Govindi hurried down the rocky path that led to the slate roofed cottage where she lived with her mother. Suddenly a familiar voice cut through the clear mountain air. With a start, she halted. How compelling it was, that sharp crisp delivery with just a hint of excitement, which promised more to come! She glanced at the twist of newspaper in her hand. Her broad forehead wrinkled as deeply as the newspaper, as she chewed her full lower lip.
The voice tugged at her, battling with the image of her mother waiting by the fire for the dried red chilies that would add flavor to their simple evening meal. Then fourteen-year-old Govindi looked up at the evening sky, as if for guidance. The summer sun had plunged behind the distant blue hills, but its light lingered. It took her only a second to make up her mind. She raced down the path, scooted through the paved courtyard and skipped over the saffron painted threshold of her home.
“Just coming!” she said, putting down the packet of chilies, then ran off, ignoring her mother’s admonitions. Hopefully the programme wouldn’t be over by the time she reached the flat piece of ground where people gathered to watch TV at the headman Madan Singh’s house. To her relief she could still hear the voice as she scrambled up the slope, panting. When she saw the group gathered there, she hesitated. As usual there wasn’t even a single woman or girl there. Mostly elderly men and some kids, probably waiting for the news to be over so that they could coax the headman to put on a more entertaining programme.
Govindi squatted at the edge of the group and let the small screen carry her away. Yes, it was Sunita Raj, her favorite anchor! And she was interviewing Kalpana Devi, a woman politician who’d been accused of misusing public funds. Govindi’s eyes gleamed as she listened. How sharp Sunita Raj was, how quick to pin down Kalpana Devi when she tried to evade her questions! The word fear didn’t exist in her dictionary. She was always so cool, whether at the scene of action or in the studio—reporting a shootout live, or cornering a wrongdoer with the right word. Could women like her actually exist? But there she was, right in front of Govindi.
Govindi watched enthralled. If only she too could become…someone like Sunita Raj! There were so many things that needed to be set right. Then as she gazed at the screen, the gripping scene dissolved into an ad. To her dismay she realized that darkness had descended. Ija must be worrying. She got to her feet and ran down the slope. But Sunita Raj’s words continued to echo in her ears, while she ate her dinner of spinach and chapattis, scrubbed the utensils, then lay down in bed next to her mother.
Her face grew hot when she thought of the letter she had written to the anchor, telling her about the poor condition of her school building. Had she been too bold? Had the anchor received it? Would she take action? Or would she dismiss it because of the sender—a mere schoolgirl?
These thoughts were still buzzing in her head, when she returned from school the next day. As usual, she changed out of her uniform and took the cows—Ramli, Bhanu and Choti, the youngest, to graze in the pine forest nearby. Tender shoots of grass were beginning to poke up between the dry brown pine needles that carpeted the forest floor, coaxed out by the recent showers. The monsoons were round the corner and soon there would be plenty of fresh grass for the cows to munch on. They would yield more milk and that meant more money for her mother and herself.
But things would be terrible in school then, Govindi thought. Rain would pour through the dilapidated old roof and lessons disrupted as they shifted around, searching for a dry spot. Why couldn’t they repair it? Surely the government had enough money for that? Those important people probably felt that this was good enough for village girls like them. If only Sunita Raj would take up this problem! She could make things happen. Yes, she would grill the minister in charge, mercilessly.
Hmmm…what would she say? Govindi screwed up her thin face and began to think. Then she looked severely at the cows. “You have promised to build more schools in the villages, Balramji! But do you know about the condition of the ones that exist?” Her voice rang out, as sharp as the anchor’s.
Ramli stopped munching to listen, a clump of grass hanging out of the side of her mouth. A rather greedy cow, she never seemed to have her fill, but strangely, was very attentive to Govindi’s mock interviews, an almost daily feature. They provided welcome diversion from her monotonous routine.
“You say you have sanctioned funds? But please listen to what our correspondent Bhanu has to report!” Hearing her name, Bhanu, a somewhat timid cow, cocked her head and mooed softly.
Govindi suppressed a giggle, then went on, frowning, “See, she says the roof of the Government Girls’ School in Balta village has not been repaired for the last five years. When it rains, classes are disturbed. Sometimes the school even has to close down.”
“What? You’ll distribute free umbrellas? But when will the roof be fixed?”
Choti, the youngest, suddenly bellowed. Perhaps she was feeling left out.
“Do you want to hear what one of the students from the school, Choti Devi, has to say in response? Unless the roof is fixed soon, the students will march to the nearest town with all the torn umbrellas they can find over their heads.”
Govindi burst out laughing now. Then turned serious. Maybe that’s what they should do. But would everyone co-operate? And would it work?
She sighed. It was not so easy to change things, she knew. But how she loved playing what she called the ‘interview game’, imitating Sunita Raj, even if she had only the cows as an audience. She could not play all the time, though. There were other things to do—homework to finish, and twigs to be gathered for fuel for their evening meal. So she opened her school bag and took out her books.
