“Hello, Arundhati, do you know who I am?”
An entire cluster of pink lantern flowers stirred, sifted by a breeze spun out of memories too faded for her to catch the face to whom the voice belonged. Arundhati held her breath and quietly moved the phone away from her ear, only slightly, for she did not want the person on the other side to listen in on her mind frantically working things out.
“And do you know who I am?”
There was a second person on the other side! It was odd enough to deal with the very confusing prospect of taking a phone call in the middle of nowhere. Arundhati had honestly believed things could not turn any more mystifying than they were already. She was, of course, extremely wrong about that! Now, the resolve in her buckled in. A gnawing vulnerability seethed in its place, because to have two voices poke out at her from the unknown, she reasoned, did a pretty good job at creating the impression that a nasty conspiracy was at foot and that she was alone in her corner. Everyone else, it seemed, had the pleasure of working side-by-side, in pairs or teams, conferring and confiding in each other as they pleased, apart from her, she was the exception.
She could not delay answering any longer, although that did not mean that she was ready to speak either. An incomprehensible mumble escaped her mouth and dribbled into the receiver with flimsiness that resembled lukewarm water. “Erm…”
“Come on, we haven’t all day! Chop, chop!” The first voice reminded her of the smile of farmers at autumn. The time when they wheel-barrowed into the store house their first golden crop of the harvest. It was a voice that leapt out of the phone and embraced her with unconditional affection and love. Arundhati flicked through her mind as fast as she could. The owner of the voice remained elusive.
“Oh my, you do sound familiar! I can’t picture you, though…” Arundhati bit her lower lip and squeezed her eyes down, whilst her thumb and index finger clipped themselves onto the top part of her nose, for she was in deep thought. Not realising it, the toes of both her feet were also tapping against the ground. Every part of her physical being was doing something besides standing still in the hope that it would hurry along the right memory.
“It will come to you. Think…Arundhati…” When the second voice, a considered and soft and gently-spoken voice, addressed her by name, Arundhati felt a hundred-fold more unsettled and ashamed. She was sure that these two were most probably exchanging incredulous eye-rolls between them, a perfectly acceptable way to behave, she argued, especially since her tedious dithering was causing her to dislike her own self!
“Erm, I’m not having much luck here…”, and then, out of the blue, she was struck by the thought that it had to be at school that she had met these two, for, if there was any place after home that she spent much of her time in, it was there, at school. “Do you know me from school?”
What followed was an eerie silence that threatened to fill up eternity. No one spoke.
“Erm, hello? Hello? Anyone there?” Once again Arundhati took the phone away from her ear and looked into its screen to see if it was still working. There was no time or date displayed on it, as one would expect on a normal phone. What she saw instead was a counter going up. To her, though, that was a tremendous relief as it meant most likely that the phone was still operational, however, on a more important note, it also suggested that the device was not a ticking bomb! She had seen plenty of movies to be wary of what they looked like. Cautiously nearing the phone to her ear again, she tried one last time and spoke into it. The distinct tremble in her voice made it apparent that she was shaken up. “Hello….?”
“Oh Pooja, cut it out! Can’t you see our poor friend is miserably stuck?! I can’t do this anymore!”
Deflated and a tad bitter, the first voice playfully chided her partner in crime. “Well, now you’ve gone and done it, Pushpa! I was really enjoying the suspense! Duh!”
Arundhati suddenly realised that the situation could not be as sinister as she had feared. There was genuine humour in the air between the two callers, a clear signal that from now on in she could carry on more comfortably and lightly. On the other hand, it did little to calm her tempers to learn that she had been made, literally, the butt of their jokes. Her courage restored, she demanded, “Ok, what is this all about?! I am busy with something and you two are holding me back!”
“You still can’t remember us?! I can’t believe this!” Pooja huffed.
“You are right about school, that is where we used to hang out, many years ago…” Pushpa, it seemed, was always more than ready to give away the lion’s share of hints to help out Arundhati.
Arundhati sighed in half-defeat and half-boredom by the dreariness of what was fast becoming the longest guessing game she had ever played. She strained and uttered repeatedly the two new names under her breath. “Pooja… Pushpa… Pooja… Pushpa… Pooja…. Pushpa…”.
“You’re thinking about secondary school. Go back to your primary years – Mr Patel’s class…” Pushpa was firmly decided that she would get Arundhati to remember.
“Pooja… Pushpa… Mr Patel’s class…”, and suddenly the lightning of the memory flooded back and it shot through Arundhati as though a bullet had pierced her awake from a hundred year slumber, “POOJA, PUSHPA!! Yes, yes, I remember, only barely, that is! Oh my goodness, that was so long ago, many years ago, no wonder I was having all this trouble!” Inside she felt immensely buoyed by the fact that it was perfectly forgivable to forget people from the distant past. She no longer felt like an idiot, after all, it was understandable to have jaded memories of one’s kindergarten years.
