Excerpt for Nine Short Chapter Books (Children's Books for Age 8-12 ) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Front Cover Painting by Tapas Guha

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The Homeless Birds was first published as an ebook in January, 2016

©2016 to 2018 Gita V. Reddy; All Rights Reserved.

Krishta, Daughter of Martev was first published as an ebook in January, 2014

©2014 to 2018 Gita V. Reddy; All Rights Reserved.

Knife and Fork was first published as an ebook in February, 2016

©2016 to 2018 Gita V. Reddy; All Rights Reserved.

Daksha the Medicine Girl was first published as an ebook in February, 2014

©2014 to 2018 Gita V. Reddy; All Rights Reserved.

Make a Wish was first published as an ebook in March, 2016

©2016 to 2018 Gita V. Reddy; All Rights Reserved.

The Missing Girl was first published as an ebook in July, 2013

©2013 to 2018 Gita V. Reddy; All Rights Reserved.

The Magician’s Turban was first published as an ebook in

©2012 to 2018 Gita V. Reddy; All Rights Reserved.

The Forbidden Forest was first published as an ebook in January, 2014

©2014 to 2018 Gita V. Reddy; All Rights Reserved.

Dearie was first published as an ebook in January, 2014

©2014 to 2018 Gita V. Reddy; All Rights Reserved.

Dedicated to my parents,

Sri Yog Prakash Datta and Smt. Santosh Datta,

to my my parents-in-law,

Sri K. Vittal Reddy and Smt. Ganga Devi,

and to my husband,

Prof. K. Venu Gopal Reddy.


The Short Chapter Book Series is an attempt to inculcate the love of reading in all children, transitioning beginning readers to more advanced readers

and reluctant readers into beginning readers.

They are also read-alouds for younger readers who are able to follow a story but have not learnt to read fluently.

The series also introduces children to different genres.




KNIFE AND FORK (Original Fable)

DAKSHA THE MEDICINE GIRL (Geography & Culture)

MAKE A WISH (Original Fairy Tale)



DEARIE (Animal Story)

THE MISSING GIRL (General Fiction)

All living creatures need one another

even though the connection is not clear.

It is said, ‘When one tugs at a single

thing in nature, he finds it attached to

the rest of the world.’

Chapter 1 : Midnight Visitor

Ranjan’s mother came in to check on him. "Why aren’t you asleep? Stop reading that book. It’s well past your bedtime."

"I’m not sleepy at all."

Ranjan had spent the day in bed because he had caught a cold. The medication had made him sleepy. Now he was better and wide awake.

"If you lie down and close your eyes, you will go to sleep."

Ranjan got into bed and switched on the night lamp. He pulled a sheet over him and closed his eyes.

"Goodnight, dear," his mother said, and left.

Ranjan kept his eyes shut for a long time. Or so he thought. When he checked the clock, only ten minutes had passed. He sat up. To while away the time, he tried making shadow figures with his hands. But his mother had switched off the light and the night lamp was very dim. The figures were hazy.

He remembered another game. He and his cousin had made it up. They had draped the bedposts with a sheet. For one afternoon, the bed was their boat and they were pirates. But a make believe voyage was no fun when he was alone. Once again he lay down and shut his eyes. He would try to sleep. A little time later he got up and played a video game. He again tried to sleep but couldn’t.

The house was so silent he could hear the Grandfather Clock. It was in the living room below. Whenever it struck the hour, Ranjan counted the strokes. He counted ten, then eleven, and finally twelve. He was up even at twelve o’clock!

A sound came from the garden. Happy to leave his bed, he jumped up and ran to the window. A huge bird was drinking water from the tub placed under the dripping garden tap! What an amazing sight. Was he awake or dreaming? He gave himself a pinch. It turned out to be harder than he meant to. "Ouch!" he cried.

The enormous bird looked up. Ranjan held its gaze. When it didn’t look away, he leaned out. "Come here!" he called in a soft voice.

The bird took a step back and opened its wings. Its wings were bigger than the garden umbrella they sometimes used. The bird was also taller than Ranjan. Ranjan was eight but tall for his age. The bird’s size didn’t scare Ranjan because he could tell the bird was scared of him! It kept jerking back its head and looked ready to fly away.

"Don’t be scared! Don’t fly away! I won’t harm you. I can’t harm you, can I? You are so much bigger than I am."

The bird folded its wings but stayed where it was. Ranjan continued to speak to it. "Will you not be my friend? You are big and strong but you’re nice. I once saw a falcon. I was scared to go near it. I very much want for you to be my friend. Please don’t fly away."

Ranjan kept talking in a soft and gentle voice. Slowly, the bird came closer. Its feathers were white and silver and its eyes were red. Ranjan was thrilled. He had never seen a bird of that kind. Its brilliant eyes were like rubies in the temple idol.

"I wonder what kind of bird you are!" he said.

"I am Vajra."

Ranjan looked around. Where had that throaty voice come from?

"My name is Vajra."

The bird was talking! How was that possible? Was he dreaming? About to pinch himself again, he stopped. His arm still burnt from the earlier pinch.

"May I come in?" Vajra asked.

"Can you come in through the window? I can’t open the front door."

"I can, if you move back."

Vajra came in long neck first. When he started to spread his wings, Ranjan stopped him. "Don’t! You will knock something down. The sound might wake up my mother."

"Your mother?" Vajra squeaked and ran to the window. He thrust his neck out. He was leaving!

Chapter 2 : Terrace Meeting

Ranjan grabbed Vajra’s feet. "Don’t go! Please don’t go."

Vajra came in but stayed close to the window. Ranjan shut the door. "There! Now my mother can’t come in. You have nothing to worry."

Vajra came further in. He was careful not to open his wings.

"My parents’ room is on the other side of the house. If we keep our voices low, they will not hear us."

"Parents!" Once again Vajra darted towards the window. He also kept moving his head from side to side.

