Rrrr…ing. The shrill sound of the call bell filled the house. Nita looked at the front door and frowned. ‘Who could it be so early in the morning? We hardly know anyone here.’
The summer vacation had just started and Nita and her family had recently shifted to this multi-storey building and were still in thee process of settling down.
She opened the door and quickly jumped aside to avoid being trampled on by the group of children who rushed into the house in a tearing hurry. The group consisted of children of all ages.
“Arun, where is Arun?” they all chorused.
“He is having a bath, Please wait,” answered Nita. Bewildered, she looked at the motley group. ‘How could Arun have made so many friends in such a short time?’ she thought. ‘Ok, so he is an extrovert but this is too much!’
“Hi, folks!” suddenly Arun burst into the drawing room wiping his wet hair vigorously with a towel. “Give me two minutes.” As he turned he saw Nita standing in a corner. He called out to her and introduced, “This is Nita, my younger sister; and Nita this is the gang from the building. This is Saurabh, this is Suruchi, Ritu, Ashok, Geeetika, Annesh, Gaurav and Tutu.”
“Hello,” said Nita shyly. Arun went inside to get ready.
“Why don’t you also come with us?” asked one of the gang members.
Nita shook her head. She knew she could not keep up with their pace.
“Oh, Nita is a dreamer-a nature-lover,” said Arun joining his friends. “She would rather paint or read a book in some quiet corner than come out and play wild games with us. Isn’t that so Nita?” Arun said patting her indulgently on the head. Nita smiled shyly.” As soon as we are gone, she will take her sketch book and go on the terrace to draw…”
Before Arun could finish, the group exclaimed, “The terrace? Oh, no, not the terrace!”
“Why?” asked Nita astonished at this unanimous vehemence.
“It is a Prohibited Zone,” said Suruchi.
“Don’t even think of,” quipped Ashok.
“Trespassers are shouted at,” added Aneesh.
“Hey, wait a minute. What is all this warning about? Why is the terrace prohibited and by whom?” asked Neeta.
“By Mrs. Daroowala,” tha gang replied in chorus.
“Who is she?” asked Arun, puzzled.
“She is an old Parsi lady living on the top floor. She bought this house only last year. She lives alone save for an old maid who looks after the house and cook for her-a kind of woman Friday,” said Geetika.
“But why should she not allow anyone on the terrace?” asked Neeta.
“Oh, she is just eccentric, that is all. We used to there quite often to play before she came. But within a week of her shifting there, she shooed us out,” said Ritu. “Once or twice, we did try to go upstairs but what a screaming we got! Since then no one has dared to go there.”
“I am sure she is an enchantress performing magic or something there,” said Tutu the youngest of them. She was hardly six.
“She hates children,” spoke Saurabh with finality, thus closing the subject. “Come along now, let us go and play.” Said Arun impatiently and they all rushed out just as they had rushed in.
But Neeta could not take it so easily. ‘Who could this Mrs. Daroowala be who hates children? How could anyone hate children?’ she wondered.
Neeta was only two years younger to Arun, who was tall and robust, always full of energy. She was a frail child, tall but very thin. The most striking features in her pale face were her eyes, big and brown, full of feelings and emotions. Unlike her brother, she was an introvert.
After breakfast, Neeta sat down at the dinning table with her sketchpad and pencil. She tried to draw a few lines but could not concentrate. Each time a formidable face of an old lady with stern looks and big frown appeared before her. Neeta became restless. Suddenly she picked up her sketchpad and pencils and went out of the flat. She looked up thoughtfully for a few moments and then started climbing the stairs.
On the landing in front of the top floor, Neeta stopped. There was the door with the nameplate saying “Mrs. Daroowala.” She threw a furtive glance at it. It was shut. Suddenly a sound came from behind the closed door as if someone had released the latch.
Neeta ran downstairs as fast as her legs could carry her silently and stopped only when she reached her floor, which was just below the top floor. She heard the door being shut and then someone climbing. Someone who walked with the help of a stick that went clackety-clack, clackety-clack in a most sinister way. Neeta was gasping. Slowly she controlled her breath and wiped her forehead with the back of her hand. She stood there for a while debating whether or not she should go upstairs. She could not resist the temptation to see what was happening on the terrace.
Finally, she plucked up courage and climbed the stairs. The door to the terrace was half-open. She peeped through it and gasped at the sight that met her eyes. What she saw was unbelievable-something she could have never imagined.
She saw Mrs. Daroowala sitting on a deck chair surrounded by birds!
Birds of all kinds, sizes and colors. There were sparrows, blue jays, mynahs, bulbuls, pigeons and many other birds, which Neeta could not recognize. They were happily picking at the grains of rice and breadcrumbs on the ground. There were two bowls filled with water. There were birds all over the terrace, on the parapet, on the chair and all over Mrs. Daroowala-on her lap, on her shoulders and some were even perched on her head!
Neeta hid herself behind a big potted palm and looked at the fascinating sight. She craned her neck to have a better look. For a while she just stared in amazement. Then she quickly picked up her sketchpad and started drawing vigorously.
