“Rani, tell Shikha and her parents to come over for dinner to our place on the 26th of July. I will also invite them of course.”
“Oh! On my birthday Mamma?” Rajani’s eyes widened. “But you said no party for my birthday party because I chose the Harry Potter book. Didn’t you?”
“Yes my dear.” Nisha pinched her cheeks. “And you have been very good about it I must say. But I thought this was a nice way of inviting the Suris over. In any case, Shikha is bound to give you a present and besides you spend half your time at their place.” Nisha looked at Rajani reproachfully. “And eat your meals there as well. So embarrassing. People will think you don’t have a home of your own.”
Actually to tell the truth, Nisha in a covert way encouraged Rajani to go over to and spend as much as time as possible at Shikha’s place, especially when Abhi was home. She didn’t want Rajani to disturb Abhi.
“But what to do Mamma, Shikha insists and Aunty doesn’t listen. And it is not like we are always playing. Sometimes we also study.”
“I should hope so,” sniffed Nisha, “anyway don’t forget to convey my message. Achcha I am going to the market, do you want to come along?”
Rajani shook her head and skipped away. But then she came running. “I will come along with you. I can help you carry the packets. Right?”
“Yes dear.” Nisha rewarded her with a kiss on her nose for her thoughtfulness.
Rajani skipped along with her mother to the nearby market, chattering away all the while – shopping vegetables for my birthday? What are you making? My favorite dishes or Shikha’s? Oh, Shikha likes masala bhindi very much, especially the way you make it. She told me the other day.
“What is the price of bhindi?” Nisha asked a vegetable seller.
“40 rupees kilo.”
“40 rupees kilo! So expensive,” grumbling Nisha moved on.
“But Mamma, I also like masala bhindi,” Rajani nagged, “you never make what I like. Always you make…”
“Oho Rani, will you be quiet for some time at least?” Nisha purchased some things and moved on to another vendor, “Bhaiyya, how are you giving bhindi?
“40 rupees kilo.”
“40 rupees kilo? Why so expensive, coming from the Moon or what? That other vendor was giving for 30 rupees.”
“Mamma,” Rajani tugged her mother’s dupatta, “No, he was also giving for 40 rupees kilo.”
“No, he was giving for 30 rupees kilo,” Nisha glared at Rajani.
“Come let’s go,” Caught, Nisha dragged her away. “Uff Rani, you are too much. Didn’t I tell you to keep quiet?”
“Be quiet, otherwise I will never get you to the market with me ever again.”
Rajani subsided and tagged along silently ruminating to herself – but why did Mamma say that the other Bhaiyyaji was giving for 30 rupees. He also said 40 rupees. Mamma wouldn’t lie would she? No she must have misheard. Yes that must have been it. But then why did she not buy from him? There also she called it expensive. Try as she might, she couldn’t quite arrive at a satisfactory solution (not for many years at least).
There were just a few days left for Rajani’s birthday. She was in a fever of excitement and had begun crossing off the days on the calendar. So what if there was no grand party? It was still a special day – the sky was bright blue with not a speck of cloud. The sun was shining and the birds were singing. The freshly washed trees of various shades of green bowed and waved to convey their blessings and joy at having reached her special milestone. Rajani wore a huge smile and looked expectantly at anyone and everyone whom she happened to meet, including the newspaper guy, garbage man and the dhobi, Gupta uncle and Sinha Aunty. If anyone of them were too dull to catch the significance of the day, Rajani had no hesitation in informing them.
“Today is my birthday. I am 10 years old today.” She beamed at whoever bothered to spare her a glance. Most were kind enough to wish her and were rewarded with an even brighter smile.
For school, Nisha had as usual baked a cake and with her own pocket money Rajani bought a big bag of toffees to share with her classmates.
Nisha had stitched a new frock for her and of course there was the dinner party at home – she got to blow out candles and wear a party hat (left over from last year’s – even Abhi wore one). So all in all it was a pretty grand day for Rajani. She sighed pleasurably as she cuddled her new teddy bear (a gift from Shikha), “What a lovely day it was Mamma! Why can’t it be my birthday everyday?”
“When will other people have their birthdays?” Nisha shook her head at Rajani.
“Oh! I understand, but I do wish it were possible for everyday to be my birthday.”
“It’s not enough that she is Rani, she wants to be Maharani,” Abhi snorted derisively.
“Look Mamma, Bhai is being mean to me. And it is still my birthday. Two more hours.”
“Okay enough, now go to sleep.”
“But Mamma if I go to sleep now, I will miss my birthday. I already missed so many hours last night.”
“No Rani, you have school tomorrow. Enough excitement for today. Now go to sleep.”
Reluctantly, Rani lay down and almost instantly fell asleep. And she had the most marvelous dream – she was a Maharani, she wore a beautiful crown, a long flowing gown made of gold and silver. She sat on a golden throne and declared, “From today onwards, I, the Maharani, declare that everyday is my birthday. Everyone should bring gifts for me and wish me Happy Birthday with a smile.” A stream of people bearing gaily wrapped gifts – big and small – queued up to wish her.
