There are instances, which are so deep rooted in you, that every time your mind touches them, it aches. Especially if it occurred when you were a child, an innocent mind, which can easily have an amplifying aftermath.
My parents worked very hard to get me admitted to Kanpur’s best school then – St. Mary’s Convent. It was a convent, enough said. Back in 1989, it meant a lot. By the time, Sonam (my younger sister) was six and ready for primary school, another school – Seth AnandRam Jaipuria (Jaipuria) – had its flag held high. Even though sisters going to the same school is divine and a more viable option, my parents decided to go for the best instead.
My father was serving the Income Tax Department, and that entitled us to stay in the officer’s colony. The flats in the colony comprised Type I to Type V, type suggesting the number of rooms in the flats. As Papa held the position of an Income Tax Officer (ITO) back then, we were awarded Type III. Type V flats were allotted to the families of Assistant Commissioners and Commissioner of the department. Every child residing in Type V went to Jaipuria. Of course, it was the best school for the best crowd.
Being the youngest amongst the children going to Jaipuria from the colony, Sonam was pampered and treated well by others.
Then came the day – autumn of 1994. The city was overwhelmed with the onset of Navratri. A senior lady officer of the Income Tax Department was hosting Kanya Puja at her house. As known to many, this day is celebrated on the eighth and ninth days of Navratri and required nine young girls, signifying the nine forms of Goddess Durga.
When the list of those girls was designed, citizens of Type V fell short of one girl to complete a pack of nine. And then someone made a beautiful suggestion that ruined my day and many more days to come. They decided to invite Sonam – the 9th Durga.
When the invite was sent for the next day, the six-year-old made her decision – “Main Didi ke bina nahi jaungi”, Sonam said adamantly to our mother.
“Beta samjho, sirf tumhe bulaya hai.”, explained our mother.
“Nahi. Nahi. Nahi.”, she made her point.
The 10-year-old, Saumya, revolted, “Why should I go? I am not invited.”
But the cards were laid, thanks to her younger sibling. Next day with distraught minds and flat faces, we got dressed to attend the puja. My mother was a firm believer of dressing her girls with clothes of the same design. Both, Sonam and I wore green skirts with a print of grape wine. Mother asked us to behave properly and we abided.
Holding hands we crossed the park between Type III and V. As we reached the other side, we saw two cars already packed with the attendees – ‘the 8 kanyas’.
An aunty said looking at us “Jaldi beta, we are running late.”
“Namastey Aunty. Ye meri Didi hai”, said my sister.
“Of course, chalo dono jaldi baitho.” I guess either she understood that I was tagged with Sonam unwantedly, or she did not have time to understand at that hour.
We both squeezed in a car which had little space left. I took the window seat and kept looking outside the whole way. A part of me experienced malaise, due to the alien environment, and the other felt alienated. I did not speak to anyone. In my defence, neither did the fabulous eight.
As we reached the senior official’s beautiful home, she received us with full hospitality. I still remember her beaming face and the white crisp cotton saree that adorned her. I was the last to walk in, after all, I was ‘the uninvited’ and nervousness was my birthmark.
Two strips of clothes were placed adjacent to each other, in a huge open room, for us to be seated. They asked ‘the nine squad’ to be seated on one side and ‘others’ aka ‘me’ on the other side. We sisters parted ways, to our dismay. While Sonam took a place with the prestigious kanyas, I with a heavy heart took the other side. Was it not enough that I felt like an outsider that they made it more obvious?
After applying kumkum on the nine foreheads, we were all made to eat the usual prasad – puri, chane ki sabji and sooji ka halwa. I must say they were generous to provide me food, though I barely ate. I mean by this time I felt what was the point of being there? My burning insecurities were given air. I was not seated with them, I did not have a tika on my forehead and the worst was that I was sitting right opposite them to see it all. Sonam kept looking at me with helpless eyes, she knew what her elder sister was facing.
I just wanted us to leave soon. But the worst was still to come. Once the food was done, the dakshina arrived. It was the usual; we received – money (Rs. 20 note), a handkerchief, a banana, and something out of the box – a small talcum powder bottle. While they did give me the first three, they could not give me the powder bottle, due to unavailability.
That dakshina was the final nail in my heart. When every child returned with scented powder bottles, I parted with nothing to sniff. I was no Durga, not even a kanya – I was ‘the unwanted 10th.’
What a 10-year-old did not understand at that hour was that the puja required just nine girls. I accompanied my little sister; that was my job there. They respected me by making me sit and did what they could do, by offering me food and the dakshina. What they did not, and could not do, was to include me in the puja or offer me a small scented bottle.
That small bottle made me feel unwanted, and in a way, lower than the rest. They were pretty and tiny and – not mine. While every girl kept talking about it in the car back home, I kept looking outside, fighting my tears from flowing down my cheeks.
After the pleasantries, Sonam and I parted ways and started walking in the park to reach home. My feeling culminated and I couldn’t take it in anymore. I kept looking down staring at the grapes printed on my skirt. Reflex tears converted into emotional ones and my eyes began to drizzle. The newly gifted handkerchief lost its crispness, with the dampness of salty water. Sonam did understand what was going on but did not utter a word. She feared being responsible for it someway.
We were just about to reach home, when the drizzle transformed into downpour. My heavy heart needed the comfort of home, to lighten itself. How can something as trivial as a powder bottle make me that unhappy, you ask? Well, as said before I was 10 and a pure, simple heart gets broken very easily.
My parents were alarmed and after five minutes of squeezing, I became audible and narrated the whole ordeal. Sonam sat at the corner of the room dabbing her big eyes saying “Maine kuch nahi kiya.” That’s how a sibling relationship works.
After listening to my blabber, my mother started to cry. A mother’s heart bleeds for her child. As my father got up to leave the room, my mother asked what she could cook for me? Mothers. I leave it at that. I did not say a word and went to lay in my bed. Sonam brought her powder and placed it next to me. Maybe Mummy directed her to do so or she was smart enough to act. After all, she was going to Jaipuria (sarcasm intended). I looked the other way.
After 20 minutes had passed, Mummy said, “Saumya dekho kya hai?”
With puffy eyes, I looked up and saw a similar powder bottle. Sonam had the ‘floral garden’, but this was better – ‘rose ecstasy’.
It so happened that no sooner did I finish my narration of the incident, that my father left on his scooter for Arya Nagar (nearby market). He bought me the product that seemed petty but had a huge significance to him since his tiny girl’s heart had broken because of it. That’s the thing about Papa. He barely talks, but his acts do the talking.
I cried again after seeing it, for a completely different reason now. Papa left the room, this time to evade human emotions, while Mummy cried with me. Sonam smiled. She was set free from the blame radar.
An hour later, as I sat admiring my tiny powder power, Sonam came with hers and sat next to me. I looked at both and said, “Mine is better.”
“Yes it is.” said little Sonam.
We never used those bottles. They were in my drawer till I left for Delhi to pursue higher education.
I still remember its smell, and it still brings me to the spot I was in, 23 years back.
Who was to be blamed for it? That invite? Sonam, who dragged me along to accompany her? My mother, who sent me without my consent? Commissioner Aunty, who did not keep enough stock for the extra’s’? Saumya, for taking things way too seriously?
Well, no one. That is the thing. At times, no one does anything wrong, and yet somewhere, some innocent heart is hurt.
P.S. I cried writing this. Why now? While I’m old enough to understand the whole scenario, I cry for that 10-year-old Saumya. I can still feel what she felt then. I cry thinking of my family, and how we dealt with the situation. I cry, because I am human, and tears express you the best at times.