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Chapter 2 : Unbelievers
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The summer had just begun in the bustling young city of Madras. It was a typical Indian summer: hot, humid and filled with mosquitoes. The roads were heavily laden with fruit and vegetable vendors, flower-seller girls in drabs, forest nomads in clutters, counting their merchandise beads, arrowheads and animal skins. And then, around the corner, sat the fortune-teller under the vast Banyan tree, with a board, a set of cards and occasionally, a tame parrot. If you asked him about the people, he would shake his turban-covered head knowledgeably, and tell you in solemn tones: all of them were non-believers.
But there was one believer, who believed in magic. She was a little girl of 10 years, but she already knew that magic existed. She saw it sometimes when a bud blossomed, or when a cocoon unwrapped, or heard it when the hymns were sung in the nearby temple or church. Or when she sketched something, and watched the colors getting filled on the paper, just inside the darkly drawn border. To Maitri, everything was magic.
It was daybreak, when Maitri had finally filled the last water bucket with the water from the common well. She heaved it and began her journey home. It wasn’t very far away, just on the next street.
She wasn’t terribly early, but it was better if she could finish her chores soon and then go out to play or sit on the neem tree branch and watch the boys play kabaddi.
She sighed as she spotted the sun rise above the blanket of trees and buildings, it’s rosy glow yellowing as it got higher. Another advantage of this time was that the roads were empty, atleast for while. Maitri did not necessarily liked to be stared at or stopped by vehicular traffic. The water bucket was heavy.
The reason why she was stared at was easy. Maitri was fair, very fair for a South Indian girl. And though she spent all her time under the sun, she got tanned very little. Even her baby brother of 5 years wasn’t as fair, though he was pink and chubby and the perfect epitome of glowing health. Her mother said she probably had a vitamin deficiency. Her neighbors gossiped that she had inherited her grandmother’s melanism disease, whatever that was.
Maitri stumbled a bit, causing the water to splash on her dyed red skirt, but she barely minded. Her eyes were fixed on the flying figure right in front of her, just above her eye-level. It was an owl, a rare bird to be seen in daytime. Of course, she has heard the hoots at night, but this was the first time she ever saw one. It was beautiful. She hooted softly trying to catch its attention, and succeeded, to her own surprise. The owl hooted back and briefly brushed her shoulder before flying away.
She vowed to never forget the magic of that moment. Ever.
Later that day, Maitri slipped out into the backyard. Her family wouldn’t miss her, not with their queer practices in tow. Her family embers were strange when it came to religion; her grandparents were devout Hindus, and got up at 4 o’clock in the morning to start their poojas for the day to come, praying most of the time, when they weren’t eating, or sleeping. Her grandparents did not do much of the talking, especially if the radio was switched on for occasional classical music concerts. Her parents were entirely different. Her mother went to the temple on Mondays and Fridays, and to the church on Wednesdays and Sundays, and sang religious hymns at both places. Her father frequented between temples, mosques and mausoleums, following atleast deities of 6 religions. He proudly claimed he was a polytheist, and knew God in more ways than many. People regarded him as both an idiot and a modernist, which probably landed his weekly magazine as the most popular in the neighborhood. People bought it eagerly, either to criticize him, or to praise him.
Maitri and Chandru, her little baby brother, were left to decide their own religious interests. Both kids had fled from the choice, now that she thought of it. Maitri smiled. To her, God was something beyond the grasp of a religion. She was so sure her brother would agree with her beliefs. Afterall, he was almost a shadow of hers.
It was at this moment, on a humid summer morning in the middle of the rambling city of Madras, when Maitri was busy helping her brother up the little tree swing, a visitor came to their house. And not just any visitor, he was a foreigner. A British man, in fact.
Ever since Independence, very few foriegners chose to move freely among the Indians. After 23 years, you would’ve expected them to warm up to the white men, but Indians had their own pride accounted for. So, when the white visitor turned up at the Harys residence, which housed one of the most modern-thinking men in the city, people didn’t know what to think. Maitri didn’t know what to think when she ran up and opened the door. She had gaped when she saw the visitor. It was not that she hadn’t seen any of the British around. Actually, summer was full of them around temples. But this big man in front of her had just an unimaginable amount of beard and hair, looking as glossy as the fluff sweet. She wanted to touch it and check if it really would crystallize in her fingers like the sweet, but was terrified of what the foreigner would think. Presently, he was smiling down at her.
