It was a hot summer afternoon during the holidays and Ma was taking a nap. Deepak was bored. He came upon a naughty idea. Boys are like that. When they want to be naughty, they have to be naughty.
So Deepak, in his naughty mood, decided to do what Ma had told him never to do. He decided to open Grandpa’s black wooden box that lay in the guest-room. It was a lovely old, square box with brass hinges. The whole box was studded with buttons of brass that had tarnished and turned black with age.
The thought of opening the box excited Deepak a lot. He scurried into the guest-room and silently shut and bolted the door behind him. Ma would be ever so angry if she came to know he had opened Grandpa’s old box. But Deepak had dreamt of opening it since he was five years old and he could even brave Ma’s wrath, now that he had a chance. Open the box he would.
As Deepak inched his way towards the forbidden box, his eyes shone with excitement. What would he find in it? Precious jewels, gold coins or magic potions? He shivered with mild fear. Grandpa had been a magician. What if a genie jumped out and refused to go back? “Pah!” he thought, “I’m not going to be scared of a stupid genie! Besides, he must be very old after being in the box for so many years.”
He went bravely towards the box. The clock on the mantelpiece ticked away, the only sound in the otherwise silent room. Deepak lifted the lid, holding the hinge with trembling fingers. Just then, the clock struck three. Ding dong, ding-dong it went loudly, making him jump out of his skin. He dropped the lid in fright and it fell back with a loud clatter. Deepak ran and hid under the cot, for sure Ma would wake up and come after him angrily.
He waited for a while, scared to even breathe; but nothing happened. So, slowly he crept out again, and went back to the box. This time, he opened it and sat down with a satisfied sigh. At last! At last, he was going to find out what the box contained.
As he ran his hands over the contents, a musty odour tickled his nostrils and made him sneeze. “What’s this? What is all this?” he wondered. There was an old red silk scarf, a black top hat, even a feathered wand, and a stick. How boring! He had seen a magic show in school and the magician had used all this to make rabbits and flowers appear and disappear. Surely, he would find something more exciting.
He dug his hands deeper into the box. Something smooth and narrow came into his hand. Pulling it out, he looked at it. It was a pair of the prettiest sunglasses he had ever seen. They had a shiny red butterfly-shaped frame spangled with bright silver stars. The lenses were black as night and a shiny silver chain dangled from the sides.
Deepak turned the glasses over and over in his hands. What were they meant for? Since they came out of the magic box, they must surely be magic sunglasses. “I must try them on and see,” he decided. Walking to the seat by the window, he sat down and slowly put on the glasses, and looked out.
Nothing happened at first. But soon, he felt something. He peered harder. The jackfruit tree outside his window seemed to be shifting. A narrow path was forming in its place, and before he knew it, he was being drawn out of the window and onto the path.
Holding the magic glasses firmly in place, Deepak started walking on the path, away from home. The beautiful path led him on quickly, his little legs scarcely feeling the pain of walking so fast. So many brightly coloured flowers grew by the sides of the path, it seemed like a hundred rainbows had come down to earth at once to visit. Giant trees stood around like alert guards.
The whole place was humming with birdsong. Bees were busily buzzing around, collecting nectar from the flowers to make honey. Little animals were moving fearlessly back and forth on the path because there were no cars, no trucks, no noise, dust, not even cycles to scare them off. Rabbits spoke to birds, ants cheerfully went about collecting little grains of food and a toad sat on one side, croaking lazily.
Deepak walked faster, he walked for a long time, deeper and deeper into the woods, till he came upon a little clearing. The clearing was dark and cool, bordered by large trees. A cane fence rose upwards, in the middle of the clearing. It had been built to protect a little mud hut that sat squat and cosy inside. The hut had a sloping hay roof and little cane windows.
Deepak went up to the gate of the fence, lifted the latch and then drew back. What if a nasty witch lived inside? He thought it better to hide behind a tree and watch. Even as he watched, the cane door of the hut opened and a bent old lady in a white sari walked out with a broom in her hand. She was toothless and had a headful of silver grey hair. She wore the most enormous red stone earrings on her ear lobes that were sagging to her shoulders with the weight.
“There,” Deepak told himself, “I knew there was a witch inside. Now, she’ll just get onto her broom and fly away.” But the old woman didn’t fly away. She merely flicked her broom this way and that, over the ground, clearing away the dried leaves that had fallen from the trees. Then, she went and tiredly sat on a stone bench, took out some betel nut from a dirty pouch that hung on her waist and chewed on it.
Deepak heard another voice from inside the hut. “Ajji, Ajji, I’m ready for school,” the voice cried. It belonged to a dark, thin boy who came out holding a slate in his hand. Deepak saw him and his mouth fell open. He pushed his magic glasses firmly onto his nose. They were big and kept slipping off his nose.
