By S. Shah
28 April, 2014
Wuppy! Mummy-Pappa are going out this evening! That means we can have a ‘story-night’ with Ruppu Ma! After feeding us banana and cream with sugar, Ruppu Ma will switch off the lights and I’ll climb into her lap while Reshu will curl up in her bed. And then Ruppu Ma will start her tale. I know in a few minutes I’ll be fast asleep, though. How I wish I could keep my eyes open until the tale gets over! I hardly ever get to know how Ruppu Ma’s stories end!
I don’t know how Ruppu Ma knows so many tales even though she can’t read and write a single word. She never went to school, you know. I don’t suppose there was a school in her village when she was a child—which was more than 50 years ago. I think she makes up all her tales herself. Isn’t that clever of her! I’ve never seen anyone who knows so many stories as her—stories about Rajas and Ranis, potters and washer men, parrots and Mynahs, walking vegetables and talking Pakoras! How does she remember every little detail—what the princess said to the vegetable-seller, what the little boy wore on his trip to the forest, how the Khichadi that the teacher’s wife made tasted? Was Ruppu Ma there when all of these happened?
Ruppu Ma has got to be the best tale-teller in the whole world! We’re really lucky that we have her with us! Can’t imagine life without her!
Last week, it was Jan 1st, and Reshu and I decided to celebrate Ruppu Ma’s birthday. I’m not sure if Ruppu Ma was really born on New Year’s Day, though. Ruppu Ma herself doesn’t know when her birthday is. Like her, her parents, she says, didn’t know how to read and write—they were from Bihar and worked on a tea garden in Assam. It was a difficult life, and her parents were poor. They wouldn’t have known how to note down her birthday even if they wanted to, I suppose. In any case, in her family they didn’t celebrate birthdays. Maybe that’s why they didn’t need to remember when Ruppu Ma was born.
Some days ago, Reshu and I were discussing about this and we felt really bad that everyone at home could celebrate their birthday except for Ruppu Ma. And so we decided, ‘Let’s fix a birthday for Ruppu Ma and celebrate it every year! She’ll be so happy!’ And what could be a better day for a birthday than Jan 1st, which was just round the corner! You’ve got to be really lucky and especially nice, we thought, to be born on New Year’s Day. And if anyone deserved to be born on Jan 1st, we said, it was Ruppu Ma! That’s how we decided that New Year’s Day was Ruppu Ma’s birthday.
A few days before Ruppu Ma’s birthday, Reshu and I put our minds together to prepare for the occasion. For her birthday presents, we decided we would gift Ruppu Ma a thing or two of our own that we loved best. Do you know what my gift to her was? A 3-D plastic picture of a rose! I really, really loved it, and I thought Ruppu Ma would love it as well. I also gave her a shell that I had picked up when Mummy-Pappa took us to the beach last year. I loved the shell, too. It makes such a wonderful sound when you place it against your ear! You can hear the sea roar!
Reshu decided to give Ruppu Ma her pink hair-band with a ladybird sitting in the middle. Reshu loved it, I know—she always wore it when she went out.
I’m sure Ruppu Ma loves our presents! She says she that she really does. No one ever gave her presents before; she told us when we gave them to her. There were tears in her eyes when she said that.
And do you know what else we did? We broke our porcelain piggy-banks in which we’d been saving up our pocket money for half a year, and we put together enough money to buy a cake and five samosas for Ruppu Ma’s birthday party! We went along with Mummy to the market, and when she was busy buying vegetables, we slipped off to the bakery and bought what we needed for the party. It was the first time we had bought anything by ourselves! You won’t believe how nice it was, entering a shop and buying things on your own!
On her birthday morning, when Ruppu Ma came upstairs (she lives downstairs, in what they call the ‘servants’ quarters’—in a little room, the size of a box), you should have seen the look on her face when we rushed to hug her and give her her presents! For a while, she didn’t know what the hullabaloo was all about! ‘Birthday?’ she asked in surprise, as she lifted me into her arms to give me her good-morning kiss. ‘Are you sure? But Angoo Baba, I don’t have a birthday!’
