Mani sat visualizing himself as a trim, quick-on-his-feet boy who got selected in his school cricket team for his aggressive batsmanship and extraordinary fielding skills. His happy daydreaming was punctuated by the stern call of his name by his father. He came out of his reverie and looked down at his plump self. With a shake of his head he went to the drawing room as he heard his father call him again.
“What took you so long?” the head of the house asked Mani, only to get the usual response of bowed-head silence.
“Tomorrow onwards you have to bring your sister along with you when you return home from School”
Many unfinished thoughts filled Mani’s mind as he heard this ultimatum from his father. He knew it would be futile to ask what he always thought was the most logical question to counter any uncomfortable decision – Why. He had tried asking this question on previous occasions only to receive angry glares and, once, a reply that was in no way the logical answer – ‘because I said so and I am your father’.
So he nodded in a resigned manner and ran to the kitchen to confront his mother.
“Why should I bring Aarthi with me? Let her come with Auto Anna as usual no?” Mani fumed at his mother.
She sighed and put a hand on his shoulder.
“Aarthi has come to 6th grade now kanna. Her classes will finish at 2:30 pm and yours get over by 3:15 pm. So Appa wants to discontinue the Auto. He feels there is no point of spending on Auto when Aarthi can wait for you inside the school campus for some time and both of you can come back together”, she told.
“This is not fair”, hissed Mani.
But he knew he could do little else to change the decision or the situation. He had only one option.
* * *
Aarthi was leafing through her new sixth grade English textbook as she saw her brother come towards her. Aarthi adored her elder brother but if anyone asked her why, she would find it difficult to pinpoint a reason. That was the kind of relationship they had.
“Hi Anna!” chirped Aarthi as Mani came and sat beside her in the small storage room-cum-pooja room-cum-study room.
Mani was elder to Aarthi by only three years and hated it when she called her Anna.
“How many times have I told you not to call me Anna?” he snapped.
“But Appa insists that I call you so”
“Then you do so only in front of him”
“Ok Mani”, she replied with a twinkle in her eyes.
“Did they tell you about how you will be coming back from school? They are stopping your Auto”, he said, stressing on the last sentence while trying to maintain a tone of sympathy.
“Yes! Isn’t it wonderful? Now we can come together every day after school”, she replied happily.
Mani did not want to give in easily and decided to approach it from the angle of physical effort.
“You know we have to walk right? It will be hard for you”
“That’s ok. We will come together only no? It will be fine”
Now Mani started to desperately clutch at last straws.
“Aarthi. Can you do me a favour?” he asked.
“Sure Ann… I mean Mani” she replied eagerly.
“I can’t bring you from school every day. Can you please go by yourself? You are a big girl anyway” he reasoned.
Her smiling face suddenly became clouded.
“Why? Do you not like me” she asked.
“Ayyo it’s not like that! It is difficult to explain! Will you help me or not?” he asked irritably.
Aarthi had never seen her brother get this upset. He was usually the calm and silent kind. She reluctantly agreed to his request.
“And remember. Don’t tell Amma and Appa” he warned, before leaving the room.
* * *
Aarthi wanted to understand why Mani was behaving this way. Mani had joined her school after completing his eighth grade from a different one, since her school was more popular for giving good results in the tenth and twelfth public examinations. Ever since he joined ninth grade in the new school, there seemed to be something amiss about him. Aarthi had noticed her brother lost in thoughts or staring vacantly at nothing in particular many times. What surprised her even more was the fact that he barely showed the kind of enthusiasm he was known for when watching India’s cricket matches. While his parents did not seem to register these changes, it did not escape the keen girl. She decided to talk to him about this when he was in a better mood.
The next day was Aarthi’s first in sixth grade and it proceeded without any major surprises. Keeping her word to her brother, she walked back home once her classes ended, without waiting for him. She opened the house using the spare key under the potted plant and carefully bolted the main door from inside. She made herself a jam sandwich and waited for her brother to come.
More than an hour lapsed and the time was nearing 4 pm but Mani had not returned. Aarthi was worried, not only because her brother had not returned, but also because she had lied to her father when he had called few minutes ago by telling him that they both came together and Mani was in the toilet. Her father was expecting Mani to call back.
