“I need a new sweater! Look at my old one it hardly fits!” complained Aditi, pulling the bottom of her sweater down to show how short it was. “See, see the sleeves,” she added, holding up her hands. “They’re short too.”
“Ok, we’ll ask papa and go shopping,” replied their mother as she organized the kitchen, drying and stacking the dishes, and pulling out the pans that would be needed next morning for cooking breakfast.
“Bhai also needs,” added Aditi brightly, seizing the opportunity to include some more requests. “See his jacket, it’s torn and the zip doesn’t work well. He doesn’t say anything because he’s scared.”
“Shhh, shhh,” said Rahul, pleased that someone was speaking for him, but still nervous about the fall out.
“Let me see the jacket,” said his mother. “Stand up properly and let’s see if I can fix the zip. Maybe if I rub a candle on it, it will move properly.”
“What are you sh-shing me for. I am not scared. Look at papa, he has so many coats. Why can’t we have nice warm clothes for the winter?”
“All right, all right, calm down,” said their mother irritably. “I’ll see what I can do. Now both of you run to your room, brush and get to bed.”
She sighed tiredly as the two children ran down the corridor to their bedroom. Her 8 year old had the energy and attitude of a young woman, but her 12 year old son was like a scared child, particularly when it came to interacting with his father.
In the drawing room, her husband frowned. He had just settled down to a nice pipe after a long day of teaching and research and now his pleasant mood was disrupted.
He marched into the kitchen and demanded, “What do you mean ‘I’ll see what I can do?’ Do you want the children to think you are going to override my decisions?”
Surprised by his attitude, his wife was speechless for a moment. Then she retorted firmly, “I was just trying to calm the children. Do you want me to get into an argument with them? At bedtime?”
Unable to come up with a suitable response to that statement, he said belligerently, “You spoil them too much. When I was young, we didn’t have many clothes or comforts. I had to work for everything I have.”
“Yes, yes,” she replied as she scrubbed the kitchen counter. “And we are going to educate them about that at this age?” she added impatiently. “Well. I am done here, why don’t you tuck them in bed and tell them a bedtime story about your life.” With that she walked away swiftly to the bathroom and shut the door firmly behind her. She had had a long day keeping energetic 1st graders busy and then coming home and cooking and tidying up. Now all she wanted was peace and quiet.
“That’s a good idea,” her husband thought. “I’ll tell them about my life. It’s time they grew up.” His bad mood dissipated as he thought about a special kind of story to tell the children. “So much to tell,” he thought. He had had a difficult life, and he hardly knew where to begin to tell the children. He leaned back again in his chair and took a few puffs on his pipe to clear his mind. Finally he put away his pipe, switched off the lights and went to the children’s room.
Aditi and Rahul were already in bed and Aditi was entertaining her brother by pretending her doll was flying around the room. It was a bright red doll, made of an old pair of socks. Her mother had stuffed a sock with some cotton from the mattress maker’s store and had fashioned legs and arms for it. She had sewed on black buttons for eyes, a tiny white button for the nose, and stitched an ‘o’ shaped mouth in running stitch. “That’s because your doll is always amazed by the brilliant things you say,” she had teasingly explained to Aditi. “So, what do you want to call your doll?”
“Rani,” Aditi replied promptly, enjoying her mother’s account of the doll’s amazement. “A Rani in royal red robes who is always amazed by the wise words of her advisor, The Gr-r-r-eat Aaa-diti!”
“Papa’s here, papa’s here. Tell us a story. Sit down Rani, be quiet Rahul,” Aditi said excitedly.
Rahul was already quiet. He looked up to politely acknowledge his father and then shut his eyes as if to say that he was ready to go to sleep immediately if ordered.
“Sit here, sit here,” said Aditi, reaching out to pull a chair. “Now, what story are you going to tell us?” she demanded.
“A fairy story,” replied papa with a broad smile. “And a history story, and a puzzle.”
“Now that is puzzling,” exclaimed Aditi, almost bouncing off her bed with excitement
“At the end of the story you have to figure out what historical event I am referring to.”
“Start start,” shouted Aditi, bursting with curiosity.
“A long time ago, when we lived under British rule, your grandparents, my older sister, younger sister, and I lived in a small house in Ahmedabad. We had two small whitewashed brick rooms with wooden doors and windows. The roof was made of corrugated metal and when it rained it made such a loud rattling sound that no one could sleep. It wasn’t our house, it was rented from someone who was an admirer of your grandfather’s scholarship.”
“There was a bathroom outside the house, but there was no running water. We had to fill water from a municipal reservoir not too far from the house and carry back a few buckets every day and pour into a big container at home. These were heavy metal buckets, not like the nice plastic buckets you get nowadays. In fact, nothing was nice and easy those days. Ahmedabad water was too brackish too drink, so we had to fetch ‘sweet water’ for drinking from a special tap installed at the end of the road.”
