Chapter 1 Party Time
“Hurry Mamma hurry,” urged Rajani as Nisha struggled to untangle the knots in her daughter’s hair. “Shikha will be so angry if I am late. You know I have to be the first to reach her birthday party. Mamma, did you know?” she turned around or rather attempted to turn around to face her mother.
Immediately her frazzled mother said, “Oho Rani, how on earth am I going to tie up your hair if you keep dancing about like this? Now stand still,” she admonished sternly, “otherwise you will be the last to reach the party.”
Suitably impressed, Rajani stood still though she kept up her chatter, “Do you know Mamma, Suri uncle has a new phone and this phone doesn’t need any wires and he can make phone calls from anywhere from that phone?” Rajani was all round-eyed and impressed with this phenomenon. “Yesterday, he called Aunty from the car to tell her that he would be late because that he was stuck in a traffic jam!”
“Oh seems like Suriji has bought a mobile phone.” Nisha shook her head at this new-fangled nonsense and their habit of showing off. “But they are very expensive. You have to pay not only to make phone calls but also to receive phone calls. Just imagine!”
“Mamma, Papa should also buy a such a phone. Then we wouldn’t have to worry when he gets late or is out late at night.”
“Rani dear I have told you many times that we aren’t as rich as your Suri uncle? They belong to a business family while your father is a salaried person. We can’t afford such luxuries.”
“Mamma do you know since it is Shikha’s 10th birthday she is having her birthday at a hotel? There are going to be rides and even a magic show,” forgetting her mother’s strictures, she turned around once again. She was effectively reminded by a sharp tug on her braid. “Ouch!”
“I told you not to fidget,” her mother said hard-heartedly. “Besides dear, you must have told me a million times already,” Nisha said in a long-suffering tone. “And since you are also expecting something similar for your birthday next month, let me be very clear, we cannot afford such wasteful expenditures.”
Nisha finished braiding Rajani’s hair. She put down the comb and turned her around to face her. She tipped her face up by the chin and looked seriously at her. “You do understand that your Papa is the only earning member of this house and he has to take care of four people – their food, their clothes, schooling, electricity,” she waved her hands, “everything right beta? You know how hard he works everyday, even on weekends?”
Wide-eyed, Rajani nodded her head.
“We should not waste his hard earned money on frivolous things like fancy birthday parties. We can of course have a small party at home for your friends but we cannot, rather we should not waste your father’s money on such things, don’t you agree?”
“Yes Mamma, I know,” Rajani raised her chubby little hands and waved them earnestly for emphasis, “I was just telling you about Shikha’s party,” she shook her head so vigorously that her thick plaits swung to and fro, “I don’t want a big party for my own.” Her eyes were round with concern, “Already Papa has to work extra hard for Bhai’s tuition fees hai na?”
“Good girl.” Nisha smiled and kissed her forehead. “Now go and enjoy the party, have fun but don’t get into any trouble. Don’t forget to take the gift,” she cautioned.
Rajani obediently picked up the gaily-colored box on the chair. She halted. “Actually Mamma,” Rajani wore an impish smile as she turned to face her mother, “there is no need to give a gift to Shikha. I will keep it for,” she tapped her cheek as Nisha looked at her with a surprised expression, “yes, for Ritu. It’s her birthday next month.”
“But why would you do such a thing?”
“Mamma, I had asked Shikha what she wanted for her birthday. She told me that as a birthday present I should call her ‘Didi’ for one whole month till I also turn 10 years old!” Rajani giggled into her hand, her eyes dancing merrily, “Silly Shikha, now I don’t need to give her any present!” She put the present down on the chair and gave one last admiring look at herself in the mirror, “Bye Mamma.”
“No Rani, wait,” horrified Nisha rushed after her with the gift, “give this to her, I bought it for her and you must give it to her,” she thrust the packet into Rajani’s hands.
“But Mamma, why waste money? After all we are poor…” Rajani began earnestly.
“Now Rani,” said Nisha in a warning tone, “don’t overdo things huh? We bought that gift for Shikha and you will give it her ok? Now go straight to her house, I am watching from the gate, be careful while crossing the over to the other side.”
“Yes Mamma.” Rajani quickly slipped on her pretty bowed pink shoes to match her dress and skipped across to Shikha’s house.
Rajani and Shikha were the best of friends since playschool. They lived opposite each other in a reasonably upscale locality of Chandigarh. Rajani’s father, Suryakant Ahuja, a senior chartered accountant in a multinational firm, had borrowed heavily to invest in the house, the only luxury they allowed themselves. He dabbled in the share market to supplement his income and keep the home fires burning. Lalit Suri, Shikha’s father, on the other hand was a successful businessman and liked to live a more flamboyant and flashy lifestyle. Besides, Shikha was their only child and they spared no expense in fulfilling her demands.
