Nina got down from the school bus and looked around. Sarala was nowhere to be seen. She was surprised. This had never happened before. Sarala would always be standing at the bus stop waiting for Nina. The moment she saw Nina she would rush forward, give her a big hug, take the school bag in one hand and grasping Nina’s hand in the other, start walking.
“Nina how was your day? Did Rahul tease you today? How is your new English teacher, Moushami maam? How much homework do you have?” she would badger her with questions.
Nina was seven years old. She was studying in Saint Anne’s School. Her parents were divorced and she lived with her mother Ipsita Sen who was a doctor and had her own clinic.
Sarala worked in Nina’s house and stayed with her husband Bhola in the servant’s quarter. Nina’s house was half a kilometre away from the bus stand. Sarala dropped her in the morning and picked her up in the evening. She was an efficient woman who cooked the meals, washed the dishes and clothes and kept the house spic and span. Ipsita left for her clinic at nine in the morning and returned at one. After a few hours of rest she was off again at five and came back only at ten. When Nina returned from her school Ipsita would be away and by the time Ipsita returned from the clinic Nina would be asleep. Thus Nina was entirely in the care of Sarala.
“Nina, I have come to take you today,” Nina heard a familiar voice and looked up. It was Bhola. He was tall and skinny with a pock-marked face and mean, shifty eyes. Nina had always been a little scared of him. He was a good for nothing fellow and had never done an honest day’s work in his life. One day she had heard Sarala telling her mum that Bhola had come home drunk and beaten her severely. She had shown her bruises and wept.
“Where is Sarala?” Nina asked.
“She has sprained her ankle and has sent me. See, I have got a cycle – it even has a small seat in front for you to sit.”
Even as Nina hesitated Bhola picked her up and placed her on the red seat. He slung the school bag on his shoulder and started pedalling. A few minutes later he abruptly braked to a halt.
“I think there is a problem with the cycle.” He looked around. They were standing right in front of the Mafatlal Park.
“Nina, you go and sit on that bench under the neem tree. I’ll get the cycle repaired and pick you up. It won’t take more than a few minutes.”
Nina went and sat on the bench. It was lonely at this time of the day and she felt quite uncomfortable.
Two minutes later Bhola was back. “Nina, I think there is some problem with the cycle. Why don’t we sit here and wait? Here have these,” he said giving Nina a packet of fried groundnuts.
Nina loved groundnuts but her mum usually forbade her to eat any stuff sold by a roadside hawker.
“Thanks.” She took the packet and started munching. The hot and crisp groundnuts tasted real good.
Bhola sat down beside her. “Nina, I am in trouble.”
“I borrowed some money from a money lender for starting a small business. That money was stolen. Now the money lender is threatening me. If I don’t return it within ten days he will get me beaten up.”
Nina kept quiet wondering why he was telling her all this.
“Nina I want you to help me.”
Nina looked at him, a puzzled expression on her face.
“You give me this beautiful watch you are wearing. I’ll pawn it and give the money to the money lender. This will keep him satisfied for sometime. In the meanwhile I’ll somehow arrange for the money and …”
“I can’t do that. Mum will spank me.”
“She need not know that you gave the watch to me. You can tell her you dropped it somewhere.”
“I don’t lie to mum,” she said shaking her head.
Bhola’s face darkened and scowling menacingly he said, “Listen you over-smart kitten. You don’t know me. I am a very dangerous man. Either you give me this watch or I’ll snatch it from you and in the process break your little hand.”
Nina was terrified. Seeing the mean and ugly face glaring at her she started whimpering. Bhola caught hold of her hand and removed the watch.
“Not a word about this to anyone. Or else I’ll break your little legs. Now come with me.”
When they reached home. Sarala came out limping. Seeing Nina’s face she asked,”What happened child? You look as if you have seen a ghost.”
“We saw a very bad accident on the way. A small boy was run over by a bus. His head was smashed. It was ghastly, wasn’t it Nina?” Bhola asked, nudging her.
Nina nodded and ran straight to her room.
