Tony dribbled the ball on the grassy lawn outside his cottage. The bright sun ?showed no mercy as it smiled cheerfully from the pale blue sky. Few young wisps of cloud cavorted along with the garrulous wind unmindful of the hot sun. A light breeze blew from the sea and it cooled him a bit. His cottage was perhaps the most beautiful on this side of the village. It was perched on a cliff overlooking the sea. It fascinated Tony to sea change different shades of blue as the sun moved across the horizon. He liked it best early in the morning when the sea was calm and serene and the waters placid. The sea wore a pale blue colour and that’s the time he liked to go for a swim. Sometimes he would spot a shoal of friendly dolphins playing far away. He was always fascinated with their antics.
The cottage itself was lovingly built by his father and he too was fascinated by the sea. After all, Tony’s father was the Deputy Commandant of the Western Naval Command based in Goa. He had looked high and low for the most ideal place to build his dream cottage before finally settling for this lovely piece of land in Mapusa overlooking the sea. It was right on top of the hill which formed a natural cliff as it jutted out to the sea. Tony enjoyed listening to the sound of the waves crashing on the rocks below as he lay to sleep every night. All through the night the sea would sing him lullabies. He grew up listening to the sea and could actually tell her different moods by the way she lashed against the rocks. Sometimes she would be very angry and roar the whole night, till the next day morning when the mighty wind blew and calmed her down. The sea and the wind would play games with each other and he loved their pranks. Growing up alone without friends in the neighbourhood had its drawbacks. How he wished he had friends around to play like other children in his school.
Their cottage was big with a huge garden in the front. A small pond adorned the centre of the lawn. He loved the name board hung outside the cottage; one that ?said in bold letters “The Braganzas live here”. His mother was very conscientious of the way the garden was maintained. She would painstakingly ensure that it was kept well manicured because of visiting dignitaries and high profile parties they hosted. Her husband was a senior officer in the Navy which meant lot of socialising. But Tony was always lonely in these adult parties as they only talked about serious stuff. Once in a while an officer would drop by who had children his age and then it would be fun.
His mother was a great cook and a great hostess too which more than made up for his father’s reticent nature. He was a man of few words, carefully choosing them. His mother was the more gregarious type, always smiling and cheerful. She actively participated in the Sunday mass and the charities of the church. But once in a while he would secretly catch his mother in a sombre mood staring vacantly into the sea. Those times Tony would feel uneasy and wished his father was back home early. He had once overheard them talking in hushed tones about a girl, probably his unborn sister and then he would hear his mother sob. The next morning he observed her face was swollen but he didn’t dare ask her. At eleven he was old enough to understand such things. Perhaps being a lonely child also helps one to mature faster.
Suddenly the ball slipped out his hand and rolled forward and under the gate. Tony opened the gate to get his ball and saw him. A boy of his age, perhaps older, was standing outside the gate. Tony was taken aback. He didn’t see or hear the boy come. The boy stepped forward and picked up the ball, held it out to Tony and smiled. There was something mysterious about the boy. His eyes were piercing and it shone. He had never seen him before and didn’t seem to be from the neighbourhood. There was something about the boy that was striking. Tony smiled back cautiously and took the ball. Gauging from his dress, Tony inferred the boy to be from the fisher village down below. He wore faded shorts which clearly were too big for him. Perhaps it was a ?hand over’ from a big brother. His shirt was tattered and stitched at places. He noticed two of the buttons missing. Tony thought for a moment, his mother would never allow him to step out wearing a shirt with missing buttons. She was strict in matters of dressing and conduct. The boy seemed to read Tony’s mind and stepped back, a hand trying to cover the missing button hole. He was still smiling.
“Hi my name is Tony. Tony Braganza. I live here.” Tony said and smiled. It seemed to put the boy at ease.
“I am Bhanu.” The boy said, shyly.
“I haven’t seen you before. Are you new here?” enquired Tony.
The boy was hesitant and took another step back. He seemed to be weighing his options before answering.
“I live over there” he answered pointing to a small rundown shack at the bottom of the hillock. It was about a mile down from where they stood. The shack was dilapidated and stood little away from the village. Strange thought Tony, it didn’t appear to be inhabited. Few times when he cycled past the shack it always wore a deserted look. On a couple of occasions in the night he had seen light flickering through the cracks in the wooden hut. But the boy, he was sure; had never seen him around.
?“What do you do Bhanu? I have never seen you around.” prodded Tony.
Bhanu again hesitated, unsure. “But I know you. I have seen you zip past in the car. You are the bada saab’s son?”
Tony felt good about the introduction. So Bhanu knew who his father was. He smiled again at the boy.
