“Papa. Let’s go, please! I want to go now!”
“Now, let’s get your sister some nice little shoes first. And then we’ll go get whatever it is that you want. Okay?”
“No papa. First let’s get the toys. Only two minutes papa. Pleaaasee !”
“Now be a good boy and walk along Aryaman!”
Aryaman wanted the new action hero they kept showing in the ads. The black winged ninja.
And he couldn’t contain his excitement and wanted to get the action figure as soon as possible, so he could play with it. But Mrs.Bhaskar suggested that they first shop for little Avni on the first floor, and then head to the third floor for Aryaman’s toys.
Aryaman tried to tug at his father and pull him back into the elevator, but Mr.Bhaskar resisted, trying to convince him they were going to get him the ninja after they were done on the first floor.
Mr.Bhaskar managed to drag unwilling little Aryaman to the counter and sat him on a chair. Mrs.Bhaskar asked the salesman for frocks for a year old baby girl.
“Papa you said you’re buying shoes for her, mama is asking for frocks!”
“Yes Aryaman, we’ll get to the shoes once were done with frocks.”
Aryaman’s chubby face glowered with exasperation at the lack of his parent’s attention to his wants.
He protested shrilly about how his father was always saying things like that and complained about how he was never bought any toys and how all his friends taunted him with their new toys and about how Avni owned a thousand toys and yet, there they were, shopping for Avni.
“That’s not true Aryaman. Mamma got you that bunny toy recently. And none of your friends have that new toy you want- you said so in the car. I told you we’ll get it, just wait for a few minutes. When Mamma’s done, well go get it. Now sit here calmly like a good boy.”
Aryaman had trouble being patient while his mother was crooning over how cute the pink frock was , and how Mrs.Malti would ask her where she got it from. His mother wasn’t even paying attention to him.
Aryaman’s displeasure only started building as his father and mother were choosing frocks for his sister. They didn’t even care about how he was feeling, about how angry he was. Aryaman just sat there pouting, fuming and glaring at his parent’s unbothered backs.
After half an hour, his mother was done choosing, and enquired where the footwear for infants was available. Aryaman wanted to vociferate but decided he’d give his parents the silent treatment. He didn’t let his father hold him and smugly tagged along, keeping his distance and pouting. Mr.Bhaskar was sure Aryaman would be pacified once they reached the third floor.
Aryaman sighted a Spiderman costume along the way and decided to forgive his parents.
“Yeah, come now, this way.”
“Papa I want that, please buy me Spiderman!”, he beseeched.
“Come Aryaman, we’ll come back here after getting you the ninja.”
“Yeah , come now.”
“Say promise! You promised me you’d buy chocolate yesterday, but you didn’t!”
Reluctantly, Aryaman lugged along.
Aryaman’s attention was caught by some colorful sneakers and he pulled his father along towards the rack. “Papa see !”
“You have enough shoes, Aryaman.”
“I just want to see! Look at these yellow ones!”
“Bhaskar! Do you think these are nice?”
Mr.Bhaskar moved towards the other end of the aisle where Mrs. Bhaskar was looking at footwear for Avni. Aryaman went ahead and tried on some a pair of blue crocs.
“Papa! These look good on me!”
Aryaman walked over to them and tried to catch their attention.
“Look amma! They look nice!”
“Yes Aryaman, now put them back from where you got them. The shopkeeper will shout at you.”
“But I like these! I want to keep these!”
“No you cannot. Papa has enough money only for the ninja, right Bhaskar?”
“Yes. Next time we come here well get you these, okay? Now put them back.” And then he continued to his wife,” Now Sunita, hurry up.”
“Oh! There are bibs on that aisle! I’ll go get one!”
Aryaman smugly walked back to the other end of the aisle and removed the crocs brusquely, and flung them on to the floor.
He toddled abstractedly to the other end of the aisle and saw that his parents were at the next aisle on the right trying to coax the baby as many faces turned in the direction of the wailing baby.
He moved straight towards a rotating display stand and gazed as kids watches dazzled from within the curved glass. There were watches in a dozen catchy colors, some with action figures or princesses and Barbies, some with garish stones embedded, some with removable straps in a set. One watch caught his eye, with an orange strap, and many buttons along the case which indicated many functions. He moved along with the orange watch inside the rotating display. After circling around the display three times, he giggled as he felt a little wobbly.
