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A Bag Of Tales

By Sneha Kumari

"Tell me again, what's the story behind this?" The little girl asked me once more, cupping the pinecone ever so carefully in her hands, caressing its wings gently with her tiny fingers as she asked me to share the same story for the third time—each time, her eyes twinklier than ever with amazement. In the two days of my stay, she had won my heart with her chirpy voice and an adorable smile that showed the two missing teeth. Her ponytail swayed from side to side as she hopped around the verandah, clenching to the sides of her frock.

"You have heard it twice. It will still be the same story; nothing is going to change." I tried to politely turn down her request as the sky started turning dark with each passing moment. "I know, I know. But I just like listening to your stories. Please, one last time before khala starts calling out my name. Please." Her eyes were now bigger and ever so slightly moist. She pulled out the best move from her bag to convince me. "Alright, alright. Just one last time, okay?" I gave in too. She was my only company in the evenings, and even I wanted her to stay a little longer. "Okay, so, I was walking through the jungles of Landour, and the sun had already set. It was becoming difficult to see with each step. But I had to reach someplace to spend the night, so I continued walking. And I had only heard the stories of wolves in the mountains but never came across one. Parched and with this bag on my shoulder as I came to what looked like almost the end of the jungle, I saw a pair of eyes shining in the dark wilderness at a distance. At first, I thought it was a wild dog and kept walking. But as I approached closer, I found that it was no dog I had seen. It was a wolf. And he was staring right at me and growling as I inched closer to it. I got scared; I didn't know what to do."

"Then, then what happened?" she asked in all her innocence, well aware of what happened next. "Well, I panicked and gradually bent to grab a stone to scare the wolf away. Luckily I found a rock the size of my fist, and I threw at the wolf with all my might, it struck the rock next to the wolf, and he started growling louder, walking towards me. I bent again, picked another rock and threw it at him; this time, it hit his leg, and he whimpered briefly and then barked at me. I was petrified. I thought the wolf was going to kill and eat me for dinner. But I decided to put a fight too. So, with the thought of blinding him, I bent again, trying to pick another rock, but what I grasped didn't feel like a rock and was pretty light. Still, I started aiming at his eye as he approached me slowly but steadily. And I was about to throw I heard a loud bang. Some hunter had fired a shot, and the wolf ran away in the opposite direction. I shoved the thing in my pocket, thinking it might come in handy in case there were more wolves in the jungle and ran my way out towards the light with all my might and found a small house to spend the night. The next day, when I woke up to see what I had picked the night before to defend myself, it was this pinecone. And since then, I have kept it safe." I ended the story as I took the pinecone from her tiny hands.

"Nadima! Come now; dinner is ready." It was time for me to bid her adieu for the day. "Coming, khalajaan", she clenched the side of her skirt and got up within a second and started walking towards her door. "This is my favourite story so far. What story will you tell me tomorrow?" "You say that every day about each story. And as to what story I will tell you tomorrow depends on what you find in this bag tomorrow." I said as I began to place the pinecone back in my bag and zipped it.

"What is this?" Nadima was back at the staircase with me as promised the next day, looking through my bag for another story. "Let's see what do we have here!" I stretched my palm towards her, and she gently placed the coin she had fished through my bag. "This is just a coin; there is no story behind this." I tried to shove the coin deep into the bag, wondering how her little hands could have found the darkest day of my life. "I know you are lying. There's always a story. Tell me, please." "Really, there is no story. Look for something else in the bag, and I will definitely tell you the story of whatever you find." I tried hard to forget the memory of how that coin became my companion, which had now popped up and played in my mind like a nightmare. "But I found this." The excitement on her face was replaced with disappointment.

"Okay. I'll tell you but don't ask me to repeat today, okay?" as usual; I couldn't see the sadness on her face. She nodded. "So, this coin and I met not so long ago. Before coming here, I was in Rishikesh." "What were you doing in Rishikesh?" "I was on a spiritual journey. And after visiting all the temples of the town, I went to relax by the banks of Ganga and decided to spend some time watching the sunset on my last day. As I sat there listening to the aarti in distance watching the tranquil water, I heard someone crying. It was faint but by the sound of it definitely a girl's cry. I tried to look around but there was no one to be seen. The crying stopped for a while but then I heard it again. This time I got up and started walking towards the sound. The sound of that cry was piercing through my heart; I sped towards it. I arrived at a huge rock and behind that rock was a little girl, almost your age and dressed just like you in a frock." "Just like me?"

"Yes, just like you. She was sitting on the ground with her head between her knees and was sobbing. I approached her and tapped her shoulder. She looked at me with tears rolling down her face like the Ganga. I asked her, 'Why are you crying?'. 'I lost my parents.' she told me struggling through the tears. I knelt and sat next to her and asked her in detail what had happened. She told me that she came from Delhi to Rishikesh with her parents and as they were coming out of one of the temples her hand slipped from her mother's and she was lost in the crowd. She looked for them but couldn't find them so, she came by the river. 'Don't worry, we will find them.' I picked her up and started walking towards the closest temple. We looked all around but couldn't find her parents. Tired and exhausted we sat on the entrance stairs as it had grown dark. 'Don't worry, we will look for them again in the morning.' I tried to console her and as I finished the sentence I saw a couple approaching. The girl looked at them and rushed screaming 'Mummy! Papa!' Almost like a miracle, the girl was reunited with her parents." "Yay! She found her parents. But wait how did you get the coin then?" "Well, that girl's parents were not that well to do but they were happy to see their daughter, and as a reward, his father gave me this coin."

"Nadima! Come now; dinner is ready." Time had flown by. "I promise, I will never leave my parents' hands ever," Nadima shouted as she ran to her room. "You better not!" I shouted back.

"Another day, another lie. Why do I do this to her? She has shown nothing but pure love to me and her family has been more than kind to give me a roof above my head along with the hope of a job. And all I do is lie and make up stories. Stories that are far from reality. Stories that are nothing but bait to keep her coming and bring a ray of hope with her smile. But how can I tell her the truth? She is too young, far and long away from the vicious world. Would she come back to me if I told her that the pinecone was from the day I was so famished that I contemplated eating it to keep me alive? Or the coin she found today was actually thrown at me when I had nowhere to sleep and was shivering by the road? Or should I tell her the truth about my life? Will that be a good story? To tell her I have nowhere to go. No home. No family. No job. No friends. Nothing. In a couple of months, I lost all that I had and now, I walk through towns and villages finding shelter and cooking up stories. I can't scar her like this. She needs to be protected. She is so precious and I know lying to her is wrong but..." I struggled to find an end to the sentence as a lay lonely in my bed yet another night.

"Let's see what we find today!" Nadima said as she reached for my bag.

By Sneha Kumari

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