As she struggled thinking about what to do next, the doorbell rang. She gave a sigh of relief and ran to open the door.
“Why are you so late? Appa almost found…” she stopped her chiding abruptly as she saw her brother’s tear-streaked face. She could see that his clothes were soiled.
“What happened Anna?” She asked.
He turned his face away from her, rushed to the study room and banged the door shut.
It was only when their parents came back that he came out of the room.
“Did Mani take good care of his little sister?” Amma asked looking at Aarthi.
Aarthi glanced at her brother. He had a pleading look on his face and shook his head imperceptibly.
“Yes Amma! He took care of me very well”, she replied.
Mani’s tensed face relaxed a little as his mother patted him on the back.
The afternoons continued in a similar manner for a week and Aarthi could not get her brother to speak about who or what was giving him trouble every day after school. He just brushed her off saying it was some small scuffle which was normal in his grade. She wanted to confide in her mother about this but that would then put Mani in an uncomfortable position. She decided that she will do something about it the next day.
* * *
The next day as her classes got over, she decided to hide near the school gate and wait for her brother. Five minutes after the last bell of ninth grade rang, her brother walked out slowly. He was walking alone and looking nervous. He exited the school gate and started to walk towards their home. Aarthi stealthily followed him.
Mani crossed the main road and turned into the lane that led to the area where their home was situated. Aarthi could feel her brother slow down as he entered the lane. As he disappeared from her view, she resumed following him. As she entered the lane she could see her brother walking slowly with his head bowed down. There were a group of boys, seemingly seniors from their school, talking loudly and cracking jokes at the corner of the street. As one of them saw Mani, he nudged the guy near him. They all became silent.
“Oi Gundumani!” one guy called out, making fun of Mani’s rotund frame. The other boys screamed with laughter. Mani did not raise his head and hurried his steps.
The boys now started to surround him. There were five of them and the tallest guy came and stood in front of Mani, blocking his path.
He placed both his hands on Mani’s ample stomach.
“This water bag seems to get bigger by the day”, he guffawed, to the merriment of his gang.
Mani squirmed and tried to move away. Two boys blocked him from behind.
“I guess the Fatso is going to cry today also. Such a girl!” one boy retorted nastily.
“Maybe he will go crying to his mommy!” another boy said, giving a pathetic imitation of a crying baby.
“Will you go complaining to your mommy and daddy fatso?” The tall guy asked, while slapping Mani’s stomach.
Mani shook his head without looking up.
“Guys! Doesn’t his stomach look like a football?” the tall guy asked.
There was a chorus answer in the affirmative.
“Then what are we waiting for? Let’s play”, he shouted.
Aarthi was shocked to see her brother being treated this way. She couldn’t hold back anymore and ran towards Mani and the gang of bullies.
As he heard the sound of someone running towards him, Mani looked up. He was terrified to see Aarthi. The gang of boys temporarily suspended their entertainment and looked amusedly at the figure of a small girl approaching them.
She came and stopped directly in front of the tall guy and glared at him.
“Why are you troubling my brother?” she asked angrily.
“Look at what fatso brought for support! His kid sister!” the tall guy snickered.
Before he could proceed with another remark, he felt a strong kick on his abdomen and a sharp slap on his cheek.
There was a look of pain mixed with shock on his face as he clutched his abdomen and fell down. Tears streamed down his face as he looked at the faces of his friends. The faces did not register anger. They registered a mix of surprise and, to an extent, embarrassment.
The group of boys were amazed to see their leader brought to his knees by a small girl. They used to be in awe of this guy. They used to look up to him and always tried to emulate the recklessness and irreverence he projected. Today when they saw him at the receiving end of a punch and slap from a girl almost half his age, the image they carried of him was shattered.
They looked on in stunned silence as Aarthi held the hand of her bewildered brother and led him towards their home.
* * *
The parents returned that evening to find brother and sister watching television and laughing.
The mother planted a kiss on Aarthi’s head and pulled Mani’s chubby cheek.
“Did Mani take good care of his little sister?” she asked.
Mani looked at Aarthi and smiled.
“Aarthi took good care of her brother, Amma!” he said as the little girl beamed proudly.