He looked again at the boy. Going to school? How could this boy be going to school? He wore no uniform, just a thin loincloth and a short kurta. He walked barefoot and wore a knot of hair on his neck, just like his grandmother. Deepak almost laughed aloud. Imagine going to school like that. Supriya ma’am would have a fit if he went to school in that dress.
How was Deepak to know that the magic glasses had taken him back in time? To a time when children could wear anything they wanted to school; they didn’t have to carry a bag heavy with books, just a slate would do. And their school had no building. They sat under trees and studied.
Now the boy, whose name was Balan Pandit, and his grandma were arguing. “But grandma, let me go to school alone today. I’ll be safe. All my friends say I’m grandma’s little baby and can’t come alone.”
“No, child,” replied the old grandma, “there are fierce animals in the jungle and only I know the mantra that can keep them away. I have to come with you.” But Balan Pandit was adamant and Grandma had to finally give in.
He set off, slate in hand, closely followed by Deepak, who was invisible because of his magic glasses. They went deeper and deeper into the woods because Balan’s school was in the village on the other side. As they walked on, suddenly there was a loud noise of crackling leaves and the sharp kerr-rack of tree branches breaking and Balan knew some big creature was approaching. “I should have listened to Grandma,” he thought and started praying.
Soon, a huge, burly, grizzly bear emerged from behind the trees and blocked Balan’s path.
“Where are you going?” he growled.
“I’m going to school,” Balan answered in a thin, scared voice.
“You can’t go, I won’t let you,” growled the bear angrily.
“But why?” wailed Balan, “I have to go, please let me.”
“No, no, I can’t let you go. My baby needs someone to play with today — if you go to school, who will play with him?” said the bear and came towards Balan.
Deepak watched, thankful that he was invisible.
Just then, from the woods, the tiniest, cutest, fattest little brown bear toddled out crying, “Papa, where are you?”
Papa Bear immediately lost the fierce look on his face and softened up. “I’m here, my baby,” he said, “see who I found for you to play with!”
He reached out for Balan’s hand and pulled him forward. Balan was quaking with fear by now. Baby Bear looked at Balan and smiled.
“I like him, Papa,” he said happily.
“If you don’t keep my baby happy, I’ll hug you to death,” Papa Bear warned Balan fiercely.
Though Balan was frightened, he was a clever boy. He knew that if the baby became his friend, Papa Bear would not harm him. So he walked up to the baby and fondled him.
“Baby,” he gently said, “I can’t stay back now, but I promise I’ll come tomorrow and every day after that, and play with you. Will you tell your Papa to let me go?”
The baby was kinder than his father and so he pleaded with his father to let Balan Pandit go. In the days that followed, the little brown bear and Balan became friends and spent many hours playing together every day. But Balan was having a hard time in school. No one believed stories about his adventures with his bear friend, they laughed at him and poked fun at him. Deepak even saw him crying sometimes, when his friends called him a liar and a boaster.
One day, Balan was so tired of being teased, he said, “Okay, if you don’t believe I have a little bear friend, I’ll bring him to school tomorrow.” His friends only laughed some more, and the school bully thumped him hard on his back and threatened to beat Balan to a pulp if he broke his promise.
Deepak watched all this through his magic glasses, nervous about what was going to happen to Balan Pandit.
Balan Pandit told Baby Bear and Papa Bear about his problem the next day. As he spoke, big, salty tears rolled down his cheeks. Papa Bear looked at him and clucked kindly. “You have been kind to my baby,” he said, “I will come to school with you today. And that’s not all, we will bring the choicest, juiciest berries and sweetest honey with us and have a party.”
It was a strange sight in school that day. Balan Pandit, flanked by the mighty grizzly and the tiny baby bear, carrying pots of honey and baskets of juicy berries as they walked to school. The boys ran amok with fear, till the big bear went to them kindly and fed them berries and honey. They had the most wonderful party. Papa Bear sang songs in his rich deep voice and everyone danced.
While they were all busy, Deepak set aside a pot of honey and Balan’s slate for himself. When the bears went away, the boys crowded around Balan Pandit and crowned him leader of their gang for life. Deepak slipped away quietly, unseen, unnoticed.
There was a loud thumping at the door. “Deepak, open the door this minute or I’ll break it down and give you the hiding of your life,” Deepak’s mother furiously cried. Deepak sat up with a start, took off his magic glasses and put them back in the box before shutting it.
Had he been dreaming? What a wonderful journey he had just been on. Ma would never believe him. “She should never know”, he thought to himself and opened the door. Ma pushed herself in and looked around suspiciously. “What were you doing?” she demanded. “Nothing, Ma,” he said innocently, “I was only reading.”
She spied something on the window. It was a small earthen jar of honey and an old slate in a battered wooden frame. “Where did these come from?” she asked angrily.
“I don’t know, Ma, honest,” Deepak replied, smiling secretly to himself. Ma left the room mumbling about naughty boys who told lies about jars of honey.
She would never believe his adventure of the day and he decided to keep it to himself. But the next day, when he put on the magic sunglasses again … well, that’s another story!