We jumped one by one across the high wall, carefully avoiding the broken glasses stuck on top of the wall. At each soft thud from our heels, our hearts jumped. In fact our hearts beats were so loud that, we felt our warden might wake up hearing it.
We slowly crept across our college buildings to our hostel in the far end of the ground. There were five of us, Tina, Manju, Sara, Dhanya and Myself known notorious for our daredevil acts. Only we had the guts to challenge the strict rules of our convent sisters, which got heavier and heavier as we found more and more ways to break it. We were well planned and prepared in all our ventures, with duplicate keys of all gates and doors. Technical know how to block the burglar alarms etc, etc. So when we reached the gates of our dark hostel building, I took out the keys of the padlock, quietly to open the gate. To our surprise the key would not fit. Not matter how hard we tried, the lock would not give way. Our warden had changed the lock. Others also tried to pick the lock, but it dint budge. We looked at each other in horror. We couldn’t stand there any longer, if our warden looked out of her window, she would see us for sure.
“Let us hide somewhere” Dhanya whispered.
We crept across to the corner of another building, where we wouldn’t be spotted immediately, yet could see the entrance to the hostel building. We sat down on the ground in the darkness praying that no stray dogs came across the ground at us. There was panic in everyone’s eyes. We never anticipated such a situation in all our adventures. And there were many for us to boast about.
Where is the fun in College life, if we had to follow rules? So every time, a new rule came up, we found ways to break it or loopholes to avoid it. We always had greatest times sneaking out and back into our hostel without getting caught. But today seemed to be our D’Day. We had crossed the curfew, if the warden was to check our beds, she was sure to find them empty. Although we had arranged for substitutes, they would leave by bedtime. Now it was nearing 11.00pm. None of us could think of any excuses to escape her wrath, if we were caught.
In soft whispers we discussed other ways to sneak inside, but no one could think of any solution that would not involve waking up the warden or maids. Then we tried to think of good excuses, but we were all so tensed, that even our creative minds could think of only impending doom. The clock continued ticking
Tina and Sara were the weakest in our group. Neither were they good at lying nor could they brave adversities. But the rest of us were always there with them in all the troubles. We were pretty close knit and always there with each other during all sunny, rainy and stormy days. But this case was different, we are about to face the worst case scenario and we will face it together and separately.
Together we will be suspended from hostel and separately we will be fried by our families. Tina was already whimpering, “My dad will kill me”. Sara had tears in her eyes. Dhanya sitting in between them was trying to comfort them; her face was also very pale. I tried not to think of consequences, because if I had to concentrate on getting out of this mess, I better not think of my Mom’s banshee act. I could tell Manju was also thinking in the same lines, she had her forehead creased in concentration. We were the master planners of this group, and we generally never failed in churning out creative ideas. But today even our brains were failing us.
It was 2.00am, we were chilled to our bones, huddled together on the ground with totally resigned expressions on our faces. All plotting and planning was moot. Even Tina and Sara had grave expressions as though they were mentally set to face the hatchet. We all had been silent for past one hour, just the sound of our synchronised breathing and thundering hearts.
Then, Dhanya softly asked, “Shall we pray?” We looked at her as though she lost her screws. Dhanya was the saint amongst us .Even for lying or breaking rules, first she would pray and then commit the sin. We always teased her, but she would retort, “Even when I am being naughty, my god is with me”. Today, as we were all waiting our impending doom, we welcomed any keyhole strategy out of trouble. So we held hands and bowed our heads in despair. I could not format any sensible prayer at the moment, so I kept chanting silently,” Help, Help, please help”.
After about two minutes of intense but silent pleading, Manju blurted out, “Oh GOD! Please get us out of this mess and we promise not to ever sneak out like this again, please..!
In the silent early morning, the soft sound sends shock waves through our senses. We were still holding hands and I could see terror in everyone’s eyes. We huddled closer against the wall, so that we could literally blend with the shadows. We scanned the night, wondering what could be coming up at us.
I desperately hoped it is not our new watchman; he was a cunning young man, who never fell for any of our bribes and always reported any wrongdoers to the authorities. He was very eager to be good books of our warden. Our old watchman was quite a jolly old drunk yard, who would happily open any gates for us at any time. But one night he was so drunk that he accidentally started singing at the top of his voice waking our whole hostel and of course our matron sacked him that night itself.