Ranjan scrambled up a chair and flung his arms around Vajra’s neck. "Stop! My parents will not harm you! Nobody will harm you!"

Vajra slowly calmed down. "I am sorry. I panicked. I came inside because I thought you were alone. But your parents live here too. I must go. It is bad enough I spoke to you. I can’t let more people see me."

"Vajra, you are safe."

"There’s also another problem. The house looked big from the outside but it’s actually very small. I can’t spread my wings in here. I like to spread my wings."

Ranjan guessed Vajra didn’t know that houses had rooms and the inside was different from the outside. Was that why he was restless? He might feel better if he had enough space to flap his wings.

"We can go out into the garden or up on the terrace. I can’t open the front door but if you stand beside the window, I can step down on your back."

Vajra agreed. He went out the same way he had come in and stood close to the window. As soon as Ranjan landed on him, he rose. Ranjan jerked forward and tried to get a hold. The next moment they were on the terrace. Ranjan slipped off his perch and Vajra ran around the terrace, flapping his wings.

"That felt good!" he said, finally coming to a stop.

"Tell me who you are and from where you have come," Ranjan asked, no longer able to hold back his questions.

Chapter 3 : Lost and Alone

"Where do I start?" Vajra asked.

"Start from the beginning."

"That may be a good place. Many hundreds of years ago, my ancestors lived in a king’s palace. They were the royal pets. Story has it that the first pair came from Fairy Land."

Ranjan’s eyes grew round in astonishment. "Fairy Land?" he asked.

"That’s what they say."

"Don’t you know for sure?"

"How can I? I’m only a young bird."

That made sense. Ranjan didn’t know much about his ancestors either.

"They were happy in the palace. The royal garden had tasty fruit and the lake was stocked with fish. No one in the kingdom was allowed to hunt them or capture them. They were free to fly wherever they wished. They learnt to speak like language of men. The royal family doted on them."

"This must have been a long time ago. We have no kings now," Ranjan said.

"I told you this was hundreds of years ago. Those days there were many kings. Story has it that they were always fighting with each other over silly things. Because of this, the people suffered and finally, they decided to get rid of the kings. At least this is what happened to the king in whose palace my ancestors lived. The people attacked the palace and looted it. They killed the king and his family. They did not even spare his pets."

"Do you mean they killed your ancestors?"

"They killed them and they ate them. The few that escaped took shelter in the mountains. They stayed away from human beings but taught their children human speech."

"Why didn’t they go back to Fairy Land?"

"I don’t know. I am a very young bird. I think they did not know how to go to Fairy Land. They were born in the palace, you see."

"How did you come into my garden?" Ranjan asked.

"I came with my flock to the hills beside the town. We came looking for food."

"You came with your flock? Is it outside the garden?" Ranjan asked, eager to see a flock of such majestic birds.

Vajra looked sad as he shook his head. "I’m alone. I slipped away when my mother was not looking. I wanted to have an adventure. I thought it would be wonderful to see how human beings lived. But as soon as I entered the town, a group of people tried to catch me. I managed to escape and found a hiding place. I hid all through the night and the day. When it grew dark again, I wanted to fly to the hills and look for the flock but I was hungry and thirsty. There was no one on your street and in your garden. I came in and ate your fruit."

"You’re welcome to it. What will you do now?"

"I don’t know what I will do. I am sure the flock must have left without me. They do not stay close to towns for long."

"You can fly home. Are you a very young bird? Are you scared to travel alone?"

"I’m not scared! But I can’t fly alone. I have not yet learnt to fly by direction. My home is to the north-east but I can’t keep track of which way north-east lies."

Ranjan couldn’t believe his ears. Were birds not born with the knowledge about direction? Didn’t they travel across oceans to faraway lands?

Chapter 4 : Help Me!

Ranjan knew how to locate the North Star. You did that by finding the Pointer Stars in the Big Dipper. However, he did not know how to locate other stars or directions.

Neither did Vajra. He had not paid attention during lessons. While his friends practiced how to tell direction by the sun, the stars, and the wind, he had fun walking upside down under cliffs. His mother never let him fly on his own and when he flew with the flock, he stayed on the tip of the group and followed the others.

"I have been foolish. How will I get back home?" he said, and tears came into his eyes, making them brighter.

Ranjan didn’t know how to make him feel better except to repeat that the flock would come looking for him. "You can stay with me until they come for you. You will be safe," he added. Then he had an idea. "Vajra, you can use my compass to fly north-east."

"What is a compass?"

Ranjan explained what a compass was. Vajra was excited. But he looked sad again. "It won’t work. I will have to hold the compass with my toes or my beak. How will I look at it while flying?"

"There is nothing else we can do. You must stay with me but I will have to tell my mother about you. You are too big to hide."

"Please don’t tell your mother or anyone else. I’ll look for a hiding place before daylight. There must be someplace where human beings can’t find me."

"Vajra, hiding will not solve your problem. If you hide, how will the flock find you? You must try to fly back home."

"Why don’t you come with me? You can look into the compass and guide me in the right direction," Vajra asked.

Ranjan was stunned by the strange request. He also saw a problem. "How will I come back?" he asked.

"My mother will fly you back. If we start immediately, you will be home before sunrise. Please say yes! Please!" Vajra begged, jerking his head up and down.

Vajra continued to plead. Ranjan was tempted. He could help Vajra and have a wonderful adventure. It was wrong to leave without telling his parents but would they let him fly away on a bird? He thought not.

"I’ll come," he said.

Vajra was so happy he gave him a playful nip on the shoulder. They went down and Vajra helped Ranjan into the room. Ranjan took the compass. Luckily, it had a long chain. He slipped it over his head. He put on his windcheater because the night was cold, and wore his shoes. Even though he was quick, Vajra was hopping from one foot to the other, impatient to take off.