When the afternoon sun began to lose its heat, Govindi took the cows home. She had just finished putting them in the shed by the side of their house when someone called out, “Govin—di! Oh, Govindi-i!”
It was Suresh, one of their neighbors. “Hurry,” he said. “There’s a phone call from Narendra daju.”
Overcome with excitement, Govindi scurried up the steep path that led to the main road. She burst into the tiny STD booth that nestled between a teashop and a small grocery. It was rare for her oldest brother to call. Usually it was Amar who telephoned every week to check up on them. Her second brother, he worked as a driver in Delhi. After her father vanished mysteriously in the big city, Amar had given up his studies to take up a job so he could take care of Ija and Govindi. It was hard for Narendra to support them all. He had his own family to look after.
“How are you?” Narendra asked. “Is Ija keeping well?” His voice sounded a little stiff but she thought it must be the poor connection.
“We are both fine. And how are all of you? Bhabhi and Pappu and Tinu.”
“They’re okay,” he said abruptly and a chill of apprehension began to settle around her. “Uh—listen Govindi…” His sigh sounded like the gust of an ill-omened breeze and his voice went so low that she had to strain to hear. “Amar…is in trouble…with the police…”
“What?” Govindi’s heart stopped. “No, no! It’s impossible, Amar daju can’t have done anything wrong!”
“But…they say he has…he’s in jail.”
“No! I can’t believe it.” Her tears poured out in a burning flood. She continued to sob while Narendra’s voice droned on telling her the whole dismal story. How Amar’s employer had told him to drive a clerk from his office to the bank to withdraw fifty lakhs of rupees and how, when they were returning, the man had suddenly stepped out at a red light and vanished into the crowd with the money before Amar could do anything.
“But why are they blaming Amar daju? He didn’t do it!” she cried out.
“They’ve held him on suspicion. They think he’s involved too.”
“If he was, wouldn’t he have run away too?”
“Child, child, if the world was as simple as that, there’d be no problems.” Narendra sighed again. “I’m trying to find a good lawyer. But they’re expensive. It’s hard to even raise money for his bail…Govindi, you’re a big girl now. You have to tell Ija the best way you can. And take care of her.”
And that was that. What was the best way to break such news? Govindi wondered, returning home on legs that had turned to wood.
She tried. But the moment Ija heard she began to scream, wail and curse. Within minutes, the neighbors gathered and the news flew around the village like a whirlwind.
“Don’t worry, Amar’s mother,” the headman Madan Singh said, his wrinkled face full of sympathy. “We have seen Amar from childhood. It’s not possible for him to steal. Soon the truth will be discovered.”
The others nodded and added similar comments. It was little consolation for Govindi’s mother, though. She continued to weep even after the neighbors had melted away. Govindi sat there watching her helplessly and trying not to cry too. She felt dazed, as if someone had hit her over the head with a large stone.
Then the sound of a cow bellowing reached her ears. Govindi gave a guilty start. She had forgotten to milk them. Hurriedly she fetched a pail and ran into the small cowshed.
“Please forgive me, Choti,” she muttered into the cow’s warm side. “But you don’t know what a terrible thing has happened!”
Amar often teased her when he heard her talking to the cows. But it had become a habit with Govindi. And somehow she felt they understood. She drew a long painful breath. How could anyone believe Amar could do such a terrible thing? He was so straightforward, so open.
What was going to happen to him? What did it feel like, being in prison? He could put up with a lot of hardship but the shame must be eating him up. Why didn’t his employer stand up for him? Amar was always full of praise for his ‘sahib’—how kind he was, how generous. He was very proud of the fact that he was given so much responsibility. But why had his ‘sahib’ not supported him? Oh, if only she was someone who had some influence…someone like Sunita Raj. Not a just poor, helpless village girl. She would have found a way to save him, then.
When she awoke the next day, it took her a while to recall what had happened. The thought of going to school made her stomach churn. What if people asked her about it? What would she say? And then, maybe she should stay here and keep her mother company. But Ija, who had weathered many a storm, displayed unexpected strength today.
“What has happened has happened. What’s the point of sitting and brooding,” she said. “You go to school. There is plenty of work to distract me.”
So Govindi joined the small group of girls who trekked together to the school in a nearby village. There was Pushpa, her friend, fresh-faced and good-natured, and Shobha and Hira who were not that close.
But Pushpa was silent today and avoided her eye. Shobha, on the other hand, smiled at her sweetly and said, “I must say you’re very brave.”
Govindi’s skin prickled. “Why?” she frowned.
“Well, not many girls would dare be seen in public if their brother was in jail,” Hira, tall and thick-set, said with a sneer.
“My brother is innocent,” Govindi said furiously. She waited for Pushpa to say something in support but her friend remained silent. Stunned, Govindi gazed at her, unbelieving. Pushpa flushed and looked away.
