It was five of us. The School had broken for summer holidays, in the early 80’s in a remote part of North Eastern India; holidays did not mean sleepovers and malls. It meant roaming around aimlessly in the surrounding jungles, playing around on the roads and going for picnics on your cycle. On that summer afternoon too, little idle minds wondered what was to be done of the ensuing evening and greater part of the afternoon that still loomed large. Not that we were bored, thankfully that word had not yet taken over the dictionaries of children till then. Someone suggested a game of hide and seek, another suggested the red hills as a venue. Venue and game decided, we set off to the beautiful red hills. The place got its name from the view from the plateau that we used as a base for our activities. One had to climb up the gentle slope situated centrally, to see the red hills. While climbing, we always took of our slippers, in sheer reverence of the softness of the grass, that we walked on punctuated by Guava and Olive trees. Guavas hung around on the trees, as if in the remote hope that some child would chance upon them and bend them down to the earthliness of human hands. A small ceremony was always followed for the first sighting of the red hills. As we slowly approached the slope, all of us in the unison of the sincerity of the prayer of a child, closed our eyes tightly. The first glimpse of the red hills was always special. Bathed in the afternoon glow of the setting sun, today it seemed surreal.
Someone shouted that one could hide anywhere along the slope and the next hill, but not beyond. It was place enough to hide if one knew what to do, or so I thought. Mamma had insisted I behave more like a girl and put on a white cotton dress through my 8 year old head. It was a big problem, the dress; it lingered on and seemed to attract all the dragon flies as well as the little blue flowers that stuck on. Someone started counting 20-19-18-17… As I scurried down the hill, I wondered where I could hide. A Guava fell off a tree and rolled down the slope, settling on the bend of the adjoining hill. Guavas I thought were good navigators; I followed the fruit and came upon the resting hill, as it were called. I had often seen the nuns from our school come here in cars, along with other people. Strangely, when they arrived, they would always be crying but while going back they seemed to be drastically cheerful, almost as if someone had ordered them to be so. I had once asked Mamma about it, and she said, that Christians believed in giving happy farewells to their dead. While much of the meaning of the resting hill might have been lost to me, its potential as a great hiding place seemed to offer the greatest of opportunities. I ran to what seemed to be quite a large stone placed on the ground. Two stones joined at one end, made the perfect ‘L’. As I clutched the long white frock and hid behind the stone that stood, I was extremely excited because I was sure, no one would find me here. What a perfect hiding place! Having sat myself down to the silence of stones, I inspected curiously the back of the stone that was standing. It seemed to be quite ornate. There were little leaves, flowers and cherubs drawn on it. I touched my hands on it, the edges were rough, probably from the rains, but the centre of the stone was smooth. The counting should have been over by now, but I had almost forgotten about the game, I crawled over to the front. To my delight, it was like grandpa’s arm chair that I wasn’t allowed to sit on. I stretched my back on the standing stone and neatly kept my legs straight on the stone that was lying. My head that was cushioned on the stone felt something cold just beneath the top. I turned to look at the stone, facing it for the first time. There was a photograph of a small boy, much like my neighbor, the one who always cried. As I looked closely I saw something written there…
”Here lies Peter, born 1968, died 1971. May his soul rest in peace.”
I looked at the photograph again, remembering the date in the school notebook, on the left hand corner, blue margin, it was 1981. That’s a long time for a three year old boy to be lying there, I thought. I smiled at him, wondering if he was happy where he was, perhaps he liked the fact that I had chosen him to play hide and seek. After all it was quite natural that he would be tired of lying there all those years. I stroked the photograph. The sun was almost down ad yet in the last rays of gold, Peter seemed to smile back. I stroked the face then, in some way trying to reassure him that I would be back with more games and laughter.Someone shouted out to me, “Come out, we can’t find you. You’ve won” as I tugged my way up the red hills, with my long white dress strewn with flowers wild, I felt I had left the little boy happier, he seemed to be now, truly- ‘ resting in peace’.
© 2011 Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury
( Image courtesy Google)