P.RAJA (October 07, 1952) a son of this divine soil, Pondicherry, India famed for its spiritual
heritage, writes in his chosen language, English, and also in his mother tongue, Tamil. More than 5000 of his works – poems, short stories, interviews, articles, book reviews, plays, skits, features and novellas – have seen the light through newspapers and magazines that number to 350 in both India and elsewhere. He has 30 books for adults and 8 books for children in English and 14 books in Tamil. Apart from contributing special articles to Encyclopaedia of Post-Colonial Literature in English (London), Encyclopaedia of Tamil Literature in English, and to several other edited volumes, he has also written scripts for Television (Delhi). He broadcasts his short stories and poems from All India Radio, Pondicherry. He was GENERAL COUNCIL MEMBER of CENTRAL SAHITYA AKADEMI, New Delhi (ENGLISH ADVISORY BOARD -- 2008-2012) representing Pondicherry University. He is EDITOR of TRANSFIRE, a literary quarterly devoted to translations from various languages into English. His website: www.professorraja.com
Children are the most loved creatures on Earth till they start loving mischief. A mischievous child is a real menace to its parents and the trouble is all the more if one of the parents is not a home maker.
There comes a stage in every child’s life when its intuition tells it that unless it cries its lungs out it can’t get a drop of milk to drink. There comes another stage when its intuition informs it that it has to play adamant to get things done. It is this adamant attitude that easily passes for mischief.
On such children, parents use a weapon, a four pronged one at that. They use the prongs one after the other. At first, the parents cajole the child by pouring sweet nothings into its wee ears. The result of such an action would be nothing more than futile.
The second prong is used for the purpose of luring the child with chocolates and biscuits. Very rarely are children attracted for they are in every way aware that such bribes are meant to distract them from their one aim—one desire— one goal.
The third prong is a teaser. Here enters the bogeyman. Sometimes the bald headed neighbour or a dark coloured relative would pass for a bogeyman. Such a thought about that unwanted man either silences the child or gives full throttle to its cry.
For those children who howl non-stop and allows their parents’ B.P. to shoot up, the last prong comes in handy. This prong is a thrasher. Parents use this weapon on their tiny tots mercilessly for they are left with no more prongs. It is like a battle. Only one of the two can win.
My story is about a tiny tot who belongs to the category of winners. Once a winner, the child is always the winner. It is only the parents who are destined to fight the losing battle.
Well! To get into the story…
Ramana was pushed into a crèche. His parents, being office goers, couldn’t think of any other option.
In the absence of his parents, Ramana’s only solace was his grandmother. But she was quite old and so found it difficult to attend to too many chores. When his mischief went beyond compare, she complained to her son of her inability to care for the child all through the day.
The grandmother was aware that Ramana was by nature very curious and it was this curiosity that drove him to all sorts of mischief. She found it hard to answer his fusillade of questions and his questions went non-stop unless she took measures to stop them. She had to do it, though she knew pretty well that the child needed company and was all the time trooping like a colt at her heels.
Once when she was frying fish on the gas stove, Ramana, who was all long pedalling his tricycle in the reception hall of the house, attracted by the sound and fury entered the kitchen.
“Ayah! What are you doing?” he asked in a singsong.
“I am frying fish for you, child,” answered the grandma in an affectionate voice.
“What fish, ayah?”
“What pomfret, ayah?”
“What black pomfret, ayah?”
Granny was dumbfounded. She searched for an answer and with great difficult found one. “Black Pomfret from the sea, child.”
“Sea! What sea, ayah?”
“Bay of Bengal, child,” granny said. She knew what would be his next question; she also knew that she had no answer for it. And so she grunted, “You are asking too many questions, Ramana. Go and play.”
Ramana didn’t budge. He waited for his grandma to cool down. He patiently waited. He knew that his patience would be rewarded.
A couple of minutes passed. Granny looked at the child from the corners of her eyes. Ramana noticed her. As she smiled, he burst into a fit of irrepressible mirth, shaking himself violently.
“Ayah! “Ramana cooed.
“Yes, dear!” Granny lifted up the child and sat him on her hip. The moment he was comfortable, he kissed her on the cheek.
“Good boy… goody-goody boy,” granny said in all jubilation.
Ramana, as if he were waiting for such an opportunity, pounced at it. “What is this, ayah?” he asked pointing at the burning gas stove.
“That is a stove, dear,” she said.
“What stove, ayah?”
“What gas, ayah?”
“Cooking gas, dear.”
“What cooking, ayah?”