“… A roar of laughter and giggles stormed through the phone from the other side and blared out so loud that a few lantern flowers wobbled mid-air...”
A roar of laughter and giggles stormed through the phone from the other side and blared out so loud that a few lantern flowers wobbled mid-air. Arundhati smiled as she brushed her hand down her face, relieved that she had entered a circle of old friends. What plagued her now was the outbreak of questions bubbling on the tip of her tongue. “How is this possible? Why are you calling me and how did you get this phone number and who was the chap who handed me the phone and does this mean that you are working for The – “ Breathless, Arundhati was cut off. In her head she was still asking them a million more questions.
“Ariundhati, Arundhati, stop, stop. Let us explain”. Pooja cleared her throat.
“Alright. I’m listening... ”
“We’re happy for you, Arundhati. Honestly, we are. We couldn’t think of anyone better to carry out this important mission”. Pooja’s each word seemed as though it had a cut-out hole in it from which she was able to peer through and check up on how Arundhati was taking it all in.
Pushpa seconded her sentiment. “Agreed!” As if she would burst into flames if she kept the next part to herself, Pushpa gleefully added, “And by the way, the ‘Street Vendor’ idea was mine!”
Arundhati was at a loss for words. It was like as if she were a little dot floating in an ocean of overwhelming secrets, and the ocean was growing, exponentially, as the clock ticked past the division of each second, piling mystery upon mystery from which she thought at any moment she would be inescapably lost within its depths forever.
After a while, miraculously, Arundhati found her voice. “Your idea?!”
“We don’t have much time, not on these airwaves”, Pooja spoke hurriedly now, “… and Pushpa, dearie, can you stop gloating about your ideas, there is a time and place for showing off!”
“You are right, sorry!” Pushpa’s apology was tinged with a smile which beamed out of the excitable skip that could be heard in her voice.
“I feel so left out, everybody seems to be two paces ahead of me, having knowledge of things that I don’t.” Arundhati did not mean to come across as a moaner, and soon afterwards was eager to apologise for her impulsive outburst. She tried to say this, but was halted before she could begin. Pooja spoke authoritatively.
“It’s important it stays that way, Arundhati. No one in the organisation knows everything. That would be too risky. We are all like you, in that respect, each holding a piece of the answer. But, you have a special relationship with this land, that makes you the binder, gluing all the pieces together, which will eventually lead us to The Shaligram Ammonite.” Pooja purposefully paused, she was well aware that her words were solemn and heavy, and that Arundhati would need a moment or so to pull them in and accept them for what they were.
“And right now, we are here to protect you. Danger lurks four paces behind you.” Pushpa could not have said it any more bluntly.
“Stop scaring her like that!” Pooja sliced in.
Arundhati snapped round and deliberately scanned the pathway and the trees. She did not want to admit it to her two old friends that her heart was secretly hammering against her chest, that she was scared of what could materialise from the overlapping greenery. What if another shadowy figure were to step out from the whispering leaves? What if this time behind the mask of silence lay a creature of hideous intentions, one who truly wished to bring harm to her?
The phone made a strange cackling sound and Arundhati brought her attention back to her two friends. Her instincts told her that whatever it was that made it possible to make this call was about to be used up. Time was running out, yet she knew exactly what to ask them. “Is someone following me? Please tell me the truth.”
The line grew scratchy and the voice faint, and Arundhati could not tell who spoke, but one of them managed to tell her just in the nick of time, “We will help you… now…”, and then the line went dead.
“Hello?! Hello?” Pooja? Pushpa? Hello?!”
There was no reply.
Arundhati’s heart sank deep down into her stomach and she flung another glance behind her. As far as she could see or hear there was not another person about. Silence descended down, ruthlessly hard and unsparing, onto her nimble shoulders. All at once she could have sworn that she was the only living person on the planet. It was too quiet. Her lips ravaged and parched by the slow-burning panic building up in her belly, Arundhati was about to slide the phone away from her ear and tear down the hill when out of the leafy mass of the sal tree next to her a long furry arm shot down like a brown lightning bolt and rudely scooped the phone out of her hand! She staggered back and nearly fell, yet she somehow managed to catch sight of the five wrinkled digits of a hairy hand, balled into a fist, and the phone glistening from inside its clutches. Before she could make heads or tails of who or what the thief was, it had vanished into the covert thicket of the sal tree.
