She runs. She runs with the strength of a bizarre wind. The air whistles as she dashes with tears unwillingly spilling through her face. Her heart is heavy and her home, just a few hundred meters away feels like too far a destination. She can hear the laughter following her from the perpetrators of her pain. She reaches her house and opens the gate in one quick movement and sits on the staircase that lets her vanish in its absence of light. Mallika is only ten years old, and she feels like her life is terrible. The circumstance is much lighter than the weight of her humiliation.
It was just another day. After school, everybody hurried down from their homes after changing their school uniforms and freshening up. It was time to play. Mallika’s neighbourhood kids (who she wasn’t familiar with enough to call them friends) were of varied ages – the oldest at a mature 15 years of age, and the youngest was 7. Everybody rarely played together. Most often, the whole neighbourhood kids population was divided into two cliques – the older ones getting together and playing badminton or chit-chatting, and the younger ones playing with the latest trends in toys like the fancy Beyblades or the spinning tops. Mallika didn’t really belong in either of the cliques. She was too fresh to the neighbourhood to get along with the older kids who had known each other from when they were toddlers. Whereas, with the younger kids, she was too unfamiliar with their familiar local language. But on such days where everybody played Hide and Seek (dubbed as Ice-Spice, which was derived from the mispronunciation of “I Spy”) together, there was always space for her. Today, her naive excitement was overcome by humiliation.
It was an ordinary game but it wasn’t always played fairly. Many times, the one who was the Seeker would be outplayed by the strategies of the large group of Hiders. Today was one such day, and Mallika was the Seeker. The rules of the game are simple enough. The Seeker counts till 50 and once they’ve got an acknowledgment (or lack thereof) of everybody having hidden, they go out to seek. Once they find the Hider, the Seeker runs back to their counting booth and screams “Icespice (insert name)”. Everybody was hiding inside the van which had its back door’s latch left open. Even Mallika knew they hid there. It was a mere few feet away from where she counted. As soon as she’d go seek them, and she ran back and screamed “Icespice Ashwin, Meera, Simran – ” a person whose name wouldn’t have been mentioned yet would bang their hand on the wall and scream “ICESPICE MALLIKA” and everybody would laugh in unison, when Mallika had to go back to counting again. The trick lost its charm for Mallika when it happened a fourth time. The laughter kept becoming more vicious each time and it stabbed her heart.
But this was childhood. She just didn’t know. There is no malice greater than children’s lack of sensitivity. Even Mallika had been among the Hiders more often than not, while another Seeker would have to live through this humiliation. It felt even more humiliating that Mallika was the only one who had ever broken down. When would she ever feel like she belonged? Or that she deserved to belong? Mallika wept and wept thinking this was the end of her reputation. That she was a joke, who nobody liked. She’d let the shadow swallow her tears and go back home with a heavy heart and a heated tongue that she would use to redirect the pain onto her parents.
She would soon rejoin the game another day, except this time, even though nobody apologizes, the children ensure Mallika is not the Seeker and even if she was, it would be fair play.