‘Of course you do, Ruppu-Ma!’ Reshu interrupted. ‘Everyone has a birthday! God sent you down into this world on some day, and, who knows, maybe it was on Jan 1st!’
I wriggled out of Ruppu Ma’s arms, and, clutching her hand, took her into the drawing room, where Mummy-Pappa were waiting for her so that the party could start. Reshu had laid out the plates, each with a slice of cake and a samosa on it. Pappa had made nimbu-pani—a big jar full of it. That was very sweet of him, wasn’t it? (I think it was the first time he had cooked something, and it tasted very nice!) Mumma had put up streamers and balloons across the room.
Mummy took Ruppu Ma by the hand—and did you know what? She made her sit on a chair! What’s so great about that, you might think? But that’s never happened before in our home. Ruppu Ma’s been with us even since before I was born, and she’s more than a mother to me, but, still, she had never sat on a chair in our house! Can you imagine that! She either sits on the floor or, sometimes, squats on a low stool. But on that day, her birthday, for the first time in my life I saw her sitting on a chair! I felt so, so very happy! That was nice of Mummy, wasn’t it? I wish Ruppu Ma can now sit on a chair every day!
Ruppu Ma didn’t quite like the idea of sitting on a chair, though. ‘No! No!’ she protested. She kept trying to get up, and Mummy kept trying to force her back into the chair. ‘How can I sit when Saheb and you are here? It doesn’t look good,’ she kept saying, hiding her face with her hands, as if she were being forced to do something wrong. ‘It’s so bad! I can’t do this! We servants must stay in our place. Please Memsahib, don’t insist. I find it so odd!’
Ruppu Ma wouldn’t listen even to Pappa, who rarely speaks directly to her. He said she was to sit on a chair from that day onwards, and what better day to start that than her birthday? ‘After all, you are like a mother to Reshu and Angoo Baba. You’ve brought them up with so much love and care,’ he added. But Ruppu Ma just wouldn’t listen to Pappa, too. ‘No! No ji! I’ll run away from this house if you insist’, she cried. ‘Saheb-ji! I fall at your feet, please don’t insist! My place is on the floor!’
It was awful to see Ruppu Ma behaving like this and saying such silly things. I wished she would stop at once. What nonsense was this, threatening to run away? If she ran away, I determined, I would run away with her, too.
‘What bakwaas are you talking, Ruppu Ma! Reshu burst out after a while. ‘If you don’t listen to Mummy and sit on the chair, I’m going to cry and cry and cry and I promise I will never stop!’
Reshu was always the bossy sort, and for once I appreciated her for being so. She grabbed Ruppu Ma’s shoulders and forced her back into the chair while I climbed into Ruppu Ma’s arms and laid my head firmly on her chest. I thought that if I did that, she would find it even more difficult to escape from the chair.
Meanwhile, Mummy clapped three times to signal the start of the party, and we all burst out singing the Happy Birthday song for Ruppu Ma!
When the song gave over, I looked up at Ruppu Ma. Her face was soaked in tears and she was shaking.
‘Why’s she crying when she should be laughing?’ I thought to myself. She was behaving really very silly. After all, when it’s your birthday party and people are celebrating and singing the Happy Birthday song for you, you’re meant to be happy, na?
It was awful seeing Ruppu Ma crying. That made me cry, too. I wished she would stop at once. Maybe this birthday idea of ours was stupid. We shouldn’t have thought of it in the first place.
The song finally gave over—it seemed to take so long—and we all clapped—all of us, except for Ruppu Ma.
A long silence fell across the room. What was going to happen next, I wondered. Why must grown-ups act so silly and serious? And that, too, during a birthday party? Spoil-sports!
‘Ruppu Ma, say something!’ Pappa said, breaking the silence at last.