“Your grandfather, Bapuji, received a small salary from a Jain foundation for teaching ancient languages and for translating and interpreting scripture. It wasn’t much, and we didn’t have more than 2-3 sets of clothes and of course our school uniform. But we didn’t complain, and I especially worked very hard at school. I wanted to grow up quickly and get a good job and buy a nice house.”
“When I was Aditi’s age, something big happened. Gandhiji led a major movement against the British. Rahul, at the end of that story you will have to tell me what that event was.”
“As I was saying, something big happened that year, and your grandfather took part in that event to fight for our independence, so that his grandchildren could grow up in a free country. Of course the British arrested him and threw him in jail. That was to be expected, but then they did something really terrible – they exiled him from British territory for 7 years. So he had to leave his family and live in princely states in Rajasthan for that period.”
He paused here because Aditi was flapping Rani’s arms vigorously. Annoyed at the interruption he asked, “What is the matter?”
“Do you think it would have been better to have been in jail in Ahmedabad all that time?”
”What nonsense,” scoffed Rahul, “don’t you know jail is terrible? Remember papa’s stories of when he was in jail?”
“Yes, but,” continued Aditi undeterred by Rahul’s tone, “at least in jail his children could have met him and maybe brought him nice food.”
“I never thought of it that way,” said their father, raising his arm so that Rahul had to swallow his retort. “He must have worried about us, but at least he was free. And freedom was very important to him. All right, now let me continue my story,” he said as he firmly tucked Rani under the blanket.
“Ba, your grandmother, knew that Bapuji could look after himself. He had enough friends and admirers in Rajasthan to help him. But how to look after us, that was her main concern. We had no money, no savings like I make in the bank. Her first task was to speak to the landlord so that we would not be evicted. Luckily, he was a freedom fighter himself so he allowed us to stay there until such time as Bapuji returned.”
“But we needed a lot of other things too. We needed food, clothes, education. Ba was not an educated woman, she couldn’t take a job. Not that there were many jobs back then. So she did what she knew. She started tailoring people’s clothes. We didn’t own a sewing machine, people couldn’t afford them. There were professional tailors, but they were expensive. Besides, some women preferred having their clothes stitched by a woman. So Ba worked for hours stitching people’s clothes – blouses, petticoats, and fancy ghaghras. She didn’t stitch men’s clothes, though she did stitch my shirts.”
“But tailors don’t make much money,” interrupted Aditi, ignoring Rahul’s frowns for opening her mouth.
“They don’t, good point,” replied her father, upon which she threw a defiant “so there” look at Rahul. “We hardly had enough money for food, and no money for school fees. So Ba also started doing embroidery for people. She embroidered sarees, blouses, children’s clothes, and sometimes even men’s shirts. Embroidery paid more than tailoring.”
“But still that was barely enough money....we were still on the edge of poverty. And we needed money for school fees, school uniforms, books, notebooks....so many things you don’t even need to think of. And so much work had to be done. My older sister and I had to work very hard; we were not spoilt like you. Since Ba had no time free from her stitching and embroidery work, it was my job to buy vegetables at night. By that time vegetables were wilted and vendors were willing to give them cheap. Then in the morning, I had to carry all the water from the well while your aunt did the cooking. It was very difficult for her at first, lighting the coal properly and getting a good fire going without wasting anything. If there was any waste, Ba shouted at us. After that two of us would quickly eat and wash the utensils. Then finally, after all that was done, we went to school. So you can imagine how early we started work.”
He paused to gauge the impact of the story on the children and was happy to see them listening very seriously.
“As we grew taller, Ba let out our clothes, but still we reached a point where we were wearing embarrassingly short clothes. We were very thin, so she didn’t have to let out the sides. The lucky one was your youngest aunt. She got her older sister’s clothes after they were too short for her to wear. Ba had to do a lot of begging from better off relatives and neighbours. When our uniforms could not be adjusted anymore, she would request people to part with uniforms their children had outgrown. She would also ask for textbooks for your aunt...not for me because her old books would be passed on to me. She would also request old notebooks, tear out blank pages from them, and stitch together new notebooks for us.”
“Ba was determined to educate us and would shout at us while she was stitching if we were wasting our time. It was a very difficult period. No comforts, just hard work, little food, and so much shouting. Sometimes the three of us would hold hands when we walked to school and back. It would comfort us to know we had each other.”
Rani hung her head and Aditi said “Ba shouts at me too.”
“Yes” said her father thoughtfully. “She does shout at you. She doesn’t believe in spoiling children. Now be quiet and listen.”
“One day we took a short cut back because we had to stay a little late in school and were afraid that when we got back Ba would be angry at us for wasting time and would shout at us. We had to stay back because a special storyteller had been called to tell us a story about a fairy who lived in a well. One had to go down the well to meet the fairy and she would grant all your wishes. The lucky children who met the fairy lived a wonderful life with her and never had to face any kind of troubles or difficulties.”