“Are your parents home, little one?” he asked in a merry voice. Maitri smiled. She liked this man, who had a voice which would sound nice when it sang. She nodded and opened the door wider. Her baby brother, Chandru stared at the tall stranger and ran off to find their father. Behind the stranger, the whole street was staring at the Harys’ modest house, already starting to gossip. Maitri wondered if they’d call her father an anti-patriot now, instead of ethic-less.
Maitri jumped slightly as she heard her father’s voice resounding throughout the building. Her father had a pretty loud and booming voice, a part of which she’d inherited. He came striding into the high-walled hall of theirs, meant for visitors to be greeted. She slunk into the shadows of the room, wondering if her father would be angry or shell-shocked to know she’d let a white man inside the house.
He was neither. Maitri’s eyebrows flew up, nearly up to her dark, oiled hair. Mr. Harys, the widely controversial polytheist resident of Madras, smiled in surprise when he saw the old man. The stranger smiled back, too, and for a moment, Maitri was sure both pairs of eyes flicked to her corner.
“How good to see you, Mr. Dumbledore,” Mr. Harys said, leading the white man to their reed sofa. Maitri almost laughed. What a queer name! Maitri ran into the kitchen and told her mother to make two filter coffees, as they had a new visitor. In a few minutes, she walked back to the bright hall, clutching the two tumblers of hot coffee with care.
When she entered, they were talking in subdued voices, with the stranger’s palm resting on her father’s shoulder, who uncharacteristically looked sad. However, both of them dropped the sadness façade when they saw her approaching them. Maitri carefully handed them the coffees and went to stand behind her father.
“So, this is your girl?” Mr. Dumbledore asked Mr. Harys, who beamed while answering on the affirmative.
“Does she know?” he then asked, very quietly, and Mr. Harys looked at him for a long time before shaking his head. Maitri looked at each of them in turn, not understanding what they were talking about. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her brother clinging to their mother who politely smiled and bowed once, and left the room.
“Is it already time?” her father asked softly, again, unusual to his loud nature. “She is, afterall, only ten.” Her father’s English was Indianized, brazen and cut. The stranger had a polished language, flowing like water.
“I’m afraid, it is,” Mr. Dumbledore said, looking at Maitri with piercing blue eyes. “She maybe a bit young, but Hogwarts can always take an exceptional student in. After all, her potential is too great to leave unharnessed for another year; why not earlier rather than sorrier?”
Hogwarts? Student? Maitri was confused now. All this while, she was sure she was to continue in St. Marilyn’s Higher Convent School for Young Ladies; what was Hogwarts, anyway? Near her, Mr. Harys looked just as confused, but there a bit of fear mixed in it.
“Exceptional? My Maitri?” he asked in a restrained voice. He looked at the little girl behind him, as if seeing her for the first time.
Mr. Dumbledore smiled kindly at him and beckoned Maitri over to sit near him. Tentatively, her eyes still on her increasingly nervous father, Maitri stepped over and sat down.
“Do you believe in magic, little Maitri?” Mr. Dumbledore asked her, smiling all the time. She blinked at him.
“Yes, I do,” Maitri answered slowly, wondering what the next question was going to be. Her father looked merely worried now.
“Would you also believe if I told you that magic was real, and that people used it everyday, and that you could do it, too, if you were taught?” Mr. Dumbledore asked her, calmly, his smile slightly smaller now. Maitri stared at him and looked at her anxious father, who looked anywhere but at her. She turned back to the old man and nodded. She heard her father sigh softly and looked at him curiously.
Mr. Dumbledore tapped her shoulder and handed her a letter. It was not a normal letter, written on a normal paper - it was made of thicker stuff, and smelled different. She looked at Dumbledore and back at the letter, not knowing what to do. She looked at the address written on it; it had her name in large golden letters.
