This short story is selected as Story of the Month Jun’2014 and won INR 1000
This short story became SPIXer (Most popular story) on 28 Jun 2014 and won INR 500
This story is selected as Editor’s Choice
“ Many, many happy returns of the day Ma!”, Meera squeaked in delight.
“ Yes, from me too!”, Manish echoed his sister.
“ Look Ma, this one is specially for you”. Meera pointed to the three-layered chocolate cake that she was delicately holding in her hands. It was a rich, dark chocolate cake. A pink candle, placed atop the cake effused a light orange glow. A faint perfume of lavender floated about the room. A scented candle perhaps!
“ I too contributed “, shouted Manish. I laughed. This was one habit he wouldn’t give up! He just would never let his elder sibling take away the crown of glory!
“Yes, they both contributed equally”. Their father tried to settle for a truce.
“Aah….just too divine”, I couldn’t help remarking. The cake was certainly beautiful. The number ‘40’ highlighted with white butter-cream frosting was standing out against the rich, brown background – bittersweet reminder of the number of springs I had seen! I didn’t let my sigh overpower their enthusiasm. Instead I reached out for the cake. Meera slided the cake gently into my hand. The tri-layered beauty wobbled a bit. I readjusted my fingers. Then there was a soft sound – plunk! And plunk it was…..Four pairs of wide eyes stared in disbelief at the mass of brown chunks strewn all over the floor!
Prelude: Act 1
Chini was my pet name. My better name or the one that was used in school was very thoughtfully given by my grandmother – Rajnandini. My friends shortened it to Raju. But there was yet another name which no one called me by but everyone knew. That name was ‘Disaster’.
My tryst with disaster perhaps began even much before I was hurled like a hot potato to this earth by an unlucky angel. I am sure, infact I am quite confident that while announcing my departure from the paradise to this earth the poor one might have surely broken a string or two of his melodious harp, if not ended up with torn wings!
I don’t exactly know about the sufferings of the celestial souls but the mortal beings certainly did. And the first victim of my disastrous arrival was Dr. Gautam. He was the one who delivered me. Being my father’s friend, he was certainly excited beyond his professional limits at my arrival.
“Congratulations buddy! It is a beautiful niece for me!”, he had excitedly told my anxious father. My father had jumped in joy, for he always wanted a daughter.
“ Then you deserve not just a box full of sweets but a good treat from me”, my father had assured him.
“I would have certainly indulged but there is an urgent need from the Head Office”.
“Head Office ?”
“ Yes Sir…your Bhabhi wants me home right now. Her sister’s marriage is going to be held tomorrow. A doctor husband is always a troublesome deal. So I have to make-up for my absence on all these days of preparation”. It seems he had barely finished winking at my dad and wiping his hands and had just placed his foot on the staircase when he had -THE FALL! The staircase was absolutely dry and his blood pressure was absolutely normal but yet there was that fall.
A hip-joint operation and four months later he could finally report back to his Head Office!
As a child I was never aware of the incident but I did sense that something was wrong because Dr.Gautam’s wife used to avoid me like burning coal whenever she happened to cross paths with me!
But this was just the beginning. As I began to grow up ,disaster and myself became like Siamese twins – inseparable! Small incidents, little happenings ended with disastrous results whenever I was the protagonist.
My aunt from village, the local shopkeeper, my tution teacher, my neighbor’s maid-servant had all been victims of my disastrous company. But the saddest event perhaps was the one associated with my teenage cousin from France. She had come visiting us during the summer holidays that year. That day all of us had gone to attend the science fair. There, one by one, we perched on the Ferris Wheel. The Ferris Wheel had barely made a semi-circle and we had glided smoothly to the top when there was a sudden jerk and a stop! The Ferris Wheel just wouldn’t budge….And obviously at the top-most cubicle was seated, who else but I, with my panic-stricken cousin. “Oh puhlease….puth me dhown…”, she howled at the top of her voice. No amount of coaxing from me or onlookers could calm her down. From threatening to jump from there to biting my fingers red, she did everything she could in those fifteen minutes. Finally when we were brought down she had turned from tomato red to pale pink and had fainted. They never came back to India again!
Prelude: Act 2
My game of chess with disaster continued to my college days too. Don’t know why but I was never allowed to go for excursions by my family. But the stories and experiences my classmates shared after-on were so exciting that during my second year I had made up my mind to go for the excursion. Lot of cajoling and coaxing later I was finally allowed to travel.
