Somali was excited. Her mother’s birthday was barely three days away. Somali had decided that this birthday she would buy a gift for her mother. And it would be a surprise!
Somali was going to be eleven a few days after her mom’s birthday. They shared a birthday month. The thought made Somali glow with reflected glory. She worshiped her mother. She was eager and anxious to please her. Her mother wasn’t very easy to please.
Four months ago when the idea of buying a gift for her mother had popped into Somali’s head, she knew she would need to find a way to overcome a major challenge. She had no money. Somali was a child in the 1950’s. Eleven year old children were not given pocket money those days. Their parents held the purse strings which were never loosened except when they felt the expense was warranted or justified.
Knowing this, Somali had ostensibly- and suddenly- developed a taste for the spicy snacks that were sold on a make- shift kiosk outside her school gates. It came to life just as her school gave over. She got scolded for this untoward taste for snacks which were neither healthy nor hygienically prepared or served. Her perseverance bore fruit. Slowly, she hoarded the money. She was usually given a 25p coin but sometimes just 10- 15p. She dared not ask for money more than once a fortnight or even the meager trickle would dry out.
Her patience had managed to collect a modest sum of six rupees and twenty- five paise.
The second challenge was- what could she buy for this small sum? She wanted to gift a saree to her mother. But discrete inquiries amongst the ladies of her neighborhood had put that idea out of her mind. She’d need at least fifty rupees for a decent saree. It was a impossible sum for little Somali.
Somali was an only child and had no siblings to consult or discuss with. She didn’t want to tell her father because he was sure to have told her mother. Somali was further restricted in her choice of gifts by the fact that there were no shops near her home. She had learned how to ride a bicycle, but she wasn’t allowed to venture far. There were only three shops in the radius she was allowed to wander in. One was a basic provisions shop, the second was a pharmacy and the third belonged to a down at heel old silversmith. He eked out a bare living by making unimaginative and poorly crafted silver trinkets.
This last then, was the only place worthy of Somali’s custom. She wasn’t sure if she’d be able to find any thing for the tiny sum she had, but she was hopeful.
Twice she went to the old jeweler and asked him to show her his wares. Glaring suspiciously at her, he refused. He told her to bring her mother. Somali was stumped.
The third time, Somali went prepared. She saw him frown the moment he spotted her getting off her bike. Before he could shout, however, Somali grinned at him happily. Bemused, the old man held his fire.
“What is it then?” he asked the child when she stood before his counter, smile plastered on winningly.
“See dadaji (grandfather), I want to buy something for my mother’s birthday. It is to be a secret, a surprise. You know what a surprise is?”
Trying hard not to smile, the old man gravely nodded.
“So you see, I can’t bring my mother. Or my father”, she said hastily before the old man could open his mouth. “My father can’t keep secrets”, she added, woebegone.
Thus, the little girl won the old man over. Like partners in crime, the two went over all the goodies he had. The old jeweler was not a man to get mushy and let the child have whatever she wanted, pay the difference out of his own pocket and take a loss. With a shrewd eye on his profit margin, he showed her his wares.
She was brokenhearted when she found that the only thing she had the money for was a plain silver band adorned by a fake green glass stone. He had three similar rings: one with blue stone, one with a deep red stone and one with a green stone. Somali knew that green was her mother’s favorite color. She chose the ring with the green stone.
She demanded- and got- a velvet lined little box to put the ring in. Fascinated, she open the box and was thrilled to see the pristine silver ring nestling in with its green stone glinting. Clutching the little box tightly in her hand, Somali pedaled away home and hid the ring amongst her clothes. Her mother’s birthday was the very next day.
She was restless all of the rest of the day. By evening, she wanted to blurt out her secret and proudly show her gift to her mother. She had to go to school the next day and would have to give her gift before she left for school. She knew her mom often did not get out of bed until after she left for school. On such days, her father fixed her breakfast. Something told her that being her birthday, tomorrow surely her mom would like to sleep late. Was it a good idea to wake her up only to give the gift? Won’t she be annoyed at being woken up?
Somali was in an agony of indecision. With great courage, she decided to give the gift next morning. And if she was scolded for disturbing her mother’s slumbers, so be it. Though she was scared, a part of her reassured her. Mom will be too pleased to see the gift to be annoyed for long. She could almost see her mother’s delighted smile. She could hear the amazed question her mother would ask her. She could feel herself lost in her mother’s happy embrace.
She slept fitfully during the night. She was up long before the alarm rang. Quiet as a mouse, she woke up and was fully dressed when the alarm rang. She was pleased with herself. She’d given herself plenty of time.
When she crept into her parent’s bedroom, she found her father up. When he saw her all dressed up, he asked her what the matter was in silent pantomime. They crept out of the room and with shining eyes, she showed him her gift. He patted her head and hugged her. His reaction was a tad lackluster but she didn’t let herself dwell on it. All she wanted was a larger than life response from her mother.
Hesitantly, she woke her mother up. As expected, her mom wasn’t too pleased. Excitedly, she wished her mom and told her that she had a gift for her. Bleary eyes still half closed, the mother irritably asked her what gift. Somali pressed the little ring box into her mother’s hand. Her mother raised her head from the pillow and opened the box. Inside was the little silver ring with the green stone.
“You woke me to show this stupid, cheap little ugly thing? What’s wrong with you?!” Her mother shouted hysterically. Her father came into the room When she saw her husband, she plucked the ring out of the box and threw it vengefully towards the open window. The ring sailed away, carrying the wisps of smouldering dreams in it’s wake. Somali’s father stood still for a few moments.
Then he turned to Somali and slapped her hard. “I told you not to wake your mother up. Are you happy now? Go to school and don’t let us have any more nonsense from you.”
Somali picked up her bag and left the house.