Twelve year old Anil had just finished his breakfast when he heard his name being called. He came out. It was Azhar his best friend.
"Have you heard Anil?"
"Heard what Ajju?" Anil sighed and asked. It was Azhar's habit to start every conversation with a question.
"Someone is trying to destroy our Park and build a shopping complex in its place."
"What?" Anil sat down on the steps. "B..but how can anyone do that? It is our Park."
The Park had become an important part of their lives. It was situated right in the middle of Bapuji colony, a cluster of small houses in one corner of Hyderabad. Actually it could hardly be called a Park in the conventional sense. All it had was a huge banyan tree, two mango trees and a few of rocks scattered in between the trees. The banyan tree dominated the Park. From its spreading branches aerial roots had grown down, and formed supporting pillars. The enormous tree was like a mini zoo. Squirrels, snails chameleons, beetles, birds of many hues and various other tiny and not so tiny creatures, had made it their home. Anil would often climb onto a branch and spend hours just watching the little creatures, preying, eating and playing together. He and Azhar had even built a tree house using planks and a rope. During the day, in summer months, they would sit in their tree house and read books or play chess.
The Park provided unlimited opportunities of fun and frolic to Anil and his gang. The tree trunks served as wickets and under the shade of the trees the youngsters played cricket. The trees and rocks provided enough scope for a game of hide and seek. Gilli danda, Kabaddi, seven stones... the Park was a great playground all the year around.
The women of the colony would tie ropes to the branches of the trees and make temporary 'jhoolas'. Sitting on the 'jhoolas', swaying in the cool breeze, the women would sing songs, play 'antakshari' or share gossip. On Sunday afternoons, the men of the colony would sit under the shade of the trees playing cards or having heated debates on the state of the nation.
For the lower middle class residents of the colony who could not afford the luxury of going to expensive amusement parks, the Park provided an easily accessible as well as an economical alternative.
The very idea of the Park ceasing to exist was sending shivers down Anil's spine.
"Let us go and talk to Rohan bhai," Anil suggested.
Rohan Reddy was a press reporter working for Deccan Chronicle. Whenever they were in trouble Anil and Azhar always went to him for guidance. Rohan too was fond of the kids and would often join them for a game of cricket.
"Anil, I too came to know only this morning. There is a builder called Firoze Baltiwala who has purchased this land. It apparently belonged to a businessman who migrated to the States recently. Baltiwala is now planning to construct a multi-storeyed shopping arcade here."
"Isn't there something we can do to prevent him from destroying our Park?"
"Suppose all of us go and plead he might agree."
"I don't think there is any chance. For people like Baltiwala money is more important than the feelings of a bunch of kids and their parents."
"Rohan bhai there is no harm in trying. Can you please get us an appointment with him?"
* * *
Three days later Anil, Azhar, Manpreet, Jaggu, Gopi and Joe were standing in front of Feroze Baltiwala who was talking on the phone. He was short, plump and very fair. He sported a toothbrush moustache and thick glasses.
"He looks like a well fed Hitler," thought Anil.
Baltiwala's office was really impressive. It was airconditioned and had wall to wall carpeting. There was an executive table in the middle of the room with three chairs in front. On the table on one side was a P.C. and on other were three telephones.'
"Why does he need three telephones?" Anil wondered.
As he surveyed the rich and luxurious room, where everything reeked of money, Anil felt very conscious. He was acutely aware of his plain white shirt, with two buttons missing, his brown half pant which was frayed at the edges and his hawai chappals.
Baltiwala replaced the receiver.
"Yes," he barked frowning at them.
"G...good morning Sir, we are from Bapuji colony."
"Yes, yes I know. What do you want?"
Anil stepped forward and handed him a letter. It was a petition requesting Baltiwala not to construct his shopping complex at the site of the Park. Rohan had drafted the petition and Anil and Azhar had gone from door to door collecting signatures.
Baltiwala read it and threw it on the table.
"What is this nonsense about a Park. There is no Park there. It is only a barren piece of land with three, old trees and a few ugly rocks. I have bought that land and I am jolly well going to carry out my plan."
