The madcap house at the end of the street was as quirky and messy as its dozen inhabitants. The couple who had bought this place decades ago was not too great at planning, to begin with. They never planned to settle down at one place … or have a big family … or a big house. But after thirty years, nine kids, and a pet hen, they might as well have.
The house had grown around them, kid by kid, room by room, whim by whim, and now looked more like a house of horrors at an amusement park than a regular home on the prim-and-proper Willow Street. Some windows were oblong, some oval, others round. Framed by wood panels wide and thin, horizontal here and vertical there, and sometimes just nailed together haphazardly, like patchwork. The rooms were all differently sized and shaped as well, much like the various inhabitants. Some tall, some squat, some long, some shapeless, and some as small as a phone booth or closet. It was, to most, a big, fat, ramshackle house tilting sideways, sprawling at odd angles to the overgrown lawn — like a fat, old, penniless aunt with shingles leaning on a cane, eavesdropping on the neighbors next door.
Hoarders of the first order, Mrs. and Mr. Khatri had stuffed their home with “repurposed items”. They could easily be the founding fathers of backyard recycling, the way they went about it. If something had broken or was defunct, why fix it or toss it away? they said. Why not find a better use for it instead. And so they had trunks for chairs, stacked bricks for coffee tables, sofas fashioned out of blankets, and patchwork curtains from clothes that no one cared to use. The walls were covered with newspaper clippings from food, travel, and culture sections of the daily newspaper, interspersed with glossy magazine covers chronicling the political and fashion history of this great nation (“borrowed” from their neighbors of course), while stacks of unread books and worn-out music cassettes and CDs grew into floor-to-ceiling length shelves. Old dressers filled in for kitchen cabinets and clothes made for fancy décor, scattered as they were across the floor, on the back of sofas and chairs, when not tossed carelessly on table fans, banisters, and door knobs. Even their hen, when it stopped laying eggs, functioned as an alarm clock that rang at odd hours of the day.
The same hoarder’s logic extended to the kids as well. And since minding kids was not their idea of growing old, after the first three, they saw merit in raising kids in pairs. They’d take care of each other, they reckoned, and raise themselves without much oversight. For Mrs. Khatri kept busy creating universes and skeletons in her oblong studio, and Mr. Khatri had a carpentry shop to run from the shed at the back, and they seldom had the time or the inclination to discipline anyone.
And so the kids ruled the roost in this amusement house, wreaking havoc on the neighbors and at school in waves of two. That is, till they came to the odd one out. The youngest of the lot, the naughtiest of them all: a scrappy young girl named Mollie.
She was a tomboy at heart, dressed in her brothers’ hand-me-downs. She’d have nothing to do with her pretty sisters’ clothes. Checkered/striped shirts were the thing for her, with sleeves rolled up, like she was ready to get into a scuffle with a drop of a hat. She wore three-fourth pants, always, held in place by a canvas belt that wrapped around her waist twice over, so slender she was. Her hair was a boyish length, uncombed, messy, getting into her eyes and ears, as if it was always breezy in there. Though her laced canvas shoes were a size too big, the thick ankle-length socks filled the gaps quite nicely.
In this household, it was quite easy to get away with a lot. Not even the principal’s weekly calls could raise any eyebrows around here. When the neighbors would call or run down the front door, complaining about how one or the other kid had smashed their windows, or hotwired their cars, or tied their kids shoes during class, or pulled down their skirts/pants as they stood up, or fed their dogs laced biscuits, or sent them on cross-country trails with planted pork scents, Mrs. Khatri would give a nonchalant wave of her hand, often a fake sweet cigarette dangling from her lips, for all artists have a vice. “So?” she’d say challengingly, “They are kids, no? That’s what they are supposed to do!”
Mr. Khatri was no better. He preferred action to words and would march down to the problem and fix it in his characteristic slam dunk way – with a nail gun and some wooden planks. He’d slap boards across broken windows and build kennels and garage doors. He even offered to redo all the school furniture to prevent serial shoe-lace tying and random skirt/pant pull downs. And that’s how their immediate neighbor’s mini car grew a padlocked shed (more like an upside-down crate with a door) within a day, right on the grassy driveway. “There, done,” he’d say, admiring his handiwork while the distraught complainants saw their homes turn into bits and pieces of the odd house at the end of the street.