He turned around to call his Papa to show him his new fancy, and couldn’t find him. He turned the other way realizing he was looking to the left. His parents weren’t there either. Aryaman’s pulse quickened and he was suddenly frightened. He whipped his head this side and that side, and took two tottering steps in the direction he last saw his parents.
Blood rushed up to his face and his neck stiffened and he trembled. He looked in the other directions as well and couldn’t spot his parents. He stood there for a moment in fear. He took in the empty aisles and started teetering towards the aisle he came from. He walked to the end where his blue crocs were still on the floor and looked down at them. Silent petrified tears trickled down his plump cheeks. He stumbled upon the crocs and out of the aisle and peeped at the counters, and saw only people he didn’t know.
If there was one thing that scared Aryaman more than anything, it was being left alone. He dreaded being left alone by his parents and couldn’t be distracted for long in their absence. On his first few days at school his parents had a tough time leaving Aryaman in the care of the teachers, and the teachers had a tough job cajoling a terrified little Aryaman. Aryaman would screech and wail at the top of his voice the moment he’d realize that he was left all by himself in any room. Aryaman wasn’t amicable with strangers either, always insisting that he be carried around, or hiding behind his Amma’s pallu after the arrival of his baby sister.
Aryaman’s fingers went up to his lips and his wide dark eyes were tearful beneath his puckered brows .He inched back into the aisle and turned around and tottered back to the other end and turned right . He stood there and looked, and waited to catch a glimpse of his parents. He walked a bit further and peeped into the next aisle. His parents weren’t there. He scuttled to the other end and peeped out, holding the rack within his reach at the end of the aisle with one hand and with the fingers of the other in his mouth.
He thought that his parents left him because he was being so naughty. May be they left him because they did not want to buy the black winged ninja. A picture flashed in his mind, of his parents eating strawberry ice-cream with his sister outside the mall. He wouldn’t ask for the ninja, if only his parents came back.
He left the aisle and slowly walked towards the counters, unsure of where to go. Another kid in a yellow Chota Bheem shirt ran into the aisle behind him. He looked after the kid, and then turned back to look at the parents of the kid following him. He looked up at the parents and took a few steps back and the parents looked at him uncertainly and then smiled and followed their kid into the aisle.
Aryaman looked after them, and then turned around to where the counters were. There were a few customers standing at the counter where they had previously been. He saw a lady in a pink saree similar to that of his amma’s salwar and slowly approached her. He pulled her pallu tentatively and looked up timidly. The stout woman turned around and stooped towards Aryaman with a surprised smile.
“Hullo! Such a cute little boy,” she said reaching forward to pinch his rotund cheeks. But Aryaman quickly backed away, scared of the lady.
“Oh! It’s okay, I won’t touch you. What’s your name?”
“Do you know where amma went?”, he asked earnestly.
“Oh! Are you lost?”
She turned around to the salesman and asked him if he knew where his parents were.
The salesman bent forward to take a look at the kid and recognized him.
“I saw your parents go that way, run there and you’ll find them!”
Aryaman snapped his head in the direction the salesman pointed to, and spotted a pink fabric flash briefly and disappear behind around the corner in front of the elevators.
He ran towards the elevators and turned around the corner and spotted a woman with a pink scarf. It wasn’t his mother. He walked after her and stopped midway of the corridor and turned back to face the elevators at the end of the corridor. He walked unsurely towards the elevators. As he did, he remembered how his mother once said she’d throw him out of the house for misbehaving. Then he thought of the scary neighbor she said she’d give him to if he didn’t eat vegetables. He stopped walking and broke into bitter sobs. He wept and as he wept a tall man noticed him crying.
As The dark, forbearing looking man approached Aryaman he backed away for he was scared. He stopped crying and ran past the stranger towards the elevators and pressed the button. He turned back in fear of being approached by that man and the man was coming his way cautiously.
“It’s okay, don’t be afraid. Where are your parents?”
Aryaman didn’t answer and looked even more frightened.
“I’ll help you find them okay?”
And Aryaman knew that this was the man Ms.Clementina referred to as the stranger one shouldn’t talk to. And that one should shout for help if approached by this scary person. Aryaman didn’t scream, but prepared to- if the man came closer.
“They’ll kidnap you and take you away to dark places if you don’t listen to Amma, Aryaman.”