"Vajra, please stand still so that I may sit on you!" Ranjan said.

"Which direction is north-east?" Vajra asked.

Ranjan used his compass to find out. Immediately, Vajra started flying. In no time they were soaring over the tallest building of the town.

Chapter 5 : The Homeless Birds

Ranjan was scared he would fall off. He shut his eyes and gripped Vajra. Suddenly they were losing height. Ranjan opened one eye. Were they crashing down? Oh no! Vajra was coming down on a tree. The tree was tall and was swaying in the breeze. It couldn’t hold their weight. Vajra was such a big bird. He must weigh a lot.

Vajra stopped on the topmost branch. "Let go of my neck!" he croaked.

Ranjan released his hold and clutched the feathers in front of him. The branch swayed. So did they. Ranjan broke into a sweat. He was sure the branch would break or a gust of wind would topple them down.

Vajra twisted his neck to speak to him. "I can’t fly if you strangle me. Sit back and hold me lightly. You will not fall. Your windcheater is also slowing me down. It is trapping air."

Ranjan unzipped the windcheater and slipped a little lower. Instead of lying flat on Vajra’s back and holding his neck, he sat up straight.

"Remember to keep your hold light. You won’t fall. You won’t feel cold either. My feathers will keep you warm."

Once again, with powerful strokes, Vajra flew up. Ranjan now felt bold enough to keep his eyes open. All was still except for the tall trees that swayed in the breeze. They looked like giant creatures, waving their many arms and heads. The town lights glittered below, stars twinkled in the sky, and the moon looked on, with its silver face.

He also kept checking the direction with the help of the compass. After flying for over an hour Vajra started going down. He landed on a rocky hill. "We’re on the right path. The flock stopped here on the onward flight. Ranjan, let’s rest here for a little while."

Ranjan leaned against a rock and gazed at the distant snowy mountain peaks. Bathed in moonlight, they looked as if they were tipped with crystals. "Vajra, I love being outdoors. I love looking at trees and rivers and mountains. Don’t you?"

Vajra looked surprised. "I always thought men did not like such things. I was told they take pleasure in ruining nature. I heard they even chop down green trees."

"Some do, Vajra, but most of us don’t. We like to go for picnics and holidays to such places, to enjoy nature."

"Do you know, Ranjan, our flock has no home. We haven’t had a home for many years."

"Where are we going to? You said we were going to your home."

"I told you that people killed most of my ancestors in the king’s palace. The few who escaped flew to the mountains. They found a green valley with a lake and made it their home. The valley was green and they had plenty of food and water."

"It sounds beautiful," Ranjan said, picturing a tree- filled valley with beautiful birds like Vajra.

"I haven’t seen it. Some years before I was born, human beings built a dam in the mountains. The lake dried up and the water animals perished. In place of green trees, thorny bushes and shrubs remained."

"Where did the birds go? Where do you live? You must have a home somewhere."

"We have a place to live in but that is not our home. We live under the shrubs growing in the dried up lake. It is a secluded place. Human beings don’t come there. But it is a hiding place, it is not home. We wander in the night, looking for food, and hide in the day."

"Are you night time birds, like owls?"

"We are forced to live like nocturnal birds, I mean night time birds, but we would love to fly freely during the day and sleep at night."

Ranjan could not believe what he was hearing. Why could the birds not find another home? They could fly to any part of the world.

Vajra seemed to read his thoughts. He said, "We cannot live by the sea or in deserts because we feed on fruits. We cannot make dense forests our home because it is difficult to spread our large wings among the tree branches. We must find a valley where no human being can find us. Human beings believe our feathers make healing medicine. They will kill us if they know our nesting ground."

Ranjan did not know what to say. It was such a cruel thing to do, to kill a creature for making medicines. He knew human beings did such things. He had seen a documentary about poachers killing rhinos for their horns; the horns were used in some medicine. The poachers used tranquilizer guns to bring the rhinos down. They hacked off its horn leaving the rhino to wake up and slowly bleed to a painful death. If human beings could do that to a strong animal like the rhino, what chance did the birds have?

Chapter 6 : The Magic Feather

"I have broken the rules of my flock. I shouldn’t have let you see me. I shouldn’t have spoken to you. Promise me you will not tell anybody about me and the flock."

Ranjan readily promised. Suddenly, a loud whoosh and a gust of wind hit Ranjan. An enormous bird appeared and swooped down on Vajra. Vajra ran and the bird followed. Vajra flew into the night sky and the bird gave chase. In a few minutes the birds disappeared into the dark. Ranjan stood, dazed. He was stranded on the top of a rocky hill in the middle of the night. How would he get back home?

Before he could think of something, or really panic, Vajra flew back. The other bird flew beside him. It was bigger and stronger. Vajra dived down and landed beside Ranjan. He was breathing very fast but was not hurt. The big bird pecked Vajra and drove its head into his side. Ranjan sprang back to the safety of a nook and cowered. He was terrified.

'Mother, I'm sorry!" Vajra cried.

"Mother?" Ranjan opened his eyes.

"Do you know how worried I've been? Why did you wander off like that? You have disobeyed me and put our flock in danger! None of us have slept. We are afraid humans will follow you to our hideout. Everyone is on guard duty."

"I’m sorry," Vajra said. He told his mother he had been careful. He had hidden himself for a night and a day so that no human being followed him. Then he introduced Ranjan. "Mother, Ranjan is my friend. He has promised he will not tell a soul. He helped me. He's very brave. He was scared but he flew with me."

By now Vajra's mother, Sheetal, was no longer angry. In fact, she gave Vajra a couple of affectionate pecks. Ranjan also got one. It did not hurt at all. She also thanked him.

She looked up at the stars and said, "Vajra, you find a safe hiding place here. I will take Ranjan back home and return for you."

"Vajra, when will we meet again?" Ranjan asked.

