your story somewhere else’, ‘you’re such a liar’ were the phrases hurled at him.
Morons! Here I am trying to help them and these stupid kids are calling me names. Let it be. What do I care? Let them all die with the steroid. Who needs them anyway? I’ll make new friends when they are gone.
His dismal attempt at public service over, Bittu returned home. He shut himself up in his room pondering what to do next. Then inspiration struck. Aha! I’ll go tell my class teacher at school tomorrow. Everyone is scared of her. If she tells, they will believe. Huh! Then they will all come crawling back saying sorry. See if I care then. Ha! Let’s see who the idiot is then.
At dinner time Bittu emerged from his room but the alacrity with which he usually tackled his food was missing. His father noticed and jested good-naturedly, “O Bittu? What’s wrong? Stomach upset or what? Why aren’t you eating?”
“Not hungry papa,” he mumbled.
“Wow, that’s a first.”
“O my baby…why not hungry? You not eaten since two hours.” Mummy heaped another generous ladle of chicken curry over the hillock of rice on his plate. “Eat, baby. You eat. Grow strong like bull. You grow weak if you not eat,’ she said planting a sloppy kiss on his chubby cheek.
Massaging her thigh where Bittu had landed earlier, Dadi glared at her daughter in law and muttered to herself. Grow weak? Ya, right. I tell you woman, for the love of God, let the boy grow weak.
Bittu looked at his family. How can they be normal? Adults sure are weird. The world is ending and they are happily eating chicken curry. Do they want to die? No, no…God, please…I cannot live without Mummy. If she dies then who will cook for me? Save her, at least…
Conflicted by his thoughts and confused by the behaviour of the adults, Bittu escaped soon to his room. He slid into a restless sleep that was beset with dreams of fires, blasts and things smashing together.
The next day, Monday, at school…
Lugging his bag, Bittu plodded to class, a trifle faster than usual. He was sure his teacher would listen to him. She’s sensible. She will listen to me and warn others. Thank God! Now everyone will know of the danger.
In his haste, he collided with Ramu, the school janitor.
“Sorry. Sorry Ramu Bhaiyya*,” he apologized, hurrying off.
“Oye, where are you rushing off to? Test in class?”
“Aha! Not finished homework?” Ramu chuckled behind Bittu’s back.
“Hain*…What then? Wait. Why rushing?” Ramu ran after Bittu and caught his arm. The boy is acting weirder than usual.
“Let me go…”
“Okay. But what is wrong?”
“The world is going to end. We are all going to die. I have to tell my teacher so she can tell the others,” Bittu shot back in anger and wrenched his arm free before shuffling off to class.
Stupid boy! He and his overactive imagination will get him into trouble one day. Ramu went back to swabbing the floor.
Bittu barely had time to settle down in class before the teacher entered. Before he could approach her, she opened her notes and started teaching. She looks to be in a bad mood. The lesson on the solar system droned on and on. Finally, the class ended. He rushed after her and accosted her in the hallway.
“Yes, Bittu? What it is?”
Panting from the exertion he jabbered, “Ma’am… the world…the world is ending. There are 120 days till impact. You have to tell everyone. Please ma’am, please.”
“What? What nonsense Bittu. Did you hear a word I said in class or were you sleeping on the backbench again?”
Duly chastised, Bittu shifted his eyes down and mumbled, “No…Not sleeping.” Oh shit! She knows I sleep in her class.
“Well then, off you go now. Stop pestering me and stop spouting this nonsense. And mind you, study the chapter well. Tomorrow I want you sitting on the front bench. I will take a quiz. You better know the answers.”
Aghast at this greater tragedy that had befallen him, Bittu scooted back to class. Oh God! What now? She doesn’t believe me. And, on top of that now I’ll have to study. God knows what she taught today. Oh, bugger! I wish the world was ending tomorrow only. At least I would not have to study then.
The rest of the morning passed slowly. Bittu refused to sit with his ‘bestest friends’. I will not talk to them. They laughed at me.
But, what do I do now? How do I warn people? Why did Ma’am not believe me? Such and other thoughts bothered him till through the cobwebs of his brain penetrated a ray of light. Yesss…I know. I’ll warn everyone during recess at the mess. The whole school will be there. That’s it!