“Go on, read it,” Mr. Dumbledore said. “It’s for you.”
Maitri opened the envelope gingerly, not wanting to tear the thick paper. Out fell a long sheet of the same thick paper. Maitri picked it up and unfolded it. It was a short letter, words written in thick curly handwriting:-
Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry
Ms. M. Harys,
20, Norton Lane,
Dear Ms. Harys,
We are pleased to inform you that you have been accepted at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Please find an enclosed list of all necessary books and equipments.
Term begins on September 1st. We await your owl by no later than July 31st.
The letter ended there. Turning the paper back, she found the prescribed set of books and equipments. Maitri’s eyes glanced over the list, registering the peculiar words and terms that jumped out to her. It didn’t make any sense to her, but somehow, she was convinced such things existed.
“So, Hogwarts is a school?” she started slowly, looking at the main letter again. Dumbledore nodded approvingly, so she continued. “Where… they teach… magic? To kids?” Dumbledore grinned widely, as if to say, clever girl. “You… work there?”
“I’m a professor at the school, yes”
Maitri turned to her father.
“Did you go to this… school, Appa?” she asked, referring to her father in their native tongue. “Do you also know how to make magic?”
To her surprise, her father shook his head. “No, dear,” he said gently. “I was not one of the gifted. But your uncle, my older brother, was gifted, and learnt to do magic. I, however, did not have any magical powers.” Maitri was amused momentarily at how much her father made it sound like a supernatural power, that was something to be blessed with, when magic was as omnipresent as the God he was pursuing .
“Can I go?” she asked Mr. Dumbledore. He smiled and looked at her father enquiringly.
“Your word, Mr. Harys,” Dumbledore asked, raising his eyebrows slightly. “If you shall consent, we would be glad to arrange to take her soon to our school. Ofcourse, we need Mrs. Harys’ word, too.”
Maitri turned around to see her mother was standing by the doorway, her sari pallu pulled over her head. She eyed Mr. Dumbledore warily, but winced when he mentioned her. Boldly, she came to where they sat and placed her hand on her husband’s shoulder and looked at Maitri longingly. She and Maitri’s father looked at each other, and appeared to have a whole silent conversation with him before both of them turned to Mr. Dumbledore and Maitri. Both of them nodded, not breaking their gaze on the little girl, who found happiness suddenly swelling inside her. She cried happily and hugged both of them, who hugged her back, tearfully.
“Do you have to leave soon?” Mr. Harys asked, looking over Maitri’s shoulder at Mr. Dumbledore.
“I’m afraid, yes; she has a long list of our beliefs to get acquainted with,” Dumbledore said lightly, his blue eyes twinkling over the rim of his half-moon spectacles. “Wouldn’t you like to know what we believe in, Ms. Harys?”
Maitri smiled at the man, her eyes shining with excitement as she nodded. On an impulse, she ran over to the old man and hugged him, too.
After the heavy South Indian lunch, the afternoon found Maitri and Mr. Dumbledore in the huge backyard of their house, complete with a mango tree. Mr. Dumbledore was currently demonstrating how to turn a stone into a little squirrel and handed the little creature to Maitri, who held it with fascination. Dumbledore looked at her strangely as she stroked the rodent’s brown fur.
“How was it that you believed in my words about magic as soon as I told you?” he asked, sitting like a child on the low parapet wall. “Muggleborn children usually find it hard to believe in unusual things, don’t they?”
Dumbledore surveyed her over his glasses, again. He smiled as if to say, shrewd girl. “Muggles are what we magical people call non-magical people. People who are not able to perform magic.”
“Oh,” Maitri said, letting the squirrel scramble up a tree. “You mean people who don’t believe in magic. The fortune-teller and I call them Unbelievers.”
That seemed to amuse the old wizard. “So, according to you, if people believe in magic, they can perform it?” He asked with a chuckle. Maitri looked at him defiantly
“Yes,” she answered with determination to make the tall old man see her point, which was inadvertently right. “Magic is not like disease, which comes to only some of us, while some of them don’t get it. It’s not fair. Magic is like Nature, a part of all.”