Rajani graciously smiled and accepted their wishes. But soon her mouth became dry from saying Thank you so many times. And the gifts were funny. The more she opened the more they became wrapped – no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t see what was inside the box. And the gown was so heavy and so hot, she couldn’t breathe, she was choking, she was going to die.
“Rani, Rani, get up, lets go to the other room, and there is no electricity here.”
“Oh,” Rani stumbled behind her mother, “I am glad it’s not my birthday everyday and that I am not a Maharani,” she gulped down a glass of water before drifting off again – this time to a dreamless world.
But then with nothing more to look forward to, Rajani was soon back to moaning, “Birthdays should come at least once in six months. One whole year is too long.”
“Arre buddhu,” Shikha clapped a hand to her head, “that would mean we would grow old twice as fast. And then we would have to get married in 4 years time instead of 8 years.”
“Why?” Rajani was all at sea.
“Uffo, don’t you know anything? See, girls get married when they are 18 years old. We are 10 years old now, so we will get married 8 years later. But, if we had birthdays twice a year, we would turn 18 in 4 years.” Shikha put her hands on her hips and looked down her nose upon her friend. “Understand?”
“Oho Shikha, you are the one who doesn’t understand. 18 years is when we can get married, not that we have to get married. Understand?”
“Oh.” Shikha fiddled with the sash of her dress. “But Biji told me I will get married when I turn 18 years. My Prince Charming will come riding his white horse and sweep me off my feet.” She galloped around the room holding on to her imaginary prince; she raised a hand and bid a delicate farewell to Rajani. “Farewell, my dearest friend…”
Taking cue, Rajani raised a hand and then buried her head in the crook of her other elbow and burst into tears, “Noo, Shikhaaa, my friend…
Shikha jumped on Rajani and they collapsed in a heap on the floor, giggling uncontrollably.
“Hey Bhagwan! Look at these two – they are at it again. I wonder when they will grow up,” rued Shikha’s grandmother who was visiting. “At your age, I knew all household tasks, I could make achchar and papad…”
“Mom can we have some achchar and papad?” Shikha asked while Rajani swallowed and held her breath.
“Sure.” Kirti smiled at them both, while Biji frowned disapprovingly. The girls did a high five and danced a merry jig around Biji.
“Here I am talking work and all these two girls can talk about is food. If this is your behavior, nobody will want to marry them. Bahu, mark my words.”
“Here,” Kirti handed a loaded plate to the girls, “don’t drop stuff all over the bed. Ok? Oh don’t worry Biji there are just babies, if they don’t enjoy now, when will they have some fun. Besides, this is the 21st century girls don’t get married so early…”
“So early? 18 years is practically old. In my time, I was married by 13 and had my first child by 15. I had 9 children, 6 boys,” Biji was off on her reminisces, “only 4 survived.”
“That’s what Biji,” Kirti said in a soft tone, “medical facilities were lacking and inadequate then. Things were different then, now facilities are better, things are changing…”
“What different?” Biji flared up. “What has changed? The girl still has to her sasural, isn’t it? She is the one who packs her bag and goes off to another’s house to make that her home isn’t it? She is the one who has to make adjustments to a new place, new people, new responsibilities, is it not so? So, what has changed? Tell me? Nothing.”
Kirti regretted entering into this discussion with her mother-in-law – this was one of the many arguments she could never win – and even if she did win, the consequences of victory more often than not was more deadly than loss. But Kirti was aware of the two young girls avidly drinking in their conversation while chomping the acharified papads, she couldn’t let them get a wrong message.
“Yes Biji, you are right in that. But the greatest change has been the financial independence that today’s girls have because of their education, they have careers of their own, money of their own, they have greater, freedom, respect and say in their families. So it very essential for girls to also study hard, and have a career of their own.”
“You mean, when Shikha grows up she will go out and work in an office? Whoever heard of such nonsense? Why are you making your daughter pay for your sins? It is your fault that you couldn’t bear a son. And now just because you don’t have a son, you will force your daughter to stand in for a son. Do you know what perils await girls who step out of the house alone at odd hours of the day alone? Hey Bhagwan, what is this world coming to?
Kirti paled and she stiffened. She opened her mouth but Shikha beat her to it, “But Biji, I want to study, I,” she held Rajani’s hand, “both Rajii and I want to be doctors, isn’t it?”
Rajani nodded, her eyes big and wide – trying to process the conflicting information.
“Doctor eh?” Biji was silent. “Doctor is fine,” she conceded grudgingly, “we have a lady doctor in our village, she is very well respected by all. But, she is 25 years old and still unmarried. Who will marry such an old maid – doctor or no doctor?”
“Oh Biji, 25 years is nothing these days, she will surely get married sooner or later, don’t worry.”
“I suppose, but what about ego clashes, when she earns more and is more qualified than her husband?” Biji insisted on having the last word.
“Well then I guess they will have to look for a groom who earns more and is more qualified than her.” Kirti dug her heels in, still smarting from the taunt on her sonless state.
There was no saying how long or where this argument would have gone on but for the entry of Mrs Shanti Sinha their next-door neighbor.
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