She shifted with her family to this new city in summers.She was all of nine and pretty excited about the change.Little did she know that this change of city was going to change her life for ever.She had her parents and younger brother for family .It was a close knit family but sometimes she felt ,something, somewhere was amiss and it would not be anywhere in near future that she was going to find out about that.
As it happens in all transferable jobs,initially they were given a transit accommodation in a colony where other such families were put up.They shared their apartment with another family for a fortnight till they were alloted their own apartment in the main city.This place was quite far from the main city in a quiet neighborhood ,actually too quiet for comfort.Afternoons were hot,lazy and so quiet that one could hear the most gentle of breeze as it playfully rustled up the leaves of a giant peepul tree in the compound.The Peepul tree looked ominous even during the day as it loomed large almost covering the second floor and its branches threatening to enter the open windows on the second floor.
Once her father left for work, her mom got busy with household chores and with her brother who was a toddler.Tina would be free during the day to explore the neighborhood. One such day she closed the door behind her and ventured out .She saw a few kids playing in the stairway and she decided to befriend them.She loved making new friends .She was a pretty girl and at nine had started to bloom into a young girl , fair,sharp featured with long hair.She was however absolutely unaware of the increasing glances that were being directed her way lately.Kids in the building accepted her as a friend unconditionally and took an immediate liking to her.This was childhood in its pure unadulterated form,no pretense whatsoever.
The gang hopped down the stairs when she saw a couple of boys peep through the high ventilators into the ground floor apartment.She followed out of curiosity and saw a young man sprawled on the bed in a large single room devoid of any other furniture except a rack in one corner,and some cooking utensils and a stove in the opposite corner.The man gestured to call the boys inside and she thought him to be quite friendly.In a race to hop down,a few boys pushed the girls and there was a lot of commotion.She continued her survey of the room and soon the corner rack caught her fancy .She spotted some books on the shelves,neatly arranged.She loved books,all kinds.She found them irresistible and she strained her neck and eyes to spot some familiar titles.She suddenly became aware that he was looking and she ran down to join her friends.The door of the ground floor apartment flung open even before she could reach the landing and the man came out.He was tall, dressed casually in a lungi -kurta.He greeted the kids and turned towards her to ask,”you are new aren’t you in this building ?”She nodded.”You like books?”Her eyes lit up before she said yes.”I have plenty ,if you want you can come and have a look”he offered.She hesitated ,remembering what her mother always kept repeating every time she stepped alone out of the house–Do not talk to strangers ,
-do not enter anybody’s house without informing and definitely not alone,
-resist tempting offers from people,saying -“some other time may be”,
Even as the thoughts were racing in her child brain,she caught hold of one of the girls and convinced herself -everyone is here,I can just take a quick look. She soon was flipping through the pages of one of the books.He told her she was welcome anytime to read or borrow books on one condition that she reviewed each one of them for him just to make sure she was indeed reading and not merely turning pages.She liked it,her mom always asked her to do that and she felt very intelligent when she did that.
Outside the kids continued their games and she settled down with her book on the last step and was soon lost in words. The street lights came on and she realized it was time to go home.It was a rule in the house.All kids returned home as soon as street lights were turned on.She stood up,dusted her skirt and turned to go up.She noticed the ground floor apartment door was closed ,what she did not notice were a pair of eyes that followed her as she climbed up.
Mother saw Tina read a new book everyday and wanted to meet the man who loaned them .Tina introduced her mother to him one evening and mother thanked him for the books gently inquiring about his family etc.On her way back she reminded her not to enter anybody’s house unaccompanied.Go with a group of friends and talk less she said.She also said something about not eating or drinking at people she didn’t know well.All this confused her but she liked to listen to her mom,mom talked less but whatever she said sounded correct and plus she wanted to be a good girl.She wanted everyone to be pleased with her,she hated conflicts and she wanted to believe everyone was a good soul.A belief that was going to cause her a lifetime of grief.
A few sessions of book borrowings later,one lazy afternoon while the younger kids were having a game of cards,the man invited them for a new indoor game that he had learned.Everyone jumped at the idea of a new game.He made pairs and Tina found herself paired with him.She felt strange that a grown up man will be playing with kids ,at the same time felt happy that she could win the game with such a strong partner.He made all of them sit in a big circle with their backs towards each other and explained that the game involved holding your partner’s hand and hiding it t so no one can spot it.She felt like a winner already,Kamal bhai can hide her tiny palm in his big one easily.The game started and she felt something move and rub against her palm .She turned to see her a smirk on her partner’s face, her hand lost in his clothes and then as she wriggled,the grip grew harder, she was hurting,and she felt like puking.
“You are a winner girl,don’t spoil the game now.”
The game was over and she never wanted to be a winner again ever in her life.