The temperature dropped, as it does on wintry evenings in Delhi. Devika, resplendent in her finery, looked around with a practiced eye. She was proud of her reputation as an excellent hostess. Today’s party too had to be perfect. Strings of tiny coloured lights glowed like fireflies on the trees lining the driveway. The sprawling lawn was lit up with hanging lanterns. She walked past the low tables with cane chairs around them and the children’s corner decorated with streamers and balloons. A short distance away, the cooks were lighting coal fires under the iron karahis. Piping hot snacks - pakoras, kababs, tikkas and jalebis - would be served to the guests along with platters of hors d’oevres. Devika summoned the catering manager to confirm that the bar and buffet counters were set up as instructed. Everything was in order.
She glanced at the Gucci Signoria on her dainty wrist. The guests were expected to arrive any time now. “Let me check Chinmay before he comes out,” she said to herself, hurrying back to the house.
Her mother-in-law Hema stood at the door, dressed in a heavy Kanjeevaram silk sari. She had put on a gold necklace in addition to the black-beaded mangalsutra and diamond ear-rings which she always wore. Devika frowned her disapproval, touched her own exotic Topkapi ear-rings and wordlessly moved on.
Hema wondered momentarily “What’s bothering her now?” She smoothed her hair and adjusted the folds of her sari.
Her husband Gopal came out, whistling. “You look like Hema Malini,” he teased with a mischievous smile.
“Don’t you start now.” Hema responded with a pout.
“Why not? You’re as glamorous as any film star.” Gopal went on. “Beauty doth varnish age, as if …”
“Not Shakespeare again!” she groaned. “Have you kept Chinnu’s gift ready?”
“Of course!” Gopal replied. “I’ve kept it safely behind the sofa in there,” he pointed.
Together they went into the living room and peeked at the package, wrapped in coir matting and tied with a bright red cord. The hand-made card read “A special gift for our dearest grandson Chinmay on his fifth birthday. With blessings from Ajja and Ajji.”
They looked up admiringly as Chinmay came down the stairs flanked by Rajesh and Devika. Gopal turned to his wife and remarked “I’m glad we decided to come.”
“Who nagged you to book tickets and leave your cottage for a few days?” retorted Hema, moving forward to hug her grandson. “My precious little raja!” she beamed.
Chinmay grinned, squirming in his formal attire. Devika said sharply, “Careful now! Don’t get your clothes crumpled,” and marched him out to the lawn.
Rajesh escorted his parents and made them comfortable at the nearest table. The first cars were turning into the driveway. He hurried off to welcome the guests. As he watched Rajesh’s retreating figure, Gopal’s mind drifted back to another birthday, twenty-five years ago.
In those days, Gopal Rao was a junior accountant in a consulting firm in Bombay. Like thousands of young men in the city, he shared bachelor accommodation with three others. His wife and child lived with her parents in Nagpur. It took five years and a promotion at work, before Gopal could afford to rent a small apartment in Borivli, a middle-class suburb of Bombay. That weekend he took the train to Nagpur and returned to Bombay with Hema and Rajesh. In another few weeks there was going to be a double celebration - Divali, the festival of lights, followed by Rajesh’s fifth birthday.
Gopal had to buy two gifts. For Rajesh, he thought of a children’s cricket set and a big box of fireworks. For Hema, it had to be a diamond pendant to match the ear-rings gifted by her parents. Ever since they were married, she had been longing for one. Whenever they passed in the vicinity of Zaveri Bazaar, Hema visited Amritlal Jewelers to admire ‘her’ pendant. So Gopal knew exactly where to get it. Every month Gopal had been putting away a little from his modest salary. Now with the annual Divali bonus in hand, he had just enough to buy the pendant. He imagined Hema’s cry of pleasure when she opened the gift box.
It was the weekend before Divali. They went shopping for new clothes. The streets were crowded. Shops advertised festival goodies. Banners announced sales of every kind. Having bought their new outfits, they wandered into a store selling arts and crafts from different parts of India. Little Rajesh was drawn to a display of miniature vehicles. He watched with fascination as a customer picked up a little silver cart drawn by a pair of white marble bullocks. “I want that,” he cried. But it was already sold.
The salesman said, “I’m sorry, that’s the last piece we had.” He pointed to a rocking horse on the floor. “Why don’t you take this? It is the perfect size for you.”
The horse was beautifully carved in teak wood. It had a fine leather saddle, silver buckles and stirrups. The base was plated with handmade brass. Rajesh nodded and climbed on. The salesman said, “Hold on tight,” and gave the horse’s rump a slight push.
“It is galloping!” shouted Rajesh as he rocked back and forth. “Appa, this is my birthday present! I don’t want anything else,” he announced.
Gopal asked the salesman, “How much does it cost?”