Sheetal said, "I am sorry but never. You will have to say goodbye to Vajra. It will be forever."

"But why? We’re friends. Please let him come some night. I promise to keep his visits a secret."

"It is the law of the flock. Even if one bird is seen by a human being, the flock does not visit that place ever again," explained Sheetal.

Vajra didn’t look at Ranjan. He kept scratching the ground with his foot. Ranjan stood in front of him. Vajra lowered his head and Ranjan hugged him.

"Good bye! I’ll never forget you," Ranjan murmured.

"Good bye! Neither will I!" Vajra said.


Sheetal brought Ranjan back home. It was still dark but there were streaks of orange in the sky. Day was about to break.

Sheetal plucked a silver feather from her wing and gave it to Ranjan.

"What is it?" he asked.

"It’s a wishing feather. Twirl it and make a wish. If your heart is true and the wish is selfless, it will come true. Or so they say."

Ranjan stood on Sheetal’s back and climbed in through the window. He was tired and sleepy but he wanted to use the feather. He twirled it and watched it gleam in the dark.

What should he wish for? Suddenly he knew.

He twirled it again and wished that the flock would soon find a home and that too among men. They would be free to fly in the day sky, without fear of capture or death.

Gita V. Reddy

Chapter 1 : Going on a Trip

Summer vacation!

Ismail and Hassan loved the long summer months. They woke up early in the morning - even earlier than usual - because the playground was in great demand and whoever came first got to choose between the cricket pitch, the tennis court, and the basketball court. It did not matter that the cricket pitch was a small strip of hard dirt, or the net in the tennis court sagged, or what passed for a basketball court was a single hoop on a pole, the paint from which has peeled away many summers ago.

Hassan would stop at Ismail’s house which was down his street and the boys would run all the way to the playground. Then they would wait for the rest of their gang who were all between the ages of ten to twelve.

Ismail and Hassan were ten and best friends since forever. They lived on the same street and went to the same school. If they were not on the playground, they were in each other’s homes, playing video games.

They even looked alike. Tall and lanky, their mop of dark hair always untidy, their fair skin tanned to a darker shade, they could pass for brothers or cousins.

One evening, instead of joining their friends on the playground, they were sitting on the bench, looking glum.

"But it’s the last week of our holidays!" Ismail protested.

"I know. I told my parents. I told them I would rather stay with you but they didn’t agree. Papa says his friend will be hurt if they don’t take me with them to the wedding. Did you ask your parents if you could come with us?"

Ismail nodded gloomily. He had, and the answer was no.

Hassan’s face brightened. "Shall I ask your mother? She’s fond of me. She’s always telling you to be like me, isn’t she?"

"Not always. She only says that when we get our report cards and you score more than I do. Your mother praises me!"

"She did that once," Hassan conceded. "So what do you think? Shall I ask your mother? Shall we go to your place?"

"Okay. Let’s do it," Ismail agreed though he had a niggling feeling his mother would not like it.

"Aunty, I want Ismail to come with us," Hassan said, after offering a polite greeting.

Ismail waited breathlessly, trying to read his mother’s face. When she didn’t answer, Hassan pleaded. "Let Ismail come with us, please! I won’t enjoy the wedding if Ismail isn’t there with me."

"Hassan, I’m sure you will miss Ismail but dear, he can’t come and that is final."

Hassan tried again, practically begging, but Ismail’s mother was firm in her refusal. Finally, he left.

Before Ismail could say anything, his mother scolded him, "Why did you bring Hassan here? I’d already told you that you weren’t going. You put me in a very awkward position. Hassan is a sweet boy and your best friend. I didn’t like having to refuse him."

"Why did you?" Ismail asked, not understanding.

"They will be away for a week. Moreover, they are attending a wedding. You can’t barge in without an invitation. That’s ill-mannered."

"But Ma!"

"Enough. Sit down and practice your handwriting. Your letters look as if an ant made them with inky feet. Why can’t you write neatly like Hassan?"

An hour later, Hassan was back with his parents. His mother straightaway came to the point. "We would love to have Ismail accompany us," she said.

"Hassan has asked me already. I’m afraid I can’t send him. He’s never spent that much time away from home."

"We’ll take good care of him. They're inseparable, the pair of them. Let Ismail come with us. I assure you he will be fine. Hassan wants him to come. So do we."

"Ismail is eager to go. He says he can’t imagine spending a whole week without Hassan."

"That's exactly what Hassan keeps saying. And it’s true. They are always together."

"It’ll be a good experience for him," added Hassan’s father, who was always looking for ways to broaden everyone’s mind. "The wedding is in a village. I know Ismail has never visited a village before. Hassan hasn’t either. They will enjoy their stay in Shivpur."

Ismail’s mother wanted to know more.

"Bimal Ram is a close family friend. It’s his daughter’s wedding. The journey to Shivpur will take about eight hours," Hassan’s mother said.

"But Hassan told me it will be a week-long trip."

"That’s because of all the events lined up! Bimal Ram wants us to arrive three days before the wedding. There are to be songs and dances by professional troupes, rides, games, and shows. It will be like attending a colorful village fair. Bimal Ram is going to a lot of trouble to keep his guests entertained. Ismail and Hassan will enjoy themselves."

Ismail glanced at his mother. She looked undecided. "Ma says I can’t go because I’ve not been invited!" he blurted out.

"You don’t have to worry about that," Hassan’s mother said. "Bimal Ram is like

family and a wonderful person. He’ll be delighted to have Ismail. We wouldn’t have suggested Ismail come with us if that was not the case."

The boys waited anxiously as Hassan’s parents continued their efforts to convince Ismail’s mother. Finally, when she said, "Ismail, you may go but you must behave..." the boys gave a whoop and rushed out of the house. They were so excited they didn’t know what to do, except let out another whoop.

Chapter 2 : Fun, Food, Games.

