A priest is asked by some villagers to give his blessings to a dying woman. He does. The woman revives miraculously. A few days later the blessings of the priest revive two other people-an old man and a cripple. What caused these miracles? Only in the last paragraphs of 'The Amazing Miracles' would one get the answer.
In 1657, an unusual incident occurred. A young man met a ravishingly beautiful woman at midnight near the imperial fort, 'Lai Kila', at Delhi. This was when a violent war of succession was raging between Dara Shukoh and Aurangzeb, the two potential successors of emperor Shahjehan. The meeting led to a startling chain of events. Read these chilling events in 'The Woman with the Black Collar'.
But this is not all. 'A Fathers Immortal Gift' and 'The Surgeon who Healed the Dead' are stories of nostalgia and love. 'The Day Rahul Spoke', is the touching tale of how a retarded child could reach his grandmother. 'Time Doesn't Wait' and 'His Last Words' and 'May the Kohassa Bring You Joy' would blur the eyes of all. These are remarkable stories. They abound with wonderful descriptions, extraordinary events, pathos, love humour and mystery. They make compulsive reading.
The Amazing Miracles
The priest woke early as was his wont, and began his prayers, his devotions, and his work for his diocese. He was its spiritual light and was held in high esteem by his religious colleagues and the people. Before his door, there grew a small tree planted by his own hands; he always watered it before sunrise, contemplating the sun as it burst forth from the horizon to shed its rays on its green leaves.
As the priest finished watering the tree that morning and was about to return inside, he found himself faced by a crowed of sad and worried-looking people, one of whom plucked up the courage to address him in beseeching tones:
"Father! Save us! No one but you can save us! My wife is on her death bed and she is asking for your blessing before she breathes her last."
"Where is she?"
"In a village nearby. The mounts are ready," replied the man, pointing to two saddled ponies standing there waiting for them.
"I am willing to go, my sons," said the priest, "Wait a while so that I may arrange my affairs and tell my breathren and then return to you."
"There's no time!" they all said as one voice. 'The woman is dying. We may well reach her too late. Come with us right away if you would be a true benefactor to us and a merciful saviour to the dying woman. It is not far and we shall be there and back at your house before sunset."
"Well, then, let us go at once!" the priest agreed with enthusiastic fervour. He went up to the two ponies followed by the crowd. Mounting him on one of them while the husband of the dying woman mounted the other, they raced off.
For hours on end they pounded the ground, passing from one country road to another, with the priest frequently asking, "when would the village of the unfortunate woman come" and the men goading on the pony saying, "we're almost there!" It wasn't till noon that the village came into sight. They entered it to the accompaniment of barking dogs and the welcome of its inhabit¬ants, and they all made their way to the woman's hut. They led the priest through the front verandah to a large room where he found a woman stretched out on a bed, her eyes staring up at the ceiling. He called to her, but no reply came from her, for she was at death's door. So he began to call down blessings upon her, and scarcely had he finished when she heaved a great sigh and fell into a deep fit of sobbing, so that the priest thought she was about to give up the ghost.
Instead her eyelies fluttered open, her gaze cleared and she turned and murmured, "Where am I?"
"You are in your house," answered the astonished priest. "Get me a drink of water."
"Bring the pitcher!" shouted her relatives around her. "Bring the water jar!"
They raced off and brought back a jug of water from which the woman took a long drink. Then she belched heartily and said, "Isn't there any food? I'm hungry!"
Everyone in the house set about bringing her food. Under the astonished gaze of those around her, the woman began devouring the food; then she got up from her bed and proceeded to walk about the house completely fit and well again. At this the people prostrated themselves before the priest, covering his hands and feet in kisses and shouting, "O Saint of God! Your blessing has alighted on the house and brought the dead woman back to life! What can we possibly give you as a token of the thanks we owe you, as an acknowledgment of our gratitude?"
"I have done nothing that deserves reward or thanks," replied the priest, still bewildered by the incident. "It is God's power that has done it."
"Call it what you will," said the master of the house. "It is at all events a miracle which God wished to be accomplished through your hands, O Saint of God. You have alighted at our lowly abode, and this brings both great honour and good fortune to us. You must let us undertake the obligations of hospitality in such manner as our circumstances allow."
He ordered a quiet room to be made ready for his guest and there he lodged him. Whenever the priest asked leave to depart, the master of the house swore by all that was most holy to him that he would not allow his auspicious guest to go before three days were up—the very least hospitality which should be accorded to someone who had saved his wife's life. During this time he showed him much attention and honour. When the period of hospitality came to an end he saddled a mount and loaded it up with presents of home-made sweet meats, lentils, and vegetables; in addition he pressed rupees twenty for the church funds in the priest's hand. Hardly had he escorted him to the door and helped him on to the pony than a man appeared, puffing and out of breath, who threw himself down beside the priest.
"Father," he pleaded, "the story of your miracle has reached all the villages around. I have an uncle who is like a father to me and who is at death's door. He is hoping to have your blessing, so let not his soul depart from him before his hope is fulfilled!"
"But, my son, I am all ready to return home," the priest replied uncertainly.
"This is something that won't take any time. I shall not let you go till you've been with me to see my uncle."
"And where is this uncle of yours?" asked the priest.
"Very near here—a few minutes' distance."
The priest saw nothing for it but to comply. They journeyed for an hour before they reached the next village. There he saw a house like the first one with a dying man on a bed, his family around him veering between hope and despair. No sooner had the priest approached and called down his blessing on the patient than the miracle occurred: the dying man rose to his feet calling for food and water. The people, astounded at what had occurred, swore by everything most dear that they must discharge the duties of hospitality towards this holy man—a stay of three full days.
The period of hospitality passed with the priest enjoying every honour and attention. Then, as they were escorting him out of the village loaded down with gifts, a man from a third village came along and asked him to come and visit it, even if only for a little while, and give it the blessing of one whose fame had spread throughout all the district.
The priest was quite unable to escape from the man, who led the pony off by its bit and brought the priest to a house in his village. There they found a young man who was a cripple; hardly had the priest touched him than he was up and about on his two feet, among the cheers and jubiliation of young and old. All the people swore that the duties of hospitality must be accorded to the miracle-maker, which they duly did in fine style; three nights no less, just as the others had done. When this time was up they went to their guest and added yet more presents to those he already had, until his donkey was almost collapsing under them. They also presented him with a more generous gift of money than he had received in the former villages so that he had by now collected close to rupees three hundred. He put them in a purse which he hid under his clothes. He then mounted the pony and asked his hosts to act as an escort for him to his village, so they all set off with him, walking behind his pony.
"Our hearts shall be your protection, our lives your ransom," they said. "We shall not leave you till we have handed you over to your own people, you are as precious to us as gold."
"I am causing you some inconvenience," said the priest. "The way is not safe and, as you know, criminal gangs are rife in the region."
"Truly," they replied, "hereabouts they kidnap men in broad daylight."
"Even the government is powerless to remove this widespread evil," said the priest. "I was told that gangs of kidnappers waylay buses in the countryside, run their eyes over the passengers, and carry off with them anyone at all prosperous-looking, so that they can afterwards demand a large ransom from his relatives. Sometimes it happens with security men actually in the buses. I heard that once two policemen were among the passengers on one of these buses when it was stopped by the gang; when the selected passenger appealed for help to the two policemen they were so scared of the robbers that all they said to the kidnapped man was, "Go away and let's get the bus going."
