“Rani.” It was her mother.
“Rani! Oh there you are. Why didn’t you answer?”
Rajani shook her head.
Nisha looked at her. Rajani looked uncharacteristically quiet. “What happened?”
There was no answer.
“Go and wash up. Then lay the table.”
Rajani disappeared. Nisha stared.
“Here take these plates.”
Rajani silently took the plates.
Nisha felt worried. “What are you thinking?”
Rajani peered at the plates in her hand. “I was thinking who helped Bhai to ride his cycle? It doesn’t have any trainer wheels.”
“Oh that.” Nisha laughed relieved. She had been dreading, wondering if it was something more serious. “Your Papa of course. You know, everyday, no matter how late he was, he would insist on teaching Abhi to ride the bike.”
Nisha went back to her simmering pots and pans. She turned around to find Rajani still standing there staring at the plates in her hand. “What happened? Didn’t I tell you to lay the table?”
Rajani looked up at her mother. Nisha was taken aback to see her eyes swimming with tears. “Then why can’t Papa teach me to ride the bike?” her lower lips trembled. “Why does he think it would be a waste of time to teach me?”
“Arre nahi nahi Rani, I am sure he doesn’t think that…”
“He does think. He said so.” A tear rolled down her cheek. She sniffed and walked away with the plates.
Diwali was of course a grand affair – all the people joined together to burst crackers. That was followed by dance, music, games and a dinner organized by the ladies of the community. It was great fun – the children especially looked forward to it. Rajani did too – she came first in the drawing competition. Everyone congratulated her and praised her – she was very gratified of course. But what gave her most pleasure was the glint of envy she saw in Shikha’s eyes. Plus Shikha didn’t win any prize. Poor Shikha, she thought as she clutched her prize. But then she decided to share her prize with Shikha – after all it was no fun playing the Monopoly all by herself.
During all this Rajani had not given up her dream of riding the bike. No matter how busy she was, or how tired she was, she made sure to hold up the bike – she was up to 35, 50 if she counted very fast. Besides, Bhai hadn’t really specified the speed of counting.
On Bhai Dooj, Rajani had her way – she asked her brother for the gift of ‘teach me to ride the bike’. Rajani stared at her brother and held her breath, quite sure he would refuse, worse, fly off the handle, like he did so very often these days without any apparent rhyme or reason. But the school holidays (and wonder of wonders, even coaching classes were closed in deference to Diwali – they would have to pay the price later of course with extra classes) had mellowed Abhi, besides he was amused and touched at her diligent practice. Privately he thought it wouldn’t be possible for her to learn to ride the bike, but considerately held his tongue. (Pssst his exemplary behavior was also brought on by the fact that the girl whom he was sweet on was sitting outside on the porch – from even so far he could imagine the gratifying tender glances she would send his way for his kindness to his little sister).
He let her wheel out the cycle – and boy was she proud! This was easy, she could already see herself racing, wind gushing past her ears as she overtook Shikha – and before she knew it she had won the first prize, the drawing room shelf was filled with her trophies.
“Arre O Maharani,” Abhi called out impatiently, “enough of day dreaming, now. Come on hold the bike steady, how can you ride it if you can’t even hold it straight?”
“But Bhai, I am holding it,” she turned round to protest and then the penny dropped. Abhi was holding it up – her face fell. Abhi rolled his eyes. “Now don’t start crying huh? Not only strength, but also technique and skill are important in riding a bike. Actually, it’s all about balance. Now hold it straight, let it stand on its own, don’t push or pull, just hold it straight, straight, the handle Rani, look up Rani, yes come on that’s it. Now put one foot on the pedal, oho buddhu not that foot, the left foot yes, now push yourself up and balance yourself on the pedal, use the other foot for leverage. Hang on let me show you how, like this ok? Ok now try, yes come on you can do it, yes, hold the handle straight, don’t look down, look up see you can do it, now, put… hey, heyyeee…dhadam!
Suryakant and Nisha (several neighbors as well) came rushing out as both of them fell over with a crash and ear-piercing shrieks and yells. Rajani was sandwiched between the bike and Abhi. Thankfully, there were no major injuries but one couldn’t have known that from the ensuing racket. Pain ripped through Abhi – pain of knowing he looked like an undignified idiot and that Shweta was laughing her head off – serve her right if he had broken his bones, all his bones, he would get out of going to school, coaching classes and she would come wearing a dejected apologetic look and he – he would just stoically, manfully shoulder his pains, maybe she would help him to walk again, lend her shoulder –“aaaoowwwwww”
“Abhi, Abhi beta are you ok? Come on help him up. Come, come beta,” Nisha and Suryakant pulled up Abhi while Kirti reached out and held the little girl who was sobbing quietly. She had a deep gash in one arm. “Nisha,” she called urgently, “look Rajani seems to have hurt herself bad.”