"Why do I need new clothes? What’s wrong with the clothes I have?"

"Ismail, your new clothes are for the wedding and for the reception. One needs to dress up for grand occasions. Hassan will also be wearing new clothes," his mother explained.

"He doesn’t like them either. They feel scratchy and uncomfortable. He says he’ll not wear them."

"Ismail! You must dress properly and also obey Anjum Aunty. You mustn’t trouble her about anything. I’m still not sure whether I should let you go. How will you manage on your own? You don’t even know how to fold clothes!"

Ismail was alarmed. Now what? He rushed to the pile of freshly laundered clothes and started folding them. Except for the sari that kept slipping away from his hands, he managed to fold all of them and arrange them in a neat pile.

"See?" he said.

By now his mother was laughing. She gave him a quick hug. "I was wrong. You have grown up! Come and help me pack your suitcase. This way you’ll remember what is in it."

Though Ismail was convinced his mother was packing far too much, he quietly helped her. Did he need ten handkerchiefs? He barely used them. Two pairs of formal shoes when he only wore sneakers? A sweater in case it got cold? It was summer!

His mother kept reminding him about how he must behave when he was away from home. Be polite, thank your host, go to bed on time, wake up early, don’t have too many ices and sweets, and always obey Anjum Aunty and Akbar Uncle, she told him repeatedly.

Two days later, it was finally time to leave. Akbar Uncle placed his suitcase in the back of the hired SUV. Hassan and Anjum Aunty were already in the vehicle. Ismail got in beside Hassan.

"Ismail, remember to call every day!" his mother called out as he waved her goodbye.

"Did you bring the catapult?" Hassan asked.

"I did. I also brought my cricket bat and ball."

"So did I. I also brought the stumps."

Due to the early hour, there wasn’t much traffic. Hassan and Ismail watched the sights for a bit but mostly chatted with each other. They were in the backseat. Anjum Aunty read or listened to music. They stopped twice on the way, once for breakfast and the other time to stretch their legs.

By two in the afternoon, they entered Shivpur. A floral welcome arch greeted them. Ismail realized the flowers were made of paper but they looked real.

"The whole village is decorated!" Hassan exclaimed.

"It does look like a fair. Look over there! That’s a round tent. Doesn’t it look like a circus tent, only smaller?" Anjum Aunty asked, sounding as excited as the children.

The road curved and a huge ground came into view.

"Is that a cricket field?" Hassan asked.

"That’s the maidan. Towns and villages often have large open spaces near them. They are used for meetings, fairs, and sports," said Akbar Uncle.

Ismail turned down the window glass. "It’s huge. There’s a merry-go-round and some other rides out there. The rest is just open space. We can play as much cricket as we want!"

Bimal Ram met them at the entrance of his sprawling house. He was delighted they had come and welcomed them in. Ismail remembered to greet him politely.

"What good manners the boy has!" Bimal Ram said, patting him on the back.

A shower and a sumptuous lunch later, the boys were out of the house. They had already made a friend : Prakash. He was Bimal Ram’s nephew and about their age. Like them, he loved playing cricket.

"It’s good you came, we are one player short in each team," he told them.

The other children also welcomed Ismail and Hassan. They started playing. Ismail and Hassan were in different teams. Prakash was a powerful batsman. So was another boy, Rahul. The wicket keeper in Ismail’s team was a girl. She was very good.

"We’ve never had a game like this," Ismail told their new friends. "Our playground is much smaller and is surrounded by houses. We have to be careful. If we hit the ball hard, we might break someone’s window. We aren’t supposed to make noise, either."

The next three days went by very fast. While there were many other things the boys could do, they spent the mornings and evenings playing cricket. During the day, Prakash took them to the village lake for a swim. They also explored the hillocks outside the village, and ran between crop-laden fields. Having always lived in a town, they were thrilled with the barns and the wells, the cattle with brass bells around their neck, and the vast open spaces.

Hassan’s parents wanted the boys to spend at least some time indoors, to listen to the traditional wedding songs the women sang, and to observe other pre-wedding rituals.

"Let them play," Bimal Ram said in his booming voice. "Children must play and not sit like old men with aching joints."

All the playing made the boys hungry which was a good thing otherwise they couldn’t have demolished the mounds of snacks that kept appearing on the tables under the round tent.

Dinner was served early and it was followed by entertainment. The tables were cleared and moved to the back of the tent. A large wooden stage had been set up to the front. Every evening, the older guests sat on chairs arranged for them while the young men and women, and the children sat down on big durries spread on the ground.

The first evening, a group of folk dancers from Punjab entertained the gathering. The vigorous dance and the quick beat had many of the guests joining in. The next evening a group of puppeteers put up a play. It was about a wedding in which the bride refused to go with the groom until he promised to do all the household chores!

A magic show was on the third night. This was also the last of the events as the wedding was on the following evening.

All the children were eager to watch the magic show. Three magicians were to perform; two of them were the famous magicians, Honcar and Shekhar. Nothing was known about the third magician.

Honcar did some amazing card magic. Then he did a disappearing act. He also kept everyone in splits with funny stories. Shekhar’s act was a mix of many kinds of magic. He made balls disappear, and reappear at the strangest of places. His beautiful assistant locked him up in a trunk and threw away the key but he freed himself within a minute. He followed this with more acts full of daring.

Everyone enjoyed the shows. After their performance, both the magicians said the same thing. "Magic is a science. It can be learned. There is nothing supernatural about it. It is only sleight of hand. Good props, tricks, some skill, and lots of practice will turn anyone into a magician."

Chapter 3 : Amazing Magic

The third magician was Jadugar.

"That cannot be a name," said Ismail. "Jadugar means magician in Hindi. Does he not have a name? It’s strange."

"He also looks strange," Hassan said, staring.