The people laughed and said to the priest, "Do not be afraid! So long as you are with us, you will dismount only when you arrive safely back in your village."
"I know how gallant you are! You have overwhelmed me with honour and generosity!"
"Don't say such a thing—you are very precious to us!" They went on walking behind the priest, extolling his virtues and describing in detail his miracles. He listened to their words, and thought about all that had occurred. Finally, he exclaimed, "Truly, it is remarkable the things that have happened to me in these last few days! Is it possible that these miracles are due solely to my blessing?"
"And do you doubt it?"
"I am not a prophet that I should accomplish all that in nine days. Rather it is you who have made me do these miracles!"
"We?" they all said in one voice. "What do you mean?"
"Yes, you are the prime source."
"Who told you this?" they murmured, exchanging glances.
"It is your Faith," continued the priest with conviction. "Faith has made you achieve all this. You do not know the power that lies in the soul of the believer. Faith is a power, my sons! Faith is a power! Miracles are buried deep within your hearts, like water inside rock, and only faith can cause them to burst forth!" He continued talking in this vein while the people behind him shook their heads. He became more and more impassioned and did not notice that they had begun to slink off, one after the other. It was only when he reached the boundaries of his village that he came back to earth, turned round to thank his escort, and was rendered speechless with astonishment at finding himself alone.
His surprise did not last long, for he immediately found his family, his brother priests and superiors rushing towards him, hugging him and kissing his hand, as tears of joy and emotion flowed down their cheeks. One of them embraced him, saying, "You have returned safely to us at last! They kept their promise. Let them have the money so long as they have given you back, father! To us, father, you are more priceless than any money!"
The priest, catching the word 'money', exclaimed, "What money?"
"The money we paid to the gang."
"The one that kidnapped you. At first they wouldn't be satisfied with less than, ten thousand rupees, saying that you were worth your weight in gold. We pleaded with them to take half and eventually they accepted, and so we paid them a ransom of five thousand rupees from the church funds."
"Five thousand?" shouted the priest. "You paid that for me!— they told you I'd been kidnapped?"
"Yes, three days after you disappeared some people came to us and said that a gang kidnapped you one morning as you were watering the tree by your door. They swore you were doomed unless your ransom was paid to them—if we paid you'd be handed over safe and sound."
The priest considered these words, recalling to himself all that had occurred.
"Indeed, that explains it", he said, as though talking to himself. "Those dead people, the sick, and the cripples who jumped up at my blessing! What mastery!"
His relatives again came forward, examining his/ body and clothes as they said joyfully, "Nothing is of any consequence, father, except your safety. We hope they didn't treat you badly during your captivity. What did they do to you?"
In bewilderment he answered: 'They made me work miracles— miracles that were manufactured."
The Little Master
When I woke, I heard my mother coughing, below in the kitchen. She had been coughing for days but I had paid no attention. We were living on the old cart road reaching into Kasauli, a little army cantonment town in the Himalaya’s, near Shimla. The coughing sounded terrible. I dressed, put on my socks and going downstairs, I saw her collapsing into a little armchair, holding her side. She had made an attempt to light the kitchen fire, but it had gone against her. She looked so tired and helpless that my heart turned over with compassion. I ran to her.
“Are you all right, amma?” I asked.
“I’ll be all right in seconds, she replied trying to smile. “The old sticks were wet, and the smoke started me coughing.”
“Go back to bed and I will light the fire,” I said.
“How can I, child?” she said anxiously. “I have to go to work.”
“You couldn’t work like that,” I said. “I’ll stop at home from school and look after you.”
It’s funny thing about women, the way they’ll take orders from any one in trousers, even if he is only nine.
“If you could make yourself a cup of tea, I might be all right later on,” she said guiltily, and she rose, very shakily, and climbed back up the stairs. I knew that she must be feeling really bad.
I put more sticks into the kitchen fire. My mother was so economical that she never used enough, and that was why the fire sometimes went against her. I used a whole bundle and I soon had the fire roaring and the kettle on. I made her a toast while I was about it. I was a great believer in hot buttered toast at all hours of the day. Then I made the tea and brought it up in a cup on a saucer. “Is that all right,” I asked.
“Would you have some boiling water left?” she asked doubtfully.
“This is too strong.” I agreed cheerfully. “I’ll pour some of it out and then add some boiling water.”
“I am an old nuisance,” she sighed.
“This is my fault,” I said taking the cup. “I can never remember how much tea leaves to put in the water. Put the shawl round you while you’re sitting up.”
I rushed down, got some boiling water in a mug, made her tea lighter, and then sat down to have my own breakfast by the window. Then I went out and stood by the front door to watch the kids from the road on their way to school.
“You’d better hurry or you’ll be late, Hari,” they shouted.
“I am not going,” I said. “My mother is sick, and I have to mind the house.”
I wasn’t a malicious child by any means but I liked to be able to take out my comforts and study them by the light of others’ misfortunes. Then I heated another kettle of water and cleared up the breakfast things before I washed my face.
“Would you like me to get the doctor,” I asked my mother.
“No,” said my mother impatiently. “He’d want to send me to the hospital, and how can I go to the hospital? You could call in at the chemist and ask him to give you a good strong cough bottle.”
“Write it down,” I said. “If I haven’t got it written down, I might forget. And put ‘strong’ in big letters. What should I get for lunch? Milk and bread?”
“Yes,” she replied.
I passed the school on my way. Opposite it was a hill and I went up a short distance and stood there for ten minutes in quiet contemplation. The schoolhouse, the playground and the gate were revealed as in a painted picture, detached and peaceful, except for the chorus of voices through the opened windows. I could have stood there all day. Of all the profound and simple pleasures of those days, the sound of these voices was the richest.
When I got home, I rushed upstairs and found Urmilla mausi sitting with my mother. She was a friend of my mother but I called her mausi. She was a middle-aged woman, very knowledgeable, gossipy and pious.
“How are you amma?” I asked.
“Good,” said my mother with a smile.
“You can’t get up today, though,” said Urmila mausi.
“I’ll put the kettle on and make a cup of tea for you.” I said.
“Sure, I’ll do that,” Urmila mausi.
“Ah, don’t worry, mausi,” I said lightly. “I can manage it all right.”
“Isn’t he very good?’ I heard her say in a low voice to my mother. “As good a gold,” said my mother.
“There are not many like him, these days,” said Urmilla mausi. “Most of them going on now are more like savages.”
In the afternoon, my mother wanted me to run out and play but I didn’t go far. I knew, if once I went a certain distance from house, I was liable to stray into temptation.
At dusk, I lit the lamp in the kitchen and the candle in my mother’s room and tried to read to her, not very successfully, because I was only at words of one syllable. But I had a great wish to please, and her to be pleased; so we got on quite well.
Later, Urmilla mausi came again and as she was leaving, I saw her to the door.
“If she is not better in the morning, I think I’d get the doctor,” she said over her shoulder.
“Why?” I asked in alarm. “Do you think she is worse?”
“No, I wouldn’t say so,” she replied with affected nonchalance, “but I am frightened she might get pneumonia.”