Ruppu Ma fiddled around with her fingers and then looked up. ‘Yes, Saheb ji,’ she said barely audibly, wiping her tears with the pallu of her sari. ‘I, too, was probably born some day. I, too, must have a birthday, I suppose.’ And then she ran her hands through my hair and burst out sobbing. ‘God brought us poor people into the world, too,’ she went on, choking on her words. ‘We, too, have our birthdays, even though we don’t know when. And like you rich people, we, too, will have our day of death, when we’ll finally return to God.’
‘Now, stop crying, please, at once!’ Reshu implored Ruppu Ma. ‘If you continue, I’m going to cry, too.’ And in a moment, Reshu did just as she had threatened.
What a horrible way to celebrate a birthday, I thought. Things were really going out of hand! I jumped out of Ruppu Ma’s arms, grabbed a piece of cake and stuffed it into her mouth. ‘Happy Birthday, Ruppu Ma!’ I said, planting a kiss on her nose. I thought that would cheer her up. Taking a cue from me, Mummy brought Ruppu Ma a samosa and Pappa handed her a glass of nimbu-pani.
Ruppu Ma kept quiet for a while. It had all been too unexpected and overwhelming for her, I suppose. After all, she had never celebrated her birthday before. No one had ever sung for her or given her gifts—maybe no one had considered her important enough.
Ruppu Ma dried her face, nibbled on the cake, took a bite of the samosa and had a sip of the nimbu-pani. Then, she looked at us and asked, ‘Can I make a request, please?’
‘What is it, Ruppu Ma?’ said Mummy.
‘Can you please sing the Happy Birthday song for me once again?’ she hesitatingly ventured.
That was perhaps the first time I ever heard Ruppu Ma asking for something! It seemed so odd. I felt really sad for her as I looked at her tired face, her tear-filled eyes. ‘Poor, loving Ruppu Ma,’ I thought, ‘How scared she is asking for such a small favour!’ You’d think people like Ruppu Ma simply cannot be allowed to ask others for anything at all, though I’m sure they sometimes want to. I’m sure they hate being constantly ordered about and scolded and heckled. I certainly wouldn’t like to be treated that way. You wouldn’t like it, too, I’m sure.
Ruppu Ma has spent all her life doing what others tell her to. No wonder she looks so old and haggard! It’s one, long, non-stop ‘Ruppu Ma, do this! Ruppa Ma, do that! Ruppa Ma, come here! Ruppu Ma, go there!’, ‘Ruppu Ma, bring this!’, ‘Ruppu Ma, cook that!’ What a life!
Although I’ve tried, I just can’t seem to get Mummy-Pappa to stop ordering Ruppu Ma about. Whenever I’ve spoken to them about this, I’ve only been shouted at. ‘Stop interfering!’, they say. ‘Mind your own business!’ ‘At least she’s treated better in our house than elsewhere!’
As you can understand, it’s pointless my telling Mummy-Pappa to stop treating Ruppu Ma like that. They just aren’t going to listen to me. But there’s something I can do, I’ve just discovered! From today onwards, I’m going to stop asking Ruppu Ma to do things for me. That will certainly make her happy! Later today, when Mummy-Pappa have left, I’m going to tell her, ‘Ruppu Ma, I always ask you to do this and that for me—to tell me a tale, to feed me, to change my clothes, to give me a bath, to take me out to play. I’m going to stop all that from now on. Instead, I’m going to ask you to ask me to do things for you. Will that make you happy? I’m sure it will! I’d love to do things for you for a change!’
‘Ruppu Ma! My Ruppu Ma! My Ruppu-Wuppu!’ I cried as I ran to her side. ‘We’ll sing for you all day, for as long as you like, for all the tales you’ve told us!’
And then we all held hands and sang ‘Happy Birthday’ for Ruppu Ma—over and over again, until we were really tried and our jaws began to hurt!
You should have seen Ruppu Ma then—the way she clapped, swayed, laughed and sang along!