Updated: November 14, 2021 12:12:28 pm
Haroon’s feet dangle from the roof of an abandoned building. There seems to be a decade of dust settled around the clock placed by his side. Tick-tock-tick.
“Ridiculous.” He slouches, placing a paper and well-chewed pencil by his side, and addresses the tabby cat sitting on the parapet, “This exam paper!”
The cat curls his tail, giving undivided attention to the cah-cah of a crow.
“What more, I have to solve it with an imaginary friend they’ll pair me with. We have to agree on all the answers to pass the exam. Absurd!”
“Else we will remain forever 14.” A girl in a rustling red-black skirt walks towards him on the roof, carrying a cane basket.
“Ah… there comes my imaginary friend. I wish you had remained imaginary.” Haroon looks at her bangles disapprovingly.
She seats herself next to him, placing her basket on the side. A whiff of hing tickles Haroon’s nostrils.
“What are you, dal tadka?” Haroon wriggles his nose.
“I’m Morya. Are we done with the niceties? We have 30 minutes exactly.” The girl has three black dots on her chin.
“Hah! You were assigned to Wretched Rachna, too? Thirty minutes egjactly! Won’t take that long to solve three stupid questions.”
“They say we have to tread on the same path now on, so we’ve to be on the same page. Literally.” Morya’s skirt swirls around her ankles with a warm gust of wind.
“What-ever. Here we go. Question one. A story character you love.” Haroon smirks. “Who else but Huck Finn!”
Morya shrugs, fingering her bangles. “I like Maroo of Dhola-Maroo. You know, the princess of Poogal.”
“Hahaha… Maroo the Poo-gal! No, I don’t know the gal.”
“You’ll like her when you know her.” Morya fingers a cheap pendant with a snapshot of a grim couple. Her folks, undoubtedly.
“What about Willy Wonka?” asks Haroon. “If you love chocolate, he really is the GOAT!”
“My goat is Gulabo.”
“Yaar, it means Greatest of All Time! Are you from Pluto?”
Haroon rolls his eyes. “Momsie took us on a drab palace holiday there when I so wanted to go see the Northern Lights. That’s the coolest.”
“I like The Wishing Tree.”
“The character. It stands alone in a desert and grants all wishes. See, you need character to do that.” She winks.
“I can’t even. Listen, 15 minutes are over and we haven’t solved one question! You know it’s… what my dad calls pivotal… to pass this exam.”
Morya, cool as a cucumber, scratches her head. “Chacha Choudhary?”
“Ah… the goody-two-shoes.” Haroon smiles. “Not him, but I like Saboo. Wonder why he doesn’t have a girlfriend.”
“I wish I was his girlfriend.”
“Yaaassss!” Haroon scribbles “Saboo” in front of Q1 with a touch of triumph.
“Q2,” reads Morya, “The sound you love.”
“Dadaji’s fart! It sounds like a machine gun!” Haroon rolls up double with laughter. “And you?”
“My Dosa’s hissing.”
“And that is…”
Morya opens the lid of the basket. There is a soft sound, like the snip of a scissor, and Haroon falls back on the cracked roof. He squirms backwards, grazing his bums.
“My dad would say this is an outrage!”
“Shhh… Dosa is napping.” Morya puts the lid back with the cobra curled up inside.
“I have an imaginary friend who has a d-d-deadly dosa?”
“We are Kalbeliya nomads. We grow up with snakes.”
“Isn’t there a law against it now?” Haroon gets up rubbing his backside.
“Our fathers, the saperas, don’t charm snakes anymore, but we do rescue them from homes. Collect their venom and sell it for making antivenin. We love and worship snakes, carry their makeshift temples. They are our gods. And we are their priests.”
“All noble sentiments,” Haroon is shaking as the clock ticks away. “But we have five minutes left to solve two major life questions.
“Rain.” Morya is unflappable. “Like the sound of rain?”
Haroon wipes away spit bubbles. “I-I
He walks towards her and halts. Morya pushes the basket away. He sits down
tentatively, his backside stinging, and
scribbles the answer.
“Three minutes to go,” says Morya. “What is the one thing that’ll never change?”
“But EVERYTHING has changed!” he barks and wipes away a tear threatening
“There must be something…,” Morya pats his hand.
Haroon thinks. Ponders. Concludes. “I thought I’d landed an awful imaginary friend, but… you are not, well, boring like many kids I know. See, things have changed in just 20 minutes. Nothing stays.”
Morya refuses to give in. “What are you remembering the most right now?”
Tick-tock-tick. Fifteen seconds to go.
“My mum and dad…”
“My Bapu and Amma…” utters Morya with a lump in her throat. “One thing that’ll never change is…”
“Their love for us!” Haroon scribbles the answer with urgent force. Paper rips. Clock stops. There’s silence. The only movement on the rooftop is the scornful cat moving his tail.
And then, a rumble booms across the sky. “PASS!”
Haroon and Morya do a fist bump and slump on the parapet.
The abandoned building below their feet starts to shimmer and Morya grabs her basket. The cat stretches and is gone with a leap.
“What got you?” asks Haroon. “What is it, the snake?”
“Haha… no! A speeding car got both Dosa and me.”
“And you? Disease… road accident?”
“Nah…” says Haroon. “Fire by Diwali crackers.” He picks on his corduroys. “Will we… ever grow up?”
“Growing up is overrated.”
The building evaporates and they try to balance on the cushiony air.
“Northern Lights… you think I’ll ever
see them?” asks Haroon, his eyes damp, voice hoarse.
“Don’t know what that is. But you’ve seen a Kalbeliya with her snake. Who’s to say what you’ll see next?” She clutches the pendant with her parent’s snapshot as their world starts to disintegrate. “You know, they should’ve asked in the question paper — What is it that we’ll never get rid of?”
“What’s that?” Haroon sniffs and blows his nose.
“Exams, chhora, exams!”
Haroon and Morya throw their heads back in laughter leaving in their wake a cheerful echo of imaginary friends, a floating exam paper and a cat disinterested in ghosts.
Arefa Tehsin is a Colombo-based writer and environmentalist
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines
- The Indian Express website has been rated GREEN for its credibility and trustworthiness by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources for their journalistic standards.