“But wouldn’t the doctor send her to the hospital, mausi?”
“Wish he wouldn’t”, she said with a shrug, pulling her old shawl about her. “But even if he did, wouldn’t it be better than neglecting it?” You wouldn’t have some brandy in the house?”
“Yes, I do.”
“If you could give it to her hot, it might help her to shake it off,” said Urmilla mausi.
My mother said she didn’t want the brandy but I had got such a fright that I wouldn’t be put off. I almost forced a few teaspoonfuls into her mouth.
When my mother had drunk the hot brandy, she fell asleep; and I quenched the lights and went to bed but I couldn’t sleep very well. I went into my mother’s room, her head felt very hot, and she was rambling in her talk. It frightened me more than anything else she didn’t know me, and I lay awake, thinking of what would happen to me if it were really pneumonia.
The depression was terrible when, next morning, mother seemed not to be any better. I had done all I could do and I felt helpless. I lit the kitchen fire and got her bread and hot milk but this time I didn’t stand at the front door to see the other fellows on their way to school. Instead, I went over to Urmilla mausi and reported.
“I’d go for the doctor,” she said firmly.” “Better be sure than sorry.”
I had first to go to the house of my uncle who lived quite far from our house to borrow some money. After that I went to the doctor. When I returned I laid out a bucket of water and soap and a clean towel for the doctor. I then cooked some lunch for my mother and myself.
It was after lunch when he called. He was a fat, loud voiced man and, like all the drunks of the medical profession, thought himself to be the cleverest doctor in Kasauli.
“How are you going to get this now?” he grumbled, sitting on the bed with a prescripton pad on his knee. “The only place open today would be Jackson chemist”.
“I’ll go, doctor”, I said at once, relieved that he had said nothing the hospital.
“It’s a long way,” he said doubtfully. “ Do you know where it is?”
“I’ll find it,” I said.
“Isn’t he a great fellow?” he said to my mother.
“Oh, the best in the world, doctor!” she said. “Nobody else could be better than him”.
“That’s right,” said the doctor. “Look after your mother, she is the best thing for you in the long-run. We don’t mind them when we have them,” he added to my mother, “but then some of them turn out to be rascals.”
I wish he hadn’t said that; it tuned in altogether with my mood. To make it worse he didn’t even use the soap and water I had laid ready for him.
My mother gave me the directions how to reach Jackson chemist, and I set off with a bottle wrapped in brown paper in my hand. The road led uphill through a thickly populated poor locality, as far as the barracks and then descended between high walls, till it came to an open area on once side of which stood a temple, made of purple sandstone.
I leaned on the low wall, near the temple and thought how happy a fellow could be, if he had nothing to trouble him. I tore myself from the wall with a sigh and climbed up the few narrow steps to the temple.
I leaned before the statue of Goddess Parvati in the temple and prayed for my mother’s recovery. I also promised the Goddess that on my return from the chemist, if I had any money, left, I would offer her a prasad of ten paisa for my mother’s recovery. After that I walked upto Jackson’s chemist which was a short distance from the temple.
A little girl was standing near the shop.
“You’ll have to wait, little boy,” said the girl quickly.
“What will I have to wait for?” I asked.
“He has to make your medicine,” she explained pointing to the salesman who was in the shop. “You might as well sit down.”
After handing over the prescription and the bottle to the salesman, I sat door next to her, glad of someone to keep company.
“Where are you from?” she asked. “I live near the Colonel’s house.” She then asked, “Who’s the bottle for?”
“My mother”, I said.
“What’s wrong with her?”
“She has a bad cough.”
“She might have pneumonia,” she said thoughtfully. “That’s what my sister that died had last year. This is a tonic for my other sister. She has to have tonics all the time. Is it nice where you live?”
I told her about the high mountain near my house and then she told me about the houses, the dirt track and the tree lined road, near their place. It seemed to be a nicer place than ours, as she described it. She was a pleasant, talkative little girl and I didn’t notice the time until the salesman came to the counter and said:
“Here,” she said and thrust the bottle with the prescription paper to her. She had a two twenty five paisa coin which she placed on the counter.
“Thanks,” said the girl to the salesman. Turning to me she said: “Your’s won’t be ready for a good while yet. I will wait for you.”
She waited until my bottle was handed to me and I too gave the chemist a to twenty five paisa coin. We then walked towards the temple together. On the way, I bought some sweets from the twenty five paisa that was left with me and we sat on the steps beside the temple to eat them. It was nice there with the young trees overhanging the high walls, and the sun, when it came out in great golden blasts, throwing our linked shadows into the road.
“Mine is awful,” she said. “Tonics is awful to taste. You can try it if you like.”
I took a taste of it and hastily spat out. She was right; it was awful. After that I couldn’t do less than let her taste mine.
“That’s grand,” she said enthusiastically, after taking a swig from it. “Cough bottles are always grand. Try it, can’t you?”
I did, and I saw she was right about that too. It was very sweet and sticky.
“Give me another,” she said excitedly, grabbing at it.
“It will be all gone,” I said.
“It won’t,” she replied with a laugh. “You have lots of it.”
Somehow I couldn’t refuse her. I was swept from my anchorage into an unfamiliar world of trees, steps, shadowy lanes and a little girl with a fair complexion and large beautiful balck eyes. I took a drink myself and gave her another. Then I began to panic. “Its nearly all gone,” I said. “What am I going to do now?”
“Finish I and say the cork fell out,” she replied, and again, as she said it, it sounded plausible enough. We finished the cough syrup between us, and then, slowly as I looked at the empty bottle in my hand, and remembered that I had not kept my word to the Goddess Parvati and had spent extra money I had – twenty five paisa on sweets, a terrible despondency swept over me. I had sacrificed everything for the little girl and she didn’t even care for me. It was cough bottle she had coveted all the time. I saw her guile too late. I put my hands in my hands and began to cry.
“What are you crying for?” the little girl asked in astonishment.
“My mother is sick, and we have drunk her medicine,” I said.
“Ah, don’t be any old crybaby!” she said contemptuously. “You have only to say the cork fell out. Sure that’s a thing that could happen to anybody.”
“And I promised the Goddess Parvati an offering of sweet meats from the money left and I have spent the money on you!” I screamed and suddenly grabbing the empty bottle, I ran up the road from her, wailing. Now I had only one refuge and one hope – a miracle. I went back to the temple, and kneeling before the Goddess the Parvati, I begged her pardon for having spent her ten paisa, promised her a prasad from the next ten paisa I got, if only she would work a miracle and make my mother better before I got back. After that, I crawled miserably homeward, back up the hill, but now all the light had gone out of the day and the beautiful hillside and become a vast, alien, cruel world. Besides, I felt very sick, I thought I was going to die. In one way it would be better.
When I got back into the house, the silence of the house and the sight of the fire gone out in the kitchen, smote me with the cruel realization that the Goddess Parvati had let me down. There was no miracle and my mother was still in bed. At once, I began to howl.
“What is it child?” my mother called in alarm from upstairs.
“I lost the medicine,” I bellowed, and rushed up the stairs to throw myself on the bed and bury my face in the pillow.