Jadugar was very tall. He had piercing eyes, a sweeping mustache, and a graying beard. He wore an old fashioned long brocade tunic over a gold-edged dhoti. The most interesting part of his dress was his enormous turban. Bright and colorful, it looked like it was made by twisting a very long cloth. His appearance and speech were so striking that, within minutes, he had everyone spellbound.

He said, "I'm Jadugar, a magician. A real magician. I do not do tricks skillfully. I perform magic. Today you will see what real magic is. Many tricksters are calling themselves magicians. Soon magicians will be called tricksters! I cannot allow that to happen. So tonight, I bring you real magic".

He murmured something and instructed for the lights to be switched off. A strange blue light appeared and filled the tent. Music began to play. Bimal Ram was very impressed. Unlike the other magicians who had arrived with van loads of props, Jadugar had come with a single trunk. He had not asked Bimal Ram to provide him assistance either. How had he arranged for the lighting and the music?

Jadugar lifted the turban from his head. It came off as if it was a hat. He turned it towards the audience. There was nothing in it. It was empty. He brought the turban in front of his eyes and spoke a jumble of words no one could understand. They sounded like a verse in a foreign language. Then he placed the turban on the floor, waited for a minute and lifted it again. A white pigeon stood preening itself.

It strutted to the front of the stage. Then it spread its wings and started to fly. Jadugar pointed his finger at it. In mid-air, it changed into a snake and slithered onto the stage. Many people in the audience started screaming. Jadugar again pointed at the snake. It turned into a small girl. She started dancing to the music, which was now louder. Jadugar placed his turban on the floor. The girl began to get smaller and smaller. When she was the size of a small doll, she slipped under the front of the turban.

The blue light dimmed and the music grew faint until it could not be heard. Jadugar calmly picked up his turban and put it back on his head. He asked for the lights to be switched on. In a short span of five minutes, his act was over.

The audience couldn’t stop clapping and cheering. There were shouts of "More please! More please!"

Jadugar raised his hands for silence. He said, "No more. Enough to show what magic is."

Chapter 4 : A Clever Trick?

The audience was excited. They believed Jadugar had shown them real magic.

Bimal Ram discussed the act with Honcar and Shekhar. "What is your opinion? What do you make of Jadugar’s act? Can you show us anything like that?"

Both of them threw up their hands in defeat. "None of our tricks come even close to what Jadugar has done. The only prop he used was a turban. It was amazing!"

Munni, a little girl from the village, told her mother, "I want Jadugar to make magic chocolate for me."

"What does that mean?"

"Chocolate made with magic, of course. It should come in whatever shape or color I want."

Prakash, who was sitting beside Hassan, exclaimed, "There cannot be anything as wonderful as real magic! I wish I could learn some magic from Jadugar."

Hassan was as dazzled as Prakash. He eagerly turned to Ismail. "What do you think? If Jadugar could do so much in five minutes, he can do anything he wants!"

Ismail was thinking hard. There had to be an explanation. He had not told Hassan about the magic kit his uncle had sent him a month ago. He was practicing every day. He could make a coin disappear most of the time, and candy appear occasionally. He wanted to perfect the two tricks and surprise Hassan. He had further plans too. He and Hassan would practice together and become world renowned magicians when they grew up.

Ismail was certain Jadugar had used a trick. He said, "This is no magic. There has to be an explanation. Jagugar might have projected 3-D images."

"If what we saw were 3-D images, why didn’t we need special glasses to watch the act? I hear Jadugar came with a single trunk. He would have needed more luggage for bringing a projector and a screen."

"It must have been a laser show. That’s why we didn’t need special glasses."

"He was alone on the stage," Hassan pointed out.

"He could have a partner hiding in the audience. That man must have switched on the laser show. Jadugar only spoke the lines. He is an actor. He is dressed like one too. Nobody wears clothes like that. It’s a costume."

Hassan didn’t know anything about laser shows. But Prakash did. He said, "The lights were off. If it was a laser show, we would have seen the laser beam in the dark. He couldn’t have taken the help of a partner either. Strangers in Shivpur are easy to spot. People observe what they are up to."

Hassan nodded. "Ismail, I don’t like to believe in some mumbo-jumbo but we will have to accept it was real magic. Nothing else explains what Jadugar showed us."

Ismail laughed. "Magic explains it? How? Can you explain magic?"

"I can," said a voice and they turned. Jadugar was looking down at them from his great height. He said, "Using my magic, I know that except for the two of you, every single person here believes I showed them magic. What you boys need is a lesson."

Chapter 5 : Trapped

Suddenly, Hassan and Ismail were alone with Jadugar. Just like that, everyone had vanished. How had he made them all disappear?

He was also taller and bigger. They had to tilt their head to see what he was doing. Oh, no! He was taking off his turban! He was bringing it down upon them. They must do something! They must run! But they couldn’t. Fear and surprise had them glued to the spot.

As the turban came closer, it grew bigger and bigger until it was the size of a big closet. Even then the boys stared at it. With mouth hanging open and eyes wide with fear, they looked like fish gasping for air.

Ismail came to his senses first. He grabbed Hassan's hand and shouted, "Run!"

But it was too late. They were inside the turban, or rather in a room shaped like the inside of a turban. A strange blue light lit up the place. They looked around fearfully. As they grew accustomed to the dim light, they saw an opening to the left.

Hassan started to run that way but Ismail stopped him. "Hassan, let’s go slowly and not rush into anything. We must be very careful and always hold on to each other. Whatever comes, we must face it together."

He took Hassan's hand and together they went through the opening. It led them into a narrow passage. The floor curved upwards at the sides and the ceiling slanted down. The walls were also curved. The two friends moved forward cautiously. They could see white doors gleaming ahead in the blue light.

Ismail stopped near the first door. "Shall we try the door, Hassan?" he asked, his voice no louder than a whisper.

