Fiction: BIRTHDAY GIFT

Sutanuka Ghosh Roy

       The grey sky started pouring as the car reached the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass. Bubu was at the wheels trying to wade through a stream of cars. Today is her birthday! Ma Mrinmoyee had categorically asked her to return home a bit earlier. Birthdays are always special for her because on that day Ma makes all the delicacies which she likes to savor. The thick payesh a rice-based pudding is made with Govindobhog rice which has a short grain. Ma would drain the rice and mix it with ghee and cook on low heat until the rice is nicely cooked and the milk has reduced to almost half.  She would add sugar and a bay leaf and garnish it with cashews and raisins made her mouth watery. Nobody on earth can cook payesh like Mrinmoyee. It tastes like manna! In childhood when Ma used to feed her payesh with her own hands she would always end up by biting her fingers! Mrinmoyee used to giggle “Bubu you are eating my fingers too!” “Ma they are sweeter than payesh I cannot help it!” Preparations would start almost a month ago her bespectacled Ma with a pen and a notebook at the sofa and Baba sitting next to her enthusiastically. There were serious discourses over cups of tea/coffee, heated exchanges as to who should be invited, or who should be dropped from the list.

       On the auspicious day Ma would deck up their entire house, new curtains replacing the old, sofa covers were changed, new bedcovers added to the glamour. Shanta Pishi, their domestic help would wear a new sari too. Soumya her Baba with his signature smile and Ma like a possessed woman used to attend all the guests. Dadu her maternal grandpa and Didu maternal grandma used to come and stay for a week during this week. Bubu used to float in the evening like an angel. She used to proudly display her expensive toys to all her friends and relished their wide-eyed glances too! Each year was special until the tenth Birthday. On that day Baba introduced his newly appointed personal assistant Sunita Aunty to them. After the party was over Ma suddenly became silent as if she has lost the ability to speak. The next morning she went to college without having breakfast. Bubu understood nothing. After few months Baba left with Sunita Aunty. In the evening Bubu would stand in the verandah and wait for Baba. Life became topsy turvy without her baba. A few months before her eleventh birthday Didu passed away.  Dadu started staying with them. Ma was busy with her teaching and writing. Nights became interesting as each night Dadu would tell her a story. She grew up with the stories.

       Dadu used to assist her in her studies too! Ma used to join them too! On Sundays three of them would go to the nearby park, sometimes they used to watch a movie or dine out. Life was fun no doubt but after the sundown, Bubu would think of her Baba, sometimes she would strike up a secret imaginary discourse with him. She would imitate Baba’s voice and transform herself into baba and Bubu simultaneously. Ma understood but feigned innocence. She would come and kiss her on her forehead. From an early age, Bubu understood her pulse. She would smilingly carry her void around her neck. At night she would write she was scared of sleep. The other half of the bed reminded her of Soumya, her husband. Ever since he went away her nights were metamorphosed into days. Almost all through the night she would scribble a verse or a story. Her research papers were widely appreciated. Bubu would tiptoe to her room and always found her in her study desk writing continuously. The light from the reading lamp would caress her soft tresses. Bubu would watch her with sleepy eyes and then slowly retired to the bed. Dadu would put his arm around her neck.

A red Baleno was constantly honking. Bubu got irritated. Kolkata is becoming a nightmare for amateur drivers. Each day was a challenge. She was now driving past the Ruby hospital. The rains were lashing the windscreen of her car. The wind was howling. Each raindrop is a kaleidoscope if we could only see more closely. Bubu wondered as she drove how it would be to stop her car, to suspend this watery gift and peek through each one. Perhaps it would be fun to sit inside those raindrops and take that gravity propelled ride to the earth, as she imagined it she started laughing at herself - a little at the crazy daydream and a little at her silliness. She saw the rain beads up on the cars, upon each pedestrian, and the outstretched pavements. Soon they will pull together, forming the puddles, as is quite normal in Kolkata, opening up a whole new avenue of rain-related fun. Perhaps normal people do not love a rainy day so much, but she loved it. After all, it is her birthday today.

 As she pressed the accelerator the road became alive with more splashes than her eyes could appreciate. Seeing the drops trickle down her window brought a sense of calmness within her. She drove constantly and let every moment sink in as if it was going to last forever. The percussion of the given water varied according to the surface it wets. There are the drums that are windows of her car, the cymbals that are the concrete floor of the black road, and the soft, soft maracas that are the music of the roadside grass. The triangles are the puddles, a high note to pick up the mood; together they brought such a soothing sound, a natural melody every bit as beautiful as her mother's soulful hum. Each birthday Ma would remember the night when Bubu came to her lap. She would tell, “Bubu you know on that day millions of droplets fell from a limitless sky, the wind howled in a low pitch and the tall trees swayed in a freeform dance and you came to me.  Raindrops, perfect spheres, sitting briefly before forming tiny rivers of their own swept the streets of Kolkata. The aroma of rain, sharp and fresh, entered my nostrils as I waited for your birth. I slept in the anesthetic bed in the O.T., every moment bringing a sense of joy”.  Bubu knows Ma loves rain. She loves everything about the rain. The whispering whirr as sheets of precipitation fell to the water-forsaken ground, the often unanticipated flashes of lightning or the rolls of ominous thunder. She loved it all. Those facts were what truly created, in Mrinmoyee’s opinion, a perfect rainy atmosphere when she became a mother.