“Oh, wash up darling, if that’s all that’s troubling you!” she exclaimed with relief, running her hand through my hair. “Is anything the matter?” she added after a moment. “You’re very hot.”
“I drank the medicine,” I bawled.
“Ah, that’s no harm?” she murmured soothingly. “You poor, unfortunate child! It was my own fault for letting you go all that way by yourself. Undress yourself now, and lie down here.”
She got up, put on her slippers and unlaced my shoes while I lay on the bed. But even before she finished, I was fast asleep. I didn’t see her dress herself or hear her go out, but some time later, I felt a hand on my forehead and saw Urmilla mausi peering down at me, laughing.
“Ah, it’s nothing,” she said, giving her shawl a pull about her. He’ll sleep it off by morning. But its you – you who should be in bed.”
I knew that was a judgement on me but I could do nothing about it. Later, I saw my mother come in with the candle and I smiled up at her. She smiled back. Urmilla mausi may despise me as much as she liked, but there were others who didn’t. The miracle had happened, after all.
The Winter Deodar
The fresh sunlit January morning filled the young school teacher with happy thoughts. She had come to Mashobra, a small town in Himachal Pradesh, only two years ago, straight out of college after passing her Bachelor of Education examination and was already considered the school's best teacher. They knew her in the whole town, and everywhere they called her Savitri Kacchi, adding the surname to show their respect.
The school was a two-storey brick building with wide windows throwing a reddish tint on the snow. "Namaste, madam!" From some children the greeting sounded in clear and ringing voices; from others it was muffled in thick mufflers and shawls that swatched the young faces.
Savitri's first lesson was to 12 and 13-year olds. The children rose, greeted her and sat down at their desks. "We shall continue to study parts of speech today," Savitri said. She remembered how nervous she had been about this lesson last year. Now, sensing confidence coursing through her body, she began in a calm, even voice: "A noun is a word that denotes a subject - a person, thing or quality. A subject is anything about which you can ask a question. Who is it?—a pupil. What is it?—a book."
"May I come in?" A small figure in battered boots stood in the doorway. The round, wind reddened face flowed as if it would burst; the eyebrows were white with frost.
"Late again, Jai Lai," Savitri enjoyed being strict, but now an almost plaintive note sounded in her voice. Jai Lai quickly slid into his place. His unpunctuality annoyed her; it somehow spoilt the fine opening of the day.
"Is everything clear?" she asked the class.
"Yes!" chorused the children.
"Very well. Then give me some examples." Someone said haltingly, "Cat".
"Correct", said Savitri. They continued, "window, table, house, road ...". On and on until Savitri said, "That's enough. I can see you understand it".
Suddenly, as if awakened out of his sleep, Jai Lai stood up and shouted eagerly, "Winter Deodar!"
The children laughed. "Quiet, please!" Savitri brought her palm down hard on the table.
"Winter Deodar!" repeated Jai Lai, heedless of the laughter around him or of Savitri's order. His words seemed to have burst out like a confession, like some glorious secret that could not remain unshared.
Annoyed and uncomprehending, Savitri asked, barely control¬ling her irritation, "Why winter Deodar? Deodar is enough."
"A Deodar is nothing. It's winter Deodar. That too should be a noun", said Jai Lai.
"Sit down, Jai Lai. That's what coming in late leads to. Deodar is a noun, and what 'winter' is in this case, we have not studied yet. You will come to the teachers' room during recess."
"Sit down," said Savitri when Jai Lai entered. "Will you please tell me why you are always late?"
"I really don't know, madam", he said. "I leave home an hour before school."
"Jai Lai, you live in Kukshi, don't you?"
"No, I live on the sanatorium premises."
"Aren't you ashamed then to tell me you leave home an hour before school? Why, it's 15 minutes from the sanatorium to the road, and no more than half an hour's walk down the road!"
"But I don't ever go down the road. I take a short-cum through the forest."
"That's not very good, Jai Lai." "I'll have to talk to your parents about it."
'There's only my mother, madam", Jai Lai said softly. Savitri blushed. She remembered the boy's mother, a withered, tired looking woman who worked in the sanatorium. Her husband had been killed in a bus accident and she brought up her three children as best she could. She had enough worry without being bothered about her son's conduct. But all the same they must meet. "I'll have to see your mother, then," said Savitri. "What shift does she work on?"
"She goes to work at three."
"Very well then, I finish at two."
"We'll go together right after school."
Jai Lai led Savitri along the path that started behind the school. As they entered the forest and the heavy snow-laden trees closed behind them, they found themselves in an enchanted white world of peace and quiet. The path followed a frozen brook.
They came to a vast clearing folded with sunlight. In the middle, in sparkling white snow stood a tall and majestic old tree. Snow in the cracks of the bark made its gigantic trunk look as if it was inlaid with silver. 'The winter Deodar!" gasped Savitri. She approached the tree and halted under its glittering branches.
Unaware of the tumult in his teacher's heart, Jai Lai busied himself with something at the foot of the trunk, treating the magnificent tree with the familiarity of a long standing friendship. "Come here, madam", he called. "Look!" He pushed aside a large clump of snow with earth and old grass clinging to its under side. A little ball plastered with decayed leaves lay in the hollow below. "A hedgehog!" cried Savitri.
Jai Lai carefully restored the creature's protective covering of earth and snow. Then he dug at another spot and revealed a tiny cave with icicles hanging at its opening. It was occupied by an immobile brown frog. "Isn't he a sly one?" said the boy. "Pretending he's dead. Just watch him leap as soon as the sun warms him up a bit."
Jai Lai guided Savitri on through the world he knew so well. In all around the winter Deodar were hibernating bugs, lizards, insects. Some hid among the roots, others deep in the bark. Savitri watched, fascinated.
"Oh, oh, Mother'11 be at work by now!" came Jai Lai's anxious voice.
Savitri looked at her watch. A quarter past three. Inwardly begging forgiveness of the Deodar, she said, "Well, Jai Lai, this only proves that a short-cut is not always the best way to choose. You'll have to go along the road from now on." Jai Lai looked down and did not reply.
'Heavens!' thought Savitri. 'Isn't this surely the clearest proof of my incompetence!'
"Thank you, Jai Lai, for the lovely walk," she said "I didn't mean what I just told you. Of course you can take the forest path to school."
"Thank you, madam." Jai Lai wanted to promise he would never be lale agairi) bm was afrajd he might walk with you back to school," he said.
"No, don't. I can find the way myself." She started out, and then turned to take one last look at the winter Deodar, tinged with pink by the setting sun. A small dark figure stood at the foot of the trunk. Ja. Lai did not go home. He stayed to guard his teacher's way, even if from a distance.
And Savitri knew that the most wonderful object in that forest was not the winter Deodar but this small boy in battered boots and patched clothes, the son of a sanatorium worker and a father killed in a bus accident
May the Kohassa Bring You Joy
She was six years old when Prabha first met her on a beach in Mumbai.
She was building a sand castle or something and looked up, her eyes as sparkling as the sea.
"Hello," she said. Prabha answered with a nod, not really in the mood to bother with a small child.
"I'm building," she said.
"I see that. What is it?" Prabha asked, not caring.
"Oh, I don't know. I just like the feel of the sand."
That sounds good, Prabha thought, and slipped off her shoes. A bird glided by.
