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|by Ramendra Kumar|
Altaf, Mohan, Deep and Joe called themselves Cheerful Chums. They were class five students of R.K.Public School and lived in Sree Maa Colony.
In one corner of the colony was a vacant piece of land. The Cheerful Chums had converted to a cricket field called it ‘Oval’. Everyday in the evening the Chums, along with a few other friends, gathered at the Oval to play cricket. The Oval was next to Mishraji’s house. Mishraji was a retired postmaster who lived with his wife.
Mishraji’s only interest in life was his garden which he had named Nandan. Mishraji’s entire day revolved around his garden. He grew flowers of every variety possible, fruit trees, shrubs, cacti and also various vegetables. His garden was his pride. If any visitor went to him and tried to strike a conversation Mishraji usually answered only in monosyllables. But if one were to ask him about his garden his entire demeanor would change. He would wax eloquence on the techniques of grafting, speak with passion on bonsai and discuss with enthusiasm the various types of cacti he had grown in his garden.
Now the Chums and Mishraji were frequently at loggerheads. When they played cricket, often the ball landed in Nandan. Sometimes it landed on a shrub or flower damaging it. Many a time when the chums went to look for it they too ended up damaging the plants. Mishraji found it extremely difficult to tolerate this and would keep cribbing.
One day he got fed up and went up to them as they were playing. “Listen young men, why don’t you pitch your wickets on this end. This way Nandan will be behind you and the ball will not land in it. My plants will be saved.”
The Chums looked at each other. “We’ll discuss among ourselves and let you know,” Altaf said not wanting to commit himself so easily.
After the game they sat down and discussed. “Not a bad idea. We can play facing the road,” said Joe.
“Don’t be silly, Joe. We’ll be facing the west, the sun will be in the batsman’s eye,” Deep said.
“Deep is right, moreover whenever I hunt for the ball in the garden I manage to flick a couple of mangoes or a guava or two which we all share. If we follow Mishra Uncle’s suggestion, we will never be able to sample guavas and mangoes again.”
After their refusal the relations between the chums and Mishraji became strained. Though he never forbade them from entering the garden, he would watch their movements like a hawk and keep grumbling under his breath.
One day Altaf, who was a pace bowler bowled a yorker. Deep who was facing stepped out and converted it to a half volley and hit it straight over long-on. It landed somewhere in Nandan. Altaf ran towards the garden and opening the door entered it. Mishraji, clad in a shirt which was two sizes too big for him and dirty brown pajamas, was as usual pottering in the garden.
He looked up hearing the sound of the gate opening. Seeing Altaf enter he scowled.
Altaf searched the entire garden but couldn’t find the ball. “Mishra Uncle have you seen our cricket ball?”
“No I haven’t. I have got better things to do than wait for the cricket ball to land in my garden and make a mess of it.”
“But you couldn’t have missed it. It must have landed here.”
“Then look for it, am I stopping you?”
Soon the rest of the chums joined Altaf and they searched and searched. Altaf was getting desperate. The ball was brand new. His father had gifted to him just yesterday, on his birthday. He would be furious. Apart from the fear of his father’s anger, Altaf’s disappointment at losing such a lovely ball was weighing him down. Whenever he had held it in his hand and gripped it to bowl an inswinger, he had imagined himself to be no less a pace bowler than Kapil Dev.
After half an hour of fruitless hunting, which had been punctuated by continuous warnings by Mishraji to ‘be careful’, ‘watch your step’, ‘be cautious’ they gave up.
As they trudged back Altaf said clenching his teeth, “That old fellow had hidden it somewhere, I am sure.”
“Why would he do that?” asked Mohan.
“To take spite on us. Because we didn’t accept his suggestion to face the other side and play.”
“I don’t think,” Mohan said. “He might crib but he is not a mean sort.”
“If you are so sure then tell me where did the ball disappear. The earth chewed it up or did the sky swallow it?”
Mohan and the rest remained silent, gloomily staring into space.
“What do you mean?”
“I have come to know that he is going with his wife to Calcutta for a few days?”
“The house will be locked. At night we can quietly get in and mess up his garden.”
The other three looked at him startled.
“Mess up his garden? But isn’t it too harsh a punishment even if you are convinced that he stole our ball?”
“No I don’t think. It will serve him right. I got the cricket ball from my father after pleading with him for six months. And the very second day the old man steals it just to take spite on us. Isn’t that the height of meanness?”
“But I wouldn’t like to destroy plants. I am the president of our school’s Eco Club. I think it is a sin killing plants.” Mohan said.
“Okay, we’ll not touch the plants. We’ll just mess up the fancy patterns and exotic designs he has made with bricks and rocks and stones.”