Manju pressed my hand hard, forcing me to look at her, Sara who was one the other side was also staring at her. But Manju was staring somewhere faraway; we followed her line of vision, which led to the far end of the corner of one of our college buildings. At first I couldn’t make out any movement, and then I saw, a black shadow deeper than the shadow of the building behind moving towards our hostel. Whoever it was was very careful to avoid the bright halo light that illuminated our hostel porch and entrance. The shadow crept closer and closer to the hostel building till he reached the corner, from where he defineltely had to cross the lighted porch to reach the entrance. He waited for few moments, probably wondering how to cross the wide porch without risking someone peeking out from one of the floors. We also wondered the same; there were always some students sitting late or one of our owls like sisters who loved to study or do their prayers at such odd hours. Then before we could blink our eyes, he leaped across the wide area with very few steps and so silently that for a minute I wondered if it was a human at all. But we saw him clearly before he reached the entrance, a medium built, average height man, dressed entirely in black, even with gloves and a black linen cloth mask pulled over his head with only holes for his eyes.
Then to our surprise he picked up a set of keys, fitted one of them easily into the padlock and opened it. Then systematically, he pulled out a bottle of oil and poured it at the hinges to stop the creaking sounds of the Iron Gate. Then he opened it silently and entered our girls’ hostel.
Tina gasped “It is a thief”,
“Shut up tube light” Manju chided her between her teeth, and she turned to me. There was no more despair on her face; instead it was shining with wide excitement. I could actually make out a lighted bulb on her head. I understood her plan and whispered to the others, “You guys follow us at the first opportunity, without catching anyone’s attention.
“Wha…” Sara started, but Dhanya stopped her and gave us a thumps up.
Manju and I reached the entrance again and entered though the hostel‘s unlocked gates. The thief was nowhere in sight. We had a hunch. He would have headed to our common room, where a beautiful golden Cross gifted to the hostel by some rich hostellers and a huge box full of charity money were placed. We were collecting the money for orphans. We picked up hockey sticks from the sports team cupboard just off the entrance and hurried to the common room, silently. Our assumption was correct. Just as we reached the common room, we saw him trying to open our charity box. As it was too big to fit in his small backpack, he decided to empty the box. The cross had already vanished.
I was about to move forward and stop him, but Manju stopped me. She indicated to the other side of the common room – an easy escape route for the thief, if he manages to thwart our attack. We needed more hands for this operation. We decided to block him first. Moving in silently behind him, we reached as close as we could before taking a deep breaths and
“ AAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHAAAAA ….Kalannnn (Thief!) AAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHAAA ”, We screamed at the top of our voices
The thief was stunned, dropped his bag and ran to the nearest exit. But we were faster, Manju hit him on his back and I dived in like a football player for his legs. He tripped and fell on all fours. We continued screaming along with beating him up with our hockey sticks. But despite both our attacks, he managed to jump up, shake me off and dodge Manju’s wild hockey swing to reach the other exit. Unfortunately for him, our scream had done the intended job. The entire hostel was up, all the lights went on and about 164 girls were headed to the common room .
They covered every exit. He was blocked from all the sides, there was no escape. He tried running despite the odds. A common room filled with estrogen filled females was hardly a fair fight. We caught up with him when he tried to escape from another exit over the common room. Hockey sticks, brooms and bats rained on his back and knees and caused him to trip face down on the floor. He crouched on the floor trying to keep us from ripping of his mask.
Manju was in full swing, “Take that, and that and that” she kept hitting him with her stick from all sides. I realised quite soon that the girls who were surrounding us were still in various stage of shock, watching the scene. Only a handful of girls have reacted. That won’t go well with our plan. So I shouted “Hey, what are you girls staring at? Help us tie him up and get his mask off” That made some girls very enthusiastic. People were suddenly seen issuing order and running around.
“Hey get the rope!”
“Pull off his Mask!”
“Tie his hands!”
“Hit him! B****y thief!”
“Call the Police!”
“Where is the Watchman?” everyone muttered. I took the opportunity to hand the hockey stick to one the bulky girls and ordered, “Keep him down and try to get his mask off, I will go and get the watchman. He is probably still sleeping somewhere!” she nodded and took a ready posture resembling ‘Helga in Haggar the Horrible,’ the figure and the bat that looked like a club suited her well.