“Five thousand rupees,” the salesman replied. “You see, sir, the horse is carved in one piece. Everything else is a miniature replica of the Rajput style.”
Hema shook her head. “We can’t afford it.”
“I can give you a festival discount of ten percent,” the salesman offered.
“I could ask for an advance from my boss,” Gopal said softly to his wife.
“No. It’s a whole month’s salary!” she remonstrated.
Rajesh was humming and rocking, lost in a child’s wonderland. Gopal’s eyes were on his son’s blissful face. “Before we know it, he’ll grow up. By then it will be too late,” he cajoled Hema. “We have the money right here. Let’s buy it. Look at him, riding the horse like a prince!”
Hema glared at Gopal accusingly. “How come you never have the money for my diamond pendant?” she demanded.
“Next year, I promise.” Gopal pleaded.
Hema hesitated. She glanced at Rajesh and reluctantly nodded her consent. They took the rocking horse home. Rajesh kept a proprietary hand on its head. Gopal put his arm round his wife and said apologetically, “I’m sorry about your pendant.”
Hema sighed ruefully. “I can never say no to you. By the way, Gopal Rao, when have you ever refused your son?” There was a twinkle in her eye.
They had a cozy Divali in their own home. In the evening oil lamps flickered outside every apartment in the block. They too joined their neighbours to light fireworks in the common compound in front of the building. In the excitement Rajesh had no time to think of the rocking horse. Gopal and Hema had carefully kept it out of sight, to be brought out on his birthday.
Three days later, Hema was up early and busy in the kitchen. Fresh from his bath, dressed in a crisp new cotton kurta-pyjama, Rajesh rushed to his mother. Hema picked up a silver tray with a lighted diya and a bowl of home-made sweets. She performed the ritual of aarti, placed a vermilion mark on her little son’s forehead and put a sweet in his mouth. Gopal ruffled his hair and handed over the birthday gift. Rajesh squealed with delight. His rocking horse! Tearing off the wrapping, he patted the mane of real horsehair and clambered on. Back and forth he rocked, bursting with joy as only a five-year-old can. Gopal brought out his camera and clicked a picture. It was a memorable day.
As the years passed, there were many other birthdays and gifts. The rocking horse stood unused in a corner of the attic. Rajesh had long outgrown it. He was now a dashing young man who rode a real motorbike to college. He excelled in academics and won a scholarship to the London School of Economics. His first job took him to the US where he met Devika. They returned to India and got married. Rajesh joined a multinational company based in Noida, an industrial hub close to Delhi.
When Chinmay was born, Gopal was a senior partner in the same firm in Bombay that he had joined as a young man. Hema and he flew to Delhi for Chinmay’s first birthday. It was a pleasant visit. They stayed on till the December winds blowing across the plains became too cold to bear. Their bodies were accustomed to the warm coastal climate of Bombay. They missed their morning walks on the beach, the Senior Citizens Club and their cottage in Juhu. Hema loved puttering in the garden and tending to her plants. Gopal liked to recline in his armchair on the verandah with a book in his hand. He spent many happy hours with friends who shared his love for classical poetry and cups of hot ginger tea.
Rajesh moved up the corporate ladder. He was transferred to Delhi to head his company’s operations in South Asia. They moved to a posh locality and led an active social life. Devika loved to rub shoulders with the rich and famous in the capital. Rajesh’s work involved frequent trips abroad. His occasional visits to Bombay were more like stopovers between business trips.
One day in late November Rajesh called to invite his parents to Delhi. They were planning a grand birthday party for Chinmay. Gopal hesitated. Hema was eager to go. She reminded Gopal that soon Chinmay was going to a private boarding school. They may not see their grandson for a long time. That settled the matter.
“What shall we buy for Chinmay?” Hema asked Gopal as she pulled out a suitcase and began to pack. “I’ve already made everybody’s favourite mango burfi and a bagful of banana chips. This designer sari is for Devika.”
“I don’t know,” replied Gopal. “Rajesh brings him the latest toys and stuff every time he goes abroad.” Suddenly his face lit up. “I got it!” he exclaimed. “The rocking horse.”
Gopal brought the horse out of the dusty attic and cleaned it. They polished the leather, brass and silver. Gopal fixed a horseshoe that had come loose. He gave it a gentle push and it rocked gracefully. “All done. Fit for a prince!” he said with a satisfied smile. “We’ll travel by train, so that I can keep an eye on it.” he added. His eyes misted.
Gopal took off his glasses and rubbed them. Someone asked, “Will you have a drink, sir?” He looked up with a start and stared at the liveried bearer carrying a tray full of glasses. Hema nudged him. Gopal realized that he’d been daydreaming. The place was abuzz with guests. Rajesh and Devika were chatting with a group of friends. Gopal picked up a glass of pomegranate juice. The bearer moved on.