The truth was, as long as the kids went to school and ate their food, Mrs. and Mr. Khatri considered it a job well done.
But the youngest of the lot outdid all her siblings. She’d skate down the rooftops and take down laundry lines, garden furniture, and flower pots. She’d haunt neighbors at midnight pretending to be a treasure hunter’s ghost looking for hidden gold under their living room floors. She’d swap the furniture in one room with that of the other and have everyone fly like disoriented birds, smashing into this and that. She’d round pigs from ditches and bring them home to raise them as pets, calling them Oink 1, 2, and 3, and send squirrels down the chimneys, and glue newspapers front to back before they got picked up and read. She loathed school. And though she was made to walk down to it with her sisters and brothers, they would soon break off to be with friends and such, leaving her to pursue her own interests. Often she’d bunk classes and head to the playground to scare off the kids, throwing at them fake lizards, live toads, and dog poo while they swung midair, or announcing that there was a man-eating panther on the loose and they better run for their lives. Sometimes, she’d sneak out to the nearest movie theater to throw popcorns that she gathered from the isles at lovebirds necking in the dark, or make yucky noises to gross out the few audience members who still came for the morning shows. She’d grab a fruit here and a toad there as she’d skip down towards home, to all effects having attended school. This was quite alright by the Khatri standards. Till she did this:
She got expelled for short attendance.
Never in the history of this household had one got expelled … for anything. Suspended, yes, black starred, of course, almost on a daily basis. But never ever did one get expelled, and that too for short attendance. They all had the good sense to get their proxies down, or submit forged notes, laughed the long-faced, long-haired twinsters who were now in high school and never up to any good themselves.
“Now what are we going to do with you?” they teased in unison. The clown act in the court of Mrs. and Mr. Khatri, complete with matching foolish grins and equally bad hairstyle.
“Well, it’s very well that it’s not the two of you who are in her shoes,” said Mrs. Khatri, slapping on a hastily put together khitchdee across the table on empty plates. Every meal here was a hastily put together affair, with whatever veggies Mr. Khatri could find at the vegetable market at the closing hour, when everything went for cheap, going into a huge pot with rice and boiling water.
“But she is in our shoes,” they yelled and high-fived each other across the table.
The girls giggled. “Awe,” they said, “in your shoes and clothes as well.”
The youngest one stuck out her tongue, jumped out of her seat, and ran up to her room, the phone booth/closet, where she slammed the door as hard as possible. When she was certain that everyone had bought the play and no one was coming upstairs, she tiptoed to her sisters’ dorm-like room, long with a high ceiling, where four beds stood lined against the walls, and searched under the matrices to find letters, cutouts, report cards, that they were hiding from all eyes.
“Hmm,” she wondered, “what can be done with these?” and tiptoed back to her room.
Mrs. Khatri tried to strong arm the principal the very next day. After all, he hadn’t warned them as was the rule. She knew this much. Parents always got called.
The principal corrected her. He had called. He had been calling her since the start of the fifth grade. And every time she had said, “So, they are kids, no? That’s what they are supposed to do.” What Mrs. Khatri had failed to gather was that all the calls were not split across all her kids, but focused on just one.
“But this makes no sense,” she kept saying to him, ignoring the racks of trophies and shields that had to be rebuilt thanks to her vandal sons. “If you had to expel her, then you should have done so when she nearly burnt down the school with her Joan of Arc act on stage. Or when she got the whole school to take the day off on the pretext of your — beg your pardon — untimely demise, and you are very much alive might I add. Or when she failed all her exams last year and you still promoted her, just so that fourth-grade teacher of yours could get rid of her. And it isn’t like there are any more of us flooding the school yard anymore. You could just look the other way round this time and I promise you, you won’t even know she was here.”
“Madam,” said the stiff-lipped, double-chinned principal who had seen enough of her kids to know that would never be the case, “isn’t that the whole problem in the first place.”