Manju was still busy playing Jhansi Rani with gusto. I pulled at her hand and said “Come Manj, let’s go and fetch the watchman”. We were still fully dressed in our day attires and our clothes would kill us and probably ground us for life.
She had not notice my hint,”No, No, you go I will keep him down” she said as she swung her stick.
URGH! What a time for her brains to go blank! I tried again,”No Manj, I can’t go alone in darkness outside” stressing on last two words. This time she turned to look at me, I indicated our clothes and she understood.
“Ohhh… OK!” She said as she turned to others “What are you girls waiting for??? Rip his mask off, we will bring the Watchman”. Then with an after thought she screamed behind her “Don’t let him escape!” We ran in the opposite direction, the warden would be coming. She was surely on her way to the common room.
We ran up to our respective room, and changed to our night clothes in lightning speed, hoping that Dhanya, Sara and Tina took the opportunity to have done the same. We didn’t have time to check their rooms as we ran back to the common room.
When we reached, everyone was crowding around murmuring in a circle with a small space in the centre, where we guessed was the thief held. Our warden the Sister was in the centre with her hands on her hips, glaring at the thief, with a murderous expression. We pushed ourselves through, to see the thief’s face. I was searching for Sara and others in the crowd as we pushed. When we reached the front row, our jaws fell open in shock. The Thief that we caught was our new WATCHMAN!
Both Manju and I stared at each other in blank shock. The thief was thoroughly beat up and whimpering on the floor. I wondered when this night was going to END. I recollected how expertly this man had crossed the ground and opened the gates. No wonder the thief knew where to find the most precious things in our hostel. Our warden was fuming, and sweating and I understood why. She had to answer the authorities on why proper background check and police verification was not done before appointing a new Watchman. She had hired overnight, in a hurry at that time to replace the sacked Watchman.
The thief was made to sit on the floor like a hatching hen, probably the idea of our ‘Miss Helga’ who was still standing over him with her bat as though it was a thorny club. Everyone was softly discussing what and how the watchman had cheated whole hostel security system. No one said anything aloud for the fear of hearing an angry retort from the warden. No one talked about us, but I knew in the end, someone would remember that we were the first ones on the scene. I discussed in hushed tones with Manju about a good story for our brave act. After all, we could not admit the truth and we needed the same story that we could use to the end. In a few minutes, one of the helper Girls came running, “Sister, the Police is here…”
“Make way, girls!” The warden said aloud. A Police Inspector and four constables walked into the scene. At first the thief’s position made him amused a little. The poor chap was beaten up, clothes in torn tatters and sported a huge black eye. Not a pretty scene. He cleared his throat and asked few questions to the warden and girls surrounding him, handcuffed the thief and sent him off with his constables. The thief looked relieved that he was now guarded by the police he wished to avoid.
Then the inspector asked the warden,” Who was the first one to see the thief? Who woke the hostel??” When no one responded, he looked at the girls still holding hockey sticks. “Are you the ones?”
“No, Sir, We were given these to stand guard” they replied in a chorus.
“By whom?” asked the inspector…?
They looked bewildered for a minute and then looked around, probably searching for our heads in the crowd. And when they spotted us, pointed our direction and announced.”Sir, it was Rose and Manju”.
Suddenly, we felt the spot light was turned to us. All eyes were on us, some wondering, some sceptical and some green with jealousy. The best response was our warden’s expression. The No.1 mischief makers of her hostel seemed to have saved ….her day?? Impossible! She couldn’t believe her bulging eyes.
The inspector turned to us, “So, how did you girls see the thief and raise the alarm”
Manju cleared her throat and recited our planned story “Sir, we were sitting up late preparing for a test tomorrow, when we saw movement below in our porch. At first we thought it was our imagination, but then we thought we might as well make sure, so we came down and picked up hockey sticks from the cupboard for safety purpose. We went around and we saw him in the common room and screamed to wake everyone up”. She said in just one breath and so fast that even the inspector raised his eyebrows. Our warden’s eyes turned to Slits. There was going to be lots of questions to be answered tonight. The inspector didn’t probe further; he commended our bravery and took our statements.
