His head hurt and a strange humming noise filled Madhavan’s ears. He tried to sit up but something prevented him from moving. It felt as if a hundred heavy quilts had been heaped on him and he was unable to throw them off. Madahavan tried raising his head, but that too seemed as if it was tied down by a ton of bricks. He blinked his eyes open with some effort, but could only discern vague shapes in the darkness. He closed them again and lay still. Wherever he was, there was absolute stillness. As his senses came awake, Madhavan could make out a distinct damp smell. It was like the odour of wet earth and manure which had been stored in a dungeon for days. Madhavan crinkled up his nose in disgust.
Something went scurrying past his ear and he let out a small scream that came out like a funny gurgle. He tried to yank his hands free but found that his limbs were bound. Even his mouth felt sore and suddenly Madhavan realized with horror that his mouth was gagged with a rag. He tried to push his tongue against the rag and again the dank smell got him again . His mouth felt dry and bruised and he wanted to throw up. The back of his head pounded against his skull as if a dozen village women were pounding their spices inside his brain.
He tried stretching his legs; but it was impossible; they were bound and tied to his wrists. It struck Madhavan that the heavy weight he felt was because he must have been lying in this foetal position for heaven knew how long.
Something moved near his feet and he struggled to sit up. All that he managed though was to roll over. But even that was a relief to his body. The change of position relaxed his sore muscles somewhat. Again he felt a movement near his toes. Madhavan squirmed and wiggled his toes. The movement stopped. Madhavan raised his head and tried to look around him. His eyes were beginning to adjust to the darkness and he could make out vague shapes in the dimly lit room.
Feeling his way around with his body he discovered that he had been lying on some kind of grass mat. Madhavan leaned closer to the floor and scraped his cheek against the floor. It felt like a carpet of creepers. He could make out tiny leaves and tendrils curling from the plants. Raising his head a little Madhavan discerned in the darkness a wall at one end with row upon row of shelves. They reminded him of Thankamma’s kitchen shelves lined with pickles and rice cakes.
Abruptly, Madahavan came fully to his senses. He remembered the events of the night before. The chase through the forest, the bog, the funny little children, the weird strange man who had led him to this odd place and pushed him inside a hole. Yes - he recalled falling into a deep abyss. Then darkness and oblivion.
The realization hit him now that he had been captured and trapped. This must be some kind of dungeon where the old hairy man hid his victims. The man had bound and gagged him and left him here to die, thought Madahavan.
The thought of food on an empty stomach is an intrepid mobiliser. And hunger was uppermost on Madhavan’s mind now. Death and other such morbid thoughts seemed trivial before the rumblings that came from his stomach. They were too strong to be ignored. Madhavan made another valiant attempt to sit up, but the cords that bound him only pulled tighter. He realized now how sore his wrists and ankles felt.
Twisting them against each other only made the bruise turn raw. Straining his eyes in the dark, Madhavan looked around him for something with which to cut open the knots. He could find nothing that would work and even if he did, how on earth would he reach it, thought Madhavan. Not knowing what else to do and with the pangs of hunger growing more intense, Madhavan gave himself another heave and rolled over. His nose flattened against the ground, the rag pulled at his mouth, his wrists and ankles screamed with pain but Madhavan was triumphant. He had managed to roll a good two feet towards those shelves he had spied earlier.
He gave himself a couple of minutes of rest and heaved once more. This time he almost tumbled over in a somersault and landed with a thud against something hard.
‘Ouch!’ cried Madhavan unable to rub the sore spot.
‘That hurt’ he said aloud to no one in particular.
He tried once to rub the back of his head but obviously his hands were no help. So Madhavan lay down and rubbed his head gently against the floor to relieve some of the pain. Tears stung at his eyes. He suddenly longed for the warm arms of his grandmother. He longed to be back in his little hut hearing her scolding him for his misbehaviour. He ached for her warm hug ; those claw like fingers roaming through his hair. He longed for some curd rice with pickle. He wished he could run off to the fields with Bhairu and Ahmed and fly kites. How he loved to fly kites! The feel of the wind against his arms as he let go of the spool of thread and the kite soared up , up up….
Ahmed, Bhairu and Madhavan would spend hours chasing kites. On the day of Makarsankranti, they would be up really early. That was the day of kite competitions in the village. Every young man and boy worth his mettle would compete . Long days of preparation culminated on this day. Madhavan thought fondly of the times he and Bhairu would prepare the string. Thankamma helped them to make the special glue with ground glass. Their fingers would bleed and turn sore as they gave manja to their strings. Ahmed had a special gift for making the kites. He would sit all afternoon, squatting on the floor of his hut and cut up paper kites of various colours and shapes. He would make colourful combinations and then emblazon the sign of the falcon on the kites. That was their trademark. Everybody knew when they saw the sign of the falcon, whom the kites belonged to.
Three years in a row, their team had won the sankranti kite competitions. Madhavan was an expert not only at flying kites but also at cutting down the opponents kites with a single strong stroke. He loved to see another kite bow and sway in the struggle for a while and then slowly lose control and bend down towards the earth while their own kite with the falcon soared away into the distance like a triumphant warrior.
So many of the other village boys had wanted to join their gang; but the trio had been unwavering in their rules. No outsider was allowed into the enchanted triumvirate.
The other thing that the three boys loved doing was fishing. Madhavan and his friends Bhairu and Ahmed loved to race down to the nearby river and sit for hours on the edge with a stick and bait dangling waiting for the fish to bike. During the hot summer months, when the sun dried up the water in the lake, Madhavan and his friends would wade into the river with their netted towels and empty glass jars. They would splash about happily all afternoon and catch little gambusia fishes. Sometimes they even managed to catch some few edible ones which they would take back home gleefully to Thankamma. She would take the fish with many grumblings but dinner would be served that evening with the aroma of fried fish wafting through the village.
The aroma of fish was too much for Madhavan to bear. He wrenched his thoughts away from food but his stomach protested loudly suprising even himself. It sounded weird and unearthly in this little hole. Madhavan shook himself up. He realized that he would simply just have to get out of this situation.
He was pleasantly surprised by the fact that the thought of food had driven away the pounding pain in his head for a while. Looking around him, Madhavan discovered that the thing he had banged his head against appeared to be the leg of some kind of stool or table. He could vaguely make out the shape of the other three legs. Maneuvering himself closer to the table, Madhavan willed himself into a sitting position. With his chin almost at the level of the low table Madhavan tried to feel around with his face. He lay his cheek against the cold stone surface of the table and felt around. In the darkness, he could make out only dim shapes; a pot or cauldron of some sort, a ladle, a tumbler and yes …a long object. Could that be a knife?
Madhavan excited that he might at last be free of his bondage tried to hobble quickly towards the long handled object. But in his hurry he fell with a thud and rolled over twice. His face brushed roughly against the edge of the table and Madhavan could feel blood. With immense effort he once again raised himself . This time he steadied himself with his chin and stood ground, balancing on his knees. His wrists and legs were now twisted at an unnatural angle and Madhavan stifled a cry of pain. Falling to the floor, he lay there trying to catch his breath.
A minute later, a burst of light blinded Madhavan and he cried out in surprise. A hand yanked him by the hair and he was dragged along the ground back to the carpet of creepers where he had been before.