“Bhai is coming Mamma.” Rajani reported in a little while. “Do you need any more help?”
“No thank you beta. This is very hot. I will take it to the table. You go and wash up. And then tell Papa to come for dinner.
“Yech! Kadi-chawal?” Abhi made a retching sound.
“You shouldn’t do like that beta,” Nisha reprimanded him gently. “It is food after all and many people like it. In fact love it. I think you must the only person I know who doesn’t like it.” Nisha shook her head. “Another one of those things designed to make things difficult for me I suppose.” She rued.
“But Mom, you know I don’t like kadi-chawal,” Abhi wheedled.
“Yes, yes of course, don’t worry I have made parathas for you but, you must have at least a little bit of the kadi-chawal, otherwise your father…”
“Oh you are the best Mom.” Abhi gave his mother a tight squeeze before disappearing for a quick wash up. Nisha gazed after him fondly – just that smile of delight was enough to make up for the extra time in the hot kitchen in front of the gas stove – the hug was an added unexpected bonus.
“What?” Nisha looked at Rajani who was standing at the corner looking at them.
“Nothing.” Rajani shook her head.
Nisha reached out and pinched her cheek. “Don’t worry, paratha for you too.”
“Thank you Mamma!” Nisha had her breath knocked out of her.
“Achcha achcha. Come on now sit down.”
There was silence as they all tucked in hungrily.
“Kadi-chawal is really tasty right Papa?” Suryakant nodded and smiled at Nisha who flushed with pleasure. “Please have some more.” She offered the bowl to him, “Or would you like a paratha?”
“Well maybe a paratha.”
“See Mamma, Papa also likes both kadi-chawal and paratha, just like me.” Rajani bore the similarity like a badge of honor.
Abhi glared at her and kicked at her under the table – even though she couldn’t hear what he said, she knew it – Papa ki chamchi
“Mamma…” Rajani subsided under Nisha’s fierce glare.
“So what’s the news for today?” Suryakant questioned as he waited for the children to finish their meals.
Dinner was a formal affair at the Ahujas. Not in the sense of a dress code or table etiquette. But that there was no TV – instead this was the time when Suryakant bonded with his family. He took an update of the day’s events from his children (barring academics – experience (and Nisha) had convinced him to postpone that altercation err discussion to after dinner – before dessert). In addition, Suryakant made dinnertime into a sort of a general knowledge class – discussing events and happenings from around the world. The children were encouraged to read the newspaper and share interesting tidbits. This was his way of getting them into the habit of reading the paper. The advent of KBC had been a big boon – Suryakant was gratified and pleased to see some sensible program running on the idiot box. On the other hand, the children were pleasantly surprised to find that something so dull and drab as GK could actually be interesting.
Abhi straightened, “Umm, apparently 12 Royal Bengal tigers have died at the Nandankanan zoo at Orissa.”
“Haww,” Rajani was horrified, “Why? How?”
“Yes,” Suryakant sighed, “It’s very sad and there are so few tigers left in the country.” He looked at his son. “How many? Did you read?”
“5000?” Abhi hazarded a wild guess. He hadn’t really read the article but one of his friends a diehard animal lover had been moaning about it in the school bus and Abhi had just filed it away for a situation like this – damn Rajat had quoted some number – what was it? “No, 4000.”
Suryakant nodded approvingly and Nisha smiled happily – mera beta, “Here have another paratha.”
“Papa, you know Shikha’s cousin is coming from USA next Saturday and he will be bringing the latest Harry Potter book for her.” Rajani shivered with excitement. “You know it is 640 pages long. I can’t wait to read it, but I will have to wait for Shikha to first read it and then borrow it from her. And Shikha is such a slow reader.” She shot her father a glance. “Papa,” she began in a pleading tone but was frowned down by her mother, who could read her daughter’s expression very well.
“Let me see if the mangoes are cold enough to eat.” Nisha got up giving another look at Rajani. She subsided.
Abhi looked up. “Mangoes?”
“They are for me.” Rajani staked her claim. “Papa got them for me.” She stuck out her tongue at Abhi.
“Mom?” Abhi questioned his mother.
“Rani.” Nisha was back with the washed mangoes and a knife. “It’s for everybody. Not only you but everybody likes mangoes, isn’t it? Whatever we have we must share it. Right?”
Rajani nodded her head solemnly. She looked at Abhi with eyes that were glittering with mischief. “I know Mamma, I was just teasing Bhai.” She clapped her hands delighted that she had managed to fool her brother.
“I knew that,” Abhi immediately shot back, “I was also teasing you.”
“You were not! You really thought I was going to eat the mangoes all by myself.”
“I did not. Besides I know Mom would have never let you eat all of them yourself.”
“I know because you are Mamma’s boy,” mocked Rajani. She shrugged. “I don’t mind. I am Papa’s girl. Right Papa?”