Next morning, again, roughly at the same time, Neeta came on the terrace. Mrs. Daroowala was already there surrounded by her feathered friends. Neeta hid herself behind the palm and got on with her sketch.
Days passed. Neeta came to the terrace every day to watch the birds and Mrs. Daroowala. By now her pitcher was almost complete. It was coming out very well. The day Neeta gave it last touches, she was very happy.
It was late in the morning almost her regular time to go on the terrace. Neeta looked at her painting. She had captured the whole scene beautifully, especially Mrs. Daroowala’s profile with birds perched on her hands, feet and head. ‘Oh, only if I could present it to Mrs. Daroowala,’ she sighed, for she was still too scared to go up to her. ‘How could someone who loves birds hate children!’ wondered Neeta for the nth time.
Neeta quickly climbed the stairs. Mrs. Daroowala’s door was as usual shut. Neeta quietly climbed the last flight of stairs.
Today the door to the terrace was shut. ‘strange! She never shuts this door,’ thought Neeta. She stood there for a while wondering what she should do. Then she heard something-the mad chirping of the birds, quite different from every day sound of joyful chirping.
She quickly opened the door and what she saw was a strange scene.
The deck chair was empty and so were the bowls. There was no bird feed on the floor. ‘Where is Mrs. Daroowala?’ Neeta wondered. The birds were still chirping and hopping about madly.
‘Oh, you must be hungry and thirsty as well, you poor dears!’ she muttered sympathetically and ran downstairs. After five minutes she returned, carrying a jug full of water and a bowl of rice, grains and breadcrumbs. As she set the food and water down, the birds flew away, scared. They hovered on the periphery chirping warily. Neeta filled the bowls and scattered the rice, grains and breadcrumbs on the ground. The birds watched from their perches but hesitated to come near her.
“Oh, please come. Don’t go hungry and thirsty,” spoke Neeta softly. After two three minutes, one small bird ventured forward followed by another and then another, and then all of them came. A broad smile lit up Neeta’s face.
Again the next morning when Neeta reached the terrace, Mrs. Daroowala was not there. Neeta scattered the rice and filled the bowls. Today the birds were quite friendly. They happily picked at the grains.
When for the third morning in a row Mrs. Daroowala did not come on the terrace, Neeta got worried. ‘Whatever has happened to her? Today I am certainly going to find out even if she screams me out of her flat,’ thought Neeta.
It was a quite day. A cool breeze was blowing. Neeta sat down on the deck chair. A small bird hopped and settled on her lap. Then another followed and perched on her head.
‘Oh! You have accepted me as your friend, you darling creatures.’ Neeta was very happy. She closed her eyes and relaxed.
“Who is there?” suddenly a clear voice broke into her daydreams. Neeta jumped out the chair and slowly turned around.
Mrs. Daroowala was standing at the door, leaning on her stick. For the first time Neeta was face to face with her and what a face it was! An ideal face for a portrait-painter, Snow-white hair swept back, a broad-creased forehead, light brown eyes, thin lips and protruding chin, with thousands of fine lines including…laugh lines! It had a childlike softness-no big frown and stern looks. “Who are you?” Mrs. Daroowala asked.
“I am Neeta. I live on the sixth floor.” Then after a pause she spoke, “The…birds were hungry and thirsty, I gave them food and water.”
Mrs. Daroowala kept quiet. She slowly walked towards her. Neeta’s heart sank. ‘Now Mrs. Daroowala is really angry that I came on the terrace without her permission, and I would be turned into a tadpole or something.’ She closed her eyes and prepared herself for shouting when she heard a soft whisper, “Thanks for taking care of my feathered friends in my absence. I was away, and my maid was called away on an emergency after I left.” Mrs. Daroowala held Neeta’s hands affectionately in her wrinkled hands. She sat down on her deck- chair and soon was surrounded by her long-lost friends. Neeta stared at her.
“What are you looking at so confused?” Asked Mrs. Daroowala laughingly.
“You love birds… then.. then why do you hate children?” blurted Neeta.
“Hate children?” Spoke Mrs. Daroowala with a frown and then broke into a hearty laugh. “Oh God! It must be the kids from the building who told you.” Neeta nodded.
Mrs. Daroowala sobered a bit and then said, “Those kids came at all odds hours on the terrace to play and disturbed these poor birds. They can go anywhere to play. But as you can see, these birds have nowhere to go in this concrete jungle but here where they can eat and drink and fly around. Therefore, I shooed them out. Otherwise I love children, children like you.”
Suddenly Neeta remembered something and said, “Mrs. Daroowala, please wait here till I return,” and she ran down. Mrs. Daroowala was still looking perplexed when Neeta came back with a pitcher in her hand.
“Here, please accept this,” and she gave it to Mrs. Daroowala.
Mrs. Daroowala looked at it and spoke in a childlike excitement “It is me, isn’t it?” Neeta nodded. Then she read something at the bottom “An enchantress.”
“Do you think I am an enchantress who performs magic?” she asked a bit hurt.
“Everyone think so. And now I know it for sure. Yes, you are and enchantress who perform magic but magic of different kind,” replied Neeta
They both smiled at each other and then laughed. Birds perched all over them chirping merrily.