There was no doorknob or latch so they pushed the door inwards. It opened suddenly and they stumbled into the room. A man was rubbing his hands. Different colored clouds of smoke rose from between his palms and fingers. He didn’t pay any attention to the boys.

Hassan and Ismail stared at the rising smoke. It curled up and took different shapes. The man snapped his fingers and rubbed his hands again. White and gray smoke swirled and took the shape of a seagull. A robin followed. A parrot came next.

Ismail whispered, "I know this trick. He is using chemical powder between his palms. He’s hidden it so well we can’t see it."

The man raised his head. Purple smoke floated around him, forming an exotic bird. He looked at them through the billowing shape. His eyes were flame-red. Then he gave them a slow smile. It made him look scarier.

"Do you have chemical powder in your hand? Do you?" he asked Hassan and Ismail.

Hassan gulped. Ismail answered for both of them. "We don’t," he said.

"So if you rub your hands, there shouldn’t be any smoke. Go on, try it."

Hassan rubbed his hands. Wisps of smoke started to rise. Ismail spread his hands wide open and checked them. To be doubly sure, he wiped his palms on his shirt before rubbing his hands against each other. Smoke started to rise. He rubbed harder and harder until the smoke looked like a small cloud.

Ismail stared at the man, stunned.

"Hah! Chemicals indeed!" the man mocked and carried on.

Hassan tried to open the door. There was no knob this side of the door either. Ismail pushed it and it opened into the passage. They found themselves facing another door.

Chapter 6 : The Old Woman and her Ribbons

"Shall we?" Hassan asked.

In answer, Ismail pushed the door open and they entered the room. A most peculiar sight met their eyes.

An old woman with wispy white hair and lots of wrinkles was eating paper! She had heaps of paper arranged on the table in front of her. They were of different colors and patterns. Like a greedy child with candy, she stuffed more and more green paper into her mouth until her cheeks bulged out. Then she started chewing on them!

"She’ll choke!" Hassan exclaimed.

Ismail held him back. "Shh, wait."

The woman kept chewing, her jaws moving continuously like those of a bovine animal. She stopped and swallowed, waited for a moment, and made a hiccupping sound. Something green appeared between her lips. She tugged at it. It was a green ribbon! She started rolling one end and pulling out more. Very soon she had a spool of green ribbon. She kept it aside.

"This is taking so much time. I need many more ribbons," she murmured and put some yellow paper into her mouth.

She looked up at them and said, "Boys, don’t just stand and stare. Come, help me instead. Put some white paper in your mouth, chew it, and swallow. Mind that you chew it well because I want silk ribbons. I know about young people. They always want to rush through the job. I once had a young girl helping me. I told her to chew the paper until it was soft and gummy but she had no patience. She swallowed the paper when it was still coarse. Do you know what happened?"

Ismail and Hassan gaped at the old woman. Did she have two mouths? One to chew with and the other to speak with? She was talking to them but she was not moving her lips. They were pursed tightly together. Only her jaws moved because she kept chewing the paper she had stuffed into her mouth. Yet there was no doubt she was speaking because they could hear her.

Without pausing for them to reply, she continued her story. It was easy to see she was coming to the funny part. Her body was shaking with laughter and her eyes were filling with mirth.

"She was soon choking on ribbons made of rough, coarse cloth! She was gasping for breath! I let her, for a couple of minutes, just to teach her some respect for her elders. After I helped her, she ran out of the room. I never saw her again. Come, you boys take that paper and chew it nice and soft. I'm getting tired doing all this alone."

Hassan and Ismail looked at each other. They didn’t want to eat paper or pull out ribbons. Neither did they wish to provide the woman with more laughs by choking. They edged backwards and pushed the door open, and came out into the passage.

It was as silent as before and filled with the dim blue light.

Chapter 7 : Outside the Window

"Where are we, Ismail?" Hassan asked. Though he spoke very softly, his voice echoed in the silence.

"I don’t know. Nothing seems real."

"That’s how I also feel, as if this is all a dream. A scary dream."

Ismail gripped Hassan’s shoulder. "That’s it! We’ve been hypnotized! You know what hypnotism is, don’t you?"

"I know what it means but I can’t explain it."

"It’s when somebody puts you in a sleep-like state and makes you do whatever he wants. It’s done in different ways. I once read magicians hypnotize their audience so that they see things that aren’t really happening on the stage. That’s how they perform all those impossible acts."

"You mean Jadugar has hypnotized us? All this is a dream? The old woman laughing at us and the frightening man we saw are not real?"

"We are dreaming them. Whatever we see is only imaginary. We needn’t be afraid. Nothing here can harm us."

Hassan agreed because Ismail was usually right about everything. The passage, real or dreamed up, stretched ahead of them. They walked on, pausing now and then outside the gleaming white doors. After their encounter with the old woman, they weren’t sure whether they should enter another room.

Hassan spotted something ahead. "What’s that?" he asked.

"I don’t see anything. I wish the passage wasn’t so dimly lit."

"Over there, to the left where the passage turns. Are those glass panes?"

"Yes! It must be a window! Perhaps it’s a door to get out of here!" Ismail said, and the boys started running.

It wasn’t a door or a window. A part of the wall was covered with glass panes from floor to ceiling. The glass was transparent. The boys immediately looked out through the panes.

Ismail saw some houses on a hill slope but they appeared to be far away. He peered through the next glass pane. A scene from a thick forest, with creepers hanging from dark trees met his eyes. He went back to the first pane and saw the distant hill slope dotted with houses he had seen before.

Hassan was also looking through the panes. "They’re all different places," he murmured. He rubbed his eyes and looked through one glass pane again. "It can’t be…How is it possible? Ismail, look!"

Ismail took his place. "That’s Prakash! And he’s turning the pages of a book! How did he get there? Prakash! Prakash! Help us out! Prakash!"

Ismail tapped on the glass pane and shouted but Prakash continued to read the book. Whatever was in it was making his smile happily.