“Which school do you go to?” Tony was now getting curious. Slowly Bhanu looked down and nodded negatively. ?
“I can’t afford to” pat came the reply. Tony noticed certain sadness in his voice that he couldn’t fathom. Perhaps he belonged to the fishermen community and like most of the kids his age, helped their menfolk in fishing. There was still something strange about the boy, and then he noticed it. The boy had an extra toe on his left foot. It gave a strange web like appearance. Bhanu caught him observing his foot and quickly moved it behind. ?
“I am evil born, says everybody in my village. My mother died while giving birth to me. I don’t have friends in the village and everyone makes fun of my foot.”
Tony felt a pang of guilt, maybe he shouldn’t have stared at his foot. Wanting to quickly change the topic he asked “So tell me about your family and what do you do?”
Bhanu again looked at him. No one had ever asked him these questions. No one ever bothered to find out about him or his family. He felt nice, something he had never experienced before. As if on a cue he blurted.
“My father is a fisherman but he doesn’t own a boat. He works for the big Seth and goes out to sea in Seth’s boat. He loves me a lot but is scared of my step mother. She is a wonderful cook and she has a small bakery in the village. She makes the best mawa cake in the whole world. I sometimes get to eat the crumbs on the baking tray. It’s simply out of this world.”
He stopped to salivate remembering the aroma wafting through the small bakery kitchen. Tony felt uneasy; this wasn’t exactly what he had hoped to hear. He was just being nice and had asked a polite question. Bhanu continued
“But I think she loves her two children more than me. At times she keeps me hungry and makes me do all the house hold chores. I would love to go to the village school and it’s free too but my mother says we can’t afford it. My father wants me to study and get a job. He doesn’t want me to be a fisherman like him. I love the sea and want to grow up to be the best fisherman in the whole village. I sometimes feel sorry for him; he is getting old and soon won’t be able to go out in to the sea. But I think my mother forces him to. ?I wish my real mother was alive. ”
Bhanu’s eyes brimmed as he paused. Tony was becoming uneasy with all what the boy was talking. There was something strange about the boy that made him uncomfortable. Something eerie, perhaps.
And then in a faint voice continued “I haven’t eaten since yesterday”
Tony felt jolted by what he heard. He had heard some terrible stories about stepmothers but how can anyone be so cruel to a small boy?
“Come with me, I am sure my mother can give you something to eat” said Tony extending his hand. Bhanu hesitated; he has never been spoken to so kindly. The experience confused him, and he was unsure on how to react.
Bhanu looked directly into the boy’s eyes. He seemed sincere and warm but he still wasn’t sure about the big memsaab. He didn’t move; he was slowly taking in the place and the surrounding. His eyes roved around the garden and felt intimidated by its opulence. Tony definitely seemed belong to here but he; he felt uneasy and out of place.
Just then the kitchen door opened and Mrs. Braganza stepped out. She had the kindest brown eyes Bhanu had ever seen. She looked at him and smiled. He noticed that she had a saintly look about her and exuded warmth. She would not scold him, his inner voice guided him. But it was perhaps not proper to hang around in ?Bade Saab’s’ garden, thought Bhanu, after all he didn’t belong here. In fact he didn’t belong anywhere. Just then Tony ran up to his mother and whispered something in her ears. Mrs. Braganza again smiled, nodded her head and went inside. She came out with a plate and beckoned to him.
Bhanu was not sure if it was proper to accept food from strangers. His hunger won over his logic and he grabbed the plate. It was a white porcelain plate, very different from the aluminium one back home and on it was heaped some chicken curry and rice. The colour of the rice matched that of the plate. He looked at the memsaab and smiled gratefully. She smiled back. She noticed there was something strange about the boy.
?“Do come as often as you want to. I always have enough food in the kitchen and you are welcome to it. ” She was starting to like the boy. She gently caressed his head. Bhanu was conscious of her touch. He had never known a mother’s affection. He had never known the gentle touch of a mother. His heart seemed to brim with a new found affection. And suddenly he felt heavy deep inside; a yearning for a mother. Every morsel on the plate was becoming difficult to swallow. He stopped and looked at her with tear brimmed eyes and she saw the childish yearning in them and a lump rose ?in her throat.
Tony stood a little apart, observing.
Bhanu hungrily ate the rest of food on the plate. The food was divine, the best he had ever tasted. Even the leftover from Peter uncle’s wedding feast last year paled in comparison, reminisced the boy. He was indeed hungry, they acceded.?
Mrs. Braganza then noticed the boy’s eyes, for they shone strangely. She was intrigued.
“You are like a son to me. Come and play with Tony as long as you want to. He is also lonely” She continued. Bhanu smiled back gratefully and nodded.
