Birthday Next-Door

Rama Adhikari

“Auntie, what’s that you are doing?”

“Auntie, you work so hard, don’t you?”

“Auntie, may I help you?”

“Auntie, today I saw another Auntie just like you at the school.”

Sandesh was uttering many sentences in sequence, trying to draw the attention of Sabina. Sabina would, however, give no heed to Sandesh. She was busy cooking. 

Sandesh and Aakash—Sabina’s son—were in  the second grade at the same school. They were neighbours. They walked to school and back home together, and during leisure, played together in the neigbourhood.

However, for some days in the recent time, Sandesh had been visiting Aakash’s more often than usual. As soon as he reached home from school, he would throw his bag in the living room and rush towards Aakash’s. He would care little to have snacks, sit for study or complete homework. 

Sandesh’s father was worried to see this strange change in his son’s behaviour. He tried to convince his son to stop making such frequent and long visits. When he got reports from the school that Sandesh was not performing well and was not submitting homework, he reprimanded his son. But, this had no effect upon Sandesh. 

“Auntie, I came again,” he said, quite early one morning at tea time. 

“Auntie, will you listen to me? I have something to give you,” he added when he found Sabina not paying any attention upon him.

Sabina looked at the little boy. He showed a piece of paper upon which he had scribbled certain things. 

“Auntie! This is your picture I painted last evening. I have also applied colour. Come on; take it.”

As Sabina stretched her hand to receive the painting, the glass in her hand slipped off and broke. Some hot tea spilled upon her thighs. Already worked up with Sandesh’s repeated pranks, she grew red with anger, and shouted, “Get out from here.”

She held Sandesh by arm and thrust out of the threshold, scolding, “It’s not just a day or two. He comes daily, God knows for what purpose.” She continued to pour curses upon the little boy and goaded him homeward till the boy’s father came to her sight. 

“Come on; keep a watch upon your son. Else…”

She left the child at his threshold, and returned, murmuring. Father, who was both surprise and ashamed, took his son into his arms and said, “Honey, why don’t you obey me? You have grown very bad. I will now admit you to a school in town and keep you in the hostel there. Did you understand me? How will you go to that home, then?”

Sandesh was besieged by cold fear; he really thought his father was sending him away from home. He promised that he would not visit Aakash anymore, and sat down to study. The next morning, we went straight to school and came back without any fiddling. He had his dinner and sat for homework without a grudge. He did not exchange words with anyone. But at intervals, he repeatedly peeped out of the window and silently looked at Aakash’s home. 

Some days later, it was Sandesh’s birthday. The father woke up quite early and went to the market to buy stuffs and gifts to make the celebration grand as even. When he was back, he entered the boy’s room to monitor his study. But he found the room empty. Sandesh was not there. 

‘Today is his birthday! Where could he have gone?’ he thought and went around the home-yard to look for his only son.

“Suntali,” he shouted at the housemaid, who came promptly to answer the call. 

“Do you have any idea where the boy is?”

“No, Sir. He was here a little while ago. I gave him bath in cold water, and dressed him in new clothes.”

“You did it well, Suntali. But where is the child?”

“That I don’t know, Sir! After giving him bath, I made him pray. He did it so well with me. Then I entered the kitchen to make selrotis. He came and sat with me for a long time, watching how the bread turned red from white. He asked me several questions too.”

“And then?”

“Then he asked me, ‘Sister, could you pack some red, hot breads in a paper? I want to eat while I do homework in the living room.’ I told him, he was not doing homework on the day of his birth. But he said, ‘I will do; else, Daddy will kill me.’”

A sudden chill passed down Father’s spine. He regretted his harsh words upon his son.

“But he is not there in the living room.”

“I don’t know, Master! I am here, cooking and baking.” 

He went around the house to look for his son, but Sandesh was seen nowhere. 

‘O, how much Suntali cares for the boy!’ he thought, as he went around in search of the boy. Suntali, a distant relative of his wife, had been brought in since his wife died of cancer some three months back. The two took all care of Sandesh; yet, he looked unhappy and seldom stayed at home.

He asked everyone walking along the village road,  but no one reported having seen the boy anywhere. 

‘He cannot have gone to Aakash’s; my scolding must still be fresh in his mind. Still, let me ask them once,’ he thought and headed towards Aakash’s home. 

“Aakash, didn’t you see Sandesh coming this way?” he said to Aakash, who was feeding grains to the pigeons in the yard.

“No, I didn’t, Uncle,” said Aakash indifferently. Of late, since his parents had warned him not to play with Sandesh, Aakash had stopped caring for Sandesh. 

While he was preparing to leave, Father heard his son talk in the kitchen. 

“Auntie, will you see what I have brought for you? Suntali baked them at home. I asked her to pack some for me, and I walked straight here to give you before I give them to anyone.”

“Oh, what a nuisance! Was it just the other day that I told you not to come? Come on; go home,” said the woman, forcing the boy out. 

“I will go, Auntie! I surely will go now. But have a piece of this bread. Unless you eat, I cannot eat. Today is my….”

He could speak no further. His eyelids were already wet with tears. Sabina stood speechless. Her anger had changed into a tender look of a mother.

Father, who was standing outside saw his son. Sandesh ran into his father’s arm.

“Hadn’t I told you not to come here? Why won’t you obey, honey? Do you know that today is your birthday? I have bought many things for you. Come; let’s go home,” said Father. 

But Sandesh would not move. Instead, he ran back to Sabina, and said, “I know today is my birthday. So, I have come to give this much of bread to Auntie.”

Father stood speechless. The boy’s words were too much for him.

“Come on; let’s go. We will celebrate your birthday at home,” said Father after a long pause.

“I won’t go, Daddy. Do not scold me today. I won’t go home untill Auntie takes some bread.”

“Why won’t you come home, honey? What do you lack there? Why do you always run to other’s home? Tell me. What is that you find here and not at ours, honey?”  asked Father, quite annoyed. 

Sandesh looked straight into his father’s eyes. Tears glittered in them and the little eyes inside them looked pathetic. He sobbed, “I have no mother at home.”

Aakash, who had walked from behind, pressed himself against Sabina and said, “Mummy, do not be angry with Sandesh.”

“Mum…sorry, Auntie! Please accept these sel-rotis.”

The elders, deeply hurt by the situation, decided to lift all bans upon the children.