Granny cocked her head. Her brows were furrowed. “Oh! This fellow is going to start all over again.” She mumbled to herself and let the boy slide down her hip to the floor. “I have a lot of things to do. Go and play,” she said.
“Okay! I’ll leave you to your work. But only if you tell me what this is,” said Ramana as he pointed out the knob of the double gas stove.
“That is a knob,”
“What knob, ayah?”
Irritated beyond limit, granny grunted, “I do not know what knob that is… I know only its purpose. If you turn it to its left the oven will burn. Turn it to its right. It will stop… no more questions. Now go and play…I have to wash clothes now…go…go…go.”
Ramana disappeared from the kitchen. His grandmother too left the kitchen to wash clothes, while the fillets of fish were simmering on the gas stove.
Washing over, granny hurried back to the kitchen to turn off the burning oven. But it was already turned off. She tried to recollect but her poor memory failed her. “Who would have done this? Definitely not Ramana. He is too tiny to reach for the knob. Only I would have done that,” she consoled herself, though an iota of suspicion lingered in her mind.
Granny didn’t in the least know that the tiny tot had made use of an easy to lift plastic stool to turn off the knob. Her suspicion grew all the more when at the dining table everybody complained of the semi cooked fish.
“Oh, intolerable, unbearable,” yelled granny and said how Ramana made his escape into the backyard of the house and splashed water on dried clothes and on himself. “Oh, I can’t even rest my head in the afternoons. I have to keep vigil over the boy.”
Ramana’s parents, in order to give the old lady the rest she wanted to enjoy in her old age, decided to send the child to a crèche.
Niranjana, Ramana’s mother, went around the city to find a suitable crèche for the boy. A three day search yielded fruit. She found one -- a good one at that -- very near to the office wherein she worked from morning nine to evening six.
The boy will be away from mischief during that period of time and his grandmother could continue with her household chores undisturbed. Surely she would feel lonely, yet…The boy will be back in the evening and who knows what ideas would assail his head and prepare him for new mischief.
The crèche was only a playschool. A huge hall, that could easily pass for a sophisticated godown, made the crèche. Its walls attractively coloured, the crèche lured Ramana, and as he went inside he found to his joy a couple of rocking horses, a tricycle, a pedaling car, dolls, building sets beside a hundred other playthings. But what really made him jump for joy was the bevy of little girls.
Girls, as usual, outnumbered the boys in the crèche and Ramana found the crèche a heaven on earth. His mother too was pleased to see him as happy as the bunny rabbit on an acre of green grass.
As soon as the boy reached home, he rushed to meet his grandma who too rushed towards him and picked him up in her arms. “Ah! My little brat! Where did you disappear all these hours?”
Ramana gave her the smile of a man whose mind was not smiling. “Ah! My little ayah! Where did you disappear all these hours? You should go to the crèche to see what a lovely playschool it is. Accompany me tomorrow and you will have fine time there with me.”
Granny agreed to go. She said so just to please the child. And no one at that moment would have ever thought that the child would take her words to heart.
The morning of the next day proved very crucial to both the child and his mother.
It all started when Niranjana called the child and said, “Now get ready, Ramana.”
Ramana as if not sure of where he was destined, asked his mother, “Where?”
“Where! You don’t know? You have to go the Crèche, darling.”
“Oh, Crèche! I will go,” Ramana said with a sense of jubilance. After a pause, he said, “Ayah is also going with me, you know.”
Ramana’s words sent a shiver down the bones of both his mother and granny. They were sure that the child was going to create a scene.
“Yes! Yes! I am going with you...Now get ready,” said granny winking at her daughter-in-law.
“Oh! Your grandma too to the crèche? That is fine…We will take her along. Now you should get ready,” said Niranjana and carried him in the crook of her arm to bath him.
At the dining table Ramana’s granny fed him with iddlis and sambar. “You too finish eating, ayah and get ready for the crèche,” he cautioned his granny, as he continued to munch.
“It won’t take more than two minutes for me to get ready, Ramana. Now you finish eating and put on your shoes,” advised granny.
Niranjana kick-started her scooter and got on to the vehicle. She signaled to her son and like a goody-goody boy he occupied the leg space of the scooter and awaited his granny to occupy the pillion seat.
It turned out to be a huge disappointment to Ramana, when his granny waved her hand and his mother accelerated the vehicle.
“Ayah…ayah,” Ramana said as he tilted up his head and looked at the helmeted face of his mother.
“Keep quiet, child. You will have playmates and playthings in the crèche,” she said.
