The Medal

medal-390549_1280She had the queer habit of paying our school fees first day of every month. If it was school fees, it had to be paid on the 1st. Groceries would wait, electric bills would be kept in the queue, but school fees were ticked off earliest. Even today, my mother ensures that our children’s fees are paid on the 1st of every month. For many minutes she would longingly look at the ‘Paid’ stamp and then tuck away the fee cards in the safety of her cupboard. At times it irritated me, it still does. To which she had just a one line answer, “You wouldn’t ever understand the pain a child undergoes when the parents cannot afford to pay”.

Being the youngest of her sisters and having a paralytic father, she had a very disturbed childhood. While her sisters managed a decent education, she had to struggle with lack of school dresses, books and even school fees.  But she was immensely passionate about her school and studies. She had a single set of school dress which she would wash every evening so that she could wear it to the school the next day.  A lone one that it was, the dress would undergo immense wear and tear. With her small little fingers she would stitch it every now and then, only to discover a new tear somewhere else. But her hard work did pay off. When in her ninth class, she enrolled for the NCC course of her school. Those days they paid a token laundry fee each month to the best cadet. Surprisingly she won the Best Cadet’s award and thus could receive a token ‘laundry allowance’.

“So, you didn’t have to wash your clothes on your own then?”, we asked her once.

She had a smile tinted with sorrow as she answered us. “That was the little contribution I could make towards the family expenses each month. With hardly anything to eat, would I have the luxury of a laundry service?”

Every morning she had the task of washing two bucket full of soiled dresses and bed sheet of her paralysed father, as her mother cleaned the rooms. By the time she finished the washing, it was time to go to school. So more often than not, she would reach her school with incomplete homework and a tired body. But she wouldn’t give up.

It was during an argument with her regarding her nagging habit about paying the fees on time, did she explain why she does what she does.

“Those days my two working sisters could hardly pay my fees along with my brother’s fees. Every month they would call out the names of the students who were defaulters. We were expected to stand for two periods altogether as a punishment. This, alongside the verbal abuses. Some teachers called us ‘shameless’, some called us ‘beggars’. The girls giggled. We stood with downcast eyes. The list of girls who were defaulters changed every month. My name remained constant. That ‘shame’ stings me till date”.

I’ve never questioned her again.

Somehow the hurt of not being able to study as she should have was so huge that she always placed ‘education’ as the top priority for her children.

Just to teach me and my brother, she would take out time from her immensely stressful work and read through our school lessons before we arrived from school. She would then teach us. Due to my father’s erratic nature of job, we had to change about six schools in different states and with different languages. So, just to help us out she learnt various languages – Kannada, Hindi, English, Bengali. Having had her education in a Bengali medium, it was immensely tough for her to teach us convent English. But she did. She kept her own home copy where she practised Hindi before teaching me.She would read aloud English lessons in her faulty pronunciation, urging father to correct her.

While it was easier teaching me, it was immensely challenging teaching my brother. He was a hyperactive, super-intelligent brat who would never sit quiet. So, my mother made ‘special set-ups’ for him. She fixed a bulb in the terrace and converted that to an open air class-room. She danced, made actions, funny faces and resorted to every trick while teaching him.

She would wake me up at 4:00 am every morning during my exams and ensure a hot glass of health drink and warm toasts as soon as I woke up. And all this after going to bed at 11:30 in the night.

Every star marks that we got, every appreciation that we received was her glory. And every failure of ours would result in a stream of tears from her eyes. Every morning before going to school , she would passionately pray for us and scribble God’s name on our palms so that we may be able to write our best.

“You are overly protective about your children. Why do you spend so much of your energy behind them?”, my grandma would reprimand her.

Quiet that she always is, she would just smile helplessly.

“ One day my children would succeed. And that day would be my success”, she would whisper when alone with us.

**        **      **      **     **    **        **      **      **     **

The banquet hall was packed to the core. The lights beamed from every corner. But I was nervous and hungry. I wanted to go home. The series of lectures by the professors wouldn’t just end. One by one, they would wax eloquent about the institution and the merit of the students. I became restless. I made a quick visit to the washroom. By the time I returned the announcement had begun.

They began from the third position. One of my classmates walked up to the podium to collect his bronze medal. With a black suit, he looked dapper. The second position followed. He was a very dear friend of mine. On his way to the podium he did a ‘high-five’ with me.

The old professor adjusted his spectacles as he read out the name.

“S..Sri..Srichandra Mukherjee…topper of the year. Winner of the Gold Medal ”.

The hall burst into applause. I stood up and walked towards the podium.

As I bent my head a little lower to receive my medal, the five month old foetus inside my stomach wriggled.

“Now turn towards the audience and bow”, my professor whispered.

As I turned towards the audience, I could see my mother in very single corner – occupying every single seat – clapping wildly.

