A few hours after the husband and wife had fallen asleep, a deep pounding woke Fullara up. For a minute, she thought she was imagining things. She lay still and quiet in her bed, listening hard. There was a distinct thump. Fullara held her breath and looked at Lalaji from the corner of her eyes.

Lalaji lay right next to her deep in sleep. Fullara wanted to nudge him awake, but was afraid he might be startled and make a noise while waking up. Fullara couldn’t exactly place the origin of the sound, but thought it was close. She had to quickly think of ways of stirring Lalaji and even alerting their friends in the neighbourhood.

Fullara trained her ears and was certain that someone was raining blows on the wall of the adjoining room.

Suddenly, Fullara started talking aloud. “Oh, Lalaji. How am I supposed to do this? How do I keep all these children engaged?” she said. “This is not fair. Here I am all by myself and so many children to look after. You have to help me,” she added, this time raising her voice a little.

Adding soon after, “Lalaji, if you don’t agree to assist me, I am telling you I will go out and dump these children outside the house.” By now, Fullara’s voice was loud enough to be heard beyond the courtyard and outside.

The sound of the loud blows stopped as though someone was trying to listen in. Fullara heard a scuffle outside as Lalaji began to turn and get up. He looked puzzled and kept staring at Fullara. She pressed her finger to her lips and asked him to keep quiet.

Outside, she could hear whispers. Like two men were talking to each other. Fullara couldn’t tell one voice from another, but she heard someone say, “Looks like someone inside the house is awake.”

Fullara could tell her loud conversation with herself had alerted the robbers outside. She felt encouraged to carry on. Maybe they’ll run away, she thought. Looking at Lalaji, she pointed towards the outside wall and asked him to listen.

Co-writer Shaguna Gahilote.

Slowly, the pounding on the wall began again. This time, Lalaji could hear it too. He was wide awake. Fullara started waving her hands frantically. Telling Lalaji to play-act with her. At first, Lalaji was confused, but when Fullara started talking, he understood.

“Tell me, will you help me? Look at these four babies creating a ruckus. See, see how Eesa just jumped on the bed, and Khameesa dropped the flower vase,” Fullara said louder this time. Almost like she wanted the robbers to hear. And they did.

The blows on the wall stopped again. Those outside were listening in. The minute Fullara talked about Eesa jumping on the bed, someone outside remarked, “Seems like she’s dreaming. I know they don’t have small children in the house.”

“What if they do and you don’t know?” asked another voice.

“I have checked. There are no children in the house. Besides, this woman is talking about children doing things right now. Did you even hear a sound of that?” pronounced another.

Convinced with that argument, one man with a deep voice said, “Let’s carry on breaking the wall. There’s just very little to go. I am already inside. Once we are done with these last few bricks, all of you will be inside.”

Fullara and Lalaji froze when they heard that. One robber was inside already while the others were just a few bricks away! Lalaji started to get up from the bed to go to the room where the robbers were, but Fullara held his hand. The robbers were known to be merciless and Fullara did not want Lalaji to confront them on his own.

Lalaji stepped back and let out in exasperation, “What are you saying, Fullara? What do you want me to do?” Lalaji could tell Fullara was feeling just as helpless as he was at the moment. While their friends living close by had been alerted in the evening, the danger was too close at hand to risk shouting out to them to help.

What if the robber inside the house had a weapon and attacked them? What if the remaining bricks were easy to remove and all the thieves broke into the house all at once if they heard the couple screaming for help.

Even as Lalaji thought hard about what should be done, Fullara continued talking. She said, “Lalaji, you listen to me. You look at our four grandchildren here, they are a handful. I can’t deal with Eesa, Khameesa, Kaazi and Mullah on my own. So, I am going to device a hide-and-seek game for them where the children will play the police while you will play the thief.”

Co-writer Prarthana Gahilote.

Lalaji wasn’t amused. He thought Fullara was actually out of her mind to be thinking of games and imaginary grandchildren right now but didn’t bother to shake her out of it. The thieves too didn’t think much of Fullara’s banter and went about breaking what was left of the wall.

With every new thump, Lala Gulab Bagri’s heart sank a little more. “So when you hide and the children go looking for you, I will be helping them by looking for you in the house. And when I will find you, I will be bellowing Eesa, Khameesa, Kaazi, Mullah...here is the thief.”

Lalaji promptly understood what Fullara was trying to do. She was trying to alert his friends about the intrusion in their house. As if on cue, he asked her, “What will you say to the children, Fullara? Say that again, louder.” Encouraged, Fullara howled, “Eesa, Khameesa, Kaazi, Mullah...Chor, chor, chor!”

“Say it again, Fullara,” yelled Lalaji.

This time, Fullara bellowed with all the power in her lungs, “Eesa, Khameesa, Kaazi, Mullah...Chor! Eesa, Khameesa, Kaazi, Mullah...Chor! Eesa, Khameesa, Kaazi, Mullah...Chor! Chor! Chor!’

Fullara was so loud this last time that her voice carried through the courtyard to the homes of her neighbours. Startled, they jumped out of their beds, racing towards Lalaji’s house. The thieves heard Fullara too and were now in a dilemma. Should they run or hide inside the house? The last of the bricks had finally fallen.

Just as the thieves were approaching Lalaji’s bedroom, his friends rushed into the house with sticks and rods. On their way to the house, the four friends had raised an alarm loud enough for the rest of the neighbours to come out of their homes and surround Lalaji’s house.

Once inside, the four friends marched into Lalaji’s bedroom only to see Lalaji dashing into the adjoining room where the thieves stood. Eesa, Khameesa, Kaazi and Mullah bolted after Lalaji and found four well-built men standing by the broken wall. They lunged at them and brought the four thieves down with a thud. Fullara raced in with a bundle of ropes as the men overpowered the thieves with all their strength.

Hearing the commotion inside, some neighbours climbed into the house where the wall had been brought down by the thieves. The thieves had now been outnumbered and didn’t move an inch, fearing for their lives. Together, the men secured the hands and legs of the thieves with the rope they had been given.

Throughout the night, Lalaji and his friends sat in the courtyard watching over the thieves who had been locked in Lalaji’s store. The thieves were to be handed over to the daroga in the morning. The men couldn’t stop gushing about Fullara’s presence of mind and how she had managed to save the situation. Lalaji felt extremely proud of Fullara. He had always depended on her for advice, much to the annoyance of his conservative relatives, but tonight he felt validated for respecting Fullara’s intelligence.

Curious Tales from the Desert

Excerpted with permission from Curious Tales from the Desert, Shaguna Gahilote and Prarthana Gahilote, Puffin Books.