The next evening at around nine, Altaf, Deep, Joe and a rather reluctant Mohan entered the garden. The house was pitch dark. Altaf set about his task and the others followed. They were carrying two small spades and two iron rods with them. Within twenty minutes they had completed their job. The next ten minutes they stole all mangoes they could snatch and disappeared.
The next day was a Sunday. Altaf hurried up to the cricket ground and stood near the edge as if looking for something. He could hear Mishraji’s voice. “Everything, everything is gone. For six months I slogged to get Nandan to this shape and all my efforts have been destroyed.”
“Who could have done this ?” It was his wife’s voice.
“I can’t think of anybody who could be this cruel. You know, my entire effort was aimed at winning a prize in the Annual Horticulture Competition conducted by the Rotary Club. The competition comprises various categories and this year, everyone said, Nandan would bag the trophy for the ‘Best Layout’. Apart from the prestige, the prize carries a cash award of Rs.1000. And this money is also important for me.”
“Why? You want to spend in buying a new garden shower and some implements you were telling me about?”
“No, all those can wait. You know these boys who play cricket in the field outside?”
“Of course, you are always having arguments with them.”
“Not arguments, only banter. I am actually quite fond of them. They remind me of the days when I was as enthusiastic a player as they are.”
“But where do they figure in all this?”
“The other day I happened to overhear them talking. They were saying that after all this match-fixing business they were losing interest in cricket and were planning to start playing some other sport. The fellow called Deep suggested Badminton would be a good idea. The others agreed. But they didn’t have money for the rackets, shuttle and net. This set me thinking. I went to a sports shop and found out the current rates for 4 rackets, a half-a-dozen shuttle cocks, net etc. It will be around nine hundred rupees. I thought if I win the competition I’ll present them an entire set. They will get a new game to play with and my garden too would be safer. But now all my plans have been destroyed.”
“When is this competition? Is it not possible to repair the damage? After all the plants have been left untouched.”
“The competition is exactly six weeks from now. I alone will not be able to do anything. I’ll need a lot of assistance and where am I going to get that? And even then the original beauty of the garden can never be got back.”
Altaf heard everything in silence. He had a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.
Half an hour later he was telling his friends the whole story.
“My God ! What do we do now?” Deep asked his face ashen.
“There is only one thing to be done. We have to go and confess,” Altaf said.
“Confess? How can we do that. I will never be able to face Mishra Uncle.”
“If no one comes, I’ll go alone.” Altaf said quietly.
“No, no we’ll all come.” Mohan said, nudging Joe who slowly nodded.
“And one more thing. We have to help him get the garden back in shape,” Altaf said.
“B..but what can we do ?” Joe asked.
“Under his guidance I think we’ll be able to do our best. Any way do we have a choice? We have to help him.” Mohan said.
“Mohan is right. Everyday after school instead of playing cricket we’ll spend time in Mishra Uncle’s garden trying to undo the damage.”
Mishraji heard them in silence. He looked at the Cheerful Chums who looked anything but cheerful as they stood in front of him hanging their heads in shame.
“I don’t know what to say or do. On one hand I feel like giving you all some good old fashioned spanking. On the other I have to admire you for having the guts to come and confess. Okay, I’ve decided to forgive you. Now run along before I change my mind and whack you.”
“No, Uncle. We are not going to run away. We have decided we’ll help you rebuild the garden . I heard you tell you can try to undo the damage if you get some help. We’ll do whatever you say,” Altaf said.
“Yes, Uncle. Please give us a chance. We want you to win the award - not for the badminton set but because you really deserve it.”
Mishraji thought for some time and then said, “Okay, I like your attitude. I can’t say no. But remember, this task will be far tougher than playing cricket.”
“We are ready,” they chorused happily.
And so operation rebuild started. It was back-breaking work. But the Chums didn’t give up. In fact after a week or so Mishraji found that the youngsters were actually adding value. Some of their suggestions were proving quite useful.
Mohan had a terrific collection of rocks which he had collected over the years. He presented them to Mishraji. Joe added his collection of shells which he had got from the beaches of Goa where his grandpa lived. Deep’s father was an Assistant Librarian in the City Central Library. From him Deep managed to get a few books and magazines on gardening which proved very useful.
Six weeks later the result of the Garden Layout Competition was announced. Mishraji had given up hope. Even though the garden looked wonderful he was not expecting more than a consolation prize. He had even refused to go to the prize-giving function.
He was sitting at home tending to a cactus which he had planted a day before when he heard a shout. He looked up. It was Altaf. He was holding a huge cup in his hand. Behind him were Deep, Mohan and Joe, their faces beaming.
“You did it Uncle, you did it,” Altaf came rushing.
Mishraji got up. “Not I, we did it my, young friends.” he said hugging them one by one.
Image under license with Gettyimages.com
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