The Suris were fond of Rajani as well and often showered her with gifts and took her along on their jaunts about town, much to Nisha’s discomfort. Even though Nisha tried to compensate by sending over home-cooked delicious goodies, she was acutely aware of the differences in their status. She particularly worried about the impact it might have on Rajani – either she would set her sights too high or she would get a complex. Nisha would have liked the two girls to not be so close (especially now that Rajani was growing up) but Rajani and Shikha were quite inseparable. In fact, they were known as the Siamese twins in their school. The teachers too had indulgently allowed them to be in the same section, year after year, much to their delight and relief.
Rajani unlatched the gate and tripped inside. About to ring the bell, she halted. She carefully hid the gift behind a large flowerpot and then raised herself on tiptoe and rang the bell. She put her hands behind her back and stood still, mischief glittering in her eyes.
“Happy birthday Didi!” she sang out the moment the door opened.
Shikha, a little taller and slimmer than Rajani, burst out laughing. She clapped her hands and crowed. “Yes! Don’t forget you have to call me Didi even in school. No cheating,” she said warningly.
“Yes Didi.” Rajani nodded primly. “But then no gift either.” She continued to hold her hands at the back as if hiding something.
“Liar.” Shikha laughed confidently and pulled at her hand. Rajani willingly showed her empty hands. Despite valiant efforts, Shikha’s face fell ludicrously.
And that was enough to trigger one of Rajani’s attacks – one of her uncontrollable giggling fits. Flush with the success of her little trick and the image of Shikha’s open-mouthed horror, Rajani lolled about on the diwan clutching her stomach. Shikha jumped on her and pummeled her, “Mummy,” she wailed, “make her stop.”
Familiar with Rajani’s affliction, Kirti could only shake her head helplessly. There was absolutely no saying what could trigger one of these endless attacks of hers – and once activated, no force on earth could deactivate them – one could only wait for the attack to pass.
Finally, all was brought under control and order was restored. Rajani wiped her face and brought in the gift, albeit a bit dusty, and ceremoniously handed it over. “Happy birthday Shikha!”
Shikha grabbed it, “Thank you but outside school you have to call me Didi for one whole month, ok?”
“Not Didi, I will call you Dadi!” Rajani ran off laughing with Shikha hot on her trail.
“Oh these two girls!” rued Kirti, Shikha’s mother, “Stop it, you will fall…”
They both tripped and slipped on the shiny smooth floor, thankfully on the fluffy rug – triggering another attack.
“Uff!” All the Suris clapped a hand to their heads.
“Mummy, this Rajii is too much,” panted Shikha as she untangled herself from Rajani, “you know, yesterday, the teacher called me Shikhar instead of Shikha and bas Rajii started giggling. She giggled so much that she had to be sent out of class.”
Rajani sobered up and straightened. “Yes,” she said dolefully, “and she complained to Mamma also.”
“Aww poor baby,” Kirti hugged the woebegone girl, “imagine being punished for laughing. So not done.”
“Yes Mummy,” said Shikha loyally, “you know after sending Rajani out of the class, the teacher also started laughing.”
Mr Lalit Suri shook his head gravely, “All that is fine, but you better control yourself little bit, I can see you getting into trouble later in life because of it.” Inexplicably, he grinned. “Just imagine a grown up Rajani making a presentation at a board meeting – and somebody yawns.” He looked around them. “Pucca she is bound to go off into one of her giggling fits!”
They all laughed – except for Rajani. She looked very worried – no doubt about it, that’s what she would do!
“What will they do? Will they also make me stand outside?”
Mr Suri tweaked her button nose. “Worse,” he said in dire tones. She looked at him fearfully.
“They will deduct money from your salary,” he said in hushed tones.
“Haww.” Rajani clapped a hand to her mouth
“Hmm, so better learn to control those fits. Pity there is no antidote.” He paused, “or maybe you could find a way to bottle those giggling fits and sell it in the market, you’d be a millionaire very soon.” He looked at his watch, “Come on let’s go to the hotel – it’s party time.”
“Yayyy.” The girls rushed out hand in hand. The Suris followed at a more sedate pace. “The girls look so pretty. Let’s take a picture.” Kirti requested her husband. He smiled at her indulgently. “I know your penchant for snaps. Don’t worry, I have arranged for a photographer at the venue.”
“Rajii listen.” Shikha called urgently as they both got into the car.
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