"But sir, if you destroy the Park we'll have no place to play. "
"So what do you want me to do? I am not the Municipal Corporation of Hyderabad. Go talk to the municipal authorities. They are responsible for building parks and playgrounds not me."
"Sir, please, we beg you...."
"There is nothing I can do. The only reason I agreed to meet you is because that reporter kept pestering me. Now run along and don't bother me."
The boys trooped out, their faces glum.
* * *
"Rohan bhai, doesn't this Baltiwala have any children?" asked Anil.
"He has a six year old daughter, Sharon. Poor thing, I really pity her."
"Last year her mother died in an accident. Since then she has withdrawn completely into herself. She has become very subdued"
"I don't understand? " Azhar asked.
"She doesn't talk to anyone. She doesn't laugh or cry. She just sits, staring into space. She seems to have lost interest in everything."
"Has her father taken her to a doctor?"
"Of course. But there doesn't seem to be any improvement."
"How do you know all this, Rohan Bhai?" asked Manpreet.
"Sharon's nanny, Mrs. Williams is my friend's aunt."
The boys remained silent for sometime and then suddenly Anil asked, "Bhai, can you persuade Mrs. Williams to bring Sharon to the Park."
"I'll tell you later. But please can you do it?"
Rohan thought for some time and then said,"Okay. I'll request Mrs. Williams. I think she'll agree."
* * *
Two days late Rohan told Anil, "Baltiwala is going to Mumbai for a fortnight, this Sunday. At around five in the evening, on Monday, Mrs. Williams will get Sharon to the Park. They will stay only for 10-15 minutes. And Anil," Rohan said looking at his young friend, "No funny business."
"Of course not," Anil said and rushed off to inform the rest of his gang his plan.
Monday at five fifteen a blue Maruti cruised to a halt in front of the Park. Anil and his friends were waiting. Anil ran ahead and opened the car door. Inside was a pretty girl dressed in a red frock staring glumly into space. She looked pale and was painfully thin.
"Hello Sharon! How are you? I am Anil?" Anil said offering his hand. There was no response from Sharon. She continued staring into space.
Anil turned to the lady sitting next to Sharon. She was plump with a large, jovial face and bright sparkling eyes.
"Good evening Mrs. Williams. Can both of you come out and sit under the shade of the banyan tree? We have kept two chairs for you."
"Okay son, but we won't stay for very long. And you can call me aunty, everyone does."
Anil had prepared a skit for Sharon's benefit. It was based on the story of the lion and the hare from the Panchatantra. The gang had put masks and even applied a little make up. Anil was the anchor, Azhar the lion and Jaggu, the hare. The others were playing the roles of the rest of the animals in the fable.
Anil had improvised the fable to make it modern. The dialogues were funny and carried a lot of punch. Aunty enjoyed the skit thoroughly but Sharon was unmoved.
After the skit Aunty was all praise,"Boys you did a wonderful job."
"But aunty what is the use? Sharon didn't like it," Azhar said.
"I know son. It is impossible to involve Sharon in anything."
"Aunty can you come again tomorrow?" Anil asked.
"Why? Are you planning another skit?"
"No, I am planning something else."
"Okay, we'll come at the same time tomorrow."
Next evening Anil and his gang dressed up as clowns. They did acrobatics,made faces, sang silly songs, told sillier jokes but Sharon still remained uninterested.
Anil's friends started losing patience.
"Anil, I don't know what you are trying to do, but I am now fed up," complained Azhar.
"Ajju is right. There is no use. The girl doesn't seem to be interested in anything," said Joe.
"Please Ajju, Joe. Have some patience. Poor child, just think of her. She must really be suffering."
Persuaded by Anil Aunty brought Sharon to the Park the next evening. As they were getting out of the car they saw a strange sight. A human pyramid had been constructed just below a mango tree. Six boys were standing in a circle with their arms on each other's shoulder's. On their shoulders were standing four others and two more on the shoulders of these four. Anil was standing on top completing the pyramid. He was trying to reach up to a ripe and juicy mango hanging from the mango tree. As Anil raised himself on his toes to pluck the mango someone below sneezed. Anil lost his balance, wobbled precariously and then fell off. In a few seconds the rest of the boys came tumbling down like a pack of cards and lay sprawled on the ground. It was truly a comical sight with Jaggu on top of Anil, Azhar's leg entangled with Manpreet's arms, Joe's head caught between Gopi's thighs....