“Ayah…ayah…” Ramana cried as he looked askance at his mother.
Niranjana kept quiet and concentrated on the road.
“Ayah…ayah…ayah”, Ramana began to scream.
Drivers of speeding two wheelers looked at the yelling child. A few slowed down their vehicles and inquired into the matter. When they were given to understand that it was the unwilling school kid, they smiled at the child and went on their way.
Ramana continued to scream, all the time uttering ayah…ayah…His non-stop screaming attracted the attention of so many who clicked their tongues and went away pitying the child.
“Oh, god! I have to cover yet another two kilometres to reach the crèche. I am afraid the child would swoon because of his incessant screaming.” Niranjana said to herself. But she was non-plussed when a police constable on his rounds stopped her.
The constable ignored the mother and looked at the child. “What is the problem, child?” he asked.
“Ayah!” Ramana wept, frightened of the khaki-clad policeman, who looked like a bogeyman to him.
“Don’t cry child…don’t cry. I am here to help you,” the constable combed the child’s hair with his fingers, patted his cheeks softly and asked,” What is your name, child?”
“Ramana,” the child said and without a moment’s hesitation added, “She is taking me away from my ayah.”
The constable stared at the child’s mother for a while and asked the child,” Is she your mother?”
“She is taking me away from my ayah,” Ramana repeated with a whimper.
“What is the boy to you?” asked the constable. He had an indescribable air of one who knew the world.
“I am his mother, Sir…I am taking him…”
Before Niranjana could complete the sentence, the constable interrupted her, “Unless you prove that you are his mother, I’ll not let you go.”
“You ask the child…It’s getting late to the crèche and my office as well,” she pleaded.
“Ramana! Who is she to you?” the constable asked in a soft voice.
“She is taking me away from my ayah,” wailed Ramana and began to sob.
“Stop weeping child,” consoled the constable, “You make me weep. I too had a bitter experience like this when I was a child like you. In my case, I was kidnapped by two goondas…”
“No, sir! Why should I kidnap my own child?” asked Niranjana.
“And so, my dear young lady! Do something to prove that you are the mother of this child…Or else I will have to take you to my police station and inquire into the matter in our own way.”
Niranjana became panicky. Tears began to fill her eyes and blur her vision. For a moment she felt that she was turned into a stone. She came back to her senses when Ramana began to pummel her and howl, “Take me back to my ayah.”
“Don’t waste my time, young lady! Do something before I book you for child kidnapping,” The constable’s voice was quite stern and intimidating.
Niranjana pulled out her cell phone and dialled her husband and told him of the scene Ramana has created and of her predicament.
“He is coming from his office…It is quite nearby…my take about five minutes,” Niranjana said.
“Who?” asked the constable, with a stare of amazement at the disturbed young lady.
“Who else? My husband!” she replied, wiping her tears with the hem of her sari.
“Husband! How do I know that so and so in your husband. He may even to you accomplice in child kidnapping. I know that a gang is operating and many children disappear. And only youngsters like you are at the hub of the gang’s operations. I can’t let you go unless I am convinced,” cautioned the constable.
“There he is” Niranjana said and smiled amidst her tears.
Ramana turned his head and saw his father getting down from his car. “Appa! Appa!” he started shouting in all jubilance.
“Constable! This lady is my wife and this troublemaker is our son,” said the young man.
“I am ready to believe that you are the kid’s father…But how can I believe that she is your wife?” The constable was stupid enough to ask such a question.
Ramana’s father pulled out his purse from his pants-pocket and flipped it open.
“No…No….No….I am an honest man. I don’t accept bribe,” said the constable.
“I won’t bribe you…I can’t. Just take a look at this little photograph,” said the young man.
The constable took a closer look at the photograph and found all the three in it. He clicked his tongue and said, “We are living in an age of computers. How do I know that the photograph that you showed me is not a faked one?”
“Constable! You are trained to doubt all people at all times. But your aged brain fails to co-operate with you,” the young man said, as he pulled out his identity card and showed it to the unduly duty-conscious cop.
The constable peered into the card. The next moment he brought his body to attention and saluted him. “Sir!” He said, “Had your wife told me that you are in the vigilance Department, I would not have stayed her for such a long time.”
“You did you duty constable! But use your brain,” Ramana’s father said, as the constable moved away from the scene he had created.
“Appa! Ice cream…vennila ice cream,” shouted Ramana as he jumped into the welcome hands of his father.
“Rare to come across such constables. Let their tribe increase,” said Niranjana as she stared into the distance.