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The Hunt

"When we were children, and lived in South India, we would often play a game called `poott’’. Leaves were folded until they looked like small square boxes and tied with thin bands. Six such leaves were then hidden in a designated play area. Children would break up into two teams. One team would hide and the other would hunt. Both would take turns. The team that found the maximum number of poott within half an hour was declared the winner, and it could make the losing team do its bidding such as run errands or finish cumbersome school assignments,’’ Maria explained.

"It was actually great fun,’’ she recalled. "More often than not, the ritual took place at our house because we had a huge spacious garden,’’ she noted. "Ours was a large gang of boys and girls. It included my next door neighbours and those from across the street, those from three houses down the street and some from the adjoining streets. We would all congregate at 5 p.m. and have two rounds of the game on most days. My best friend was my immediate neighbour. Her name was Kalavati. She was a thin, tall, good-natured girl, who always wore flowers in her hair and who ran very fast. Her sister, Malati also played with us. Malati was fantastic at climbing trees, and with her in the team, there was a good chance that some of the poott had been hidden high up on a tree,’’ Maria reminisced. 

"On that particular day, team A had hidden the poott and team B was looking for them. Kalavati and I were a part of the latter. Almost 25 minutes were up and we had searched everywhere. Ratan, Tapas and Santosh had even climbed most of the trees. Not one of the leaves was to be found. Normally, we would find almost all of them in about 20 minutes. The feeling that you are about to lose a game can be a wretched one, and we were all feeling lousy. Our time was up, and we had to accede defeat,’’ she said.

"When Kalavati went home, she pestered Malati, who had been playing for the other team, to tell her where the missing leaves were but the latter would not relent. Kalavati even brought her mother into the picture. Periamma (aunt) was a wonderful woman who cooked with pleasure not only for her own children but also for me and my sister. She made delicious tomato and lemon rice, and sent us large portions every other day. Aunty decided not to interfere. I could not get over the fact that my team had lost for the very first time, that evening. I was restless, and after dinner, went back into the garden with a torch to look for the elusive leaves, and guess what?…Kalavati was also out in her garden. So, we got together, and the hunt began all over again. An hour passed in vain, and we had to give up,’’ Maria confessed.

The next evening, the victorious team A came to play with a vengeance. "All the members had a smirk on their faces, and I was getting more and more annoyed. After all, it was just a game, I told myself. But poott was more than that; it was a test of the team’s agility, skill and judgment. I decided to make sure that we never lost again, and as luck would have it, we managed to win by just a couple of seconds. Team A had finished its task in 27 minutes and we had beaten it by ten seconds.

With some of our egos salvaged, Kalavati and I started walking back to the verandah where Mom had laid out mangoes to be dried to make pickle, which is quite a delicacy in south India. Kalavati bent down to pick one from the mat on the floor, and gave a gasp,’’ said Maria.

There, camouflaged in the huge mass of dark green fruit, lay all the six dark green poott-leaves. Periamma was looking at the children from the other side of the hedge and smiling. It had been her idea.

Contributing Story Teller Sangita P. Menon Malhan, I am a short story writer, located in New Delhi, India. For most of my professional life, I was a journalist with a national newspaper. I am currently a freelance editor and translator. The stories I write are primarily for children and the youth. Their readership, so far, has been Indian, and therefore, the stories have Indian sensibilities.

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