by Chandramohan Nair
“Ma, please, I don’t want to go for Rohit’s birthday party tomorrow,” said Pooja, giving her mother a pleading look.
Saroja looked at her five-year-old whose normally cheerful face wore a look of anxiety.
“Don’t worry, Pooja. Everything will be fine and you will enjoy the party,” she said, trying to sound enthusiastic.
Pooja was having her evening tea with her mother and grandmother in their small living room. Rohit was her classmate and his father owned a business where Pooja’s father was employed. Rohit was a bright but pampered child who was used to getting his own way in everything.
Saroja’s thoughts went back to the previous year. Rohit’s birthday party had been really enjoyable. The mothers were invited too and Rohit’s mother had ensured that the ladies had a good time. There were games for them as well and Saroja had been an active participant. The refreshments too had simply been mouth-watering. In fact, she couldn’t remember having had a better time in years.
But it had all been bitterly spoilt at the end, all because of the gift she had chosen for Rohit.
When Saroja had shopped for a suitable present she found that most of the toys were too expensive for her budget. She had then reluctantly settled for a cute-looking stuffed teddy bear.
It was the custom at Rohit’s birthday party that right at the end, he would ceremoniously open his birthday gifts one by one. So they had gathered around the dining table as Rohit proceeded to open his presents. There were fancy looking guns, cars, planes and electronic gadgets. But there was little joy on Rohit’s face. He already had all of these and he glumly tried each one before keeping them aside.
Pooja had felt that her little bear would come as a welcome change and cheer Rohit up and had waited in anticipation. Her present was amongst the last to be opened. When Rohit spotted the teddy bear, his first reaction was one of consternation which quickly transformed into a fit of pique.
“I don’t want this stupid teddy bear. Whoever has brought it can take it back,” he had shouted, glaring at everyone. He had then flung the little bear right across the living room and walked off to his room in a huff.
Pooja had picked up her teddy and run over to her mother in tears. Everyone’s eyes had been on them. Rohit’s mother had apologised on behalf of her son and consoled them but it had hardly lessened the humiliation. The party ended listlessly as the guests left quietly with their return gifts.
Saroja was hoping that Pooja would have forgotten about the episode but clearly that was not the case, even though the girl had just been four when it happened. Not attending the party was not an option. Rohit’s mother was a lovely person who went out of her way to make all the guests comfortable. Moreover, her husband and Rohit’s father got along very well.
Saroja glanced at her mother who had just finished lighting the evening lamp and an incense stick.
“Amma, what should we buy as a present this time? It has to be something special, as you well know,” she said.
Paati sat silent for some time in her easy chair, her hands clasped together on her lap.
“Leave the choice to me. Let it be a surprise even to both of you,” she said.
The next morning Paati took a rickshaw to a nearby fancy-stores shop. It had a wide selection of toys and fancy items. She came back home with a large gift-wrapped box.
Pooja held the box and found it surprisingly light for its size. She was both curious and excited to know about its contents.
“Why is it so large and what is it, Paati?” she asked.
“It is something that can help you know more about yourself. That’s all I can say,” she said with a glint in her eye.
By around five o’clock in the evening, Saroja and Pooja were all set to go. Pooja looked charming in her white frock printed with red roses.
They were amongst the first guests to reach Rohit’s spacious bungalow. The entrance and the living room were festooned with balloons, crepe paper streamers and pompons.
“So good to see you, Saroja and Pooja,” said Rohit’s mother, greeting them warmly at the entrance.
Rohit walked out slowly to meet them. He looked smart in a maroon kurta pyjama combination but his face wore a petulant look. He brightened up when he saw the large present that Pooja was awkwardly holding. He mumbled a greeting, snatched the present and ran off inside.
Soon, more children with their mothers arrived and the party games got going. The ladies started with antakshari. Saroja was well prepared and got quickly immersed in the excitement of the contest.
The children’s games got underway with musical chairs. They walked nervously around the chairs, intently listening to a medley of film tunes. During the first few rounds, there were complaints that Rohit had deliberately jostled to claim a chair but the children were sporting about it and did not make a fuss.
Finally, Pooja and Rohit were the last two contestants. They walked in slow motion around the solitary chair. When the music stopped Pooja found herself right in front of the chair and sat down in a reflex action. Rohit immediately threw a fearsome tantrum complaining that Pooja had sat down before the music had stopped.
Hearing the commotion, the ladies who were into a game of charades trooped into the children’s room. Rohit’s mother quickly realised what had happened and proposed that both Pooja and Rohit be declared winners. Saroja heaved a sigh of relief.
The ladies went back to their charades while the children went on a treasure hunt which was followed by a game of “Who Am I?” They ended it all with a lemon-and-spoon race. Rohit contrived to get at least a consolation prize in all the remaining games.
By now everyone was famished and the refreshments were eagerly awaited. They were not disappointed as the delicious birthday cake was followed by sweets and savouries that were tasty enough to satisfy the most demanding palate.
Saroja was thankful that everything had gone reasonably well so far although the final hurdle still remained. The opening of gifts. Saroja even contemplated leaving the party citing some excuse. But she had faith in her mother’s judgement and was curious to find out what the mysterious gift was. She prayed that Paati had made a wise choice.
So there they were, all gathered again around the dining table. The ladies gave Saroja and Pooja comforting looks. They remembered last year.
Rohit started the unwrapping ritual. Pooja’s large box appeared tempting but he left it alone. He uncovered an array of toys ranging from police cars with wailing sirens to remote controlled fighter planes, guns with strobe lights and other electronic and mechanical toys. But nothing excited him and he looked annoyed.
Finally, only Pooja’s present remained.
Everyone looked in anticipation as Rohit opened the box and took out what turned out to be another gift-wrapped box. Rohit looked puzzled. When he opened the second box all were surprised to see yet another box coming out. There were nervous titters around the table. Rohit’s face simmered with anger.
Saroja thought there must have been some horrible mix-up in the fancy-stores shop and that her mother must have picked up someone’s idea of a practical joke. To everyone’s relief, the third box seemed to contain an object. It was a shining oval mirror encased in an acrylic frame.
Rohit looked furious. Someone was trying to make a fool of him by giving him an ordinary mirror packed in such a large box. He glowered into the mirror and saw a frightening visage staring at him. The more he glared the more hideous it appeared. He had never seen anything quite like this.
“There’s a demon inside the mirror,” he finally exclaimed fearfully, handing the mirror over to his mother.
She took a peek and understood. It was a cleverly constructed curved mirror designed to distort and exaggerate even the slightest change in expression.
“Look into the mirror with a smile and the demon will vanish. The demon will appear only if you get angry,” she said with a laugh. She had realised the intention behind the present.
Rohit smiled reluctantly and was startled to see the furious demon being replaced by a familiar looking face grinning broadly at him. He felt relieved and excited. He had got a magical mirror with a demon inside who could be banished with just a smile.
Saroja and Pooja exchanged delighted looks.
Paati’s choice had indeed turned out to be quite special.