The rain bore down mercilessly upon the heart of the city, pounding on the rooftops and turning the cobbled streets of the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass into a warren of slick stones and muddy waters. Located only a stone’s throw from the high walls of the Avishikta, the   Big Bazar Highland is easy to find. The warm light from its compounds and the trailing smoke from its food stores serve as beacons of refuge and comfort to those caught out in the rain. She felt like having a cup of coffee but the rain was mad. A sheet of rain passed over the roof of her car and the sound intensified. The phut-phut-phut noise on the car was like that of ripened nuts make when they hit the ground. It wasn’t the soft, sodden, swollen drops of spring she was hearing; it was like ball-bearings were hitting the roof of the car with force. Bubu could also hear an occasional Ker-plunking sound. It was caused by the rainwater gathered on the car falling to the ground in a great swash of release.

Her home in Garia was still far. She wanted to reach home as soon as possible. The road was midnight under the clouds most of the street lights were sleeping in the rain. She was cautiously driving. A myriad thought crossed her mind. Bubu found the darkness strange. Living in the heart of a city, she had grown used to having the warming, orange glow of streetlamps outside her window, their light filtering in through the rolled-up glasses. This was a blackness that she couldn't recall seeing before - one that was almost absolute. When she tilted her head skyward she could see the black velvety sky stop. A truck was coming steadily behind, Bubu moved sideways to give space to it, the truck passed in a second. She was now up in the flyover. Suddenly she spotted a figure trying to stop the car. She was quite astounded. Maybe someone stuck in the rain wants a car-lift. She slowed her car. Now she could see a woman with a tossed umbrella waving the faint wind brushing against the water’s surface, the ripples ruffled the stillness of the surface Bubu popped her head out “Mrinmoyee! Maaaa! What is this? Why on earth are you here? Come get inside!”. As Bubu opened the door she caught the aroma of the sweet-smelling rain-washed darkness, smudgy illumination of a lamppost, sky sprinkled with grey clouds.

“Bubu please don’t try to be my mother got it?”, “I came to give you a surprise after all it’s the Birthday of m-y d-a-u-g-h-t-e-r”. Bubu smiled, “I understand Ma but see the rain outside”. The lightning passed through the glass pane into the car as Mrinmoyee sat beside Bubu. The sudden thunder and lightning made her shiver as she drove.  She peeped out to see the darkness stretched for miles apart. The trees were swaying from left to right enjoying the showers of the night. Darkness had swamped the night along with the rain giving the night an uncanny feel. Mrinmoyee is like this only she loves to give surprises to everyone. Even in her college, she loves to give her colleagues surprises. Sometimes she would cook a dish of her own choice or bake a cake or buy a bouquet for them. She never forgets to greet them on their birthdays. She was loved by one for her loving nature. Bubu knows that there’s no point in arguing with her mother. On many occasions, her Ma would wait for her at the school gate with a broad grin and whisper s-u-r-p-r-i-s-e in her ears. She loved it. Together they would go to the New Market and enjoy a sumptuous lunch! She would buy Bubu a dress or trinkets and would always end up buying silver ornaments for herself. Mrinmoyee loves to wear silver ornaments.

Ma was wearing a blue salwar kameez, her long hair knotted with a clutch. Bubu looked at her how beautiful she looks. “How could Baba leave her and go for that ugly duckling? Bubu doesn’t think of such things, the past is past, better to live in the present. See what I have got for y-o-u”. How could Ma read her thoughts? Ma is a real magician. “What is that you have brought for me now in the rain?”. Bubu sounded a little grumpy. “Why have you brought first of all in this rain? Am I running away with someone? Everyone is indoors in this weather and you are out to give me a surprise?  What if you catch a cold and fever? Ma you are simply incorrigible.” “Ma simply bushed her off. She took out a tiffin box from her tote bag.” Bubu sees here’s your payesh your favourite payesh. Just taste it and give me your honest feedback”. Bubu felt like crying, Ma took all the pain to come in this torrential rain only to give her a surprise. She could feel a lump in her throat. Mothers are gifted with a love that is different from any other love on the face of the earth. “Bubu, Bubu open your mouth and taste the payesh. And please don’t bite my fingers”. “You have brought payesh for me? Couldn’t you wait for me to return? Uff Ma you are simply…” “S-u--r-p-r-i-s-e” Ma giggled like a nine-year-old. The payesh was so delicious, fantastic flavour and aroma that is quite hard to resist. Bubu was too happy to indulge in this scrumptious quintessential recipe and enjoyed the Birthday fever.

