“Where’s Manbhavan?” Nitya cried. Her pudgy face showed great surprise.
“Where is Manbhavan?” repeated Bhavna, peering into Nitya’s cupboard. The cardboard box in which he lived was wide open – and – absolutely empty! Bhavna gingerly picked up the blouses and skirts that lay arranged in neat piles on the shelf and poked around them with a hesitant finger. “Hmm – he’s not here, that’s for sure,” she said.
“My cupboard was shut!” Nitya cried indignantly. “Someone stole him – or, deliberately let him go. I’m going to report it!”
“Wait a minute,” Bhavna interrupted at once. “I don’t think you can.”
Nitya stared at her, then sighed – a long whooshy sound like air escaping from a balloon. “You’re right,” she said gloomily, “I can’t, can I?” she sounded close to tears.
The rules were quite clear – no pets in the hostel. There was no way that Nitya could actually begin an official search for Manbhavan.
“Who could have been that mean to take him away from me?” she wailed. “Everyone knows how much I love him!” She tugged distractedly at the springy curls flopping onto her forehead. Her cheeks, that were so soft and looked just like pudding that one felt like pushing a finger right through, now drooped sadly.
“I was just wondering,” Bhavna said thoughtfully, screwing up her pointy little face. “Could it be…?” she paused hesitantly.
To put matters straight – Manbhavan was a frog. Originally Nitya had acquired him for a rather ‘ugh’ reason. She wanted to dissect him. She knew this was what people did to find out about more about a frog’s insides – something she was quite curious about after learning all about amphibians in the Biology class.
“After all, I intend to be a scientist,” she had told Bhavna. “I should know what the inside of a frog looks like!”
But Bhavna had shrieked. The sound, which was as loud and piercing as the whistle of a train on a silent, sleepless night, had shaken Nitya.
“No, you’re not!” Bhavna screamed. “I mean you’re not going to cut up the poor, little creature!”
For a moment Nitya gaped at her – the poor girl was still in a state of shock. She’d never realised that Bhavna could shriek that loudly! Then Nitya had peeked at Manbhavan again. He was flopping about in the paper bag in which she’d captured him. There was something appealing about his large, popping eyes – something sad and soulful.
Suddenly Nitya underwent a change of heart. “We-ell,” she said, “suppose I keep him..and..just study him? How about that?” “You can’t do that! You know you’re not allowed to keep animals in the dorm,” Bhavna said firmly. “You know the rules: No pets AT ALL!”
Nitya’s lower lip stuck out in a stubborn pout. She declared, “Then I definitely am going to keep him!” When Nitya sported that expression Bhavna knew there was no way you could make her budge an inch!
But Bhavna still tried, of course. “How are you going to keep a frog in the dorm?” she asked. “You’ll be caught in no time. Even if he is not discovered, somebody’s bound to snitch.”
A hard, straight frown appeared between Nitya’s bushy eyebrows. “We’ll see about that,” she said.
Bhavna’s heart sank. For all her soft, pudding-y looks Nitya could be a terror when provoked. Actually, most of the girls were a little scared of her. Hardly anyone would dare to take her on by objecting to the frog or even risk going behind her back to snitch.
But Bhavna tried to reason with her again. “How and where will you keep him?” she asked.
“I’ll find a way,” was Nitya’s instant reply.
Yes, that was the trouble with Nitya – she always found a way!
Sure enough, she found a cardboard box, lined it with paper napkins and made a bed for Manbhavan. She even kept a basin full of water near her cupboard so he could have a swim when he wanted. And, of course, there were plenty of flies around, so feeding him was not a problem!
Actually, the girls took to Manbhavan right away. He did have a fairly good personality for a frog. And apart from his alarming habit of hopping around suddenly – which made some of the girls hop too – there was nothing objectionable about him. “Just a reflex action,” as the dorm prefect Punita explained, when she found herself jumping. “We’re not scared of frogs, are we?”
“Certainly not!” everyone chorused back. “Imagine being scared of a little frog in this day and age!”
“He’s quite a sweetheart, actually,” Nandita said in her soft, flute-like voice. She named him Manbhavan. “Because he’s won our hearts,” she said. The dorm poet, Nandita, often read her creations aloud to the other girls on Saturday afternoons when they lounged about feasting on toothpaste sandwiches, a delicacy that Nitya (who else?) had discovered. Washed down with Swadishta, a delectable concoction made up of poppins dissolved in water, the snack and drink added a peculiar zing to those lazy afternoons.
And further add the thrilling experience of listening to Nandita’s sometimes sad and sometimes funny poetry that was quite unlike any that they were forced to study in their English literature class.
“Is he going to turn into a prince?” Mithu had asked one day about Manbhavan, the frog. She was the youngest of the group of twelve girls who shared the dorm and she still missed the fairy tales her mother used to read out to her at bedtime. She had requested the other girls to read out fairy tales to her at night, but they always refused, saying, “Grow up, kid, you’re not in kindergarten any longer!”
In reply to Mithu’s question about Manbhavan turning into a prince some day, Nitya’s prompt reply was: “Yes, that’s why I’ve kept him!”
Everyone roared with laughter, of course, because Mithu’s eyes grew so wide!
They laughed so much that they almost missed what Mithu said next, “You’ll have to kiss him then.”
“Kiss him?” that set them all off again, and they laughed till tears streaked down their cheeks.
“Never mind these girls, Mithu,” Nitya said with a straight face. “When he turns into a prince and carries me off on a white horse, I’ll remember to call you for my wedding.”
“Will you?” Mithu asked, all excited. “And er, where did you find him?”
“NO!” Punita, the prefect, yelled. “Only one frog is allowed in the dorm. That’s my rule!”
Mithu’s face fell. But no one noticed it because the bell had rung for tea. And Nitya didn’t attach too much importance to the fact that Mithu always hung around Manbhavan, talking to him. Or that she swatted flies and brought them for him to eat, even though Nitya had informed Mithu irritably that he preferred to catch them for himself.
But now that Manbhavan was missing… “It has to be!” Nitya cried out. She jumped up, “Where is Mithu?”
“Ssh, don’t be so hasty,” Bhavna cautioned. “This is just your suspicion.”
“Where is Mithu!” Nitya insisted.
“Who – Mithu?” said Nandita who had just made an entrance. “I saw her going out to the playground, but…hey!”
Nitya was already running out the door when Nandita called out to her, “By the way, she’s got Manbhavan. She said she was taking him out for some fresh air…”
“Fresh air!” Nitya exploded
“Relax,” Bhavna cried, puffing and panting to keep up with Nitya. Mithu means well, I’m sure.”
“How dare she take Manbhavan away without my permission,” Nitya flung the words over her shoulder, as she raced down to the playground.
The playground was deserted. Most of the girls were still busy washing up after classes.
“There she is!” Nitya cried. They could see Mithu at the far end of the playground beneath the Deodar trees that bordered it. Mithu was right at the edge in fact, where the hillside sloped down to a valley full of shrubby plants and wild flowers.
“Wait, wait for me!” Bhavna exclaimed.
But Nitya had already streaked across the playground and was standing over Mithu who was sprawled on the ground in an utter state of shock.
“Where’s Manbhavan?” Nitya demanded.
Mithu stared back at her and a vague gurgle escaped her throat as she pointed a shaky finger.
“Here I am!”
It was now Nitya’s eyes that popped out! A boy? In the playground? That was definitely against the rules!
But…was something vaguely familiar about him…perhaps the large, soulful eyes or was it the faint greenish tinge to his skin or maybe it was the way he reached out to catch a..FLY?