The Anniversary Gifts
Chumki counted the number of coins in her pocket.
“One, plus two, plus two again,” she tallied the denominations on her little fingers, just as her teacher had taught in class.
“Thirteen!” she exclaimed, holding the third little toe on her feet, as the last two-rupee coin clinked into her silvery pile.
It was the fourth time she had counted her treasure and the third time it had come to thirteen. Thirteen must be correct.
Chumki carefully bundled up the coins and put them in the small sling bag that Ma had given her on her last birthday, the day she had turned six.
“You are a big girl now,” Ma had told her. “You must have your own bag to keep your belongings safe.”
Chumki wore the sling bag everywhere she went. There were always treasures to pick up on the way. That smooth white stone, the curly yellow leaf, the puff of cotton seed – everything went inside her bag.
Today it tinkled with her saving of two months – the coins that Deta (her dad) would sometimes hand out to her after making a purchase. But would they be enough to buy her parents a gift? She had heard her aunts and older cousins teasing her parents about their upcoming wedding anniversary.
“We want a party,” they had chimed, to which Ma had playfully retorted that the party would be there only if they got gifts.
Chumki loved getting gifts as much as she loved giving them. During her vacations to places outside Assam, she had seen her parents buy bagful of various knick-knacks for their relatives back home. Judging by their broad smiles she knew that everyone loved to get a little something.
She made up her mind to buy her parents gifts, too.
But it was not easy, she realised, to decide on what to buy. That, too, with her limited resources.
Chumki was lost in her thoughts when the shrill call of the neighbourhood raddiwala broke her reverie.
“Majoni, anything to sell today?” he asked her, laying down his burden.
He was their regular vendor who bought old newspapers and magazines.
Chumki shook her head. Just as the man was about to leave, hoisting the bundle of old and discarded papers over his shoulder, something caught the little girl’s eye.
It was an old issue of the children’s magazine Tinkle.
She remembered Deta showing the comic book to her in a shop one day.
“I grew up reading this, Chumki,” he had told her, a distant look coming over his eyes. “I wish I could buy one and read it now.”
Chumki had wondered then what stopped Deta from buying it. Perhaps grown-ups did not want to go back to their childhoods.
“How much for the Tinkle, khura?” she spoke up on an impulse.
The vendor turned around.
“How much will you pay?” he asked her mischievously. He had known Chumki since her birth.
“It costs fifty rupees, you know.”
Chumki tilted her head to one side, thinking hard. She clutched her sling bag and made up her mind.
“Ten rupees, khura,” she said. “That’s all I can pay you.”
The vendor stood still for a moment. He remembered his own little girl back in his village.
“Done,” he closed the deal, and offered the book to Chumki.
But Chumki was not done with the deal yet.
“But it is a gift, khura,” she said dolefully. “How will it look without its wrapping?”
“Oh, so it’s a gift,” the vendor chuckled good-naturedly. “For your boyfriend, then?”
He rummaged around in his bundle and brought out a sheet of shiny pink wrapping paper. He smoothened out the creases as best as he could, enfolded the Tinkle and tied it up with a piece of string.
“Here you go,” he placed it in the outstretched hands of the little girl.
“Here’s your money, khura,” Chumki solemnly completed the transaction. “Thank you so much.”
Deta’s gift is done, thought Chumki happily, now for Ma.
She thought hard, trying to recall tidbits of the conversations between them.
What did Ma like?
Ma hardly ever spoke about her likes. Then it came to her.
Bon bogori! The little jujube fruits that Ma used to speak of fondly, whenever she recounted her school days.
“We used to have them after school, parting with our pocket money,” she would tell Chumki. “The vendor would mix the jujubes with a little salt and give them to us in a paper cone. They tasted so tangy and nice!”
And Ma would make a sound like “Tchah!” and screw up her eyes, as if she had just popped a jujube into her mouth.
Chumki remembered seeing the fruits in plastic packets, stacked in a jar, in the nearby shop. Somehow, Ma would be too busy buying groceries – rice and dal and other necessities, to even look into those glass jars.
A short walk brought Chumki to the shop. The shopkeeper, like the raddiwala, knew her well and extended a warm smile.
“What would you like to buy from me, young lady?” he asked, beaming at her.
Chumki pointed towards the big glass jar.
“One packet of jujubes, please,” she said.
“That would be five rupees, dear,” the shopkeeper said, unscrewing the top of the jar.
“But I have only three rupees, khura!” Chumki exclaimed distraughtly.
The shopkeeper halted in his tracks.
“Well, then,” he spoke hesitantly. “Too bad for you.”
“But this was supposed to be a gift for Ma,” Chumki’s tears were now threatening to spill over.
Suddenly, she recalled something.
“Khura, you wanted a paper weight to keep your bills from flying about, no?”
She unsnapped her sling bag and searched for something in it. She then triumphantly brought out a smooth round white stone, the size and shape of a paper weight, and held it out to the shopkeeper.
“Here, khura, take this. This will cost you two rupees and also cover my deficit,” she said, her tiny heart beating with hope.
The shopkeeper was at a loss for words. Has the child grown up so fast?
He took out a packet of jujubes quietly, put it is a paper bag and placed it in Chumki’s hands. Chumki had already kept the stone and the three rupee coins on the counter. The transaction was closed in silence.
The gifts were ready for Ma and Deta.
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PS: Majoni - an endearing term used for girls in Assam, Khura - Uncle
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