Written by Suchita Senthil Kumar
Art by Rowan Aldib
Ravi left. He left and never came back.
Shriya tried not to feel guilty; it wasn’t her fault. But she remembered the moments before he left.
“Leave,” she had shouted. “Now!”
He threw a look of mock annoyance at the group and disappeared.To be precise, he jumped across the wall fence, and then he disappeared. The soft thud of his landing told her he’d reached the other side, and it was that sound, that muffled thud from across the cement wall, that continued to fill up her ears and head and heart. Even now.
That was the last anyone’d heard of him.
She waited, cursing at him for taking so long as the rest of their friends grumbled about the interruption to their Sunday game of cricket. None of them had any kind words to say about Ravi. Maybe he’d heard them all and decided it was better if he never came back.
Rhea, his younger sister, wondered if he found another world on the other side, some Narnia or one of those fictional places from his video games. Maybe in search of the cricket ball, he ended up finding a world he decided he liked better than his current one. Maybe it was a land with neon-coloured street lights, and professional video-gamers, rich off of playing Poptropica. A land where parliament and office employees wore punk jackets to work. We found it funny.
The others, Shriya included, thought Ravi was less important in comparison to the touch-me-nots and spent time touching, watching the leaves droop, and doing the same all over again. Darkness enveloped the sky, turning it into a canvas of orange and pink, then blue followed by a slight purple hue. When sunset-gazing became boring, they turned their attention to a little snail they found.
It was dark by the time Hari had come to a brazen conclusion.
“I think he’s kidnapped,” Hari said, looking forlorn.
The moment the words left his mouth, everyone stood transfixed. Shriya hadn’t realised the time that had passed, only noticing the universe spread its black blanket onto the earth slowly, invitingly. It seemed as though it was telling her that, with each spread of darkness, Ravi too, was in the dark.
They ran back to Shriya’s house, which was the closest from the play-area and Ravis’ disappearance. His parents were called, the situation explained. It was a pandemonium of words spoken, accusations directed and police officers notified. It became late, that Shriya knew, with many stars adorning the sky—blinking, trying to keep themselves awake to watch what would happen to Ravi.
People climbed over the cement wall in khaki uniforms, blinding white and yellow lights in their hands and around their heads. This time, when they crossed the wall, there were several loud thuds followed by the crunching of leaves and the sound of footsteps on mud. Shriya sat still in the grass with a sleeping Rhea on her lap, counting the footsteps.
After some time, the men had not returned and the five children were rounded up by Shriya’s grandparents, ready to take them back home. The grandparents were of the opinion that naughty Ravi, with his lopsided grin and silly pranks, was probably hiding in some bush. Hari exclaimed it was the best thing he had heard all day and called his mother’s phone to say just that. Grandmother cooked food for all of them, her usual chapatis and potato curry. Despite it being her favourite, Shriya couldn’t bring herself to eat much. It all tasted bitter like the tears she had accidentally swallowed the last time she cried. Rhea pointed out that Ravi never liked potatoes and maybe he’ll come a little late after they’re done eating. Shriya didn’t have the heart to think otherwise.
The five of them had fallen asleep somewhere in between scolding Ravi for his stupidity and whispering encouraging words to each other. Shriya woke up to the sounds of her parents talking in hushed voices and strained her ears to hear.
“Let the kids all sleep here today,” her father said. “It’s completely okay with us.”
“I hope it’s not trouble,” came the voice of Anu’s mother, one of the five who was now fast asleep. Or maybe she was listening while pretending to sleep too.
They obviously found Ravi and he was going to be sleeping at his place. She’d see him tomorrow and give him an earful doing whatever he did. Like her grandparents said, he probably was hiding in a bush. After a few more moments of hushed voices, she watched with eyes half-open, her parents walking into the house.She couldn’t hear anyone else and assumed the other parents had gone back home. She let out a content sigh, Ravi was safe. She said that to herself a few more times and thought her parents would be feeling the same sense of peace in them too. Except, she kept hearing their hushed conversations throughout the night.
The next morning was a blur of men in khaki uniforms, phone calls and the distraught cries of Ravi’s mother. Little Rhea seemed to realise what the elders were too hesitant to say and sobbed quietly. Though little, she was clever enough to understand what the feral cries of her parents and silence in the others meant. Anu and Varun looked determinantly towards the window that overlooked the play area as though their sharp gaze would bring him back. They’d furrow their eyebrows together in concentration whilst their eyes and noses twitched, keeping intact the tears that threatened to fall.
Shriya saw the image of herself screaming at Ravi to go get the ball and her heart sank. It dropped and it plummeted, she couldn’t feel it anymore. And so she watched everyone else, memorising the dolour in each face and the lost look in each eye to tell Ravi when he came back.
She couldn’t though, for as Ravi left. He left and never came back.