“Only and only for you Ma”, I told myself and my baby.

For some strange reason she didn’t want to come for the award ceremony. She bought a new dress for me to wear to the ceremony, she put her pearl string around my neck but she wouldn’t come.

As I stormed back home with my medal. She clapped, cried, wiped her red nose a thousand times and even took it to every household in the neighbourhood to show them ‘her’ glory.

For all her torn school dresses, unpaid fees, lack of books, she had the medal as an answer.

For her comfort, her son too has climbed the ladder of success one step at a time. Today, not only is he employed with a reputable company as an IT specialist; he is an immensely successful and renowned photographer and blogger.

Each of our success has been her success. And whatever I am or he is , is because of the determination of one hurt school child decades ago.

On my part, frankly, I couldn’t give her anything I wanted to give her. I am too small in front of her immense love and hard work. Only, inspite of much coaxing, I haven’t taken the medal with me to my house. It is still in the locker of her cupboard. It is hers.

Image Courtesy:Pixabay

Rain in Summer

rainfallI know there aren’t many people who love summer. I recall my teacher criss-crossing her eye-brows reading my essay on my favourite season. I could understand why she cringed at the thought of summer but I was helpless. Indian summers are hot, harsh and hardly offer any scope for being a romantic season. But somehow I have always loved the season.  This, irrespective of the fact that summers have always tagged along red marked report cards, near-rotten birthday cakes and hours of stay-home curfew hours. But there is that one special something about summer that I perhaps can never explain.

Summers usher in a whole lot of memories. A trunk full of them perhaps. I am not sure if the others have felt it, but I’ve always felt a special smell of summer. In the intense, sweaty heat of summer, returning home from school with my back pack I used to get that smell. A sort of raw summer sun, punched with the heady scent of unripe mangoes, punctuated with the whiff of Gulmohar flowers. A bronze sort of smell. Swinging the empty water bottle back and forth, I used to crazily savour the smell.  A mild throbbing headache caused by the scorching sun. A group of thirsty crows crowding around the little water-hole near our locality tap. Powder of dry mango flowers flying here and there. A  pair of burning feet. And amidst all this, there was this strange summer pleasure.

Those days we used to store water in earthern pitchers during summer. The earthern pitchers came in two varieties- black one with narrow neck and terracotta red with broader necks. The water used to be too cool. There is perhaps no exact word to explain the earthy coolness they offered. Back from school, I would throw around my bag, bottle and shoes and rush to dunk in a glass inside the pitcher.

“Don’t drink cold water as soon as you come from hot place”.

“Don’t you dare dunk your fingers into the pitcher”.

Warnings would just make a touch and go. By then my dirt laced fingers would already be savouring the cool comfort of the pitcher water. Gulping the entire water in one go, I would close my eyes and feel a soft stream of coldness make way through my throat into my stomach.

At times my grandma would make a strange drink of sweet curd(yogurt) and water. Impatient that she was, she would hardly stir the curd enough to blend in smoothly into the water. Rather little blobs of pinkish white sweet curd would refuse to mix evenly, resulting in a strange coagulation. But I used to love that strange drink. Dipping my fingers into the glass, once the liquid had been consumed, I would scoop out the mass of pink precipitate from beneath the glass.

Summer vacations would soon be announced. And it would invariably mean days of unlimited fun with my cousins. Mats would be rolled out under the guava trees and the little plastic and tin ‘kitchen set’ would be neatly arranged. One of us would chop leaves with our mock knife while the other would go to collect ‘fire wood’. Clink, clank, clink, clank! Bits of raw mango would be ‘cooked’ hastily. The ‘men’ had to go to office. A cooker full of ‘pebble’ meat would be made ready in the meanwhile. Not that our little ‘family’ would remain happy forever. Most often than not we would be disturbed by the boys, who would be tired of their ‘marketing duty’. They would want to play marbles. Soon there would be a commotion and the games would end up in lots of tears and ‘don’t-you-dare-talk-to-me-ever’ promises.

By eleven, the sun would be too high for us to continue our game or fight – whichever, and we would be herded back home by our mothers.

Our bathroom had very little spcae, one reason was the existence of a little cement tank inside the bathroom. Those were the days of extreme water scarcity. So it was my mother who took the trouble of lifting water from an underground tank and filling up the tank in the bathroom. There was no tap and that tank was our only source of water. Looking back, I feel guilty of the number of times I had wasted the water of the tank. But summer afternoons were the only time I would be given the licence to take bath in the cold water from the tank. Those days we used to used Margo neem soap. Perhaps the soap actually contained neem extract, for it felt terribly bitter if ever the soap lather entered the mouth. I would spend umpteen minutes inside the bathroom, pouring buckets and buckets of water or dunking the soap inside the tank and lifting it up almost instantly. By then the water would turn hazy white. And I wouldn’t come out till I would hear a loud scream from my grandmother!