Relieved with his decision Bittu bid his time and trudged to the mess as soon as the recess bell rang. It was bursting with students. A cacophony of voices and raucous laughter resounded. Bittu took one look at the manic scene and quietly got in the queue for the serving station. Oh, God! What was I thinking? I can’t do this. No, no. Just look at them. They won’t listen to a word I say.
What do I do now? God! The line moved at turtle speed with Bittu chewing on his lower lip till… Oh, I know. If I warn the serving boy then he can warn each student as they come up to take food. Yes, yes…That’s it. Wow! I’m a genius. Hah, take that you morons, my so-called ’bestest friends’. Call me an idiot all you like. Pretty soon I’ll be famous. You’ll all come to thank me. See how I treat you then. Hah!
Bittu did try his best to warn the serving boy, but to his dismay, the boy turned out to be the latest recruit of Mr. Swami, the mess caterer.
“Enna*?” the boy said ladling some gravy into Bittu’s plate.
“Yes, yes… enough. Thank you,” replied Bittu mistaking the ‘enna’ for enough in the boy’s thick Tamilian accent. “Bhaiyya, can you help me? It’s important.”
“Huh? What? Oh aloo…no, no. I don’t want potato curry. You know Hindi?”
“NO! No potato curry.”
Aww shucks! This guy is useless. How many times do I tell him I don’t want potato curry? Such an Idiot!
That day school ended on a dour note for Bittu.
Same evening at home…
How can Papa laugh? He only said that the world is ending and still he is laughing as if nothing is going to happen?
Bittu wondered at the sounds of laughter coming from his father’s bedroom. Each time his father laughed Bittu’s angst rose till it was unbearable. He stormed into his parent’s room. His father lay supine on the bed watching a comedy show, laughing on and off.
Huh! Look at him. He is so relaxed. How can he be so happy? How can he laugh when he knows we are all going to die? Does he want me to die?
Deeply anguished by both his thoughts and his roiling emotions, Bittu’s eyes misted. A lone tear streaked down. Another one accompanied and soon he was crying.
His father turned to look at him. “Oye Bittu, what’s wrong. Come here…”
Bittu sobbed, “Papa we are all going to die, aren’t we?”
“What? What crap! Where did you hear such a stupid thing?” incredulous, his father asked.
Snot bubbles frothing at his nostrils, Bittu wailed, “Waaah…I don’t want to die…”
“Shut up Bittu. Stop crying. No one is dying.”
Bittu shut up immediately, sniffling into the sleeve of his shirt. Papa’s temper was legendary. No use poking that bear.
“Now tell me, what’s wrong? Who told you the world is ending?”
“You,” whispered Bittu.
“Me? When? I never said that.”
“Yes, you did. Yesterday afternoon you said to mummy. I heard you,” Bittu replied, looking up to meet his father’s eyes.
Puzzled his father racked his brain. When did I say this?
“Oye duffer! If only you spent half as much time studying as you do eavesdropping,” groaned his father, rolling his eyes. “I was telling mummy the storyline of the movie I was watching – 120 days till impact.”
“But…but… you were so… upset.”
“Yes, because I told mummy the story thrice but nothing penetrates her thick skull. I was irritated.”
“So…so, no steroid is going to kill us?” A glimmer of hope shone in Bittu’s eyes.
In complete bafflement, his father looked at him. “Steroid? How will a …” Then comprehension dawned. “Oye, do you mean asteroid?”
“Err, maybe…I mean…I don’t know…you said…”
His father burst out laughing. He laughed for a good minute hugging his son before he explained everything. A relieved Bittu slept well that night.
Meanwhile, still massaging her thigh and eavesdropping on this conversation Dadi muttered to herself– if only Joginder had married the girl…
O teri – an exclamation in Punjabi
Oye – hey
Sardar – a term of endearment used for a Sikh
gup-shup – ‘idle chit chat’ or ‘gossip’ in hindi
Puttar – ‘son’ in Punjabi
Hain – an exclamation of wonderment in Hindi
Bhaiyya – brother
Enna – ‘what’ in Tamil
Theriyadhu – ‘don’t know’ in Tamil
ISRO – Indian space research organization
Sarveshwari Sai Krishna – Thank you for all your help with Tamil language.
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