“Hmm.” Suryakant got up with a grunt. “Whoever studies hard is my child. Abhi finish your food and come there,” he nodded towards the living room, “I wish to speak with you.”
Abhi’s eyes widened and it was perhaps just as well that he had finished his meal.
“Yes Papa,” he asked while Rajani eyed them curiously as she helped her mother clear up the table.
“Abhi, I had a chat with your tutors.” He shook his head. “I am afraid I am not happy with your progress and more importantly your focus. If you don’t start focusing from right now, you wont be able to crack those entrance exams. Do you know what is the level of competition? Unimaginable, simply unimaginable.” He paused, “And I cannot afford to send you to a private medical college, so you have no choice but to ace the entrance exams, understand?”
“Yes Papa,” Abhi said.
“Hmm. Your school is reopening from the 3rd of July is it?”
“Hmm. From the 1st you will join Aakash medical entrance tutorials. You have about 10 days to be mentally ready for their grueling pace.”
Abhi’s mouth fell open. “Aakash coaching classes? B…but how will I manage – school, home tutors, Aakash coaching, there aren’t enough hours in a day.”
“I am well aware of that young man, do you take me for a fool? I am getting rid of the tutors, except the Physics teacher. He will come twice a week only.” Suryakant looked sternly at Abhi, “I have paid a lot of money for these coaching classes, you better tighten up your belt and get down to some serious studying.” He softened his voice. “It is just a matter of two years and then once you are into medical college, trust me, you wont have to worry about a thing. You can enjoy life as much as you want later. But for now, study. Okay?”
Two whole years – the iron-gate slid across with a menacing finality. Abhi nodded from behind the bars. “Yes Papa.”
“Good.” Suryakant picked up his file, “Oh by the way, no need to communicate any of this to your tutors. When the time is right, I will do the needful. You focus on your studies.”
“Yes Papa.” Abhi walked into his room and sat on his bed.
“Kya hua Bhai?” Rajani stared at him concernedly.
“You look funny.” She insisted.
Abhi batted her away like a pesky fly. “Go away.”
Rajani stared at him some more. She went to the other room where she slept with her parents on a separate cot.
“Where have you been Rani? I have been calling you for so long. Come let me brush and braid your hair before you go to bed.”
Rajani sat on the stool. “Mamma, what’s wrong with Bhai?”
“What’s wrong? Nothing.”
“No something is wrong. Papa didn’t even scold him. But even then he is very upset.”
“Never mind. Once I finish doing your hair, brush your teeth and go to sleep. It’s past your bedtime. I will go and talk to him.”
“Mamma do you have to study a lot to become a doctor?”
“Yes. Lots and lots.”
“I like studying. I think I will become a doctor.” Rajani dropped that topic and went on to more important matters. “Mamma, Ritu was saying there is a book shop near their house where you can place an order for the new Harry Potter book.”
Nisha looked at Rajani. “How much does it cost?” she asked with foreboding.
Rajani looked down guiltily at her nails. “I think one thousand rupees.” She said in hushed tones.
“Hey Bhagwan! One thousand rupees for a book! What a waste of hard earned money.” Nisha was scandalized. “No Rajani, I don’t think we can afford it. You heard your father just now didn’t you? The fees for the coaching classes are very high. And it is your birthday next month. School fees are also due in July. No, no, we cannot afford it.” Nisha walked away giving Rajani no scope for any further argument.
Rajani dug out a battered pink pouch hidden amongst her clothes and toys in the bottom drawer and emptied the contents on the bed. Fifty-seven rupees and seventy-five paise only, she counted – twice. She sighed and put the money back carefully. This was expected after all, just a few days ago was Shikha’s birthday and in May it was Bhai’s birthday. Even though Nisha had bought Shikha’s present, Rajani had insisted upon buying a card with her own money just as she had for Abhi. But even if she still had the money she had spent on Bhai’s card and gift (a Parker pen), there still wouldn’t have been enough money for the Harry Potter book.
It was hot. Rajani was burning up. She was trapped inside the crystal goblet. The goblet was on fire. She was struggling to escape but couldn’t. She could see Harry in the distance – Harry Harry she screamed. Yes Rani I am coming hang on just hang on. But just then a dementor came chasing Harry – No! No! No!
“Rani Rani, wake up Rani.” Nisha shook her awake. “Why are you screaming? Were you dreaming? Come on get up. Let’s go to the other room. There’s no electricity. We can all sleep under the inverter fan in the living room.”
Rajani stumbled sleepily after her mother, still shuddering a bit – what if the dementors came again? What if they caught Harry? Would he be able to escape? What was the secret of the goblet of fire? What if Mamma had not woken her up – would Harry have saved her? Would he have helped her get admission into Hogwarts? Oh how lovely – she would meet Hagrid first. Though he was scary as were his petzzzzz…
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