“Oho, come beta come, let me see,” her mother hurried over to her and took her children away from the crowding concerned voices. Suryakant hung back to exchange polite formalities – he didn’t want to appear rude and ill mannered.
Nisha cleaned up the scratches and gashes – Rajani had more physical injuries than Abhi – but then Abhi’s pride was seriously bruised. With no Papa to moderate him – he went on a verbal rampage. Stupid, idiot, fool – whatever he felt he transferred to Rajani. Nisha thought it prudent to attend to him first and send him off to his room before tending to Rajani, “Oho Abhi now drop it. Enough is enough.” Nisha tried to calm him down. But her voice lacked the authority it usually did – possibly she was also distracted and concerned about the impending consequences to really focus on managing the current situation. “Don’t you dare hassle me about the cycle anymore. And don’t you dare touch it either.” He warned her viciously. He stormed out of the room as his mother shushed him and gave him a gentle push.
Rajani was overwhelmed by the rapid developments of the past few minutes – she couldn’t quite think straight. She stared at her wound with a morbid curiosity but tears clouded her vision. She blinked and squinted to see the gory gash, “Ohh Mamma…”
“Haan haab beta,” Nisha soothed, “it looks worse than it is. Don’t worry.” She consoled.
Rajani wasn’t quite sure if she was pleased with that – after all it was paining a lot and if she had to bear the pain, she better have something really bad to elicit some oohhs and aahs – what did Mamma mean looks worse than it is?
“Arent you going to put a bandage?” Rajani had visions of her going to school wearing a huge white bandage on her arm, the myriad curious looks and questions coming her way – even Ma’am would ask she would be the star, the center of attention.
“There is no need. In any case it will heal faster this way.”
Rajani’s face fell – now nobody would even notice, her brief chance at glory snatched away by her own mother.
“I want a bandage. It’s paining me.”
“Yes of course it is. But you should have thought of that before you went out with a bike that is twice your size and weight. Didn’t your father tell you not to ride it?”
Rajani froze. Papa – oh she had forgotten about him being at home. He was also here. What would he say? Why hadn’t he come in to enquire if she was ok? Was he that mad at her?
“Mamma,” Rajani began to cry again, “is Papa very angry with me?”
“Shouldn’t he be?” Nisha wore a closed stern expression as she gathered up the first aid material. “You shouldn’t have disobeyed him.”
“But Mamma, I wanted to learn how to ride the bike. That Shikha ki bachchi never gives me a turn. So what could I do but learn on this?”
“Now have you learnt? You are lucky you didn’t break something. And not only that suppose Abhi had been seriously hurt? What about his studies? He would have had to miss classes, fall behind the class. Did you even consider that?”
Nisha was now on a roll and quite unstoppable. “Look at the public spectacle you created – that too on a Sunday. Everyone in the colony must have seen. How embarrassing.” She shuddered. “God only knows what all people will say to your father. Grow up Rani. You are no longer a baby – have some shame, have some consideration. Running about like a shameless hoyden.”
Rajani sat with her head bowed. A lone tear rolled down her cheek.
I just wanted to ride the bike Mamma.
Much to Rajani’s relief, Suryakant didn’t say anything to her. He didn’t scold her. He didn’t comfort her. Rajani brooded over this. Finally she went up to him as he sat with his books in the drawing room.
“I am sorry Papa.” She had judged herself and found herself guilty.
Suryakant grunted without looking up.
“Sorry Papa. Please don’t be angry with me.”
Suryakant heaved a sigh. “I am not angry.” He finally looked at her. “But you shouldn’t have done it. I told you not to ride it didn’t I?”
Rajani nodded, again tearing up. “I am sorry,” she hiccupped.
“Ok ok, no no beta, don’t cry.” Suryakant was once again her beloved Papa as he patted and consoled her awkwardly.
“I promise I won’t ride the bike.” Rajani wiped her eyes and smiled at her father. “If Shikha let’s me ride her bike fine, otherwise I will just run alongside her. I can run faster than she can bike.” She said with a note of pride. “Sometimes.” She added remembering that now Shikha was quite adept at handling the bike. “Do you want some water Papa? Or tea? Shall I get it for you?”
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