Once upon a time, stories used to begin with the words “Once Upon A Time”. There lived a storyteller then who lived under the banyan tree that grew on the village square. His stories could hold the audience together for hours and move them from tears to laughter in the blink of an eye.
Times have changed and so have the storytellers.
Unlike the one who could hold his audience together for hours and move them from tears to laughter in the blink of an eye, she did not live under the old banyan tree that grew on the village square. The young and old of the village did not come together to listen and admire as she told of how the sparrow cried when the hunter caught her, complaining and imploring at the same time of the plight of her two young children as they sat atop the thinnest branch of the mango tree waiting for her to bring them a brown worm and two grains of maize. No hearts were moved as the cruel hunter paid no heed to her words, nor were they set aflutter when the queen of fairies appeared before them and bought the freedom of the sparrow with two green pearls. For the storyteller we talk of here, her entire life was centred around her grandchildren, a young boy of four and a little girl of two.
Every night, after they had played to their heart’s content and their mother had fed them to her heart’s content, they would snuggle up to their grandmother and request her for a story. She always initially refused. Both of them would then climb up and kiss her cheeks, one from each side. She would beam like a baby and pull the blanket closer. She would then hold them in her arms and search within the deep recesses of her memory for a new story that the apples of her eyes would fall asleep to.
Quite often, they would demand to hear some old story, often of the sparrow and the hunter and the queen of fairies who bought the sparrow’s freedom with two green pearls. Their father had brought her mother a new necklace of pink pearls the last time he had returned from the city where he used to work. The younger one had turned sulky, asking her father in her sweet little voice to bring one of green pearls the next time he returned.
“And what will you do with a necklace of green pearls, my little darling?” he asked her as he picked her up and showered her with kisses.
“Why? Give them to the queen fairy so that she can free more sparrows that cruel hunters would have caught.” She replied as she struggled to pull out her father’s shining pen from his shirt pocket.
“But the queen of fairies has a lot of green pearls. She doesn’t need your pearls.” said her brother as he ran into the room with a dragonfly that he had caught tied onto the end of a thread. Somehow it didn’t scare him. The golden scales on its body shone as he pretended to fly it in the sun. The boy was aspiring to be a kite-flyer, but the elder children wouldn’t allow him because he was too small. His friend, who was his age, had taught him how to catch dragonflies.
“No, she doesn’t. Nobody has those many pearls. They are very costly. The big girl who comes to teach my friend said I could buy hundreds and hundreds of chocolates with one pearl.” She replied, basking in the glory of the profound wisdom her friend’s teacher had imparted unto her.
The boy refused to give up without a fight. “But fairies can get anything they want. They just have to wish for it and it appears before them magically. I will go and ask Grandma,” he shouted as he ran out of the room and headed for his grandmother’s room where she was busy knitting a purple sweater for her son because winter was coming. The little girl too struggled and freed herself from her father’s arms and ran after him, both eager to have the judgement pronounced in their favour.
The next time the father returned, two years had passed. The boy was six and the girl four. As usual, he came laden with gifts for everyone. The boy had a new toy car and the girl a toy monkey. The first day was spent driving the car from one imaginary city to another while the monkey played a thousand pranks as it danced to the tune of drums that used to play miraculously from nowhere. Once the children were safely put to bed, cosy in their grandmother’s embrace, the wife sat on the bed on which her husband lay awake, tired from a day spent meeting relatives and old friends the bonds of simple village life had given him.
“I don’t like staying here any more. I feel alone and sad most of the times.” She complained, her face now bereft of the smile and the ornamental jewellery she had worn all day.
The husband kept quiet for some time, staring blankly at the ceiling on which the fan continued to make whirring revolutions. Then he spoke, shifting from his right to left to face his wife as he did so. “I too have been thinking of the same. I too do not like it alone in the city. Moreover, the children are old now. The village does not have any schools where we can get them educated.”
He paused as if thinking of something. The wife knew he wasn’t finished; he was turning things over in his head. In such times, she kept quiet, allowing him his own peace of mind to think things over. She lay down on her right, resting her cheek on her palm and sticking the elbow into the mattress, thus looking down on her husband as he shifted from his left onto his back.
Finally, he spoke, looking straight at her face, “I have saved enough money to buy us a house in the city. I have also been in talks with some people, and I don’t think getting a new house will be a problem.” He stopped again and looked at her as if waiting for her response.
She didn’t have a verbal one, but her face could conceal neither her happiness nor her excitement. Encouraged, he went on, “I have my heart set on this small house very close to the place I work. There is a school nearby too and the people staying are mostly village folk who live with their families. I am sure you will like it there. The children will love it too, there is a huge playground just five minutes from the place and the school I talk of has swings and rides.”