Before she could protest the ridiculousness of it all—for who cared if kids went to school every single day of their lives, she didn’t, and her parents had not seemed to care at the time, or they did perhaps, and that’s why she got sent off to the attic and her room so often, unlike her sisters, who were pitch perfect at everything and seemed to always finish their dinner and be on top of their studies, and had the good sense—in her father’s words—to marry rich, and now lived in palatial homes with kids siphoned off to expensive prep schools et al, the secretary barged in, on the verge of screaming her head off. She was covered in UCB-like hand prints from head to toe. And the youngest one had just the right colors in her satchel, which, thanks to this new trick of hers, would be of little use to her in the near future. Of course, it was no fault of the secretary for dozing off at work.
“Oh my,” said Mrs. Khatri cheerfully, “that looks fashionable, doesn’t it?”
If only she had a sibling pair. Then somebody would have caught on. But Mrs. Khatri was not about to have another kid just so she could even out like the others. And Mr. Khatri wasn’t about to build her a new school with his nail gun and wooden planks. And there weren’t any other schools around, where they could afford to send her.
Homeschooling seemed the only alternative.
But with kids like theirs, no tutor dared venture into the madhouse at the end of the street. Strangely, though, a lot of boys—nervous, pimply/horse-faced teenagers of all shapes and sizes—started showing up at their doorsteps. Some brought flowers—freshly plucked or store brought, some brought chocolates and teddy bears with heart-shaped balloons, and others, despite no prior experience, offered to mow the lawn, help around the house, and even tutor anyone, for free, and yet others started crooning at midnight, serenading odd-shaped windows, not knowing where their objects of affection lived.
Not helping matters was the sudden announcement that Great Aunt M was visiting over the weekend, on her way to a conference with like-minded moralists in some upscale borough.
Great Aunt M was Mrs. Khatri’s aunt, on her father’s side, to be precise, though the Khatris, thankfully, bore no resemblance to that part of the family tree. She had come to increasingly resemble their home in both posture and appearance, albeit moved to a more well-to-do locale—her large frame stooping heavily on her intricately carved wooden cane, her cotton sari, starched stiff, making odd angles with her varying girth, and a monocle held against a beady eye, prying into the lives of whomsoever she chose to condescend.
She was a widow, Great Aunt M, who had no kids of her own, and, consequently, took great pleasure in lamenting those of her brother’s. She was well-off, having married a wealthy industrialist with no relations of his own, and had enough to spare quite generous an allowance for all of her three nieces, especially Mrs. Khatri, who was in need of it most, and whom she considered a lost cause for having married quite beneath her station and beauty. For this, she harbored a grave resentment against Mr. Khatri, whom she ignored for all matters and purposes. Mr. Khatri, on his part, bore her altruistic presence for his wife’s sake, who hoped of securing a respectable inheritance for their kids, in the eventuality that “her highness” was to join the ranks of the dearly departed, which did not seem would happen anytime soon.
Great Aunt M’s displeasure was obvious from the moment she stepped onto the Khatris’ gravel driveway. She had arrived in her stately carriage, a station wagon that belonged much more to the eras gone by than the present, and descended upon the house with her beak-like nose pinched in disapproval: at Mr. Khatri who took her travel bag and cloak and dumped them on a broken chair by the door; at the dining chair that creaked ominously under her shifting weight; at the chipped cup that bore tea stains from many a pouring; and at the house in general, for making her go tizzy with its labyrinth of odd-shaped rooms mushrooming within each other. She was certain she had seen a mirror room somewhere, though why to have one in a house that functioned more like a zoo was beyond any reason.
If she had planned to stay for the night, she had not made her wishes known to the hosts. Consequently, Mr. and Mrs. Khatri worked under the happy delusion that all they had to do was prepare a half-decent meal, have all the kids show up spic and span, keep the stray boys off their lawn, and soon their inspection will be over, and Great Aunt M would be off on her way to better shores.
The dinner table was more closely packed at supper than a Broadway musical on its opening night. Great Aunt M sat stiffly on her rickety throne at the head of the table, prying through a chicken leg with a spoon and a fork. Eat up, said the kids to each other, for it wasn’t every day that chicken graced their dining table dressed in deliciously thick and creamy gravy or deep fried to crisp and golden.
“As long as it’s not Madhuri,” said the youngest one to all, and took a huge chunk. When Great Aunt M inquired as to who this Madhuri was, despite the many glares and kicks under the table, the youngest one smiled proudly. “It’s my pet hen,” she said. “We named it after you. Want to meet her? She is right here.” Before anyone could stop her, she stood up on her chair too big for her, cupped her hands before her mouth, and catcalled. A hen, brownish red with a fringe of black feathers around her neck and wings, came swooping down the ceiling and sat right before Great Aunt M, pecking at her plate.