He was frightened and leaped into the elevator once it arrived.
The elevator door closed as the man tried coming closer. There were two young men in the elevator and Aryaman looked up at them. The men somewhat perplexed at what they just saw asked him what he was doing in the elevator. Aryaman just stared at them.
One of them bent down and asked him where his parents were. Aryaman said they were on the third floor. The young man pressed the floor-three button for Aryaman, and both the men got off the elevator onto the second floor. When floor three arrived and the door opened, Aryaman gingerly got off the elevator not sure if he’d find his parents there.
He did not know which way to go and just stood there for a few moments. And as he stood there looking at people walking around, carrying bags and baskets and trolleys, pulling along their kids, an unreasonable fear gripped him. He began thinking back to when his mom yelled at him for twisting his sister’s arm for taking his toy.
“You need to learn to share your toys Aryaman. You have become an elder brother now, be responsible!”
He began thinking back to all the times he’d pester his mom to carry him instead of his sister, the times when he’d bicker to sleep beside her instead of his Avni.
“I hate Avni! I will throw her outside the gate! I don’t want her!”
He remembered almost getting slapped for that, and that his father hadn’t talked to him that day. His mother was harsh to him that day, while she was cooing at the baby.
He did not get anymore bedtime stories. His father would feed him now, often trying to get Aryaman to eat by himself. His mom didn’t like him painting so much now, like she used to. She was yelling at him often for his ‘mischief’s’. His father wouldn’t teach him to ride the bicycle on weekends anymore. Papa is always tired.
Avni was always crying, always demanding attention. No one appreciated the paintings he stuck on to the fridge anymore. He had to brush by himself, and his father would help him bathe. He had to wear his socks and belt, tie his shoelaces, all by himself. Sometimes amma didn’t even wake up by the time his school bus arrived.
His mother wasn’t so pleasant now while helping him do his homework. She kept forcing him to go to bed earlier. And when he threw tantrums, she reprimanded him severely.
May be they left him at the mall because they didn’t want him anymore. They must have gone home. They had Avni now. When Avni came home Aryaman was excited about his new sister, but soon turned jealous. He didn’t like his little sister sleeping beside his mom all the time. She would even cry if she was placed in the cradle.
He did not even know how to get back to home. He did not have money. He hunkered down and began crying.
A woman approached him.
He paused as he recognized the voice and looked up to see the woman.
It was his teacher at school, Ms.Clementina.
“Yes, Aryaman. What are doing here? Why are you crying?” She looked around and said, “ Where’s mumma papa ?”.
“They left me here.” And saying so, Aryaman began snuffling and tears spilled down his tender, now red cheeks.
“Is it so? Where have they gone?”
“It’s okay. They haven’t gone home. Don’t be scared, you must be lost. Come with me.”
She lifted him up and carried him to the food court at the other end on the floor. There she sat him down on a chair and handed him a hanky.
“Now wipe those tears off while I call your parents.”
Aryaman would have been very afraid of his teacher normally, but a familiar face among all those unfamiliar ones gave him comfort. He wiped his tears and looked around at other people eating stuff that he would normally pester his parents to get him.
Ms.Clementina dialed a number and waited for response. No one answered and she ended the call.
“What do you want to eat? You must be hungry.”
Aryaman nodded unsure of what to say.
“How long were you lost?”
Aryaman was quick to reply, “Ten hours.”
“Is it? I see,” she said laughing.
“Want ice-cream? Chocolate?”
“I’ll be right back, now be a good boy and wait here, okay?”
Aryaman nodded and she left and came back with two strawberry ice-creams.
She dialed the number again and put it on loudspeaker and began eating.
“How did you get lost?”
“They just went away without taking me,” Aryaman pouted , ice-cream on his chin.
For a while Ms.Clementina watched Aryaman eat clumsily. Then Aryaman looked at her and realized he was sitting with his scary teacher and that he got lost.
“Miss, am I going back to home? Will you take me back in the school bus?”
“I’m trying to call your papa. If he doesn’t pick I’ll perhaps drop you off at home, not in the school bus, though.”
“Will they come here?”
“If your papa picks the call.” After a pause, she asked him, “How did you get on to the elevator?”
Aryaman began relating animatedly, “I met a stranger miss! And he was trying to take me with him! So I ran into the elevator!”
“Which floor were you on?”