She looked at him with somewhat unsure eyes, as if there was a question she had but did not want to ask. The husband couldn’t understand her unspoken emotions, and therefore, waited for her to speak, knowing fully well that something important was troubling her. When he didn’t respond for some time, she crept closer and putting her head on his arm, spoke, “And what of mother?”
It wasn’t as if he hadn’t thought of her. The house he had seen had an outer smaller room where her mother could live comfortably. He reasoned the city brought with itself a whole bunch of facilities that the village couldn’t provide and as her age advanced, she would definitely find it easier there than in the village. The problem wasn’t one of space or resources; it was one of willingness.
His mother would never agree. For her, the village was everything. She had come here a young bride and had grown into a woman here. Her husband lay buried in the graveyard outside the village. Her brother’s family was just two villages away, and more importantly, everyone she had ever known was here.
They went to sleep, leaving the inconvenient discussion to a more convenient time.
The next morning brought with it sunshine and rain in equal measure. A rainbow appeared in the sky and seemed to merge with the trees far out on the horizon. From the open window in the grandmother’s room, one could see a group of farmers ploughing their fields and smell the rain mixed with the sand. It always filled her son with nostalgia. He had spent the last 10 years of his life in the city and didn’t get to enjoy much of either rain or sun.
It wasn’t as if he despised his condition; one has to do that which one has one to do.
“Mother, we are planning to buy a house in the city.” He said as he put down the cup of tea he had been sipping from and looked at his mother. There were just the three elders in the room. The children were out playing amongst the rose and jasmine shrubs where they used to make sand castles or pluck flowers and use a string to make flower necklaces out of them.
She listened quietly, not knowing for a moment what to say. She picked up her glass-case lying on the wooden shelf next to where she was sitting and looked at it for a moment before putting it back to the spot from where she had picked it up. He and her wife kept quiet, intent. The moment was for them one of anticipation and expectations. He had played out the events as he had expected it to take place multiple times in his head.
“Why? You stay alone there. What do you need a house for?” She would have asked.
“I am planning to take everyone there. The children have grown up. They need to study. I need to stay with them.” He would have answered. He knew it wouldn’t have satisfied her. She would have asked, “Why can’t the children stay here? There are many schools here. You also studied here. Why do they need to go to the big city? There are many cars and buses there.”
He knew this was an easy question to answer. “The schools there are much better. Our village schools are no match for them.”
She simply asked, “When are you people leaving?”
His silence, filled with plans, turned to a vacuous one. She looked at her husband intently and then shifted her gaze to her mother-in-law before looking back at her husband. His mother waited for an answer, her face calm and facing each of them one after the other. He looked at his mother and then at his wife before replying, “We all are leaving mother. All of us. You too.”
She for the first time gave away the emotions that raged on inside her as she looked down at the ground, her voice becoming slightly groggy as she responded, “What will I do there. I am happy here.”
He had played out this sequence too in his head many times, so he was quick to respond, “There’s a lot mother. There are many people from these villages there. You will like it there. You will also not have to cook or fill water facing all the trouble that you face here. The city has a lot of facilities. Come, mother, we will all live together there.”
“You know it’s very tough for me. I have lived my entire life here. I don’t think I will be able to move there. I know people here, people know me. I am happy here.”
Somehow the events did not go as he had planned. Even though she said what he thought she would, the way she said it made it tough for him to argue against. The wife too tried, almost pleaded. She sat down by her side and implored her to come as she pressed her legs. The old woman did not brush them off. She had her own reasons.
They kept talking, debating and discussing for a good one hour. The children kept playing outside all the while. She had made a necklace of flowers, some roses and some she did not know the name of. He had made a castle of sand in the meantime. They were both creating their own imaginary world full of fairies and wicked hunters and bedecked with pearls and jewels, far away from the villages and cities their elders lived in.
The night before they were to leave the village, the children snuggled up to their grandmother for one last time. She talked of a beautiful princess far away in the jungles outside the city of Tajqurghan who had hair white like snow and skin brown like the sun and who had made friends with a tree that bore green flowers and red juicy fruits. The princess came to the tree every day and talked to it. The tree talked back, and so did the two squirrels who lived in the tree gathering brown almonds. One day, a handsome prince from Balkh had come there looking for his camel that he planned to take with him as he made his way across to Arabia where his father had gone for a pilgrimage. They fell into the oceans of each other’s eyes and he took her with himself where they lived happily ever after. The tree never bore fruits again; its flowers lost their scent and the brown almonds stopped growing, forcing the squirrels to swim across to another jungle.