Suddenly the stillness of the evening was broken by the sound of a child's laughter. Anil looked around. He couldn't believe his eyes or ears. Sharon's head was thrown back and she was laughing with absolute abandon. Her peals of laughter echoed in the Park. It was the sweetest sound Anil had heard in his life.
That was the beginning....
Slowly and steadily Sharon become friends with Anil and the rest of the gang. She would come daily, play hide and seek, blind man's buff, seven stones, passing the parcel, hop skotch and even cricket.
Ten days later, Aunty told Anil, "Son tomorrow Sharon's father is coming back. He would never allow Sharon to come here."
"Aunty do me one final favour. Just get her here for one last time at five tomorrow.
"Okay, son.You have done so much for Sharon, I can't refuse you, even though there might be trouble if Mr. Baltiwala comes to know."
"And aunty please don't tell Mr. Baltiwala anything about the improvement in Sharon's condition. Please try to keep Sharon from meeting him till evening."
"That shouldn't be difficult. Mr. Baltiwala's flight is at twelve. From the airport he will go straight to his office and come home only at night."
* * *
Next day at four Anil went to Baltiwala's office.
"Please maam, can I see Mr. Baltiwala for a minute? It is very urgent," he told the receptionist.
She looked at him as if trying to place him. "Are you the fellow who came last month with a few more boys?"
"I don't think I can help you. Mr. Baltiwala has just returned after two weeks and is terribly busy today."
"Please maam, tell him it is about the Park. And I promise you I won't take more than a minute."
The receptionist mumbled something into the intercom and then told Anil, "Okay, go in. But only for a minute."
When Anil entered Baltiwala was dictating a letter to his secretary.
"Yes, what is it now?" he asked.
"Sir, can you come today to the Park at around five fifteen."
"Please Sir. I can't tell you any more. It is a surprise."
"Young man, do you think I have no other work but to run around accepting your silly invitations."
"Please, please sir. This is the last time I'll ever request you for anything. And believe me sir, you will not regret it." Anil completed his carefully rehearsed dialogue.
"Are you planning a demonstration or some kind of strike?" Baltiwala asked looking carefully at Anil.
"Of course not, sir."
Baltiwala hesitated for a few second and then said, "Okay I have a meeting with my architect at 5.30. My 'land' is on the way. But I'll be there only for a few minutes."
"Okay sir, thank you sir," Anil said and ran out of the room.
Sharp at five fifteen, Baltiwala asked his driver to stop the car a few metres away from the Park. He got down and walked towards the banyan tree. He saw a group of boys playing cricket. There was also a girl with them. Her back was to Baltiwala. She took a run up and bowled to Anil. He took a swipe, missed and was clean bowled. The girl jumped in the air, clapping her hands and shouting. As she turned back, Baltiwala almost fell down. It was Sharon, his little Sharon. He couldn't believe his eyes. Sharon who hadn't spoken a word in months, who had not so much as smiled, was shouting, yelling, laughing and jumping about. It was a miracle!
* * *
Later, Baltiwala came to know from Mrs. Williams how the miracle had taken place. Next day he called Anil home.
"Son, I am really grateful to you and your friends. What I, Mrs. Williams and the doctors couldn't achieve in months you have managed to do in less than a fortnight. I have decided to dump the idea of building a shopping complex. Instead I'll construct a proper park."
"Thank you, sir. But please do not destroy the banyan tree or the mango trees."
"Of course not. I wouldn't dream of doing that. The new Park will have a boundary wall, slides and swings so that all of you can enjoy even more. The banyan and mango trees will remain untouched."
"That will be fantastic sir. My friends will be thrilled to hear this."
"The person most thrilled will be my Sharon. And you know Anil I have even thought of a name for the Park." He stopped and looking at Anil said, "It will be called the Miracle Park."
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