They sprinted frantically towards the pond, pulling out dust plumes in the shape of small mushroom clouds. Ravi wanted to stop, as he was sure the coast was clear, but Shekharan kept on running. They ran, through the closely knit houses of the sprawling ancestral home, to the pond. “Hope this works – otherwise, I’m not sure how we can fix our clubhouse” Shekharan said, pausing to catch a breath near the entrance of the pond.

An old arch stood as the welcome gate, covered in moss and creepers. It stood as a gateway to the green waters below. Two red sandalwood trees towered on both sides of the entrance as gatekeepers. The children liked to call them – ‘Boothathanmaar’.The trees swayed with the wind, showering down a galaxy of red stars, pattering around them like rain. Ravi looked up at the trees and the dark skies beyond that. He realized that they didn’t have a lot of time for the operation. They had to wrap up soon before anyone notices.

“Eda, Let’s get it done and keep it back, it’s getting dark, I can’t be late today” Shekharan murmured. ”Yeah, I hope it works” Ravi said as he started descending down the red brick stairs to the pond. The red bricks gave way to grey rock cut steps which submerged under the green water. These ponds had a wooden structure that rose up above the steps, acting as a shelter. This was their hideout, their haven, and it meant everything to them. They had stylized the shelter into a clubhouse, with a few brick stools and a stove for making tea. The stove had burnt char residue from their experiment the other day. This is where they met with comics and cricket cards. But the entire structure was on the edge of a serious catastrophe that was waiting to happen.

Shekharan noticed it first, the wooden beams that shot up on either side of the steps – that formed the shelter – had rot forming at the bottom. It was only developing, but the children knew that it was a disease. Ravi was sure they had to do something at the earliest to cure this disease but he wasn’t sure what. That’s when Sriram, their friend – who’s father was a carpenter – told them that they should fill the rot with sandalwood paste.

“You’ve heard about donating blood no? This is similar, you can’t stuff it with paper or anything, you need wood only” said Sreeram, as a matter of fact. “I guess, hmm” Shekharan thought scratching his chin, “I’ve seen that box in the temple that has some sandalwood”, he said clicking his fingers, satisfied with his idea. He was always the brain, and Ravi was the brawn.

Shekharan’s eyes widened, “Let’s do it today, We’ve exams starting tomorrow and I can’t meet for a week. What if it spreads too fast?”

“Do what? I don’t know if the Namboodiri will give us the box da” Ravi replied, lines forming on his forehead.

“Then we’ll have to take it for some time, I mean, everyone uses the pond no? We’re just helping no?, and I’m sure your uncle won’t notice if you get it and put it back quickly”

“Yeah, but it’s wrong no? Should we ask someone?”

“We’ll have to finish up and keep it before the temple opens for Pooja” Shekharan calculated, we’ll have an hour. “You have to sneak in and take it, I’ll meet you right outside the temple” he said.

“Hmm, I don’t know da, I’ll see if I can ask Unni-ammaman (Unni uncle) and take it”

“If you ask, one whack he’ll give you; what’s the most important thing for us da? Also, we won’t use a lot of it, let’s just cover the outside, just enough for the rot to stop, and we’ll keep it back. I’m sure nobody would mind, trust me no? I know” said Shekharan.

“Hmm, if you say so” shrugged Ravi.

They opened the golden box and a waft of sandalwood’s fragrance hit them. They took turns to inspect the maroon paste in one end of the box, taking deep breaths to make sure that it was good sandalwood paste. Upon agreeing that it would do, they kept the box at the edge of the steps and got to work. Meticulous in procedure, Shekharan was the doctor, asking Ravi to hand him the paste from time to time as he plastered the base of the column. As soon as he started the procedure, he heard a shout from the other end of the pond.

“Eda Shekhara, Amma is looking for you. Stop screwing around and go home before she comes for you”. It was his neighbour loitering around on a bicycle.

Shekharan began to panic, he knew he had to get home earlier that day, and he couldn’t risk getting another trashing.

“Shey, I have to go da, I’m sorry. Hmm, you know what? let’s go put the box back and do this tomorrow again?” He pleaded, frustrated on having to bail on his friend at a time of crisis. He didn’t want Ravi to do it alone, it was all his plan anyway.

“No, I don’t want to do this again. I’ll finish this and put the box back myself.” Ravi said, picking a handful of paste and moving towards the wooden pillar. “Stay da, it won’t take too long” he pleaded.

“I have to get home before Amma comes looking for me, sorry” Shekharan said, he turned around and started to sprint, only to slip on the edge of the step. His leg struck something and he could hear that it had dropped into the water. He turned around to look at Ravi but he hadn’t noticed anything. Shekharan didn’t dare look to check if it was the box and he ran. He ran the stairs and halted near the arch, wiping his sweat in a fit of frantic fear. He shuddered wondering if he should go back to check. He turned around but his legs wouldn’t move.

The only thing Shekharan could do was to run away.