The rain has been falling steadily outside and was only getting worse. Bubu was now close to Hindusthan More, it has become dark only a lone street lamp cast a dim, yellow light on the sad features of the houses. It looks as if no one has lived here for many years. “Ma the payesh is the yummiest”. Mrinmoyee’s eyes sparkled like diamonds. “Is it? Every year when I cook payesh for you I feel nervous. I just pray to God that it suits your taste”. Mrinmoyee candidly confessed. A wave of happiness flooded Bubu’s mind. She took a long breath and told “Ma this surprise is awesome! I loved it! I’m enjoying each moment. The torrential rain and eating payesh from your hands is surreal”. Both of them wanted to freeze the time. They were enjoying life to the lees. “Ma would the guests come? I don’t think so, who will come except our next-door neighbours”, Bubu was a little sad. Ma consoled her “in a way that is good if no one comes both of us will eat like Bakasura and gobble the dishes…so nothing to worry”. Bubu laughed her heart out. Their house in Garia was now close by. “Ma see we have almost reached, please wear that blue sari for me today”. “Which blue sari Bubu?” “Ma you know what I mean that blue tussar silk that I brought from Kamala, Ho Chi Min Sarani”. “Merci beaucoup! my darling”. The roof of the car danced with spray and they could hear the murmuring of the rain through the window. It sounded like the buzzing of angry bees. Bubu was almost near to the gate of the apartment. “Bubu I will just come in a minute I forgot to buy gulab jamuns for you”. “Ma are you crazy? I don’t want to eat gulab jamuns, I just finished the payesh. Would you please go upstairs with me?” “Had it been any other day I would have listened to you but today is your birthday, you love gulab jamuns, your birthdays without them are incomplete”. The sky was tar-black and the large clouds were moving towards them.

Mrinmoyee almost ran in the rain. Bubu went inside the apartment. Raja mama was standing along with Babul mama and others. So they all have come to give her a surprise. Raja mama put his hand around her neck, “come Bubu we are waiting for you, come my daughter”. “Raja Mama thanks for the surprise”. Bubu was all smiling. Babul mama quipped “yes a surprise indeed”. The door of the flat was ajar, this was a custom which Mrinmoyee maintains on her birthdays, like each year the fragrance of flowers entered her nostrils. But this year she saw rajanigandha all over and not jasmine which she loves. Their flat was full of guests the dining table was full of all sorts of food. Bubu suddenly felt very hungry. She was about to eat a sweet when Ranu kakima came and told “Bubu not now”, Bubu was surprised. “ Bubu please come to your mother’s bedroom”. “Coming, Kakima in a minute”. She quickly went outside to see whether Mrinmoyee has come back with her favourite gulab jamuns. “Bubu please come,” Bubu was too happy she felt like a queen surrounded by all loving people. She entered the bedroom. Mrinmoyee in the blue tussar was resplendent. She was encircled by the guests. Bubu was taken aback. Is Ma a magician? when did she come and change into the sari? It was pouring outside suddenly the power went out. A little unsettled Bubu tapped her mobile torch to get rid of the oppressing darkness.

 She bent down to touch Mrinmoyee’s hand. Gosh! She was ice cold! “Ma why on earth are you lying down when all the guests are around, you went out in the rain that is why you have become so cold. You never listen to me. Wait a minute I will change and make coffee for you”. Raja mama had a rajanigandha garland in his hand he was ready to hand it over to her Bubu, he wanted to say something to Bubu but the words dried in the throat. A small piece of cashew nut was stuck in her upper gum she tried to bring it out with her tongue. Bubu loves cashew nuts so Mrinmoyee always puts them in abundance in payesh. “Raja mama wait let me wash my mouth I just ate the payesh in the car, a small piece of cashew nut is still there in my mouth”. “Bubu are you saying you had payesh just now but this occurred in the early afternoon, are you sure you ate the payesh? When did you eat Bubu, my daughter?” Raja stood still with the garland in his hand. Suddenly an unearthly caterwauling sound filled the air. The wind whipped up into frenzy. A shrieking, keening omen of the carnage followed. The hall was now dazzling with light as the power has come back. Bubu went near the washbasin she brushed her teeth while the guests in the dining hall stared at her. As she glanced at the dining table she saw a big earthen pot, a handi nicely decorated with a red ribbon. Mrinmoyee has brought gulab jamuns for her!

1 comment :

  1. wonderful word craft. Daughter and mother relationship is everlasting. Chain of events and finally the end is heart-wrenching. i wish the author more success.

    ReplyDelete

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