"That's a 'kohassa," the child said.
"It's a joy. My mother says kohassa comes to bring us joy."
The bird went glissading down the beach. "Good-bye, joy," Prabha muttered to herself; "hellow, pain," and turned to walk on. She was depressed; her life seemed completely out of balance.
"What's your name?" the girl wouldn't give up.
"Prabha," she answered. "I'm Prabha Athawle."
"Mine's Nutan." "And I'm six."
She giggled. "You're funny," she said. In spite of her gloom Prabha laughed too and walked on.
Her musical giggle followed her. "Come again, Prabha didi'. We'll have another happy day."
The days and weeks that followed belonged to others: office politics where Prabha could be transferred, a rift with her husband and an ailing mother.
The sun was shining one morning as Prabha took.her hands off 'kohassa: Sea Eagle the pressure cooker. "I need to go to the beach", she said to herself.
The never changing balm of the seashore awaited her. She had forgotten the child and was startled when she appeared.
"Hellow, Prabha didi", she said. "Do you want to play?"
"What did you have in mind?" Prabha asked, with a twinge of annoyance.
"I don't know. You say."
"How about solitude?" Prabha asked sarcastically.
The tinkling laughter burst forth again. "I don't know what that is."
"Then let's just walk." Looking at her, Prabha noticed the delicate fairness of her face.
"Where do you life?" Prabha asked.
"Over there." She pointed toward a row of houses. She chattered little-girl talk as they strolled up the beach, but Prabha's mind was on other things. When she left for home, Nutan said it had been a happy day. Feeling surprisingly better, Prabha smiled at her and agreed.
Three weeks later, Prabha met Nutan again on the beach. She was in no mood even to greet Nutan.
"Look, if you don't mind," Prabha said crossly when Nutan caught up with her, "I'd rather be alone today." Nutan seemed unusually pale and out of breath.
"Why?" Nutan asked.
Prabha turned on her and shouted, "Because my mother died!"—and thought, my God, why was I saying this to a little child?"
"Oh," Nutan said quietly, "then this is a bad day."
"Yes, and yesterday and the day before that and—oh, go away!"
"Did it hurt?"
"Did what hurt?" Prabha was exasperated with her, with herself.
"When she died?"
"Of course it hurt!" Prabha snapped, and strode off.
A month or so after that, when Prabha next went to the beach, Nutan wasn't there. Feeling guilty, ashamed and admitting to herself she missed her, she went up to her house after her walk. lrawn looking young woman opened the door.
Hello," Prabha said. "I'm Prabha Athawle. I missed your little today and wondered where she was."
"Oh yes, Prabhaji, please come in."
"Nutan talked of you so much. I'm afraid I allowed her to :her you. If she was a nuisance, please accept my apologies."
"Not at all—she's a delightful child," Prabha said suddenly ilizing that she meant: 'Where is she?'
"Nutan died last week, Prabhaji. She had cancer—leukamia. aybe she didn't tell you."
Struck dumb, Prabha grouped for a chair.
"She loved this beach; so I never stopped her. She seemed so mch better playing on the beach and had a lot of what she called appy days. But in the last few weeks she declined rapidly..." Her oice faltered. "She left something for you... if only I can find it. Tould you wait a moment while I look?"
Prabha nodded stupidly, her mind racing for something, anything, to say to this lovely young woman.
She handed Prabha a smeared envelope with 'Prabha didi* printed in bold, childish letters.
Inside was a drawing in bright crayon hues-a yellow beach, a blue sea, a white and brown bird. Underneath was carefully written in a childish scrawl.
May the kohassa bring you joy
Tears welled up in Prabha's eyes, and a heart that had almost forgotten how to love opened wide. She took Nutan's mother in her arms. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," she muttered over and over, and they wept together.
The precious little picture is framed now and hangs in Prabha's study. Six words-one for each year of her life-that speak to her of inner harmony, courage and undemanding love. A gift from a child with sparkling eyes who taught her the gift of love.
A Boy's Love for a Sparrow
High above the earth on its giant lattic towers, the power line strode across the flat and unchanging countryside until it dis¬appeared. One of the great pylons was near his father's hut in a square patch fenced off with barbed wire. Warning plates in red paint said in two languages. 'Danger!* And there was a huge figure of volts, thousands of volts. Hira Lai was eleven and he knew volts were electricity and the line took power far across the country.
Hira Lai filled the empty spaces in his life by imagining things and the power line took his thoughts away into a magical distance, far off among tall buildings and bustling towns. That was where the world opened up. Hira lal loved the power line dearly. It made a door through the distance for his thoughts.
On clear evenings when the sparrows gathered he would see the wires like necklaces of glass beads. He loved to hear the birds making excited twittering sounds; he loved to see how they fell off the aluminium wire into, space. The birds could fly anywhere they wanted and they opened another door for him. He liked them too, very much.
He watched the sparrows one morning taking off and occasion¬ally coming back on the power lines. One of the sparrows got entrapped, however, hanging there flapping its wings. Hira Lal saw it was caught by its leg. He wondered how it could have got caught, may be in the wire binding or at a joint. He wanted to rush and tell his mother, but she would scold him for being late for school. So he climbed on his bicycle and rode off to school.
Coming back from school he felt anxious but did not look up until he was quite near. The sparrow was still there, its wings spread but not moving. It was dead, he guessed. Then he saw it flutter and fold its wings. He felt awful to think it had hung there all day.
The boy went in and called his mother and they stood below the power line and looked at the bird. The mother shaded her eyes with her hand. It is a pity, she said, but she was sure it would free itself somehow.
"Couldn't " he began.
"Couldn't nothing," she said quite firmly in the way he knew she meant business.
His father came home in the evening. Hira Lai followed him and soon got round to the sparrow.
"I know", his father said. "Your mother told me."
"It's still there."
"Well," his father said and looked at him hard with his sharp black eyes. "Well, we can't do anything about it, can we?"
"No father, but....."
He kicked at a stone and said nothing more. He could see his father was kind of stiff about it: that meant he did not want to hear any more.
At dinner none of them talked about the sparrow but Hira Lai felt as if it were hanging above their heads. Going to bed his mother said he must not worry about the bird.
"God will look after it."
"It's going to hang there all night by its foot," he said. His mother sighed and put out the light.
The next day was Sunday and he did not have to go to school. First thing, he looked out and the bird was still there. He would rather have been at school instead of knowing all day that it was hanging up there on the cruel wire.
The morning was very long though he did forget about the sparrow quite often. He was building a mud house under a tree and he had to carry water and dig up the earth and mix it into a stiff clay.
When he was coming in at midday he had one more look and what he saw kept him standing there a long time with his mouth open. Other sparrows were hovering around the trapped bird, trying to help it. He rushed inside and dragged his mother out and she stood shading her eyes again.
"Yes, they're trying to help the entangled bird. Isn't that strange?" she said.
In the afternoon Hira Lai lay in the grass and felt choked thinking how they helped it and nobody else would do anything. His parents would not even talk about it. With his keen eyes he traced the way a climber could get up the tower. But if you did get up, what then? How could you touch the sparrow? Just putting your hand near the wire, wouldn't those thousands of volts jump at you?