She sprang back up on her feet and edged closer, on tip-toes, towards the tree, all the while her eyes were wide alert. Something had uncivilly filched her phone and one way or another she was going to find out what it was. She cast a sideways glance at the lantern flowers who were now, it appeared, had taken to a dance of little wriggles from the fixtures of their stems. It was a daft thought, however, one that she could not shake off, and that was, that these flowers, absorbers of secrets, did look much fatter than when she had inspected them previously. Had they already feasted on the knowledge about the culprit responsible for the disappearance of her phone?
A clump of leaves and branches in the centre of the tree shuffled, as if whatever was inside was telling the tree in as explicit a way as possible that there was not enough room for it. A sharp screeching sound came next and then there was nothing, only the now all too familiar silence.
Arundhati was stood under the tree. She choked down her fear and as quietly as possible raised both her arms up and grasped the nearest two branches that were thick and sturdy enough to take up her weight. She pulled herself up and as soon as her feet came off the ground she made sure that they were quick to lift with her and then pressed them against the bark of the tree for support. Resembling a koala on its way up for a nap, Arundhati hovered this way for a few seconds, for she was painfully at two minds about what to do next. She could simply jump down and leg it. The next village was not far. Yet, it was undeniable, she was actually liking all of this. Somewhere along the line she had started to grow attracted to the uncertainty and adventure, and at whatever cost it was, she had now decided that she would expose the identity of the uncouth rascal who was toying with her phone. She pulled herself up further and this time her head scraped through the thick foliage, the odd crooked twig jabbing into her cheeks and a leaf or two tickling the crescent of her ears, until finally she was waist-high inside the green, luminous heart of the tree. It was a cool and dappled world, where everything was tuned to speak in whispers so that even the few patches of sunlight, which had struggled to reach this far, appeared more like shadows of a lighter pigmentation.
“… She choked down her fear and as quietly as possible raised both her arms up and grasped the nearest two branches that were thick and sturdy enough to take up her weight…”
At first, Arundhati saw no one. Bemused, she held firmly on the branch and swivelled her torso around to look the other way, causing the tree to judder and a few leaves to fall, and that is when she received the shock of her life.
Staring back at her was a small monkey!
“… Staring back at her was a small monkey...”
An aged chap, his two round eyes shone like fresh amber sap that had been mixed in with copious swirls of honey, and pencilled within their centres a perfect black dot, and all this was set within a greyish-pink pointy face. His lipless mouth was a fine rug of white hairs only just visible, but the rest of his body was a different matter altogether, it was abundantly layered in brown, pink and white hairs, even the tips of his ears, whose overall shape reminded Arundhati of the betel leaves that her Amma could never live a day without. Monkeys trooped everywhere in this part of the world. Arundhati was no stranger to them and to their interrupting and opportunistic ways. What threw her off completely was that this particular monkey had one thing about it that set it apart from every other monkey on the planet, or so she believed so.
Not only was the monkey jerking the phone in its nimble fingers while beaming a proud smile at her, exposing all its pristine white teeth, as if to say that he was far more intelligent than her and that he would always be one step ahead in the game, but that this cheeky imposter was equipped with backup. He wore a headset! A black, plastic headband arced around his tiny head like a rainbow and a padded speaker, a cup dotted with many holes, cushioned against the monkey’s left ear, all of it perfectly adjusted for his comfort. From the base of the speaker a thin black tube extended out so that it curved in line with the jaw, and on its tip was a microphone that looked like a bumblebee without wings.
“Oh my goodness! What are you!?” She wondered out loud.
Immediately the monkey brought its index finger to its lipless mouth. “Sssshhhh!”
Arundhati’s mouth dropped.
The monkey nodded its head towards something behind her. She rubbed her eyes hard and made them sore, and then looked up again. The monkey and his impressive headset was still watching her intently. He was real! The monkey repeated his nod in the direction behind her and this time she obeyed. She quietly turned around and searched below. What was it that this strange monkey was telling her?
A few seconds later it became clear to her that he was not telling her anything. He was warning her.
Directly beneath the bulbous sal tree in which she and the monkey now hid were stood four people all of different heights. Three words she heard over and over again. The Shaligram Ammonite. For the first time ever Arundhati saw what she, alone, was up against. ♥♥♥
“… Directly beneath the bulbous sal tree in which she and the monkey now hid were four people all of different heights…”
Photography & Words: © Masufa Khatun | Mazzy Khatun Photo Stories | Hampshire | UK 2016
Photography & Words: © Masufa Khatun | Mazzy Khatun Photo Stories | Herefordshire Adventures | Herefordshire | UK 2016
Photography & Words: © Masufa Khatun | Mazzy Khatun Photo Stories | Roald Dahl Museum & Story Centre |Great Missenden | Buckinghamshire | UK 2016