The excursion began with a near-miss train accident, followed by a total-miss of the last bus to our destination and finally a night halt at a road-side hotel that had a single toilet for forty-five of us. The only food that the hotel could offer was a piece of bread each with a boiled egg. Almost all of us discovered the tinge of blue, velvet-like texture at the edge of our breads but were too hungry to protest. And as an obvious after-math, the excursion ended with a series of food poisoning cases.
The next year I opted not to go. My classmates were visibly relieved !
Prelude: Act 3
I was of the impression that my free-fall would continue only till my adolescence and then Mother Destiny would be kind enough to lift me up. But that was not to be! I got the first proof of it when I began dating a young man who had as dissimilar background to mine as possibly could be. One of the prime one being the issue of vegetarianism – while we were voracious fish and meat eaters, his mother would not even hear of anything remotely non-vegetarian.
So to impress my would-be mother-in-law I decided on a day-out with her. Just as my luck would have it there was a last minute call from my lover.
“Sweetheart, I might just be a teeny-weeny bit late….Mom will be waiting near the staircase of the Silk House. Just pick her up and I’ll join you soon…very soon, I promise”. So with my heart going audibly lub-dub I made my way to the Silk House, though I really couldn’t fathom why she would stand right in front of the shop when there was no plan to buy sarees. Or was there one ? I didn’t know…
I met her, hailed an auto and headed straight to an eatery I had known. “Narayana Eating House” was a well-known vegetarian joint, serving authentic vegetarian items like Dhokla, Masala Dosa, Uttapams. I knew she was fond of Masala Dosas and this was the only way I could think of, to put myself in her good books.
“Aunty, they make such yummy food..you will just love eating those!”, I tried to break the ice during my trip but she wouldn’t smile.
At the destination I volunteered to pay for the auto while I asked her to get inside the joint as the crowd would normally grow bigger in the evenings.
I paid the driver and turned my head – only to look her face – pale and ashen. I couldn’t understand what was wrong till my eyes fell on the sign-board outside the eatery. Instead of “Narayana Eating House” the board read “Chicken Chomp Chomp”. “ The only restaurant in town that serves authentic chicken dishes”, it proudly proclaimed with the picture of a hen with a chef’s hat beckoning the customers (To eat it!) !!
Just ten days ago “Narayana Eating House” was doing a roaring business. How was I to know……
I was embarrassed like never before and tried to mumble my apologies but she gave me a ‘curse-you’ look and took a return auto back home -all alone!
Prelude: Act 4
That I still got to marry the man I loved must have been a blessing for any good deed that I may have done in my last birth. But it was a fact that I was getting married to him. But it was, of course ,not free of riders.
“Early morning at 7:00 am sharp is the muhurtham”, my to-be father-in-law had announced to the utter horror of my elderly relatives who could only think of a monkey-cap donned morning walk at those wee hours.
“But Mr.Shubhramanyam, most of our relatives are aged….would they be able to make it ?”, my grand-uncle had dared to wonder aloud.
“Not all people need to come for the muhurtham….you all take your time….the bride, her father, her brother, her mama, a few ladies and some friends or cousins would be enough. You all can report for the breakfast at 8:30 am”, my father-in-law suggested helpfully.
This seemed an acceptable proposal, though my youngish grand-uncle didn’t take kindly to the fact that he was being bracketed with the ‘breakfast -only’ relatives!
So early morning it was when I reported for my wedding. To add to the serenity of the event my father-in-law had even organised a terrace ceremony for the muhurtham atop the fifth floor, followed by a roof-top breakfast arrangement.
Contrary to my fear, my ceremony was a smooth-sailing one except that my husband had to readjust his dhoti now and then to avoid appearing like a superman with a sarong! I was almost beginning to thank God when a commotion confirmed my worst fears. A handful of elderly relatives from my side arrived huffing and puffing , with most of them barely able to stand up straight. My mother’s aunt from Ahmedabad was in near tears. “Five floors up the stairs with two legs that are ready for knee-replacement….God, why did I give in to the breakfast plan!”, she sobbed.
“By the stairs ? Why , they do have a lift…..”, my father sounded perplexed.
“Do you think we are morons or are we doing a stress-test that we would climb up the stairs leaving the lift aside ?”, my father’s elder brother thundered.