The only thing was to get somebody to turn off the power for a minute, then he could climb the tower like a monkey. At dinner that night he suggested it and his father was as grim and angry as he'd ever seen.
"Listen son," his father said. "I don't want you to get all worked up about that bird. You leave it alone".
Turning to his mother for support he said: "It's only the other birds that's keeping him alive. They were all trying to help today".
"Yes, I know. I saw them," replied his mother.
"He can't live much longer, ma. Why can't father get them to switch off the electricity?"
"They wouldn't do it for a bird, son".
Leaving for school the next morning, Hira Lai tried not to look up. But he couldn't help it and there was the sparrow spreading and closing its wings. He got on his bicycle and rode as fast as he could. He could not think of anything but the trapped bird on the power line.
After school, Hira Lai drove his bicycle to the nearest transmission station near his village, a good 5 kilometers away. When he got there he was faced with an enormous high fence of iron staves with spike tops and a tall locked steel gate. Hira Lai peered through the gate and saw some men off duty sitting in the sun playing cards. He called to them and a thin man in white shirt came over. Hira Lai explained what he wanted. If they would switch off the current then he could go up and save the sparrow.
The man smiled broadly and clicked his tongue. His name, he said was Ram Bharose. He was just a maintenance man and he couldn't switch off the current. But he unlocked the gate and let Hira Lai in. "Ask. them in there," he said, grinning.
Inside a junior engineer led Hira Lai to a room where a balding man with glasses was sitting at a desk. Hira Lai did not say five words before his lips began trembling and two tears rolled out of his eyes.
The man said: "Sit down, son, an(J don't be frightened".
Then the man tried to explain. Hbw could they cut off the power? The factories would stop, hospitals would go dark in the middle of an operation. Hira Lai was concerned about the sparrow but things like that just happened and that was life.
'Life?' Hira Lai said thinking. 'It was more like death.'
The balding man smiled. He took down Hira Lai's name and address and he said, "you've done your best, Hira Lai. I'm sorry I can't promise you anything."
Hira Lai got home hours later and his mother was frantic. He lied to her saying he had been detained after school. He did not have the stomach to look for the sparrow. He felt so bad about it because they were all letting it die. And that was life, the man said.
It must have been the middle of the night when he woke up. His mother was next to him and the light was on. "There's a man come to see you," she said.
He went out and saw his father and the back of a man in white shirt. It was Ram Bharose!
"Ram Bharoseji" he shouted. "Are they going to do it?"
"They're doing it," Ram Bharose said.
A linesman and a truck driver came up. The linesman explained to Hira Lai's father that a maintenance switch-down had been ordered at minimum load hour. He wanted to be shown where the bird was. Hira Lai glanced, frightened, at his father who nodded and said, "Show him".
Hira Lai went in the truck with the man and the driver and Ram Bharose. It took them only five minutes to get the truck in position under the tower and run up the extension ladder. Ram Bharose hooked a chain in his belt and switched on his flash-light. He swung out on the ladder and began running up it as if he had no weight at all. Up level with the pylon insulators, his flashlight picked out the sparrow hanging on the dead wire. He leaned over and carefully worked the bird's tiny claw loose from the wire binding and then he put the sparrow in the breast pocket of his shirt.
In a minute he was down and he took the bird out and handed it to the boy. Hira Lai was almost speechless holding the sparrow and feeling its slight quiver. In the light of the flashlight he could see its pale brown throat, and that rneant it was a young bird.
"Thanks," he said. "Thanks, Ram Bharoseji. Thanks Ram Bharoseji".
Hira Lai held the sparrow in his cupped hands and it lay there quietly with the tips of its wings crossed. Suddenly it took two little jumps and spread its slender wings. Frantically its wings beat the air and it seemed to be dropping to the ground. Then it skimmed forward just above the grass and Hira Lai remembered long afterwards how, when it really took wing and gained height, that it gave a little shiver of happiness.
Hira Lal -The Joker
Manoj Yadav’s life changed forever the day he first saw Hira Lal. Manoj had never been to a circus until that momentous afternoon in 1964, and suddenly there he was: this big, strapping clown right smack in front of his seat.
He seemed enormous, over 180 centimeters tall. Working with a tiny, bug eyed dog he’d dressed up to look like a miniature elephant. What caught Manoj’s eye, though was his big smile wide as a puddle. He wore a red, rubber ball nose, and perched atop his pointy cone head was a tiny felt hat.
Watching Hira Lal perform that afternoon was a revelation for 16 years old Manoj. This was the funniest person Manoj had ever seen and he knew that very moment that he wanted to be a clown.
Over the next 20 years he came to know the real Hira Lal – the man behind the funny face. He became his mentor in the circus company which Manoj joined within a week of that momentous afternoon.
Along the way, he showed Manoj and others how to find success by doing what they found most fun, so that their delight would be everyone else’s. Laughter, he made clear, is a lesson anyone can learn.
Hira Lal was born in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, in 1927. He was named Hira by his parents, a vaudeville song and dance team, but he later added Lal as his surname. He liked to say he was “born with a funny bone” and kept it in peak condition by having a lot of fun in life. He made his debut in a local show as the hind quarters of an alligator to his older brother’s forefeet and jaws. Twisted into the alligator’s tail end, Hira Lal discovered he was natural contortionist and comedian.
“I was always a clown in school, and I could see that my friends with troubles felt better after they had a good laugh,” Hira Lal recalled one day. “And I felt good when I made them laugh.”
Hira Lal joined his parents in their song-and-dance team at the early age of ten but soon got tired of singing. While performing at the nauchandi fair at Meerut he came in contact with the owner of a clown shoe who took an immediate liking to him. One time, the clowns had him put on a bald wig and walk into a ‘hair growing machine’—a box big enough to hold Hira Lal. Inside, he quickly donned a curly wig and waited to feel the tap of a cricket bat on top of the box. But he clown with the bat accidentally knocked Hira Lal out. Typically though, when Hira Lal became conscious, he clowned as though it was part of the act. The audience went wild. The owner hired him full-time and transferred him to his circus company.
Hira Lal married Chitra, a girl from his hometown, Kanpur, and their two daughters also became circus performers.
In the circus, Hira Lal created one of the most famous clown gags ever—the midget car. At 0.6 by 0.9 metres, his car was a little larger than an office wastepaper basket. But it was a real, working red-and-white coupe and drove into the centre ring before one small door swung open. And then—Surprise!—a huge clown shoe, 50 centimetres long, tentatively poked out and waved in goofy greeting. Slowly, the whole clown unfolded from the car.
How did he squeeze himself in the car? Hira Lal’s secret was that he could twist, bend and otherwise control his body into the tiniest person imaginable.
No sooner was Hira Lal out of the car than the radiator would spout water like a geyser. At first he’d raise a tiny 3.5 metre-high umbrella. When this didn’t help, he’d sit on the radiator. Thanks to a tube running up the back of his costume, the geyser would seem to spout out water from the top of his skull.
“When you’re a clown,” he said one day to Manoj, “you can’t just go out there with the idea you’ll be funny. You have to put your own self into whatever you’re supposed to be doing. It’s got to come from inside you. You have to be you, not just imitating.”
