Bhairu waited outside Thankamma’s little hut. Ahmad came running , breathless.
“Shh..”, motioned Bhairu with his fingers. “She’s taking her afternoon nap.”
“We must wake her up,” said Ahmad. “There’s no time to lose.”
“What if she throws us out? You know her, Ahmad. There’s no stopping her tongue lashing once she gets going. Do you think our folks would ever let us go if she revealed our plans.”
“We have to take that chance,” insisted Ahmad
“Wait a minute,” said Bhairu his eyes suddenly lighting up. “ I have a plan.”
Taking hold of Ahmad’s hand, Bhairu led him quickly away from Thankamma’s house. They sped towards the sugarcane fields.
The long shoots of sugarcane spread thickly for miles. The extended stalks swayed in the light breeze . The two boys ran amidst the sugarcane and taking out their pocket knives began cutting down the stalks. After they had collected enough, Bhairu and Ahmad sat down on the earth among the long legs of the plants and deftly began skinning the stalks. They went about their work with a fierceness born of urgency.
Soon they had about a dozen sticks of sugarcane skinned and tied neatly in a bundle. Getting up, both friends began walking back towards the village.
The village was deserted save for a couple of pariah dogs that went about panting in the hot sun. A scrawny cat scuttled past and a flurry of pigeons fluttered off as the boys came running. Nearing Thankamma’s hut, the boys stopped short. Thankamma was already awake and sitting outside her room on the little verandah drinking tea noisily from an earthen cup. She looked up with a slight frown as she saw the boys running towards her hut.
“Thankamma, Thankamma,” both boys began breathlessly, momentarily forgetting that they were terrified of her.
“We have brought you some sugarcane Thankamma,” said Ahmad
“We can squeeze the juice out too for if you so wish,” gushed Bhairu. “We know how much you and Madhavan love sugarcane.”
‘Enough boys. Tell me first what brings you here. I am sure you would not come to feed an old woman sugarcane juice without some intention.” Thankamma’s face showed the hint of a smile and the boys were amazed to see her twinkling eyes as she watched them intently over the rim of her cup.
“ Thankamma, you know how dearly we all loved Madhavan..” began Bhairu hesitantly.
At that the old woman’s smile froze and she put her cup down and looked directly at them, “ Have you come to commiserate with me? I do not need your commiserations or your advice. Now run along you two. And have the sugarcane juice yourself or give it to some poor beggar.”
With that Thankamma stood up to go inside. Bhairu and Ahmad looked at each other undecided about their next move.
It was Ahmad who took the plunge even as Thankamma was about to go inside, “ Thankamma please …we want to go inside the forest to search for Madhavan,” he blurted .
The old woman wheeled around. Her demeanor changed suddenly as she stood up to her full height. “You boys will not venture near the forest,” she said with a quiet determination. Her voice sounded like the chill wind that blew through their village in the wintry mornings. It was very unlike the gentle woman they had glimpsed a few moments ago or the usual raging and angry Thankamma the boys were used to seeing. Her legendary temper was known to all in the village and Ahmad and Bhairu had had especially graphic details of her temper tantrums, courtesy Madhavan.
Ahmad decided that he must take one last chance with her. Climbing the two small steps in one leap, he stood at the threshold barring Thankamma’s way.
“Please, you’ve got to listen to us. Madhavan was our dearest friend. We cannot give up on him. What if he is trouble?What if he needs us right now? We must find him Thankamma.” Ahmad stopped for a moment and gulped. He wondered if he was ruining his chances by talking so much; but Ahmad knew he could not stop now. Somehow he must convince her.
“We have a plan,” he continued with renewed gusto and a sense of bravado which he did not feel at all. “ And if after hearing it all you decide that we still cant go- well, we will re think it. But you must at least give us a hearing Thankamma” concluded Ahmad.
Bhairu stood at the bottom of the steps gaping as if his friend had gone out of his head. No one talked like that to Thankamma. Not even Madhavan, the apple of her eye.
The old woman looked at both the boys, heaved a sigh and motioned them to come in to her room. Ahmad, let his hand which was barring the doorway fall and as Thankamma disappeared inside the hut, and he and Bhairu did a little jig of their own. At least they had permission to enter and explain their plan of action now. That in it self seemed half the battle won.
Time passed and Bhairu and Ahmad remained within Thankamma’s little hut. The late afternoon sun went down with an orangeish gray glow and gave way to a few twinkling stars in the dusk laden sky. Little lamps began to be lit in all the huts in the village and they flickered like stars. The women began preparing the evening meal and the smell of freshly baked rotis drifted through the village. Men sat around in circles gossiping and exchanging the day’s notes. Still neither Ahmad not Bhairu emerged.
Finally, when the fat gibbous moon shone directly overhead and when quite a few of the homes had already done with dinner, the two friends emerged from Thankamma’s hut and hurried to their own homes. They did not stop to talk and discuss. Each went his own way shuffling along hastily as if they were on an urgent mission.
Thankamma came out after them and stood on the steps for a long, long time. She looked up at the constellations shining like little flickering candles in the dark inky blue night. The moon beamed down at her and bathed her in its cool, serene light. The old woman finally turned and went inside, gently shutting the door behind her.