“But we knew Ba would not listen to any excuses. We had to get back in time to help her or to study or do whatever she planned. Or if she had warmed the food for us and it had gotten cold again, still she would shout at us. So we cut through the small side roads to get home fast. We had to find our way through a maze of little lanes but your aunt claimed that she knew the way, so we followed her. But it soon became clear that she was lost, and my heart sank at the thought of the trouble we would get into. Then suddenly we came across a small well that we had never seen before. I peered down it and saw that there was some water at the bottom.”
“My little sister got very excited and claimed that it was the fairy’s well. Of course her older sister said that that was all nonsense. But my little sister insisted and insisted that it was just like the well in the fairy story that was narrated to us today. Her belief was so strong she made us doubt ourselves.”
Aditi wiggled around and waved her hand, holding her doll aloft. He frowned and asked her sternly, “Yes, what is it?”
“How old were you then?”
“I think I was 13 and, before you ask again, your aunts were 14 and 9.”
Surprised, Rahul was about to comment on the fact that his father believed in fairies at that age, but he thought better of it and shut his mouth.
“So, back to the well. We examined it carefully and it did seem like the hidden well where the fairy lived. First we thought we should hold hands and jump in. Then we decided against that because our clothes would get dirty and wet. So we took off our clothes, except our underwear, and put them in the bucket and lowered it into the well. The bucket went all the way down and we could make out that the water was just about 2 inches deep, just like the well in the fairy story. We were thoroughly excited and climbed on to the wall of the well and were just about to hold hands and jump in when someone grabbed us from behind and pushed us down towards the ground. I was about to shout at the person who had destroyed our beautiful future when I saw the kindly and worried face of Mayank bhai. You remember Mayank bhai? In that photo with Bapuji? He happened to be passing by that area and recognized us immediately.”
“He pulled up our clothes, told us to get dressed and marched us off home despite our protests about the wonderful fairy who would present us with lovely clothes and enormous quantities of delicious food.”
“As we neared home, we realized how late we were and were petrified at the thought of the scolding we would receive. But Mayank bhai told us to wait outside and went in and spoke to Ba first, and I don’t know what he said, but when we entered, our heads hanging down, hardly daring to go up to our mother, she rushed towards us and hugged us tightly without saying a word. Later that evening, Mayank bhai visited us again with some jaggery and ghee, and my mother made us the most delicious halwa we had ever dreamt off.”
“Did she stop shouting at you after that,” inquired Aditi compassionately.
“Oh no,” laughed her father. “After a few days, her temper returned and we went back to our old life. But we never went looking for a fairy again.”
“So what happened then,” asked Aditi, hoping for some magical change. “Did you get better food to eat?”
“How could we? Life was tough, and we had to survive. When my father returned from exile and got a job at a college, our lives improved and we got healthier and fatter. Then I grew up and studied hard, and now here we are. I can give you nice things to eat and provide you with a nice home and a good school.”
“All right now, Rahul, what historical event did I refer to? You should have studied it in school.”
“I know, I already calculated it,” said Rahul smugly. He had been very quiet throughout the narration, too timid to open his mouth before his father, so now he was only too happy to speak about something he felt confident about.
“If you were 8 years old when the event took place, it must have been 1930. So that was the Dandi March, right?”
“Right you are! Very good!” exclaimed his father. “Now time to sleep,” he said as he switched off the lights.
“But, but,” Aditi protested, “where is the fairy?”
“The fairy in the well? Well, I suppose she is still in the well,” replied her father quickly, taken aback by the question.
“But in a fairy story the children have to meet the fairy,” objected Aditi.
“This is not that kind of story, silly,” said Rahul, in an all-knowing older sibling manner. “This is a real life story.”
“But then there has to be a real fairy,” persisted Aditi, drawing out the word ‘real’.
“All right, all right, enough you two,” interrupted their father, pulling their blankets over them. “The only real fairy is hard work. That’s what will get you everything you want. See, my father and I worked hard instead of depending on fairies, now India is independent, and I have been able to provide a good home for you two. You will never have to face the difficulties I had to.”
And with that and a loud shhh, he shut the door and left, feeling certain that the children had grasped the moral of the story.
But in the darkness, Aditi continued to mutter unhappily about the absence of a fairy.
“Oh, be quiet,” said Rahul in a loud whisper.
After a while Aditi said triumphantly, “I know, I know who is the real, real, fairy.”
“Ok, who is it?” replied Rahul with exaggerated weariness to show he was being patient with a silly child.
“It’s Ba,” said Aditi, forgetting to whisper.
“Ba? Ba who always shouts if we don’t listen to her? Silly! How can she be a fairy?” scoffed Rahul.
Aditi scowled at him and covered her head with her blanket. She looked at Rani and said defiantly, “I still think Ba is the real fairy.”
And Rani stared back at her in amazement.