Hira Lal always had a soft spot in his heart for children. He saw the transforming power of humour and comical surprise as a medicine that could work wonders. One day in 1948, 23 children who were refugee orphans from Pakistan watched Hira Lal walk about the ring with a bird cage containing an oversized old shoe that sang like a canary. Ridiculous? Sure, but an adult who accompanied said afterwards, “Those little children haven’t known much happiness in their lives. They were so surprised by that ridiculous bird cage laugh they had to laugh”.
One of Hira Lal’s most celebrated acts was his rabbit-hunting routine. In this act, Hira Lal teamed with Raju, his feisty little dog. First would come Hira Lal wearing a hunting jacket. Armed with an ancient gun, he silently stalked his prey. Right behind Hira Lal came Raju in rabbit ears, stalking the stalker. Suddenly the mighty hunter, sensing something amiss, spun around and, spotting the bogus bunney, pulled the trigger. On cue, Raju fell limp as a rag. After Hira Lal dropped him into his jacket pocket, Raju squirted out of a hole in the bottom and started stalking Hira Lal again.
Finally, Hira Lal realized something wasn’t quite right and, pulling off Raju’s cloth-ears, discovered he’d been duped by his very own pet. Horrified that he’d been trying to shoot his best friend, Hira Lal stood there, knees shaking. Then he sank down praying for forgiveness-during which time, Raju stole his hunting cap.
Always, the crowd erupted in delightful laughter.
In the late 1970, when he was sixty, he did some of his classic routines in a late afternoon show. When he disappeared behind the curtain after his act, Manoj and his friends tried to equal the cheering of the spectators. When Hira Lal didn’t return for the bow, Manoj went backstage followed by the ringmaster.
“Hira Lalji,” he said, “you’ve got to go back out there. They are going on shouting, ‘Hira Lal!’! ‘Hira Lal!’! ‘Hira Lal!’
Very slowly Hira Lal looked up with a twinkle in his merry black eyes” “They’re shouting Hira Lal?” he asked, cocking his head in extravagant gesture of surprise. “I thought they were shouting Boo!” He returned to take the bow.
Hira Lal died in his sleep on September 18, 1994, aged 67. Amongst the various messages of condolence was a letter from a anonymous fan titled ‘Clown Prayer’ which described Hira Lal so well:
As I stumble through this life, help me to create more laughter than tears. Never let me become so indifferent that I fail to see the wonder in the eyes of a child. Never let me forget that my total effort is to cheer people, make them forget atleast momentarily, the unpleasantness in their lives. And in my final moment, may I hear you whisper: ‘When you made my people smile, you made Me smile.’
“Hira Lal not only made people laugh, he taught everybody a valuable lesson” said Manoj on his death. “His lesson was: there’s nothing more important than a sense of humour.”
The Day Rahul Spoke
As they drove to see their Seventy four year old paralytic grandmother, nani(1) in Meerut, Gauri looked around at her brother Rahul, sitting quietly next to the window in the back seat. How would this affect him? Probably not at all. He would never understand.
Rahul, Gauri’s younger brother by two years, had been brain-damaged from birth. He did not speak, could not hear and saw poorly through his eyes. He stopped growing when he was 1.60 meters and struggled against obesity. A wall of autism shut him away from the outside world. He spent most of his time lost in his own musings, nodding, laughing, clucking and crying at pageants only he could see.
Growing up, Gauri and her elder sister played games, made friends, and went out to movies and parties. Rahul stayed at home, entertaining himself on a rocking chair, staring at television or playing with empty glass bottles—his lifelong fascination.
During his teens, Rahul struggled with the emotional overload of adolescence. Seized by fits of anger, he would burst into uncontrollable tears. Or rake his fingernails down his face until his cheeks bled. He passed through several distinct phases, each marked by a peculiar ritual.
First there was ground-kissing. Ever so often for no apparent reason, he would stop in misstep drop to his knees and give the floor a long, passionate kiss. Wiping the dirt from his lips, he would cal my stand up and, with an air of accomplishment, continue on his way.
Ground-kissing gave way to spinning in place. From a sitting position, Rahul would suddenly stand up, twirl around as if he were unwinding himself from an invisible string and then, satisfied, take his seat. He whirled three times—never more, never less.
For years, the family reaction to Rahul’s behavior was embarrassment, anger and resentment. Although his parents were more understanding, the two sisters felt he waved his most humiliating stunts when they were in public.
As Gauri got older, however, she began to understand that he had no control over his actins, that she could not judge him as she judged others. He wasn’t trying to be difficult or strange. He was simply lost, never to be found.
As she drove, other memories floated through her mind: memories of nani, arms like sticks. Nani’s thin, shaking fingers carefully unwrapping packets to avoid tearing the paper, which she folded neatly by her side. And, of course, talking—so much so that others could hardly speak.
While nani could not listen and Rahul could not talk, they understood each other perfectly. She played and smiled with him and, more important, accepted him just as he was. She never showed disappointment that he was not normal, but rather regarded him with fascination, patience and warmth.
As Gauri and Rahul arrived at nani’s home and stepped into her room, she saw that the strokes had left nani trembling and unresponsive. The hollow, gaping mask that stared up from her pillow was the face of a wised up stranger. He mouth hung open. He wide misty eyes, blinked and stared, but appeared not to see.
Gauri and Rahul’s mama(2) with whom nani lived, stood around the bed, smiling understandingly, mumbling everything would be all right. Stripped of her verbal arm our, nani seemed exposed and as Gauri realized with sadness, vulnerable.
“We love you, nani,” Gauri said finally, wondering if she was reaching her. Her words hung in the air, sounding distant and insincere.
Rahul was standing quietly next to the window, this face red, tears streaming from his eyes. Just then, he moved forward and reached the bed. He leaned over nani’s withered figure and took her cheeks gently in his hands. Head bowed, he stood there for an eternity, cradling her face and soaking her saree with his tears. In this silence, volumes were being spoken in that wonderful wordless exchange.
Gauri felt a rush of warmth deep inside her. It surged upwards like an inexorable flood, filling her eyes until the room melted in a wash of colours and liquid shapes. As the pictures blurred, her perception snapped into brilliant focus. For better than her, he knew the true meaning of the visit. He knew it perfectly because he grasped it not with his head but with his heart. Like a child unrestrained by propriety or ego, he had the freedom, courage and honesty to reach out in pain to his nani. This was love, simple and pure.
Gauri realized that Rahul’s condition, for all the grief it brought, was in one sense a remarkable and precious gift. For among the many things Rahul was born without, was the capacity for insincerity. He could not show what he did not feel, nor could he suppress urgent emotion. As she stood next to him, consumed by his expression of unselfish love, Gauri stopped wondering why Rahul could not be more like her. At that moment, she wanted to be more like him.
As Rahul and Gauri were leaving in the evening to drive back to Delhi, Gauri said “Bye, nani.” As she turned to look at her one last time, she noticed nani’s lips come together, as if she was trying to speak. Somehow, only for an instant, she mustered the strength to say good-bye. That’s when Gauri knew Rahul had reached her.
That evening by nani’s deathbed, when none knew what to say, Rahul had said it all.
