We remained panting and sweating after a sprint from one end of 22nd main to another. Our throats parched and rivulets of sweat streamed down our necks and back. I held my stomach, that had cramped by the onslaught of an unforeseen run, especially in thin chappals. Divya pointed her pudgy fingers at me and laughed. “Loser…loser”, she jumped around and danced like an imp.
In blue cotton shorts and a white tank top which was at least two sizes too small for her chubby seven year old body. Her baby paunch jiggled in mirth as she rubbed my defeat in my face. My lips pursed in annoyance, Divya never wins. I was the fastest sprinter amongst all our friends and the only reason she won was because she wore running shoes and I wore bathroom slippers.
I hated Mama for leaving me every single day of our summer vacations with Divya. I checked my Barbie doll watch. It was 3:30 in the afternoon, another two hours for Mama to get back from work. Everyday, after summer camp, I would spend hours at Divya’s home. I hated Divya, she always competed with me andalways had an excuse to hit me, pull my hair and sometimes even tear at my clothes. Aunty, Divya’s mother would always laugh it off. Everyday from three to five late afternoons, we were to play on the street until Mama would come and pick me up. Lately, the heat had been unbearable. With no rains and an unforgiving sun bearing down upon our heads, it was no wonder we were parched.
My dry throat reminded me of how badly I needed to drink water. “Divya, give me some water.” I asked, trying to snatch the bright pink sipper that carried water with ice cubes. “No!” She screamed and emptied the contents of the bottle in her mouth.
“Arghhhhhh” I could kill her for not leaving any water for me. I attacked that girl and we tumbled to the ground, just as we heard an uncharacteristically high pitched giggle from somewhere far behind us.
“What are you fighting for girls?” Spoke the high pitched voice again. We turned around to see plumber uncle stand there and laugh at us, tumbling on the street.
Plumber uncle, the short puny man with stained teeth and a forever smiling face. A smile that always made me terribly uncomfortable.
He was not alone, there was another man with him. A silent man, who did not laugh. His eyes were covered in jet black sunglasses and his face was covered in a thick beard.
They were in a car, plumber uncle standing outside, leaning against the passenger door, and the stranger sitting on the passenger seat. Both of them seemed to have been taking in the scene. Me and Divya fallen on the ground, our legs twined into one another and my short white frock pulled all the way up to reveal a hello kitty underwear.
Suddenly conscious of my appearance, I stood up and pulled my frock down. Divya stood too, punched me in my stomach and spoke to plumber uncle, “She was snatching my sippy, uncle.”
“She was not giving me water!” I shouted louder than Divya and pushed her aside.
“Poor girls, playing outside in this heat. Sweating and rolling over each other like pigs.” His high pitched voice jarred my senses again and my stomach twisted in a knot at the slur as he ended his sentence.
“Why don’t you come in the car? We have a lot of cold water here and AC too.” He spoke. His wide grin, stretching almost from one ear to another.
Divya took one step forward, her face bright, and smiling. She was still thirsty and the promise of cold water in this heat was too tempting to resist. Instinctively I held her hand.
“Mama said not to talk to strangers” I whispered, loud.
“But that’s plumber uncle, he is not a stranger.” Divya said. Her hand getting stiffer by the second, as if preparing to physically wrestle me to break free.
“Yeah, Anu beta, I am plumber uncle, I am not a stranger.” he repeated.
If anything, the knots in my stomach got thicker and more in number. I looked around desperately to find another familiar face. Any aunty or uncle, any adult who would advise us on what to do.
It was awfully quiet in the street. Come six ‘O clock, 22nd main would be a circus of children playing cricket, cycling, aunties and uncles taking walks. But not now, now it was silent like a grave yard at midnight.
Only the rustle of leaves from dying spurts of wind made any sound apart from Divya’s whimpers as she tried to escape my death grip.
My eyes went past plumber uncle, the stranger and his car. Towards Divya’s house which was on the other end of the street.
“Come on, come on girls. I can’t stay here forever. Come inside the car, we will buy you ice creams.” Plumber uncle spoke. His wide smile frozen in place. His hands outstretched towards Divya, beckoning her to the shelter of his car.
Maybe I should go too. I thought.
My parched throat a stark reminder of how badly I needed to quench my thirst. And plumber uncle had what we wanted.
I lightened my grip on Divya’s hand and instantly she snatched it free.
“What ice cream do you have?” I asked, loudly. My voice trying to cover the few meters distance between us.
“Chocolate, it’s your favourite. Isn’t it Anu?” He spoke again. The stranger in his car slowly turned towards us and stared us down without a smile.
“We can give you vanilla too, if you want.” This was the first time the stranger had spoken. His voice was almost a raspy whisper, one that me and Divya had to strain to hear.
“Come inside the car,” he spoke again, “we will give you whatever you want.” His raspy voice more audible in the deafening silence of 22nd main street.
“I have to ask Mama.” I spoke.
“But your Mama won’t be here until 5:30, Anu beta.” Plumber uncle reminded me. Divya now held my hand in hers and tried dragging me towards the car with the surety of someone who knew they had been right all along.
Plumber uncle moved towards the backseat and opened the door. I reluctantly walked in the direction of the black sedan with tinted glasses. It would be a relief to drink cold water and eat ice cream, I told myself as my stomach grumbled and sweat poured down my body.
Divya entered the car first as my head banged against the door, because I forgot to bend. A jarring pain wrecked me head like a gong. Like a warning, a desolate scream for help. Something was not right, my instincts shouted, begging me not to enter the car.
“I really need to ask mama first” I begged plumber uncle as he pushed me towards the car seat, tightly squeezing my buttocks.
Tears streamed down my cheeks as I made up my mind. I pushed plumber uncle and ran towards Divya’s home. I turned back for a look once… only once. And that one time I saw Divya banging on the window screaming, probably asking me to come back. And plumber uncle quickly driving the car out of 22nd main street.
It has been 20 years to that day, I am yet to see Divya again.