Last morning, I was on an island. Not marooned. To tell you the truth, it wasn’t an island at all. But, when you are with an almost five-year-old, with a fertile imagination, a mound of soil in the middle of a dewy green patch of grass, on the eastern side of a large garden, is instantly transformed into one. Ira stood right in the middle of the mound, and spreading her little hands wide declared, “This is our island.” Walkers turned around. Joggers stopped in their tracks. If anybody had any doubts about the ownership of the island, there was crystal clear clarity now. I smiled sheepishly. “Do you like our island?” she asked me. “Oh, yes, it’s lovely,” I replied, not quite able to accept the unexpected takeover of a tract of land, without having to pay hefty EMIs. So what if it wasn’t surrounded by water? I was now in the league of the likes of Richard Branson and Ted Turner, who, I’d read, owned private islands. While they had a retinue of personnel to look after it, I discovered that we had an army of red ants swarming all over the island, ready to welcome us, their mandibles all set to sting. I pulled Ira down reminding her of the purpose of our visit to the garden–to spend some time drawing and colouring. She protested, worried that if we moved, someone else would encroach upon our land and lay their claim to it. I pointed at the procession of ants, making their way to an undisclosed destination and assured her that they would guard it for us. She looked at me with suspicion but the prospect of spending time with the angry inhabitants of the island made her acquiesce. After all, we had disturbed their peace.
We now made our way to the “biggest mountain in the whole wide world”, which is a hillock in a corner of the garden. In the off-white canvas bag on Ira’s shoulder were a sketching notebook and my set of colour pencils, which she had bulldozed me into parting with. Her own set of crayons had assumed a new identity. The blue one had been powdered and served to me on a cupcake made of play dough, the brown one shaved and almost pushed down my throat as chocolate, the green one grated and sprinkled on a ‘burger’ as olive toppings. The rest of them had metamorphosed too, into edible and inedible entities whose new avatars I hadn’t bothered to look for, having survived being poisoned by the aforementioned ones.
The hillock is lined with trees. There are spaces between, well-trodden paths that make climbing easy. “Follow me,” said the little one, words that I dread but which goad me into submission every time Ira utters them. She picked up a stick and held one end of it, while she commanded me to hold the other. Though I haven’t read out Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken to Ira yet, I realised that she had veered away from the well-beaten path and was edging her way between the trunks of two trees. “Come,” she beckoned, and before the trees could trap me, my face was plastered by a sticky mesh. I was Spiderwoman! I had walked right into a web, face first. As a cry escaped my mouth and I rubbed my face frantically, Ira asked me, “What happened?” “There was a spider’s web here,” I explained. “You broked the spider’s nest?” she asked, in an accusatory tone. “Web,” I corrected her. I was overcome by guilt. I had unwittingly destroyed a tiny creature’s home. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. It happened by mistake,” I said in defence. “But you broked its home,” she insisted, forgetting it was she who had led me to the site. “Where is the spider?” she asked, just as I felt something crawling on the nape of my neck. I slapped my neck repeatedly, as Ira watched horrified. I was touched by her concern, but only for a moment. “Did you die the spider?” she chided me, as I hoped that the arthropod that had found itself on human territory by accident, hadn’t tattooed my neck with its venom, before being dislodged from it. If it was still alive, it would be baring its fangs now.
“Lets go,” I said, ignoring Ira’s questions, and insisted on taking the beaten path. After the brush with a horde of insects and a menacing spider, we made it to the mountain top. I spread a chatai below the mango tree. As we opened the sketching notebook and spread out the colour pencils on the chatai, I heard a crow caw. It was nothing to be alarmed about. Ira began to draw the sky, the grass and the mud. I watched fondly. Soon, the cawing became insistent. “It’s your friend crow,” Ira said, referring to the crow, who visits our house every day for his daily fare of Marie biscuit, no less. I looked up to see a fierce mother crow hovering above our heads at pecking distance, and I raised my hand automatically to cover the patch of thinning hair on my scalp, lest it invite this feathered being to test the sharpness of its beak on it. I gathered Ira into my arms, noticed the nest on the tree, with the chicks inside, and bundled the chatai, all at once, and bounded down the slope. “We can’t sit here. This crow isn’t my friend. It will attack us. It thinks we have come to harm its babies,” I said, panting. “I want to see the babies,” Ira cried, and made to climb the hillock again. Luckily, the crow cawed again. Menacingly. It was enough to make her turn around. I was relieved. My neck was sore, my feet had ant bites and my scalp had been saved from being punctured. I was going back home to recover.
Realising that I wasn’t going to be convinced to return to the “mountain top” or to the island, or wedge my body between two unsuspecting trees, Ira led me to the umbrella tree in the garden. “Let’s stand under the umbrella. For just a few minutes,” she pleaded. I softened. ‘What harm could it do?’ I asked myself, till she insisted that I recite, “Rain rain, come again,” with her. There we stood, in full view, reciting the lines of a poem I had to create impromptu to invite monsoon, after it had retreated deep into the skies for an eight-month slumber. Walkers smiled. Joggers laughed. I waved at them. The rains remained elusive.
“All this in a day?” you may ask in disbelief. In just a couple of hours, really. When you follow a child leader, on a nature trail, a few close encounters with creatures of the world are inevitable. I’m safe and alive and years younger. And, I can’t stop smiling.