Come summer and my grandmother would buy me dozens of chemise. Chemise is supposed be to a straight lined under dress – basically worn under frocks. But my afternoon attires would be white chemise with ducks, flowers or birds embroidered on them. Afternoon being a curfew time, we would not be allowed to venture out. I would lie down next to my grandmother, placing my leg over hers. Most of the time there would be strong power -cuts, ranging for many hours. Grandma would use a hand fan made of palm leaf to fan both of us. Being a story teller that she was, she would weave little stories of her own, while I and my brother would listen to with wide eyed wonder. Sometime down, just at the crucial juncture, her words would sound like incoherent vowels , her hand holding the fan would stop it’s random motion.

‘Grandma, what next?’, I would nudge her, prompting her to wake up with a startle and continue her story. This would continue till no amount of nudging would wake her up and her words would transform into soft snores.

THAT would be my ‘THE MOMENT’. I would carefully slip off her embrace and head upstairs to the terrace. Collecting unripe mangoes, I would tip toe to the kitchen. Armed with a rusted razor blade and a palmful of salt mixed with chilly powder, I would devour one green mango after another – closing my eyes intermittently due to the surge of tanginess.

But if there is one thing that I would sincerely look forward to, was the Norwester. While playing Kit-Kit, Pittu, Colorman in the evenings, my eyes would look into the sky every now and then. Little traces of dark silhouettes would offer me hope. And then they would make their guest appearance. They would begin with soft winds resulting in little ballets of dry leaves and pollens. Then they would gradually transform into a mad frenzy of dried twigs, large droplets of rainfall and ear-splitting thunders.

‘Run, Run, Run’, we would scream in rejoice. Though we our legs would hardly increase pace.

‘Rush in, fast, fast, fast’, the elders would warn.

We would rush in but wouldn’t let the elders close the doors and windows. My mother would put out her hand and collect rain water in the cup of her palm. Then with great care she would apply the water on our skin.

“Summer rains are good for the skin. They cure rashes”, my grandma would laugh.

Pressing our cheeks against the window rails, we would intently watch the scenery outside. A collage of mayhem and ecstasy. Flying sarees from some unknown terrace. Loud rattle of loose tin sheds. A wet dog taking shelter under a Frangipani tree. Noisy boys playing football in the incessant rain. Sound of falling mangoes. And then that special smell – of parched soil just bathed in raindrops.  We would breathe in as much as we could, inhaling the maximum of the earthy vapour.

“Aaaah….what a beautiful smell”, we would scream aloud in unison.

The temperature would suddenly drop down to many notches below normal, providing a sigh of relief to all.

By nightfall it would be cold enough for my father to announce his desire for Khichuri – a preparation of rice and lentils cooked together. There would invariably be a power cut that night. Sitting around the shadowy magic of the kerosene lantern we would listen to the sound of wet, croaking frogs and crickets while waiting for the aroma of hot Khichuri and Fried Brinjals to emanate from the kitchen indoors.  My grandpa would take out his light shawl and wrap it around himself. The late evening news would blare in monotone from his little radio. Enjoying the light after-rain breeze, my grandma would murmur, “Aah, God Of Breeze, may you soothe our soul”.

Summer would be a quiet damsel that night; weary after a fiery session of love making.

Late in the night, the jasmines would bloom in mirth. There was this special jasmine creeper that my grandma had brought from Bangalore. She had planted it near our window. After every Norwester the Jasmine creeper would break into tiny dots of perfumed whites. It would be the best gift of Summer. Sitting near the window I would watch the creeper bathe in moonlight; at times shadowed by passing tufts of cloud. I would thank God for Summer.

I do not know if it is an irony of fate or not. The same Summer that had once seen my birth, also witnessed my grandma’s death. In one scorching afternoon we were told that she is no more.  That evening it rained hard. It rained for many hours. From our window  I watched the Gulmohar petals soaking every joy of summer rain. Only there was no grandma to make tiniest of paper boats to put out into the after-rain puddles. There was no one to tell me how rain water cured pimples and summer allergies; no one to brave the rains to go out and tie a falling creeper to it’s support. Till nightfall I kept looking out through the window -just in case I would catch her shadow passing by. But there was no one. The Jasmines bloomed that night – their fiercest best – not a single branch was left untouched by the little white blossoms. As I reached out to touch them, tears ran down my cheeks. I could suddenly feel the presence of my grandma. I could almost hear her voice. “Aah, God Of Breeze, may you soothe our soul”.

Summers have never been the same again but amidst all the office, kids, bills, loans, stomach cramps, noisy network connection that I have, I still wait for little black mossy clouds to huddle together in the scorching summer sky….just in case it rains.