It was almost worse than getting the news. Govindi quickened her step and strode ahead, blinking back her tears. She heard Shobha say in her high-pitched voice, “Shocking isn’t it? But she’ll never admit it, naturally.”
She approached the school, a ramshackle building with grey stone walls and an unpainted tin roof, with apprehension. How many people knew about Amar’s arrest? How many questions would she have to answer?
Govindi headed blindly for her desk and deliberately shut her ears to the clamor around. She knew Shobha and Hira must be busy spreading the word. Luckily the teacher came before anyone could pick on her. At break she retreated into a corner so remote that no one could find her. And somehow the day passed. When the final bell rang, her relief was so great that she could have collapsed.
She hurried off, not waiting for the others. She walked so fast that she was home in half an hour. Her mother, who was busy weeding the vegetable patch, looked up in surprise. Silently, Govindi tipped out water from the earthen pot and took a long drink.
Then she took out the cows out of their sheds.
“Aren’t you going to eat anything?” she heard her mother call out.
“I’m not hungry,” she replied. She knew it would upset Ija, but she couldn’t bear to swallow a morsel.
Numb with pain Govindi followed the cows to the forest. She sprawled beneath a solitary oak as they grazed. Clouds drifted aimlessly in the bright blue sky above. A soft breeze stroked her warm cheeks gently. But nothing could heal the big, throbbing ache in her chest. She knew she had to complete her homework, gather fuel as usual. However, she couldn’t bring herself to do anything. She didn’t even have the heart to play the interview game. The questions tormented her like pesky flies. Why did they put Amar in jail? Why hadn’t they tried to catch the man who had run away with the money? Was there no justice for people like Amar and her?
Govindi didn’t know how long she had lain there brooding till she heard a loud, insistent moo. It was Ramli. Her large eyes were fixed on her. They looked almost questioning. Then she noticed that Bhanu and Choti stood there too, gazing at her. They were not munching as they usually did. In fact, their mouths that usually chewed non-stop, were still.
“What’s the matter?” she asked, staring back.
Bhanu’s gentle, apologetic moo was followed by Choti’s insistent bellow.
“He Bhagwan!” Govindi cried, sitting up. “Are you-are you missing the interview game? I think you are, you silly things.”
Suddenly her gloom fled, like the startled bird that flew up when she exclaimed. “But-but what can I discuss today?” she sighed. Her head was hurting so badly that she could barely think. Then her throat grew tight as an idea sprang into her mind.
“Yes, Inspector sahib,” she began, her voice quivering as she looked at Ramli. “What makes you so sure that Amar was involved in the robbery?” Her voice grew louder as her anger flared. “Wouldn’t he have run away too? Didn’t he chase the man? Didn’t other people see him do that?”
“You say he’s pretending to be innocent? Have you even tried to trace the man who actually took the money?” A thought flashed through her mind. Didn’t banks keep a record of the numbers of the notes that had been issued? She remembered the case of a bank robber being caught like that. She’d seen that on TV too. “Have you given out the numbers of the missing notes to the public, in case he tries to spend them?”
She imagined the policeman’s confusion. “No? Then on what grounds have you detained Amar? It’s obvious you’re taking the easy way out! Don’t you have a conscience? You have detained an innocent man without trying to get to the truth? Is there no justice for the poor in our country?”
Choti suddenly mooed and Govindi brushed away a tear. Then the sound of clapping made her freeze. Was somebody else listening to her? Her face burned.
Fearfully, she turned. A smart young woman with short-cropped hair stood there, smiling. Behind her was a bearded man with a video camera and one or two other people. Govindi’s head swam. Was she imagining all this? Hastily she got to her feet.
“Hey, don’t get scared!” the young woman said. “What’s this all about?”
Govindi stared. This was unbelievable. At last she found her voice, “Su-sunita Raj?”
The woman smiled. “Have you watched me on TV?”
“Yes!” Govindi cried breathlessly. “So many times! I-I even wrote a letter to you…”
“Well, Govindi, that’s why I’m here. In response to your letter!”
“My letter!” Govindi shook her head to clear it. Could such things happen?
“But what’s all this about? You were speaking so passionately that we couldn’t resist shooting some of that.”
“You did…”Govindi gaped, open-mouthed.
And then, the whole story spilled out. They listened, intent. Finally Sunita Raj said, “I’m really sorry about your brother. I’m going to take it up right away! Don’t you worry! And we’ll use this footage too.”
After that things happened so fast that it felt like a dream. Govindi appeared on Sunita Raj’s show, Amar’s case was investigated thoroughly, and he was set free. Some time later the school building got a new roof too!
But when Sunita Raj said, after the interview, “You’re a pro! How ever did you develop that amazing style?”
What else could Govindi say but—“You saw how. Playing the interview game with my cows.”
“The interview game!” Sunita Raj laughed. “It certainly made you a winner!”
Govindi laughed too, though her eyes were misting. Who could have thought that a funny little game could make her a winner?
From Favourite Stories for Girls published by Puffin.