Anmol peered through the curtain casting one last glance at his father, who was busy watching the news. His mother was out for the evening, attending a wedding. Zap was snoring quietly in the corner beside the television; the Labrador’s bushy tale swatting the occasional fly. Anmol looked back from the front door to the garden and signaled Vishnu. The two tip-toed their way across the living room and quietly ascended the staircase to the upper floor.
‘Anmol, you left the door open again,’ his father’s raised voice echoed through the flight of stairs. ‘Mosquitos will enter. Don’t make me come there and tell you twice.’
Vishnu looked at Anmol. ‘Go and close the door before your father sees us,’ he said worryingly, his dark eyes gleaming in the faint twilight.
Anmol clicked his tongue and decided against it. There was no time. They had a very small window. His mother would be back soon. The two scampered into his parents’ bedroom. But Vishnu was not careful. His knee banged against the dressing table’s edge. He opened his mouth to let out a howl, but Anmol quickly grabbed a towel from the open hangar and covered Vishnu’s face. The shriek was subdued.
After a while, Anmol had let go, hushing his partner to stay quiet. Vishnu appeared faintish but seemed determined to complete the task. The two walked up to the bed, crawled underneath it and surveyed the area. There it was, its bright ceramic coating reflecting the light from the corridor. They looked at each other and let out sly grins of victory. ‘Hurry up, we cannot let your mother find out,’ Vishnu whispered in excitement. Anmol pulled the ceramic bowl out of hiding and lifted its lid to reveal their prize.
There were nine or ten coconut laddoos in the bowl, soft white balls coated in condensed milk and dusted with coconut shavings. It was Rongali Bihu and Anmol’s mother had prepared a tin full of laddoos for distribution among friends and relatives. They were Anmol’s favourite and he could finish 15 to 20 laddoos in one sitting. That was all the twelve year-old ate during the week he was visiting from boarding school in April.
Vishnu, on the other hand, rarely enjoyed such treats. His father was a priest in the local temple and his mother used to do meagre household work for Anmol’s mother. Vishnu was a year older to Anmol, but never did they consider each other as anything but equals. Anmol’s mother did warm Vishnu’s parents to keep their son away from the house. But Vishnu still found a way to sneak into Anmol’s room every time the latter was home for his vacations. They spent long hours in the evening climbing the jamun trees in the backyard, digging temporary ponds where Vishnu would release tadpoles caught from the nearby stream or simply discussing each other lives, Anmol about boarding school and Vishnu about the temple.
That week in April, Anmol’s mother was preoccupied with the family business. His father was not keeping well and had to be taken to a rehabilitation clinic away from the city to treat his asthma. In the few days he was back, he often spent the day working from his office at home or catching up on some TV shows he missed. Anmol’s mother had invited their business partner over for lunch the next day and had prepared her famous laddoos. Anmol’s wails and threats to leave the house were ignored and his mother made only one batch of the delicacy, refusing to make more. The school’s physical instructor had asked her to watch Anmol’s weight. The boy was adding a few extra kilos near his waist. He was becoming a glutton, the trainer added in his report.
Anmol knew where his mother was going to hide the bowl before she left for the party. He enlisted Vishnu to help him retrieve it, promising a third of the steal. The prospect of eating four of those delightful orbs all by himself was too tempting for Vishnu to ignore. ‘What if your mother found out and refused to believe that Zap ate all of them, Anmol?’ Vishnu enquired finishing his second laddoo.
Anmol looked up and thought. ‘It’s okay, there is always the cat. Besides, if she did catch us, I’ll take the blame. She can make more laddoos tomorrow for the guests.’ Both of them let out giggles, as if to console each other that it was all going to be okay. They finished the bowl and left it where it was found.
Anmol’s mother came home just after nine and got straight to marinating the chicken for the next day. She rushed into the bedroom to get changed and check on the laddoos. She was surely not surprised when the bowl was empty, she had stashed another set just in case Anmol found this one. But her anger that evening was over something else entirely. Her silver nose ring was missing from the drawer. Alarmed and fuming, she rushed into the living room, shouting for the watchman to fetch Vishnu and his mother.
Anmol’s father looked up from his crossword. ‘Calm down, calm down. There is no need to get worked up. I am sure you must have misplaced it. Stop blaming that poor child.’ Anmol was in his room, counting his piggy bank savings for potato chips when he heard his mother. He looked through the curtain, fearing the worst. His endeavours from the evening were not a secret anymore, he thought. He sank to his chair, trying to mash-up a convenient explanation.
He heard Vishnu’s voice from the living room and crept behind the cupboard in the corridor, trying to eavesdrop on the conversation. He could hear Vishnu’s mother crying, pleading even. Vishnu was denying every accusation, admitting to only stealing the laddoos. Anmol was caught sneaking by his father, who plucked him from his hideout and threw him in the spotlight. ‘Do you know anything about this? Speak up!’
The room seemed to get smaller for Anmol, constricting him. He did not have the courage to speak the truth. He looked at his father and then at Vishnu, who stared back without a trace of fear in his eyes. Anmol hesitated for a moment, then ran towards his mother to hide behind her saree. ‘It was him, he asked me to do it. I refused but he threatened to beat me up,’ Anmol wailed, pointing to Vishnu and letting out large drops of tears. He then fished out the jewelry from his pocket, the silver shining brightly.
Vishnu’s mother was aghast. She refused to believe her son could do such a thing. But Anmol’s parent would not have any of it. The father grabbed Vishnu by the arm and shoved him out of the house, hurling warnings to call the police if he ever came back. His mother followed, muttering threats of her own. All this time, Vishnu did not speak a word in his defense. He kept looking at Anmol, wishing his friend would look back just once. The pain formed a large lump in his throat, but tears never streaked across his face.
Anmol did not look back. He did not sleep that night either. The lie kept haunting him like the ghost of Christmas past, relentlessly repeating the incident in his head. The nose ring would have bought ten packets of chips and at least five colas. Instead, it cost him a friend. The next morning he nervously stepped into the kitchen. His mother had made ‘aloo-poori’ and just for a moment, the spicy curry made him forget about last night. He saw the gardener watering the lawn and called out from the window. ‘Dada, did Vishnu come today? I did not see his cycle.’ The gardener did not look up and tended to the roses. ‘We asked him and his mother to find work somewhere else,’ Anmol’s mother’s voice trailed from the corridor. ‘We have no place for thieves.’
The vacation was drawing to a close. It was time for Anmol to return to boarding school. His mother came to see him off at the train station. She had packed some lunch for the journey and some laddoos leftover from the week. As the train pulled away from the platform, his father dug into the latest cricket magazine and Anmol into his new comic book. They reached the school late in the afternoon and Anmol was soon among familiar faces. His friends were busy discussing their holidays over dinner, but Anmol never spoke. His mind was on the laddoos, hidden in the suitcase under his bed. All he could think about was devouring them that night, without having to share any with his friends.