Monday, June 19, 2017

The Counting Problem

Father straight out told me he could neither take me on his bike nor give me his bike. He couldn't apply for leave as his higher officials were visiting the office and his presence was required. I just needed to go to my aunt's house which is in a nearby town, eighteen kilometers away from my home. My amma and father would join me there by the evening. And I usually don't insist for a bike, but it was different today, the road transport buses were not running as their employees were on a strike. I've got no other option left but to take an auto-rickshaw, which I always avoided as advised by my father.

It is still early in the morning on a winter day. Though there is plenty of light, of lazy grayish blue hue, the sun was still hiding beside the clouds. The warmth in the air felt was not bad, it was rather a bit welcoming. It might presently get hot once the sun is out. There was a cool, playful wind in the air, picking up dust and garbage off the road and sending them into small swirling eddies. My thin college tee was fluttering pleasantly around my arms and belly. I was thankful for my rather big eye-glasses which protected me from the dusty wind, which had everyone squinting and rubbing their eyes.  

I walked to the main road and sat in an auto-rickshaw, whose driver was standing beside it and shouting Kakinada, Kakinada, the town to which this auto would go. He asked me to put the bag in the front, near his seat so that it wouldn't occupy too much space on the seat. I obliged and went back and sat in the corner of the back seat. Being the first I knew I had to endure a long wait for it to get filled, which is when the driver would start it. Its engine was still on and so was the immodest loud speaker playing the latest hits. The speaker was so bad that it even made melodies sound like a screech owl choking. I requested the driver to shut that off. He gave me a look of incredulity, shut the loud speaker off and set off again shouting Kakinada, Kakinada.  

There is a wooden plank in front of me that can seat children and lanky adults. Auto drivers used this plank to maximize the number of passengers. And autos were more crowded than ever owing to the strike by the bus drivers. I closed my eyes, with my chin in my hands and was just listening to the wind moaning. The wind was reminding me of lonely hilltops, and a picture of hills and mountains was projected into the front of my mind. And that invariably brought to me memories of her.

I wasn't sure how long I waited thus. I was aware of the auto filling up, by the sounds of people. Then I felt two shadows pass before my lidded eyes and I realized someone occupied the plank in front of me. Suddenly there was a sweetish smell of rich coconut oil in the air. I opened my eyes and saw two little giggling girls sitting on the plank in front of me, facing me, opposite to the direction of the travel. They were looking at the person beside me evidently their father. They sat there in similar bright little skirts, hair parted at the center and two pigtails hanging at the side of their heads. The tinier one, who I was sure didn't even start school yet, was like a miniature of her sister. One would think they were twins if not for the difference in their sizes.  

As the auto started their father put a finger to his lips signifying that they are not to make noise and the two girls solemnly shook their little heads in affirmation, their pigtails, which looked like handles to their heads, swinging along with them. I realized I had left my earphones in the bag which was near the driver, in the auto that threatened to tilt owing to the crowd in it. He has really stuffed a lot of people today. And hardly anyone dared to complain as the buses were not running.  I cursed myself for leaving my earphones in the bag. Now I had to suffer for my mistake, enduring the noise and snores of the fellow passengers.

It didn't take long before the little girls to forget their promise as they started sincerely quarreling about something. I leaned a little forward to catch what they were saying to understand their argument better. The elder one said, shaking her head, "I have drunk the milk today and also I never make a racket, so Booch won't take me, he would only take you." For which the tiny one was responding by shaking her head vigorously from side to side, saying, "No, of course not".

I laughed a little. I remember my own experiences of the Booch. Every kid has heard about it, although no one has ever seen one. Booch is a very scary thing. Adults always scare the kids telling them about the Booch. Thinking back Booch seems to be a self-appointed vigilante since its functions are to take away kids who didn't listen to their parents. Booch's presence was invoked mostly during the meal times, whenever kids threw a tantrum and refused to take food parents would say, "You won't take food? Fine, Booch will come and take you away. If that's what you want your wish". It was also invoked whenever kids delayed going to bed, sat stubbornly in front of the TV, made hubbub etc. Its name was a common presence among the households with kids. I always wondered how can one Booch take care of all the kids, or are they more Boochs? Maybe there was an army of Boochs. Who made them and what did they look like? And I wondered and waited every day if they have taken away Mounika, a girl of my age living next door when I was a kid. She always used to pinch me whenever the elders weren't watching us. I always complained to anyone who would listen, "Mouni pinched me, Mouni pinched me," in my half constructed sentences, but it just made the elders laugh.

I came back to the present as I saw the bigger one of the little girls counting something on her fingers, touch each finger on her left hand in turn with her right index finger as a check mark. She was counting all the wrongs the tiny one committed, the reasons why Booch would take her instead of her. This counting fascinated the tiny one. She shouted excitedly, "I'll count, I'll count," for she apparently learned how to count recently and was itching it show off her new skill. But all at once she looked like she was on the verge of tears. Her eyes became watery and she turned to face her father who was taking a small nap. She prodded him with her finger and told him that she had nothing to count. Her eyes were becoming wetter by the minute. Sensing the danger her father said, "Why don't you count all the vehicles. Make a count of all those which are going in the opposite direction. And I'll ask you when we reach Kakinada," after which he resumed his nap.

The task brightened both the girls immensely and they took to it immediately, saying in tandem —  waaaaane, twooooo, thirrriiii  — in loud drawling voices. They came to around sixty when they suddenly stopped having hit a roadblock. There was a herd of water buffaloes and their calves sauntering on the road, a small kid with a cane in his hand riding the one at the end of the herd. The little girls were at their wit ends if they would count as vehicles or not.  After much debate, they decided they have to count those as well, as there was someone riding them.

"But he was only riding one of it, so we just count it as one," said the tinier one. The elder one shook her head resolutely, giving her gyaan, "No, we have counted empty cars beside roads, these are kind of the same." The tinier one marveled at the genius of the elder girl and they decided to increase the count by eight, the number in the herd.

"What was the count before it," asked the elder one, having forgotten the tally.

"Hundred, I like hundred," said gladly, palpably proud of remembering and saying 'hundred'.

"We can't just make up the tally," she said dejectedly.

"Fifty-seven," I said in a small voice with a smile in my eyes. And they resumed the counting from fifty-seven. It didn't bother them that a lot of vehicles passed us while they were arguing. They just kept on counting. "Haandread," they finished cheerfully. More vehicles passed, but they didn't continue. I thought they were done with the game and got bored of it. But I was wrong. The tinier one asked in a birdlike voice, "Sister, what comes after hundred?" "I don't know," said her sister crestfallen.

They looked each other in the eyes and without any warning they began loud cries, tears pouring down their faces. Their father woke up and looked at me to see if I scared them or something, but quickly realized that wasn't the case, and asked them what was the matter. After sobbing a little more the little one paused to answer in breaking voice, "We used up all the numbers, we haven't got any left, sorry father, please don't give me to the Booch."

Their father didn't understand the proceedings while I broke into fits of ignominious laughter.


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