The entire evening she sat in the room with her gang of friends – her toys. She had a great collection – Brownie the teddy bear, Pinky his wife, Golu and Gappu their sons, Tikloo the rabbit, Angoor the langur, Chipkoo the chimp, Chatur the cheetah, Brando the tiger, Tondu the hippo and her favourite – Dino the Dinosaur. They were her best friends. Every day she would spend hours talking to them, telling them about her school, her classmates, her favourite TV programmes, what she had for lunch, what she would be having for dinner and lots more.
Nina took great care of her friends. She would never throw away old toys. She had got Brownie on her first birthday and he was still there along with the twins Golu and Gappu who were presented to her last month, on her seventh birthday. She didn’t allow anyone else to touch them. She herself dusted them and sometimes even gave them a bath. She would pester Sarala to stitch clothes for them and drag her along to shop for the right kind of dress material. Usually her old clothes would be cut up and made into frocks, T shirts, shorts and jeans for the toys. What she enjoyed most of all was celebrating their birthdays. She would host a birthday party where the only outsiders would be Sarala and her mum. The day Golu and Gappu were brought to her she knew they would find it difficult to sleep in a new place. So she had taken them to her bed and made them sleep beside her. She had told them stories and even sang lullabies and the little ones had slept soundly.
But today she had been in no mood to talk to even her toy gang. The watch had been given to her by her mum on her seventh birthday. It was very cute. The dial was golden brown in colour with a picture of a dinosaur. The strap was bright pink with blue dots and stripes. She simply loved her watch. The more she thought of it the more she wanted to cry.
Mum had asked her not to wear it to school.” You can wear it when you are going out with me but not to school.”
“Please mum, Anju, Mike, Preetam – they all wear a watch to school,” she had pleaded.
Mum had relented and she had worn the watch to school for the first time last Monday.
‘How was she going to explain its loss to her mum?’ she wondered.
Fortunately her mum was in a hurry the next morning and she didn’t notice.
It was eight, Sarala had finished her work and gone home. Nina had completed her homework and was watching Discovery – her favourite channel. She heard someone knocking on the window. She opened it and looked out. Bhola was standing outside grinning at her.
“Nina I have come to thank you for the watch. It was a good one. I got Rs 375 for that. Now I want another help. You have a piggy bank which is right there on your table. Give it to me.”
“No, I won’t,” Nina said.
“What?” Bhola snapped and lunging at her caught hold of her hand. “No one says no to me. You jolly well know what will happen to you if I get angry. Now quietly give me your piggy bank.”
Nina handed the piggy bank to Bhola who grabbed it and disappeared into the night.
Nina threw herself on the bed and cried her eyes out.
“Nina, why are you crying?” she heard a voice.
Startled she looked around. There was no one in the room – only her toy gang.
She thought she must have imagined it and wiping her tears she lay down once more on the bed.
“Nina look at me. I am your best friend.”
Nina sat bolt upright. Dino the Dinosaur was sitting in his usual place on the study table opposite the bed. She looked at him carefully. Was he smiling or was she imagining it?
“Wa..was….it you speaking?”
“Yes, of course. Who else is your best friend?”
“B..but how can you talk?”
“Not only I, every member of the toy gang can talk.”
” We can also sing and dance,” Nina heard several voices.
“But can everybody hear you?”
“No, of course not. Only people like you who love us, take care of us and believe in us can hear and talk to us,” Dino said.
“Nina you have always looked after us so well. You shared your feelings with us – treated us like living beings. We feel you are one of us. That is why last evening when we saw you so sad and morose, we had meeting. We thought we’ll ask you the reason today. We were hesitating a bit but when we saw you crying we decided enough was enough. We had to come to your rescue,” Brownie said.
“Now quickly tell us what is the matter?” asked Chipkoo.
Nina recounted the entire story.
“That rascal Bhola needs to be taught a lesson,” Chatur thundered.
“But how?” wondered Golu and Gappu together. They were identical twins and did everything together.
“I have an idea. Very soon Bhola will come and ask for something. When he does that you somehow lure him into this room and leave the rest to the toy gang,” Dino said. And lowering his voice he explained his plan to Nina.
Next morning, as Nina was getting ready for school, Bhola appeared near the window.
“Nina this time you will have to get me your mother’s camera. I know she has an imported one. She was taking photographs with it on your birthday.”