Gopal pulled out a faded picture from his wallet. It was Rajesh as a little boy, sitting on the rocking horse. “Our Chinnu is the same age today,” he remarked, turning towards Hema. “That makes me an old horse,” he guffawed. Hema sipped her drink and smiled.
The party was in full swing. Drinks flowed. Bearers plied trays of snacks. Chinmay was enjoying himself with his friends in their special corner. A clown and a magician performed tricks to amuse them. They were served a different set of snacks. The birthday cake in the shape of a rocket was Chinmay’s own choice.
Everybody gathered together to sing and clap as Chinmay blew out the five candles. Devika and Rajesh looked on with pride as he courteously thanked each guest. The cane hamper was getting filled with beautifully gift-wrapped packages. Gopal retrieved the rocking horse and carried it up to Chinmay. “It is heavy, Chinnu. Let me put it here, beside the hamper.”
The night air had turned chill. The men buttoned up their jackets and the ladies held their elegant shawls close, as they collected their sleepy children. Devika was showered with compliments for her lavish hospitality. The party was over.
One of the bearers carried the hamper of gifts indoors. Gopal picked up the rocking horse himself and joined the rest of the family in the living room. Rajesh loosened his tie and leaned back on the sofa. Devika reached for a glass of cognac.
Chinmay eagerly tore off the wrappings from his parents’ gifts. “Hero Factory, yay!” he yelled and held up one of the toys. “Dad, here’s Von Nebula.”
Rajesh nodded indulgently. “Heroes and villains too, straight from LEGO in Denmark.”
Chinmay opened the next package and brought out a bright red Disney mobile phone. “I knew you’d get it for me, Mom.” He laughed with glee.
“It’s what you wanted,” remarked Devika. “Next year I’ll get you a TicTalk with better features.”
The grandparents’ gift was next. Gopal untied the cord. “What is it?” Chinmay was curious.
“Something very special.” Hema unwrapped the coir matting. “There!” she said softly.
“You know Chinnu, your father loved riding it when he was your age.” Gopal chuckled and held out his hand. “Come, let me help you mount it.”
Rajesh raised a quizzical eyebrow. Devika said sharply “No way. You are not getting on to that contraption!”
Chinmay hesitated, looking from one to the other.
Rajesh turned to his father. “Unbelievable. You hoarded this piece of junk all these years and lugged it here from Bombay as a gift!” He prodded the rocking horse with his foot. “Way back then I was dumb enough to think that it was the best gift in the world.”
Devika sniggered. Gopal’s jaw tightened. His hands fumbled at his collar. Hema drew in her breath and gazed at the carpet.
The doorbell rang. Rajesh opened the door. “Hi, Bill,” he said as his colleague walked in. “I knew you’d turn up to collect your laptop,” he grinned.
Bill said sheepishly, “I came as soon as I realized that I’d left it behind in your car this afternoon.”
“I’ll bring it in. Make yourself at home,” said Rajesh, picking up the car keys as he went out.
Devika said, “Bill, meet Mr and Mrs Gopal Rao, Rajesh’s parents.”
“Hi, I’m Bill Dayton from Houston,” he smiled cheerfully. His eyes fell on the rocking horse. “Wow! Ain’t it a beauty!” he exclaimed. “Kim would give her eye teeth to get one like it.”
“Kim?” inquired Devika.
“My little girl,” answered Bill. “She’s crazy about animals. Loves riding her pony on the farm back home.”
“Take it,” said Gopal "It’s yours.”
“No way.” Bill protested. “I didn’t mean to…”
Gopal cut him short. “I mean it.” He strode purposefully to the rocking horse. “Bill, come on. Help me to wrap it up.”
Bill stood up. ”Mr Rao, please. You can’t just give away your fabulous antique.”
“I already have!” retorted Gopal. “Here. Tie this cord firmly round.”
Hema said, “I’ll fetch the carton in which it came.” She hurried upstairs and came back with the carton. The two men finished packing.
“Mr Rao, I don’t know how to thank you.” said Bill awkwardly.
“You are very welcome,” smilingly responded Gopal. “I hope your daughter likes it and makes good use of it.”
“She sure will,” said Bill and warmly shook Gopal’s hand.
Rajesh came in and handed Bill his laptop. “Thanks, Raj. Gotta go now. I have a flight to catch,” said Bill. He picked up the rocking horse, raised his hand in farewell and left.
Hema and Gopal had returned to Bombay. At Christmas time, there was a greeting card from Bill Dayton in their mailbox. It contained a photograph of Kim seated on the rocking horse, smiling broadly at the camera. Gopal took out his wallet and placed the photograph next to the old faded one.