Dumbledore sat up straight. He hadn’t expected such a straightforward answer which made sense, not from a girl of 10. Don’t mistake him, for he was just another adult, who liked to think kids were all about fantasies and heroes and toys. It was very rare he encountered students who could easily put forth their thoughts to adults, especially about something controversial at Magic, and Nature.
“Like nature…,” he repeated slowly, focusing on her. Maitri ignored it, and continued.
“It’s, sort of, sleeping inside us,” she said, waving her thin hands in a soft gesture, pressing the air down with her palms. “Much like the monster inside us; if you believe it, it comes out.” She looked up and smiled sweetly at him. “Don’t you think so, too?”
Dumbledore smiled again, the corners of his eyes crinkling merrily. He brought his palms together in silent applause.
“Brava, my dear,” he said softly. “I think so too, now that you say.” He paused a bit, and got down from the parapet wall. “Belief is what you are,” he mused, stroking his flossy beard. “But what about the monster?”
Maitri looked at him surprised. “We need to believe in us! Be we monster, be us angels!”
Dumbledore chuckled, and patted her cheek. “I wouldn’t have put it better, my dear, never better.”
Maitri beamed at him. She didn’t remember being more proud of herself.
Maitri’s mother, Mrs. Harys, insisted that she show their guest around the city. Mr. Dumbledore was staying the night, and would be leaving very early in the morning. So would Maitri and her father, because it involved her to acquire traveling visas to London, in Britain, for it was their immediate destination from her hometown. Her father would then bid them goodbye after a week by when she would’ve gotten the visa, her own passport and a whole set of homeland requirements that would be needed in the foreign land of White People. In a matter of hours, the three of them would be heading to a different corner of the city, where they made passports and handed out visas to the Overseas. For a little girl who hasn’t stepped out of her protective neighborhood, it was quite the terrifying and terribly exciting prospect of her young life.
“So, what is that?” Dumbledore asked in a quiet voice, to Maitri, who was licking off a popsicle.
“Oh, they’re villagers,” Maitri explained looking at where the old wizard was pointing. “They put up stalls two or three times a year. You know, food, bangles, merry-go-rounds.”
“I see,” Dumbledore mumbled, fascinated by the utterly Muggle-ish world. “And, pray, what do you call that?”
“Street performers with their monkeys and tricks,” Maitri answered, running her amber brown eyes over the thin rope on which a fragile girl was walking, balancing a bamboo stalk in her hand and a monkey on her head. “It’s how they get money here.”
Dumbledore nodded, his eyes sympathetic. Maitri felt a soft whoosh in the air above her and turned towards the tightrope girl. There was some sort of an invisible cushion under the rope, which was fraying and old.
“Will it stay?” she asked, eyeing the nearly invisible buffer.
“For a while.”
“If they believe in it…?”
“They’re Unbelievers; they wouldn’t believe it even if I threw her on it,” Dumbledore said, popping a lemon drop into his mouth. “But it is for people like them.” He gave a look of sympathy in the girl’s direction. “Can’t bear to see kids falling to their death.”
Maitri looked up at him and smiled. “You are a kind old man.”
That night, little Maitri and her baby brother, Chandru, were huddled up against each other, and lying on their back, gazing at the stars. She pointed out the few ever stars that she knew to him and after a while, they lay silent, just watching the stars and the huge yellow Indian moon.
“Akka?” Chandru called her in their native tongue, clinging to her like a toddler.
“Why do you have to go?” he asked in an emotion filled voice. Maitri hugged him and arranged him a way that he sat on her stomach as she lay down.
“It’s a school, darling,” she said softly, patting her brother’s cheeks. Her world and his’ were intermixed; he was a huge part of her as she was to him. Perhaps, it was the only sad misgiving of the whole concept of Hogwarts. “It’s a little far away, but I’ll always come back for you.”
Chandru smiled and hugged her and gave a sloppy little kiss on her cheek and she tickled him furiously, making him fall into peals of laughter. She smiled as she heard it.
She didn’t want to forget it for a while.
She only wished her brother wasn’t a Muggle. An Unbeliever.
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