“I don’t know where she keeps it” replied Nina sullenly.
“Then you better find out. I’ll come this evening.”
That evening at eight there was a knock. Nina opened the window. Bhola was standing outside. Have you got it?” he asked.
“It is in my room. In a suitcase on top of the almirah. You will have to get the suitcase down for me.”
“No problem. Sarala has gone to her sister’s house. She will be back only after ten You open the door. I’ll take the camera and vanish. I’ve already arranged a customer for the camera.”
Nina opened the door and led Bhola into her room.
She pointed to a large suitcase on the top of the almirah. “The camera is in that suitcase. It is not locked. After you bring the suitcase down I’ll take out the camera and give it to you.”
Bhola pulled a chair and stood on it. He grasped the handle of the suitcase and lifted it. Just then Nina switched off the light and hid inside a wall cupboard. She left the doors of the cupboard a little ajar so that she could watch the fun from there.
“Arrey! Nina, get me a torch,” shouted Bhola.
As she watched open mouthed she saw Dino rise in the air and flying towards Bhola at a great speed, kick him behind his left ear. Dino was a stuffed toy, quite soft and fluffy but from Bhola’s reaction it looked as if he had been hit by a sledgehammer.
“Ouch,” he shrieked, losing his balance. He came down like a tonne of bricks with the suitcase landing on his head. “Wha…wha…what …who..who’s there? Come out you scoundrel. I’ll break your neck,” he shouted waving his fist and kicking in the air.
It was pitch dark and he couldn’t make out anything. Suddenly he heard strange sounds – animals were shrieking and yelling. It was as if the entire jungle was there – tigers, bears, cheetahs, monkeys, langurs and many others had entered the room and were ranting and raving at him. As his eyes got used to the darkness he saw a sight he would never ever forget. A creature with the head of a tiger and the body of a dinosaur was moving towards him, growling menacingly. Within seconds the monster was on top scratching, biting, kicking and hitting him.
“Help, help,” he screamed. “Nina, beti where are you? Please help me. This place is haunted. There is a huge monster who is trying to kill me with his bare hands …Call the police, the doctor or anyone else you can think of…please…”
He covered his face with his hands and tried to bolt. But he realised he had been pinned to the wall. He couldn’t even move.
“So, my dear Bhola will you ever trouble Nina again?” Dino said in his gruffest voice.
“N…no..but who are you?”
“That is not for you to ask,” Dino replied whacking him one on his head. As if on cue the rest of the toys took off and started raining blows.
“Ouch! Ouch! Forgive me, please. I will not even look at Nina.”
“What about the watch and piggy bank?”
“I pawned the watch and spent that money as well as the money I found in the piggy bank.”
“Tomorrow evening by this time if the watch and the piggy back are not returned we’ll catch you wherever you are and give you such a thrashing even your mother will not be able to recognise you,” Tondu the Hippo growled. He was fond of watching Hindi films and loved to repeat the dialogues of the masala movies.
“Okay, okay. But please leave me now. I beg you,” Bhola whispered.
“Get out,” Dino shouted giving him a parting kick.
Bhola scampered out and didn’t stop running till he had reached his house and bolted the door behind him.
After he left Nina emerged from the cupboard and hugged Dino and the rest of the gang. “Thank you,” she said kissing all of them.
“But Dino, do you think Bhola has learnt his lesson?” Golu and Gappu asked.
“For his sake, I really hope so. Anyway we’ll know tomorrow.”
Next day at 7.30 the bell rang. Nina went and opened the door. Bhola was standing outside. His eyes were red and his face swollen.
“N..no, its okay,” he said handing her the watch and piggy bank. He then looked at her and lowering his voice asked, “Nina I..I.. was quite drunk yesterday… D..di…did all that actually happen or was I imagining it?”
“Why don’t you come and check for yourself,” Nina said very sweetly, opening the door wide and inviting him in.
“N…n…no…please. One experience was enough to last a lifetime,” he said and turning back ran to his house.
Nina went back to her room and showed the Toy gang the watch and piggy bank.
“I don’t think he will ever trouble you again,” Dino declared.
“Thanks to my Toy Gang he won’t,” Nina said hugging and kissing her friends.