“ The lift is not working anymore…the lift has gone out of order since your daughter came up”, my uncle added mockingly.
“And the rest ?”, my father queried.
We all looked down from above only to see scores of silk-saree and dhoti-clad entities standing on the road and looking at us – as if staring heavenwards for their share of manna!
The final sign-off for the morning was done by my father’s uncle who had managed to crawl up the stairs by then. Unaware of the earlier treaty, he looked straight into the eyes of my father-in-law and thundered, “Which r**cal had planned this roof-top wedding? Let me catch hold of him….I would simply squeeze his neck!”.
Thankfully the reception was organised in the ground-floor and to my surprise the evening glided smoothly into the gala night. The dress fitted like a dream, the rings for exchange did not go missing, all the guests arrived on time and even the music system played on perfectly. I finally heaved a sigh of relief when at last the first batch of invitees had finished their sampling and molecular dissection of the wedding feast and were finally leaving. Their good-byes and farewell good-luck wishes confirmed to me that the omen was finally coming to an end.
As a mark of celebration I was about to sip a glass of cola when there was a sudden buzz – as if a swarm of bees were let lose. To our utter bewilderment , the big gang of guests who had just bid farewell were rushing in through the entrance, their eyes reflecting utter horror. And not just them – a mother with a wailing child, a vegetable-vendor, two shoppers with their hand full of shopping-bags, a lame beggar – all parceled in along with them. A mad frenzy ensued and all of them were too keen to close the main entrance to the hall. Only after their panic had subsided were they able to give the reason for their re-arrival – a mad dog on a biting spree was creating havoc in the area. It had already successfully sent four people to the nearby hospital and was on the lookout for more victims. Night had already dawned and inspite of informing the municipality ,there was no sight of the dog-catchers as yet. Gone was the excitement of the night; the music had stopped playing; trays of food lay without being touched. The guests and servers alike were all glued to the windows -watching the ‘ adventure of the mad dog’. The only sound emanating from the hall every now and then was a cry in unison-‘There, there…there it goes” or “Aah….missed it again” – almost as if a football match was being played outside.
When the dog-catchers had finally managed to bundle it away, it was late in the night – too late for many of the guests to leave for far away destination. They were very helpfully led by my father to the few rooms we had booked, including the one where we were to have our first night , to catch up with a wink or two. They were only too glad to enjoy the extended hospitality while my husband and I had to sit in the hall along with hordes of cousins, friends and other close relatives. The rest of the night was spent in the company of forced entertainment in the form of out-of-tune songs, outrageously vulgar jokes and ill-digested burps.
Amidst all this I noticed the stony silence of my mother-in-law- she looked grim and cold. But with my extra-sensory vision I could actually detect the fumes emitting from her nostrils and I could almost read her mind. I knew she was already cursing her fate having invited disaster to her door step!
But what she didn’t say was finally voiced by my aunt from Singapore. She gave a thunderous pat on my father’s back and said, “You still have to thank God Ajayda – that it was afterall a mad dog and not a mad bull. With Chini being the bride we couldn’t have possibly settled for anything lesser! I was infact anticipating a Tsunami or an earthquake!”.
I stared at the brownish mass which Meera had helpfully scooped up and rearranged for me. Instead of a chocolate cake it now looked like an over-cooked Tirunelveli Halwa! I couldn’t help myself and began to sob like a child.
“I am always a mess Vishnu….I am a born disaster”. I placed my head on my husband’s shoulder and wept bitterly. He wiped my tears, hugged me tight and said, “ Why don’t you see it the other way round Chini ? Why don’t you look at your life to be blessed with so many happenings – not all very happy but colorfully eventful nevertheless”.
My daughter popped in a piece of the once-upon-a-time cake in my mouth and gave me a beautiful kiss. “It is a fact Ma – that inspite of everything, you are still loved and adored by all”.
Not willing to be left behind, Manish too embraced me and said, “ And just think of it Ma, when you grow old you don’t have to spin imaginary stories for your grand-children, you can tell them events from your own life and make them laugh”.
I smiled at them and kissed them in return. Really, in all these forty years, in my eagerness to find out the disasters of my life I had overlooked the little joys that were also bundled along. I only saw the incessant rains but missed the rainbow after that.
But finally at that moment I felt a sense of contentment – contentment of having at last shed the guilt of being the one named disaster!