That day Tony was happy with his new found friend. Together they explored the surrounding caves and the cliff that Tony knew so well. He noticed that Bhanu seemed scared of heights and would not venture near the cliff top. As soon as they were anywhere near it, he would find reasons to move away. He would stiffen and his face would turn white. He also seemed to have an uncanny sense of knowing his way around the place that intrigued Tony. He quickly dismissed these ominous thoughts.
As dusk set in, the boys exhausted with all the running around, headed back to the cottage. Bhanu still had a spring in his steps, his foot hardly touching the ground. Tony was amazed with his vigour, almost bizarre, he thought. The Memsaab had kept some sandwiches and a jug of cool refreshing drink for the boys but she was nowhere to be seen.
Carrying the food tray to the portico at back of the cottage, the boys settled down to watch the spectacle of the crimson sun slowly drown far away in the horizon. Tony talked about exotic places he had visited while sailing with his father. He told Bhanu about fast cars and about buildings that stretched up to the sky. He told him about escalators- steps that climbed by itself, when you stood on them. Bhanu looked at him wonder eyed and in turn narrated stories about the adventures of the fisher folks. His stories had a surreal appeal.
The sky was now turning shades of grey. The birds headed homeward and an eerie silence fell. The wind stopped blowing and nothing stirred. The last rays of the fading sun created a lone shadow on the wall behind them.
Bhanu abruptly stood up quickly realising the passage of time. As the boys bid farewell, Tony noticed that the boy’s eyes still shone bright. It made him uneasy. The portico was now empty and the lone shadow remained.
On the way home Bhanu smiled for he had made a new friend and he was no longer hungry. ?On the dinner table that night, when he recounted the day’s experience, his step mother had a disapproving look.
“Don’t waste your time with those big people. They are up to no good, instead help me in the bakery” she admonished him. He decided to keep quiet about his future visits to the Braganza’s cottage not wanting to irk his step mother. His father as always kept a reserved distance away from such conversations.
Next day Bhanu woke up earlier than usual and tip toed out. He smiled as he clutched his pockets tightly. He didn’t want to wake anyone with loud chinking of the keys ? keys to the bakery shop. He was a man on mission. He had thought about it lying awake the whole night and couldn’t wait to dawn. This was the only way to do it, he was convinced. He wanted to gift his mother’s scrumptious mawa cake to Tony and the memsaab in return for all their kindness.
Bhanu picked up the mawa cake carefully balancing it on his palm and looked around for something to wrap it in. He pulled out an old newspaper from the pile and placed the cake on the centre, wrapping it carefully, lest it crumbled. The aroma of the mawa cake was intoxicating; he was tempted to break off a small piece but resisted. It was for his best friend, rather his ?bestest’ friend in the world. And he couldn’t hold himself with excitement.?
Carefully he put in a polythene bag and made his way up the hill to Tony’s house. As he neared the house, he heard a cycle bell ringing behind him. Turning around he found it was the postman chacha on his rounds. The man was pushing fifty but looked fit as an athlete, except for his slightly greying sideburns. Perhaps all the cycling around kept him fit, wondered Bhanu.
“So Bhanu where are you of to? I have never seen you this side of the village” he asked getting off the cycle. The uphill climb was proving to be a challenge even to him. Age was fast catching up; there was no denying that, he mused.
They were nearing Braganza’s cottage.
“I have come to meet my friend Tony. I have a surprise for him” Bhanu said holding up the newspaper wrapped mawa cake.
“That’s nice” replied the postman “where does he live? ? I don’t recollect any Tony around here. Maybe I will also get to meet him. What’s his house number?”
They were now in front of the Braganza cottage.
“Here, here is where my friend Tony lives” Bhanu said pointing to the front of the cottage door and froze. The house now looked different.
The postman laughed out loud.
The cottage now had an eerie look; it looked unkempt with creepers running all over the garden. The pond was covered with green slime. The plaster on the walls was cracked and paint completely peeled off.?
“Beta, this cottage has been lying vacant for the last twenty years. Ever since I took charge as a postman I have never seen anyone here. But I have heard stories in the village that a ?Bada Saab’ used to once live here with his wife and a young son. One day the son drowned in the sea and his body was never found. For days together both husband and wife would go to the cliff side and wait for their son’s return. Then one day the villagers heard gunshots, rushing in, they found them sitting on the chair in the portico, at back of the cottage staring out into the sea?.dead. They were still waiting for their son’s return. Since then the house has been lying locked. Some say it is haunted too”
The mawa cake fell from Bhanu’s hands.
The faded name plate that hung lopsided from a lone rusted nail and still read ?
“The Braganzas live here”