When he left finally, we tried to leave without any further scenes, but our warden was not to let us go that easily. She held us back and sent the rest of the girls and the maids to bed.
“Since when have you girls started sitting late to study?” the warden asked us. “I did not see any light in your rooms or in your corridor, before I went to BED”
Manju and I looked at each other; our lies were not going to hold in front of this lady who had an experience of running this hostel for more than 10 years.
So I changed the route,” Sister, we lied to the inspector. We were not feeling sleepy. We were sitting by the window ledge and chatting away into the night with only the halo light of the porch outside to see each other. That is how we saw that watchman sneak inside”.
She looked at both of us unconvinced, but we knew that this made a better impact than any other story. “How many times have I told you girls not to chat away into the night, when it is BED time, go to sleep! You will never under stand the…………” her regular lecture continued for few minutes. At least the worst was over, and we didn’t mind her motherly advices and threatening to keep us disciplined. It never worked, of course!
When she was finally done, she paused for a second and then, “Well, I am thankful to God that this night you were awake, or else our precious cross and the money would have been stolen by …that fiend” She gritted her teeth as she said the last two words . And we saved your job as our hostel warden, I added to myself.
“Well, off to bed, both of you,” and then she remembered the others. ”Where are the other three? I have never seen you separated! “
“Uh! They were not with us sister”, I covered up,” they were sleeping and came down with others when we screamed”
“. Oh! I don’t remember seeing them” She thought hard for a minute and then let go “Well, ok then, Good Night…” She turned to leave.
“Sister…” Manju suddenly shouted. Sister stopped and looked at her, surprised.
What now? I wondered as I turned to her. Manju was looking at our warden with wide eyes.
“Um…err…Sister…I wanted to tell you that….err…” she was stuttering. Sister was confused , so was I.
What was up with her, I wondered, but moved to her side and stood facing our warden, ready to back up whatever Manju was trying to do.
Then it clicked….
It felt like my heart had just shot up my throat. I felt the panic on my face and struggled to rearrange my expression to polite interest. It was hard to keep my eyes from wandering away from the sister’s face to the drama behind her. Three girls were sneaking in ; two of whom were supporting the third and slowly tiptoeing across our common room and up the stairs leading to our rooms.
“Sister, what I wanted to say was that” Manju continued with her nonsense jibber jabber. It made no sense to me or the sister at this point but her stories were always convincing and her persuasive reasoning was hard to resist. “Our old watchman, he was not so bad after all, it could probably be that we were not kind enough on that poor man.”
I thought Manju had lost her marbles. What was she jabbering on about?
“After all, he was a very fatherly and honest man (he used to let us out for money). His only problem was that he could not resist drinks. If he could be warned and given one more chance and…….” She rambled on.
It would have been rather hilarious, if we had not been so tensed. Manju was animated in her attempt at trying to keep our sister engaged, with actions and unbelievable expressions. Behind our notorious warden, three rule breakers sneaking back from their greatest adventure.
I was counting seconds and keeping my fingers crossed as Manju kept going on and on. She had the warden’s complete attention with her unusual recommendation for our old watchman. The trio were now half way up the stairs and the moment the last pal disappeared, she stopped talking, abruptly. My heart nearly stopped. The Sister was too deep into her thoughts to notice. She stood stewing over Manju’s words. When she did not respond for few moments, Manju slowly asked, “Eh, Sister, shall we leave, we are feeling rather sleepy” She then enacted a loud yawn.
“Ok, Go ahead, and yes I think you are right, we should give our old watchman another chance” she said, and turned around and walked slowly to her lair. She didn’t see us doing a silent victory dance all the way to our rooms.
It was a night of celebration. Though we nearly massacred Dhanya, Sara and Tina for keeping us on fire for few minutes, we had to excuse them as our unexpected blood curling scream had shocked the nerves out of Tina. She collapsed right there in our hideout twisting her ankle in process. They barely made it to the hostel in the gap after the police left with the thief and the maids closed the gates, again.
Some nights are never to be forgotten, and this was one of them. We spent the rest of the night retelling and reminiscing each moment. For the first time, we knelt down with Dhanya and thanked the God for saving us and we kept true to our promise…
NEVER AGAIN… Did we sneak out for the rest of our wonder years J