Ananya sat pensive on her verandah. It was afternoon. She was expecting her friends to come out of their houses soon. Meanwhile, Harshul was arguing loudly with his elder sister. Ananya could hear her voice, raised in warning from time to time: Harshul!
Ananya frawned. She knew Harshul would soon leave the house in a huff. But he would bring his sour mood with him to play.
Ashu was feeding his little sister. That was how he helped his mother. Ashu loved to eat a lot. And he was glad that his one year old sister hung on to his knees and greedily accepted all that he gave her to eat. It was the best sign of their mutual bond.
From the window, he could see Ananya sitting alone on the red chair. He too became impatient to go out.
Amandeep and Paramjeet were sitting at their plush dining table, tablemat and napkin decked. They dared not leave their plates half full. Their grandfather sat at the head of the table, waiting for them to finish lunch. Amandeep looked out of the window every time he heard: Harshul!
Seven year old Gaurav picked up his racquets and shuttle cock and called out to Dhruva who was still upstairs fidgeting with his clothes. Dhruva was the youngest of them all. Gaurav was as old as Ananya. Ashu and Paramjeet were a year older while Harshul and Amandeep were the eldest among the children.
Sumi lived a little way off and was often late in joining them in the games. She usually waded in and stood watching, laughing at their antics and sometimes, if invited, played a small part. When she joined them, Ananya felt very warm for she was the only other girl in the group.
As his sister shouted ‘Harshul’ the nth time, he banged the door close and came out into the street. Through the hedges, he could see Ananya sitting with her chin on her open palm, utterly lonesome. He smiled to himself. Then swinging the iron gate wide open, he entered the lawn.
Harshul: Where’s Ashu and the others?
Ananya shook her head and pouted. He laughed out loud. Then he ran towards Ashu’s gate. Ashu had seen Harshul, so he left his sister alone and ran out of his home to join him.
Ashu: Oh no! I forgot to pick my racquets.
Amandeep and Paramjeet washed their hands and took their racquets and shuttle cock along, saying bye to their mother as they came out of their house. They looked towards Gaurav’s house and saw him climbing down the stairs with Dhruva at his heels.
Ananya quickly ran indoors and brought out her racquets and a worn-out shuttle cock. She handed it to Harshul and laughed. He tossed it on the other side of the hedge and laughed. He looked at Gaurav hoping that his shuttle cock would be in good condition.
Gaurav and Dhruva went towards the badminton ground adjacent to their house. Harshul hollered:
Gaurav! Come here. We are trying to play a new game.
Hearing this, Amandeep went to call Gaurav once more, politely. He had full faith that the new game which Harshul was planning would be real fun.
All the children were now gathered in the front lawn of Ananya’s house.
Paramjeet: What’s the plan today?
Harshul: Let’s go for a trial. I’m judge. We shall try Gaurav.
Gaurav: Why me? Take Ashu.
Ashu: I’ll be the lawyer.
Harshul quickly took the chair and said: Order, order! Pizza order!
Everyone laughed. Ananya said: Where will I sit?
Ashu: Dhruva, you go and stand in that corner. You are guilty. I am the lawyer. The others are all witnesses; I will call one by one. Let’s get some more chairs.
And he ran to his own verandah, lifted a set of four plastic chairs and placed them in a semi-circle on the lawn facing the red chair on the verandah on which Harshul sat.
Harshul: Bring the convict.
Ashu: Here, my lord!
Harshul: What is he guilty of?
Ashu: He hits everyone on the street with his bicycle.
Harshul: Hmm. Bring the witnesses.
Paramjeet: Yesterday, as I was coming out of my gate, Dhruva banged into it. The cycle fell on the ground and Dhruva started howling loudly.
Ashu: See, my lord, Dhruva is a nuisance in the neighbourhood. I plead that you give him the strictest possible punishment. Now I would like to invite my next witness Amandeep.
Amandeep: My lord, yesterday, when I was going on my cycle, Dhruva came from the front and ran straight into me. Both of us fell down. He does not know cycling.
Ashu: You see, my lord, Dhruva does not know cycling. I would request you to order that his cycle may be taken away and thrown into the junkyard.
Sumi came along. She stood watching the game. Ashu saw her and said:
Here’s my third witness. Sumi, you have to tell the judge how Dhruva hit you the other day.
Sumi: My lord, Dhruva does not know cycling. He fell on the ground the other day and he has been bumping into everyone.
Harshul: Hmm. Did he hit you with his cycle?
Sumi started laughing uncontrollably as she made up a scene of Dhruva toppling all over her in the middle of the road and the cycle turning out of shape. All the children laughed, including the judge.
Harshul: Order, order! Pizza order!
Still laughing, Ashu said: My lord, I implore you to deal life imprisonment to Dhruva! He is unsafe for the society if set free.
Suddenly Dhruva let out a loud yawn.
Harshul: This is contempt of court. You shall be punished for this.
Ashu: Let’s try him for murder.
All the others said, yes, yes. Gaurav left the group and tried to play badminton on his own. Ananya saw him go and said: Gaurav is going away.
Ashu: Let him go. We have Dhruva at least.
