It wasn’t a great tragedy that my birthday coincided with Diwali. The number of days where one could expect a present or a party was reduced from two to the one, true, but my parents made up for it. ‘Quantity over quality’ that is what they argued. ‘You will get the best birthday party (what could be grander than Diwali?), and you will get better gifts. After all, we only have to buy one for you.’ That was comforting, and in a sense validated, since our family organized their big purchases, the cooker, the almairah, the radio and the like somewhere around Diwali. I’d always claim that they were bought for me, and no one, not even my little sister had the heart to argue with that.
This Diwali, my 12th in a row, was going to be even better. Dad had been hinting about it for a while, leaving the brochures, and the loan documents carelessly in the dining room. It was almost unbelievable. We were going to get a scooter. A scooter. Can you believe it? You can, can’t you? But back then, it was preposterous. No one I knew had a scooter in their family. We would be the first to get it.
School holidays began at D-5, or five days prior to Diwali. On that day, I began to be aware that things weren’t going well. You see, as a child, I was blisfully unaware of politics. I knew the name of the chief minister, and the party name, and that was it. I knew not my caste. Even the fact that I was Hindu, and that most of my friends were Sikhs was a little too abstract for me. Though I could read, I didn’t read the news. I could sense that it was about bombs exploding in distant cities, unshaven rioters screaming with drawn swords, speeches, and staid economic news. None of which interested me.
But during the afternoon power-cut, when my sister and I were using the morning paper for our daily art-project, I chanced upon a news story, made watery blue by my sisters handiwork. A bus load of Hindus had been killed – righteous retaliation – said the spokesman for the SKP. I stared at it, my heart in my throat, until my sister interrupted. “Look, if you don’t want to paint. Let me have that sheet. I need it for the river”. I looked over to what she was doing. A house, collaged out of differently coloured paper, missing a river running by its gate.
That night, dad whispered to mom. Words filtered through their room into ours. Delhi, Train, We don’t know anyone there.
On D-4, we weren’t allowed to run out. There was fighting in the streets of Amritsar. My mother said. We can’t go out today.
On D-3, I saw a procession walk by my house. They carried torches and they walked quietly. We still weren’t allowed out.
On D-2, Dad came from work in a turban, and beard. He stripped off the beard, and removed the turban. “They are stopping motorists.” He said. “I saw bodies on the road. Jasbir gave me his turban. We made the beard from paper.”
On D-1 night, we went to Delhi, leaving the house during the powercut. We went unreserved. I stood for all three hours. Dad was in another compartment. My mother carried my sister. What my father carried was what we had left.
We waited in the station while dad left to find accomodation seeking second and third cousins in the far-corners of the city. We waited and we waited. We waited in the sulphurous waiting room, in the cavernous halls, in and around the tracks. As my sister slept, something struck me. Today was D-day. Diwali and Birthday.
Perhaps my mother saw me then.
“Isn’t it your birthday today?” Mama asked smiling.
“Yes. Yes. Yes it is.” I replied.
“We should do something.” she said.
“But what can we do?” I replied, despair leaking into the question.
“Let me see. Come. Help me carry my bag.”
We walked to counter at the dining station, my mother still carrying my sister. The prices seemed astronomical, especially for food.
“One plate of noodles, please.” said my mother.
We sat at the tables and waited until the waiter came with a plate and a jar.
“Close your eyes ” my mother said. “Have you ever eaten noodles?”
“No.” I said, complying.
“Keep your eyes closed. Be patient. ” I screwed them shut as tightly as I could.
“Alright. Thats enough. you can open them now. “
A plate of little dead worms. That was my first thought. Some kind of red chutney, spread into a wide grin over them. Three little dollops of the chutney making the eyes and the nose. I don’t remember how it tasted. But I do remember that plate. I remember sharing it with my sister. I remember my mother taking a bite. I remember saying we should save a bit for father.
When we saw him again. It was D + 1. He was in a car. A car! Getting in, I decided that cars were better than any scooter could ever be. He had a wide grin when I told him that.
When I told him about my gift.
He said “Oh, like that story. Like that O’Henry tale”
“What story?” I asked.
“The one called ‘The gift of the magi'”.