“Well, if it’s going to take too long, then we might as well just take a cab or something” Shekhar said, looking around. Time seemed to stand and wait here. He felt that the people were the same, just that a few wore jeans now.

He took his mobile phone and dialled his uncle who stayed at the ancestral place.

“Hello? Yes, Ammama, I’m almost there, but my car broke down, I’ll take an auto and come over. Please ask them to start the inspection. Do you know anyone who can remove all the debris from the pond? Maybe we could save some of the wood? We’ll….yes, okay. I’ll reach soon” he said, waving to an approaching auto-rickshaw.

“Yes Eatta, where to?” the young rickshaw driver asked, popping a packed beetle-nut leaf into his mouth.

“Do you know…er….Thoppil palam road?. There is a temple there”

“Yes, It’ll be close to 100. Shall I drop you near the temple?”

“Yes, that’s okay, near the temple is fine” said Shekhar.

He hopped in and realized that he had forgotten to let his cab driver know that he was leaving. Realizing that it was too late to bother, he reached out to his back pocket and pulled out a hand kerchief. The humidity and the heat of Kerala pushed his body into overdrive, pumping out sweat. He ran the kerchief through his balding head and immediately took out a comb to plaster his hair back into shape. The hair resisted, bursting out of its chain with the help of the wind that rushed through the auto.

“Could you go a little slower?” Shekhar asked.

“How do I go slower than this eatta?” the auto driver said smiling. He let go of the accelerator a little, humming a song inside his head.

Shekhar kept on dabbing his clean shaven face, soaking up all the sweat. He picked up his deodorant and sprayed a little across his shirt. Picking up his phone, Shekhar quickly rushed through his email. He swiped past all the stuff that he could get to a week later and yet, he could see six to seven mails that needed his attention.

“Are you on vacation?” asked the auto driver.

“Err…Yes, yes. supposedly” Shekhar said locking his phone with a sigh and slipping it back into his pocket. Shekhar looked at the young driver and saw an ear-ring on his left ear. His right hand had a bracelet made of metal and a few rings. His hair was cut short, neatly combed to the left with a parting. He was taller – as most people were – than Shekhar, and this somehow annoyed him – as it always did.

Shekhar was reminded that he would need to have a few conversations when he gets there and he wasn’t really up to date. He quickly picked up his phone to google “Politics Kerala”.

“Alright” said Shekhar getting out of the rickshaw. “Hey, so I need to catch the train at 8, would it be possible for you to come pick me?” Shekhar asked picking his bag.

”Yeah sure, I’ll come around by 7:00 then, It’ll only take half an hour back. I’ll be around here helping my dad with his shop anyway.”

”Sure, that should do – right then” said Shekhar, flashing a brief smile thinking about the last time he talked to his own son. “Oh wait, what’s your name? And give me your number please” said Shekhar remembering, slightly laughing at his forgetfulness, imagining how idiotic it was to not ask for his details.

“Okay? I’ll be here at 7:00, don’t worry. Anyway, here is my number – 9916981***″ said the rickshaw driver. “You can save it as Shaaji”

“Okay Shaaji, Thanks. My name is Shekhar”.

Shekhar smiled and turned back to face the mud road that led inside. He looked up at the sky and saw the clouds murmuring to each other. They rumbled, forming a plot to rain down.

Shekhar looked at the once familiar setting that seems so alien to him now. The air tasted different, unwelcome to his sophistication. He looked around to see a small shop serving tea across the road. He could see a bench made of a coconut trunk placed over two rocks adjacent to the tea shop. A man was sitting on it, with a newspaper in hand, looking at Shekhar. He didn’t move or say a word, but just stared directly him. Shekhar felt that the man was looking through him – into his darkest fears. His eyes seemed to burn, both with shock and a sense of apathy. But just then, when Shekhar was about to say something, he swayed his head and dived back into his newspaper.

The man reminded him of something, and filled his heart with dread. An old familiar feeling that he had managed to hide and run away from. He immediately picked up his phone -“Aa Shaaji, please come back. I forgot something at the hotel, I’ll need to go back. Oh!..err.. sorry, this is Shekhar who you just dropped”.

Shaaji came swooping back and picked Shekhar up. As he turned the auto-rickshaw in a U-Turn across the man with the newspaper, Shekhar got a closer look at him. Panicking, he grabbed his phone to quickly stare at his blank screen with great intent. Meanwhile, Shaaji spoke loudly

“Acha, I’ll just quickly drop him back and head back in time to help”.

“Is that your father?” asked Shekhar.

“Yes, he’s one of the most honest men I know, but do you know what everyone calls him? ‘Kallan Ravi’. Just a name that stuck to him in his childhood” Shaaji said, beaming with appreciation. He has said this line so many times now that he was confident about it’s impact on the listener.

Shekhar’s face dropped, a swell of guilt and pain washing over him. He wanted to turn around and look at him once more, maybe even apologize. Something he always wanted to do for years.

But he couldn’t.

The only thing Shekhar could do was to run away.