Problem at the park
“Neeraj, take Neera away; she’s getting in my hair!” “Impossible, Mummy!” protested Neeraj. “She couldn’t possibly reach your head.”
Neeraj’s mother laughed. “I mean that Neera is in my way. Daddy’s boss is coming to dinner, and I have to start cooking. Please look after your kid sister.”
“Can’t Neerja....?” began Neeraj, whose plans for the evening did not include Neera.
“Neerja is tidying your room,” said Neeraj’s mother. “Of course, if you’d rather...”
Neeraj grabbed Neera and fled. Anything would be better than clearing up his room. Peering in, he saw Neerja folding his clothes. She was a remarkable elder sister, and Neeraj knew that he should be just as good a brother to Neera.
Rescuing Neeraj’s model helicopter from Neera’s clutches, Neerja went out to fetch a fresh frock for her. Neera gazed at her brother adoringly. “Neela love Neelaj,” she declared, adding firmly, “Neela go Pundypa.” Pundypa was Pandit Park. Given a choice between Disneylands the world over and Pandit Park down the road, Neera would settle for ‘Pundypa’!
Named after Pandit Nehru, and equipped with swings, slides and seesaws, Pandit Park was popular with the children of the neighbourhood. Neeraj, though, preferred the grounds close by, where games could be played. Today, however, there was no escaping Pandit Park. The pint-sized pixie, not three years old, was raring to go!
As he set off with Neera, Neeraj told himself that he must not be seen. He recalled an occasion when he had been on the merry-go-round with Neera. Observed by a classmate who had spread the news, Neeraj had been nicknamed ‘Nursemaid’!
“So what?” his father demanded. “Don’t Mummy and I take care of you?” Fortunately for Neeraj, Neerja was understanding, and generally watched over Neera.
“Shwing!” cried Neera, running ahead in the park. Neeraj tried to stop looking around. It was dreadful, he knew, to feel ashamed of being with his sister! Suddenly, Neeraj spotted Salim. Seated beneath the statue of Pandit Nehru at the other end of the park, Neeraj’s senior seemed engrossed in a book. A brilliant student and an accomplished sportsman, Salim was the school captain.
“I’m finished if Salim sees me!” thought Neeraj. At that moment, Neerja’s friend appeared. “May I borrow Neera?” she said. Neeraj hesitated, for Rita was nowhere near as responsible as Neerja. Neera, however, gave Rita a trusting hand, and the two went off together. “Neera should be safe,” Neeraj told himself. “I could dash to the field for some cricket, and be back soon.”
When Neeraj returned to Pandit Park much later, there was no sign of Neera. Rita was missing as well. He would learn afterwards that she had remembered an unfinished errand and left the little girl alone to “wait for Neeraj”. Heart pounding, Neeraj yelled, “Neera! Neera!” He did not care who heard him nor who saw him rush wildly across the park. All he wanted was his precious baby sister to come running towards him. “God, please give me another chance!” he prayed.
As Neeraj reached the Nehru statue, Salim emerged from behind it. He was carrying Neera, who leapt joyfully into her brother’s arms. “I found her wandering around,” explained Salim, “and realised that she was your sister when she mentioned your name — her version of it! I’ve enjoyed her company, so call me next time you need a baby-sitter. I would be more than happy to play nursemaid,” said Salim, grinning at Neeraj.