"Let me," Hassan said. Instead of calling out, he started pressing the edges of the pane, looking for a way to open it. Suddenly the pane vanished. Hassan stuck his head out of the small opening. "Prakash!" he called once, twice, thrice!

What was the matter with Prakash? He was only a few yards away. He was even looking in Hassan’s direction but he neither smiled nor waved. Hassan could have been a blank wall for all the attention he was giving him. Ismail grew impatient and tugged at Hassan’s shirt. The opening was just enough for one boy to stick his head out.

Ismail took Hassan’s place and called out loudly to Prakash. His voice echoed in the passage but did not seem to reach Prakash.

"What is he doing?" Hassan asked. Now he was getting impatient. He wanted to look out, too. So they took turns, poking their head out and calling to Prakash, who looked through them or into the book in front of him.

Chapter 8 : Mango and Chocolate

Prakash picked up some cards from a pack and arranged them on the table. He read something from the book, words that Ismail and Hassan could hear but couldn’t understand, and the cards rose a little and flopped down again.

The first time this happened, Prakash clenched a fist and shook it in the air. "Yes! Yes! I got it!"

After that he kept reading out passages from the book. The cards rose, twirled, and fell. One even circled his head.

Hassan and Ismail stopped calling out to him. They realized it was of no use.

"Why can’t he see us?" Hassan asked with a puzzled frown. "We’re able to feel the breeze and touch the leaves growing beside the window. We can hear Prakash and the birds too. How is it that we are invisible?"

"That is because we are dreaming," Ismail said, drawing away from the window.

"But we can hear each other!"

"Maybe we are in the same dream or hypnosis and Prakash is in another. Or he is part of our hypnosis but he is not hypnotized," Ismail said, confusing Hassan further.

Hassan went back to looking through the panes. He saw another familiar face and pressed around the pane until the glass disappeared. Sticking out his head, he yelled, "Munni!"

"Who?" Ismail asked.

"Remember Munni from the village? That little girl who followed us around and kept eating sweets? What is she doing in our dream?"

Munni was right outside the pane. Ismail stretched out his arm but couldn’t touch her. Hassan also tried but she was just out of reach. They could see her clearly. She was eating candy that looked like a bright flower. She took a nibble and put it down. Then she closed her eyes and said, "Chocolate and mango, please!"

Brightly wrapped candy fell into her lap. She opened one, licked it, and murmured, "Perfect!" She took a bite and said, "Yummy!"

Ismail was close enough to inhale the scents of chocolate and mango. Munni had some more candy in her lap.

"Hey, Munni," he called, "Pass me one, will you?"

Hassan also called but like Prakash, Munni didn’t look at them or answer them.

"What type of dream is this?" Hassan demanded. The candy he could see and smell but not eat was making him angry. "Can’t we break out of this dream and enter Munni’s dream?"

Ismail took his hand. "Let’s get away from here."

They walked back the way they had come and stopped only when they came to the end of the passage. The passage smelt of candy. Hassan grumbled, "It’s not fair! When we can’t eat the chocolate, we should not be able to smell it either!"

Chapter 9 : The Bleeding Man

Ismail looked at the white door in front of him. "Did you see this? There’s a small picture on the door!"

Hassan peered at it. "Why, it's the picture of the old woman who was taking out ribbons from her mouth!"

Ismail looked at the opposite door. It had the picture of the man with the smoke figures. They went to each door and checked. All of them had pictures of some animal or person. One door had a bigger picture, made of two panels. The boys stared at it and then looked at each other. For a few moments, they couldn’t speak. Hassan looked like he was going to be sick.

"It’s gruesome!" he said, turning his face away from the picture. In the first panel, a man was shown cut into two pieces, with blood flowing out of him. In the second panel, he was whole again.

Ismail also found the picture rather terrifying. But he couldn’t resist challenging Hassan. "I bet you’re too chicken to enter the room."

"And you are not?" Hassan asked, daring him back.

"What is there to be scared of? None of this is real. It’s all make- believe."

"Oh, then go ahead and enter the room."

"I’m not scared but remember, we said we would stay together. I’ll go first, to prove I’m not afraid of going in, and you must follow me."

Hassan didn’t want to enter the room but couldn’t refuse. That was how they often got into scraps, daring each other to do what they both were afraid to attempt.

As soon as Ismail opened the door, he heard a loud groan. It came from a man lying on a table. He had matted hair and his face was screwed up in pain. A big jagged blade was cutting through the man’s abdomen. Blood flowed out of him and disappeared into a hole in the table.

The man groaned louder. Ismail didn’t know what to do. The man turned his face towards Ismail. He smiled and winked! Then he went back to moaning and groaning. He sounded so much in pain that Ismail couldn’t believe he had smiled a moment ago.

Hassan looked over Ismail’s shoulder. "What should we do? He may die."

Ismail hurried Hassan out of the room. "He won’t. It’s just a trick. See the second panel here? He becomes whole again."

"But he’s bleeding!" Hassan asked, his voice hoarse with fear.

"It’s not real. He smiled and winked at me."

Ismail and Hassan walked down the passage. They couldn’t help glancing at the pictures which were both amazing and terrifying. A woman with long, flowing hair and talon-like nails turned into a green reptilian creature and back again. A man’s head floated away, dripping blood.

Ismail said, "It looks like the rooms in this passage have people chopping off their body parts. I know none of this is real but it could give us nightmares later. Let’s not go in."

Chapter 10 : The Magician’s Turban

Ismail began to feel the walls with his hands. He said, "Hassan, without a doubt we're in Jadugar’s turban. This passage is a fold of his turban and all the white doors that we see lead to rooms in the turban."

Hassan agreed. Somehow, being inside a magician’s turban was more believable than living in a dream. "Jadugar has trapped us in his turban. What do we do? How do we escape?" he asked.

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