Aryaman sat in silence for a while looking at his teachers mobile on the table and licking at the ice-cream thoughtfully.
“Did they get lost?”
“You got lost. They must have lost you. Your parents didn’t leave you on purpose, okay? They love you.”
Aryaman focused on not letting the ice-cream drip from his fingers. Melted ice-cream trickled down to his elbow, and Ms.Clementina offered him tissues.
“How’s your little sister? “ Aryaman had missed a week at school when his sister was born.
“Do you play with her?”
“She takes my toys and cries all the time. I don’t want to play with her.“
“That’s not nice. You’re her elder brother, and you should be nice to her. She’s just a baby, and she likes your toys because they’re so nice. Why don’t you show her how to play with your toys”, Ms.Clementina said tentatively.
“She spilt milk on my Pooh. She bit my lion and broke his ear! And my favorite car is lost. All because of Avni!”
“She’s just a baby! She wants to play with you.”
“But she slapped me that day,” Aryaman said innocently.
“Babies don’t mean everything they do. Your sister likes you. If you’re nice to her, she’ll like you even more. The same way you and Shruti have become friends.”
“But Shruti knows how to color!”
“You can teach your sister how to color, she’s small right? She doesn’t know how to draw and color like you do.”
Aryaman decided to give all his attention to the ice-cream.
“So will you be nice to her from now on?”
Aryaman didn’t respond.
She reached across the table and tickled him while he laughed and twisted in his chair. She wiped his mouth with a clean tissue after he was done with the ice-cream. Mr.Bhaskar was still not picking the call.
“You know my brother always gives me gifts. He loves me a lot!”
“You have a brother?” asked Aryaman incredulously, as though he had never imagined teachers to have families.
“Yes. And he always is so nice to me, like a good brother! He takes me to places all the time. Last week we went to the zoo!”
“I want to go to the zoo!”
“So will you be nice to your sister? I’ll give you a chocolate if you treat your sister nicely and take good care of her.”
“I’ll ask your parents. And if they say you’re not good to her, no chocolate for you!”
“I’ll be good to her. I want chocolate.”
The truth was that Ms.Clementina had a brother whom she met only once in a year. They were very fond of each other as kids and always had fun together. But as they grew up, Ms.Clementina’s brother had begun getting drawn into his life and his family, and they went different ways, hardly keeping in touch. Now they met only at their parent’s anniversary every year which conveniently for her, fell in March.
She took Aryaman by the hand and they walked towards the elevator. Aryaman’s attention was caught by a rack filled with the new black winged ninja toys and he exclaimed aloud. She took him to the rack and he chose one and she bought it for him.
As they were about to get onto the elevator, she heard an announcement.
“Customer announcement. We have a lost child somewhere in the mall. We are looking for a little boy, aged 4 years old, wearing a red tee and jeans. He has curly hair and is called Aryaman. He was last seen on the first level. If you have seen this child please notify the nearest member of security or bring him to the front desk, where his parents will be waiting to collect him.”
They headed down in the elevator, to meet his parents at the front desk.
“Your parents are looking for you. They are down at the front desk, waiting for you.”
Aryaman’s face lit up and he couldn’t wait to get back to his parents.
“I’m not lost!,” he squealed excitedly.
Once Aryaman’s family was in view, he ran from his teacher’s side and into his mom and hugged her tightly from behind. His father turned around and exclaimed loudly, “Aryaman! We were looking for you everywhere!”
Aryaman began crying and his father patted his back. He looked up at Ms.Clementina and was surprised. When he was related to as to what had happened, he thanked her sincerely from the bottom of his heart.
After Mrs.Bhaskar also thanked Ms.Clementina profusely and Avni squealed in delight at the stranger who pinched her cheek, they departed.
“Papa! Look! She bought me the ninja!”
“Oh! We forgot about it! Why did you take it? It’s bad manners, I told you so.”
“But she bought it herself and gave it to me!”
Mrs.Bhaskar sat in the backseat beside him and hugged him a lot.
“Were you afraid, Aryaman?”
“I was! Why did you leave me there alone?”
“We did not look where you were and suddenly we realized you weren’t behind us! Never again leave our side, okay? Always make sure we are around, and always follow us closely, if suppose we aren’t paying attention. Oh! I was so afraid,” saying so she hugged him tightly to her side and Avni played with his hair as they sat in that position for the rest of their way back home.