Behind the old rusted iron gates lay four crumbling buildings, constructed as if to tower over a narrow path that ran through the middle. Huge Sunshine trees lent their shadows to students who crossed this beaten path, the artery of the college. A fresh mix of brown and green in spring, the path turned a pale bronze by autumn. Groups of boys basked in the chasing sun by winter, while girls with thick textbooks nervously discussed their exam papers. The people who haunted classrooms by day retired to the crumbling buildings by night.
On the other side of the iron gates, was a relatively busy road in a residential locality, where people adorned their flats with marble floors and mellow lamps, where shrieking cars and jostling buses huffed and puffed their way past the multi-storied apartments and people walking at glacial speeds.
During India-Pakistan cricket matches, neighbours banked on loud screams to echo from the crumbling buildings, to switch to the live game on TV if they weren’t already watching it. The prejudiced sounds from the hostel made them decide whether to rejoice over half a dozen runs that were gained or flick their heads in despair over a wicket that was lost before they went back to watching what they were originally glued to.
The two worlds mixed only superficially. Passersby, though, usually took a short-cut route through the campus to reach the other side of the road, which lay behind the science and law college, which was at the centre of two adjacent roads. This short-cut route gave them the pleasure of walking on the shady campus artery that the busy road outside lacked, and saving a minute or two of walking was preferred by most.
Nina was nine and her younger sister Maya was five. Mystified by the world behind the gates, the two sisters quietly sneaked into the college campus every Sunday. Their apartment was right opposite the college, and their mother let them play downstairs in the afternoons, often unsupervised. Nina had become good with crossing roads. She made the effort to practice and confidently held Maya’s hand, who scampered behind her, and the two ran into the campus, unnoticed. Among all the busy students, the sisters were easily unseen, and they loved every bit of being a secret.
But most of all, they were intrigued by lockapeas. Lockapeas were tiny, red beans of the most mystical kind. Some shone like diamonds while others were matte like their mother’s ruby lipstick. They loved both all the same. They believed in the lockapeas, like one would believe in the universe.
The lockapeas were everywhere, but not a single fell outside the iron gates. On the dusty artery, some lockapeas stared at them wide-eyed, while others were dug underneath, trampled under careless feet of the hard-working students.
Nina and Maya went on their knees and collected as many lockapeas as they could. Then they stuffed them in the pockets of their shorts or into the folded hems of their frocks. They sat on an unswept barren patch of land and counted their gold. Holding a lockapea in their hand really tight, they closed their eyes, made a wish and released it into a transparent plastic tube jar.
“Please please I want a pink pencil box from the tooth fairy,” Maya said.
“Please please I want a black digital watch for my birthday,” Nina prayed.
And together they believed the lockapeas would make the magic happen. If they really really wanted something more than anything ever, they wished that on every single lockapea they collected before they dunked them into the tube jar. And then their simple, innocent wishes came true. They always came true.
Often, they popped a seed into their mouths, expecting it to somehow sweeten once it touched their tongues. Even sour would have been fine, but they were always tasteless, odourless, rock solid. Spitting out the seed in disappointment, they finished filling their jars to the top, and just before sunset, ran back to the busy side of the world. As they stepped out of the campus, they knew they were back where they belonged, where they felt the magic fade to wistful reality, where all the longing happened.
“Mommy, see we collected so many lockapeas again!”
“Lucky beans, Nina, lucky beans“, she corrected her, and sat to count with her children, knowing all too well where they had been. After counting, the lockapeas went into beautiful square glass jars that their mother saved once the pickle in it finished.
Over the next two years, Nina and Maya had over 40 jars of lockapeas that sat proud on the top shelf of their study, as if they were important art displayed in a museum, precious. They marvelled at their collection and flaunted it to whoever visited their home. The wishes came true and the magic remained.
Nina is now 28 and Maya 24. They rarely talk about the lockapeas. With busy lives and adulthood having swept in, they feel awkward even mentioning it. What was once a striking part of their Sunday afternoons is now an embarrassing, though cheerful memory.
They live separate lives in different places and hardly meet. Nina works in the forest on a cashew farm, is poorly paid but is moderately complacent. Maya waits tables in the evenings at a small Tibetan restaurant in the city, to pay off the loan she took for her photography course that she is studying. She has neither the time nor the money to visit Nina, and Nina finds the urban chaos rather repulsive. Although Nina still believes in magic, she can’t be so sure of her younger sister.
Nina was walking in the woods on a Sunday summer evening, much like one of those spent with her sister as a child. She was wandering about bare feet, grazing a stick along the barren forest soil and her eyes fell upon a lone lockapea. By now she knew they were seeds that fell from the numerous Sunshine trees in the college campus. She looked around to see if there were more, but knowing there were no Sunshine trees in the forest, she instead brought her attention back to what she had found.
She took the lockapea in her hand, held it tight, closed her eyes, inhaled a deep breath and made a wish for Maya and her. She threw it far into the thick forest, as if now instead of collecting the seed, not knowing where it fell would make her wish come true, that it would still be as magical.