Dhruva squirmed. He was terribly bored. He held his head in his hands and waited.
Ashu: My lord, for this case I would like to invite Amandeep as witness.
Harshul: May Amandeep be brought to the witness box!
Everyone laughed at Harshul. He stood up laughing as he repeated: May Amandeep be brought to the witness box! Order, order! Pizza order! I say, where’s my hammer?
Amandeep: My lord, my whole family has been murdered, right in front of my eyes.
Ashu: See, my lord, he murdered everyone in front of his eyes.
Ananya: Then why is he alive? Hmm?
Amandeep: I was away to the market when he murdered everyone in my family.
Harshul: Hmm. Then how did you know that it was him?
Ashu: Yes, how did you know that it was him?
Amandeep: When I returned, all the members of my family were soaked in blood and he was standing there.
Ananya: He had a gun in his hand.
Ashu: I would like to call Ananya as witness.
Ananya: He had a gun in his hand and he was just sneaking away. I saw him from my window.
At that moment Gaurav came back to watch the game. He said:
Don’t you ever do anything wrong, Ashu? You are always harassing the little boy. Dhruva, come along. We are not playing with him.
Ashu: Why are you blaming me? It was Harshul’s idea. Ask him.
Harshul: Order, order! Please be seated. The trial is not over. We cannot set the accused free. Gaurav, do be off on your own. Let us play.
Ashu: Where was I? O yes, the accused is guilty of murdering the entire family of Amandeep. I request your honour to deal him capital punishment. To be hanged until death.
Harshul: Yes, yes. That’s right. A murderer cannot be allowed to live. He is to be hanged. Bring a rope, guys!
Ashu ran over to his house and searched for a rope. They all waited. Dhruva stood up. He was ready to be hanged. He understood that it meant the end of the game. Ananya came up to his side and asked politely:
Dhruva, do you have anything to say in your defense?
Harshul laughed: Oho, I simply forgot that. Well, the verdict has been passed. Let order prevail. No more questions please.
Gaurav went home. He returned with his mother. Ashu appeared with a nylon rope.
Ashu: Here. I found this. Dhruva, step here.
Gaurav’s mother: What’s going on?
Harshul: Aunty, we are playing a game where Dhruva is accused of murder. Nothing serious. Gaurav does not understand.
Gaurav’s mother: I’m watching you. What are you doing? Be careful! Give me the rope.
She snatched the nylon rope from Ashu’s hand and went back to her house. Gaurav and Dhruva followed her and turned towards the badminton ground. Sumi got up from her chair and said:
Let’s play something else.
Ananya: Let’s try Ashu. He can be tried for harassing Dhruva.
Harshul: Yes, yes. Why not! Ashu, go to the corner. You are accused of harassing Dhruva.
Ashu: Why me? You are the one who started this game. You should be guilty.
Ananya: Ok. I am judge this time.
Harshul: Why you?
Ananya: Because it’s my house and it’s my chair.
Harshul: O, well. Then let’s leave her house.
Harshul walked up to the gate and turned round to see if the others followed. No one else had moved. Then Sumi walked over to him and said:
I am going home. It’s late.
Ashu: I am also going home.
Amandeep and Paramjeet walked out of the gate with Harshul and talked slowly about how to spend the rest of the evening.
Ananya furiously said: How wicked you boys are! I will never play with you!
Ananya was left standing in front of the red chair. When everyone was gone, she picked up her racquet and went over to the badminton ground. She started playing with Dhruva and Gaurav.
When it was quite dark, Ananya returned home. She sat at her study desk, sipping milk. In about fifteen minutes, Ashu, Harshul, Amandeep and Paramjeet burst into her house extremely agitated. Ashu was in tears. He started speaking in between sobs:
Ananya, tell me, have I ever harassed anyone? We were just playing! But they complained to my dad. Why only me? And why do I have to suffer punishment?! Dad did not wait; he just slapped me. For the 50th time this has happened. It is always me. I get scolded for everyone! He asked me to say sorry.
Harshul: Ananya, we are all sorry. We did not mean any harm. If Ashu were not the prosecutor, who could act like him instead? They are such dumb boys! I hate them! I feel like wringing their neck!
Ananya: You boys victimized them; that’s the thing.
Ashu: No, Ananya, no!
Ananya: Ok. Now that you are sorry, it’s ok. Go home.
Ashu: Tomorrow, Ananya, will you play with us again?
Harshul: Please Ananya, please don’t take our game to heart. It’s only for fun! Tomorrow, you be the judge and try us.
Ananya was delighted. She remained seated and said with emphasis: Tomorrow, everyone will be tried one by one. And I will give Dhruva an opportunity to be witness. Ashu, don’t cry. You are not a baby. Go home. Go home everybody.
Dr. Anuradha Bhattacharyya is the author of the novel One Word (2016) that has won the prestigious Best Book of the year 2016, awarded by Chandigarh Sahitya Akademi. She has published 3 books of poetry, 2 novels, 2 academic books and has been featured in various international poetry magazines and anthologies. She is also an awarded short story writer. She is Associate Professor of English in a government college in Chandigarh.