Great Aunt M frowned around at the table, her beak-like nose pinched even further than before. One of the older girls gathered the hen in her arms and took it to a corner, where a plate of grains and a cup of water were kept. Mrs. Khatri looked positively aghast. She avoided looking towards her aunt who sat appraising the situation.
After much deliberation, Great Aunt M spoke: “Hmm…I rather you’d name a cockatiel after my first name. Now, Renu, bring me a new plate. And prepare a room for the driver. We will be staying here for the night.”
The dinner ended on a sweet note without any more flutters and palpitations. And just when Mr. and Mrs. Khatri exhaled, thinking that the worst was over for the day, and their heads hit the pillows on the folding sofa in the attic and they drifted into the lands imagined only in the deepest of sleep, the tall grandfather clock in the drawing room struck twelve with great force.
The Khatris awoke thinking the house was under attack, and toned down the alarm level to heavy rainfall, when all there was were stones, names, and lyrics being pelted continuously against the window panes.
“That’s it,” said Mr. Khatri as he marched into the girls’ room and demanded what was going on. Mrs. Khatri quickly followed on his heels. She threw open one of the windows and frowned at the eclectic mix of all graders standing in their untamed lawn, praying that her aunt fast asleep in their relatively plush bedroom, on their relatively plush mattresses, would not wake up.
It was a party out there. A fat boy had started a barbecue in their yard. Others were getting high on the thick smoke from the burning fat and, on closer inspection, beer. They cheered each other on, popping cans one after the other, creating a mess of crushed cans and a live mix tape for who knows who in this room. After a buff bloke, a pimply, morose-looking lad sang hoarsely, choking on the smoke and his tears. “Who’s that for, that you sing,” asked Mrs. Khatri like a schoolgirl, unable to figure out which one of her daughters could have encouraged this ray of no hope. But they all named different daughters, waving the letters they’d received from them, asking them to meet at this appointed hour of the night before their home.
“No way,” said the eldest daughter, speaking for all, “we did no such thing.”
“But here they are,” said Mrs. Khatri, “all ready to “woo” you girls. I thought they’d be better looking when the day came.”
Some of the boys realized that they were here for the same girl—now that the letters were out in the open; a realization that should have precipitated on encountering a vast number of suitors that clearly outnumbered the girls being pursued. The camaraderie soon dissipated with the smoke, and they found themselves wrestling each other, scratching each other’s face, grabbing each other’s hair, tearing each other’s clothes.
“Aren’t those two boys Mrs. Venga Kumar Gopalan’s sons?” wondered Mrs. Khatri aloud.
“That’s it,” said Mr. Khatri again, “I am calling the police.”
When the letters were examined, the youngest one was fast asleep in her cot. The hen lodged on her windowsill. She was smiling in her sleep—how wonderfully all had gone according to plan. First, she had found the yearbook and all the chaps her sisters were the least likely to have an interest in, ruling out all the boys whose letters they’d kept hidden and the popular ones, of course, which sometimes overlapped. Then, she’d tested a batch. Left a few notes spell checked and signed in her sisters’ names for them. That’s when the boys started showing up. It had worked. They actually liked her sisters! (Yuck! Who could? They were so girly.) But no one at home seemed to mind the extra bottle of soda or a free paint job. So she had to up the scale. Send out a mass mail to all the identified targets, hoping they’d turn up the same hour. And they did. And now her sisters were to be branded as those girls with loose morals, and not even for the boys that they actually fancied. Besides, planning this deed on the night of Great Aunt M’s visit was a sheer stroke of genius. Who knew she’d stick around to see her handiwork?
“And now they’d all be forced to dress like me,” she chuckled in her sleep, holding onto the edge of the blanket. “Take that you girly girls.” She had no way of knowing what was to come next.
As her sisters went to sleep weeping, convinced that their life had been ruined for good, and that the boys that they were actually interested in, would now never look at them in the same way again, thanks to those stupid letters that their sister had sent out, Great Aunt M paced the study with no windows but a great big fireplace and decided to show her hand. The girl needed disciplining and she knew just the place to get her some.