Everything is Bliss
Exactly when the ball, or the 'social' as it was called began, Vinita would have found it hard to say. Perhaps it began when she started dressing up. Her white frock with a beautiful embroidered hem, so different from the dreary school uniform which she had to wear all the time as a boarder in her school up in the hills near Shimla, was bothering her. Was the frock too short? Did it show too much of her knees? And oh! the powder on her face. Shh..., it was too much.
It was early October and the annual day, 'founders day' as it was called, of her co-educational school, the Lawrence school, Sanawar. All the boys and girls above the age of fourteen could attend the 'social'. She had just crossed fourteen and it was the biggest event of her life. For the past two months, all her friends were discussing nothing but the 'social'. What would they wear? How could they get a perfume? What if Amit, the sweet boy with curly hair, who always blushed when she looked at him, ignored her in the 'social'. It was all so different and so exciting.
Yes, of course she had her wonderful parents. He a Colonel in the Army and she a beautiful woman. They came every founders day to be with their darling daughter. They were such rapturous persons. She had to be at her best, look her best and behave her best. No, she could'nt be shy or withdrawn. Her father would laugh.
But, of course, there was no time. They were at the dance hall already. Dancing had not begun yet, but the band had stopped tuning, and the noise was so great that it seemed when it did begin to play, it would never be heard. She clutched her handkerchief, and gazing at the gleaming, wooden floor, the rhododendrons, the lights, the stage at one end with its gilt chairs and the band in a corner, she thought breathlessly 'How heavenly; how simply heavenly.'
All the girls stood grouped together at one side of the hall, the boys at the other, and the chaperones on dark dresses, smiling rather foolishly, walked with little careful steps over the polished floor towards the stage. She saw her father, tall and slim, looking smashing as ever, talking and laughing to a Brigadier colleague, while her mother stood alone in a resplendent white saree.
Familiar faces smiled at Vinita—sweetly, vaguely. Familiar voices answered "Of course, my dear" But Vinita felt the girls didn't really see her. They were looking towards the boys. Why didn't the boys begin? What were they waiting for? then, quite suddenly as if they had only just made up their minds, the boys came gliding over the parquet. There was joyful flutter among the girls. A tall, fair boy flew up to Asha, "May I have the pleasure?"
The men and the women on the stage, most of them stepped on the wooden floor and began gliding with the music. As she stood watching, an old fat-man, with a big bald patch on his head— came to her and murmured. "Do 1 remember this bright little face?" Is it known to me of yore?" At that moment the band began playing; the fat man disappeared. He was tossed away on a great wave of music that broke the groups into couples, scattering them, sending them dancing....
Vinita had learned to dance at her boarding school. Every Saturday afternoon, she along with the other girls were hurried off to a little hall where Miss Kemp held her classes. But the difference between that dusty smelling hall with a cold piano, Miss Kemp poking the girls' feet with her long white wand—and this was so tremendous that Vinita was sure if her partner didn't come, and she had to listen only to the music and to watch the others, she would die, or faint.
"Ours, I think—." Some one bowed, smiled, and offered her his arm; she hadn't to die after all. Some one's hand pressed her waist, and she floated away like a flower that is tossed into a pool.
"Quite a good floor, isn't it?" drawled a faint voice close to her ear.
"1 think it's most beautifully slippery," said Vinita.
"Pardon!" The faint voice sounded surprised. Vinita said it again. And there was a tiny pause before the voice echoed, "Oh, quite!" and she was swung around again.
He steered her so beautifully. That was the great difference between dancing with girls and men, Vinita decided. Girls banged into each other and stamped on each other's feet; the girl who was a gentleman always clutched you.
"Have you been to a dance before?" the voice came again. He was young and tall. Not a boy of the school.
"No, this is my first dance," she said.
Her partner gave a little gasping laugh. "Oh, I see," he protested.
"Yes, it is really the first dance I've ever been to" Vinita was most fervent. It was such a relief to be able to tell somebody.
At that moment the music stopped, and they went to sit on two chairs against the wall. Vinita tucked her feet under the chair and blissfully watched the other couples passing and talking to each other.
"Enjoying yourself, Vinita?" asked Nita, nodding her head.
"Yes, thoroughly", replied Vinita happily.
Ashish passed and gave her the faintest little wink; it made Vinita wonder for a moment whether she was quite grown up after all.
"Care for a lemonade?" said her partner. And they went through the door, down the passage, to the supper room. Her cheeks burned, she was fearfully thirsty; and when they came back to the hall, there was the fat man waiting for her by the door. It gave her quite a shock again to see how old he was; he ought to have been on the stage with the fathers and mothers. And when Vinita compared him with her partner, he looked shabby. His coat was creased; it looked as if it was dusty with chalk.
"Come along, little lady," said the fat man. He scarcely troubled to clasp her, and they moved away so gently; it was more like walking than dancing. "Your first dance, isn't it?" he murmured.
"How did you know?"
"Ah," said the fat man, "that's what it is to be old!" He wheezed faintly as he steered her past an awkward couple. "You, see, I've been doing this kind of thing for the last thirty years!"
"Thirty years?" cried Vinita. Sixteen years before she was born!
"It hardly bears thinking about, does it?" said the fat man gloomily. Vinita looked at his bald head, and she felt quite sorry for him.
"I think it's marvellous to be still going on," she said kindly.
"Of course," he said. "You can't hope that anything like this will last forever, Long before that you'll be sitting up there on the stage, looking on, in a nice coloured saree. And these pretty arms will have turned into little short fat ones." The fat man seemed to shudder. "And you'll smile away like the poor old persons up there, and point to your daughter, and tell the elderly lady next to you how marriage proposals are already coming for her. And your heart will ache," the fat man squeezed her closer, as if he really was sorry for that poor heart—. "And you'll say how unpleasant these polished floors are to walk on, how dangerous they are. Eh, little girl?" said the fat man softly.
Vinita gave a light little laugh, but she did not feel like laughing. Was it—could it all be true? It sounded terribly true. Was this first ball only the beginning of her last ball after all? At that moment the music seemed to change; it sounded sad, sad; it rose upon a great sigh. Oh, how quickly things changed! Why didn't happiness last forever?
"I want to stop," she said in a breathless voice. The fat man led her to a chair.
"No," she said, "I won't sit down. I'll just stand here. Thank you." She leaned against the wall, tapping with her foot, and trying to smile. But deep inside her, a little girl was sad and sobbing. Why had he spoiled it all?
"I say, you know," said the fat man, "you mustn't take me seriously, little girl."
"As if I should!" murmured Vinita, tossing her small dark head and sucking her underlip. She did'nt want to dance anymore.
But presently a soft, melting, ravishing tune began, and Amit bowed before her. Her heart gave a skip. Blood flowed freely to her face. She looked up at the stage to see if her parents were looking. What if they see her walking to the dance floor with her 'heart-throb.' No, thank God, they were not at the stage. She did not want her blush to give everything away.
Very stiffly she walked into the middle; very haughtily she put her hands on his shoulders. But in one minute, in one turn, her feet began gliding. The lights, the rhodendrons, the dresses, the faces, the chairs all became one beautiful flying wheel.
Pressing her closely to his waist he whispered in her ear, "You dance beautifully, Vinita."
"Everything is bliss," she replied radiantly.
And when Amit bumped her into the fat man and said, "Pardon," she smiled at him more radiantly than ever. She didn't even recognize him.