by Gitanjali Maria
(Kochi, Kerala, India)
The Christmas tree stood majestically in the centre of the room. It was almost as tall as my dad and was decorated with Christmas balls, tiny mistletoes, small bells and stars. The serial set lighting on it blinked every few seconds and its reflections could be seen on the newly painted glazy walls. My eyes surveyed the decorated artificial green Christmas tree, top to bottom, and finally rested on the many gifts placed at its feet.
My eyes sparkled on seeing the many presents of varying shapes and sizes. This would mean that I would be getting one of them tomorrow. I inched a little closer to the Christmas tree to get a better look at the many gifts. My mind went racing and I was already thinking about which one of them I would like the best, even though I couldn’t see what each packet contained as they had all been wrapped up with shiny gift wrappers. But going by their sizes and shapes, I tried to figure out which was the biggest and tried to guess what it could be.
“Janet, move away from there”, my dad who was working on giving the final touches to the Christmas crib told me.
I moved backwards but kept looking at them imploringly.
“You’ll get them tomorrow if you behave like a good girl in the church tonight”, he said tersely.
“I want that big one wrapped in purple”, I said pointing my fingers at one of the beautifully covered rectangular packets.
“We’ll see”, he replied back just like most other grown-ups who never like giving out any concrete decision.
That night in church I was absolutely obedient and quiet, not at all my usual self. I even prayed to God with folded hands that I be given the gift with the purple wrapper. It was for the first time for our family Christmas celebrations that I had seen gifts to be distributed kept near the Christmas tree and I longed for the best one.
The next day I got up early, even though I had slept late after the mass, to ensure that the gift I had chosen for myself was still there.
The cake to be cut by the head of the extended family consisting of my grandparents, my parents and siblings and dad’s brother and sister and their families was kept on the table. But all my eyes were on the gifts and I did not even bother to look what flavour the cake was.
Finally, the cake was cut and glasses of wine served. Now it was the time to distribute the gifts, which were symbolic of the gifts brought by Uncle Santa, riding on his sleigh, right from the Arctic Circle to our homes. But I was almost sure that it was one of my uncles or aunts who had chosen the gifts and wrapped them.
My face fell as the gifts were given to all the children, us cousins, and I got the smallest packet. Though disappointed, I still hoped that it would be something very valuable. The room was filled with the noise of tearing of gift wrappers. I opened mine in a jiffy only to find a pair of blue and white bangles. And I was not fond of bangles.
I looked around. My brother, who had got a big red coloured box, now held a remote-operated racing car in his hand. The one who had got the purple cover now held a set of painting colours in his hand and the eldest cousin brother had got a wrist watch.
I wanted to cry, but had to control my tears because I knew if I compared and complained, even the little I had got would be gone. And after all, Christmas with any gift was better than a Christmas with none. I wondered whether uncle Santa too would have done the same pattern of distribution of gifts. I had been a good girl during yesterday night’s prayers and why was I still given the tiniest packet? All these and more questions and disturbing emotions cluttered my tiny young brain.
But I was silent and nobody seemed to notice my disappointment as they chattered away. I wondered whether it was because I was a girl that I was given such a small gift. I had read about girl children being treated unequally by parents in my social studies text books due to Indian society’s obsession for sons and wondered whether my family too was like that. But I was sent to the same school as my brother and was allowed to go for guitar and chess classes too. So this could probably not be the reason, I tried to console myself.
Or was it because I was an adopted kid? I was not very sure about this because it was only a feeling in my mind and I dared not speak it out; and nobody had even remotely told me anything yet concerning this unspoken doubt of mine. Yet I always wondered whether I was an adopted child, especially when I was the only one scolded every time when a fight erupted between me and my younger brother, or when his wishes were fulfilled and mine ignored. But I was afraid to speak it out aloud and kept this doubt to myself.
Good times often help you forget the bad patches you have gone through in life. The doubts and feelings of inferiority that I had had as a child receded to the back of my mind as I soared through the heights of success in life, grabbing good degrees and great jobs.
But things did not quite run the same way all along. With the successes and high flying lifestyle, I developed habits that were quite unthinkable of for girls brought up in conservative families and I got into bad company. Alcohol and drugs replaced music and movies as my hobbies. And a peer group that advocated this kind of living and religiously tried to get new members to their gang became my constant halo.
But alas, law has its own ways of finding defaulters and soon my peers and myself found ourselves caught in the nets of the law of the land for trading in drugs and other illegal items. The smarter of my friends got their influential dads to bail them out while the emotional and sentimental ones, who were the darlings of their families, got their parents and relatives to support them and console them.
I was unsure how my family would react if I called them for something like this. I had serious doubts as to whether they’ll even care if I tell them that I’m in the hands of police, arrested for peddling in drugs. My ever morally upright parents would never forgive me for my foray into these bad activities, I concluded. I wondered whether I would ever be lucky enough to have parents who would be caring, understanding and forgiving as those some of my friends had. And those worst nightmares of my childhood came over my mind, like dark clouds hovering over before a thunderstorm.
But there was no other option than to convey the news to them. Though I didn’t do much of the talking, the inspector at the station revealed all the details to them, sparing me the trouble of having to look into their eyes as the events were being narrated.
Though they looked troubled, worried and anxious, they didn’t prod me or ask me too many probing questions. I was saddened to see them have to do this for me in the twilight years of their life. With their grey hair and wrinkled skin, a reflection of the hardships that they had undergone to build up the family, they looked a lot older to me than they actually were. As they led me out of the dungeons of prison on bail, I felt sorry that I had ever had those doubts in my mind. Their silence and sad and tensed looks worsened the situation and I wished that they had never come for me and left me to suffer for my sins. I wished they would get angry and shout at me telling that I have disgraced the family; but nothing like that happened. I wanted to cry and say sorry but my eyes seem to have dried up over the years and the throat was too parched to utter something audible. I remained stone-faced and willingly subjected myself to their commands, sub-consciously aware that whatever they do for me will be for my good and my good only.
It was only when the temperature started to dip and I had to take out my sweaters from the suitcase that I realised how fast time had gone. Another winter season had come calling. Things had improved much since the time I walked out of the police station but I wondered whether they’ll be the same ever again.
I stood at the gate of the entrance to the City Rehabilitation Centre, dressed in a maroon sweater put over a loose ‘salwar kammez’ with a ‘dupatta’ dangling across both my shoulders and a few pieces of suitcase. I had been told that I would have visitors today and had been asked to pack up all my stuff. And even without the Rehabilitation Centre director telling me, I knew who they would be.
A car slowed down to a halt before me and a bespectacled old man with balding head and a sari-clad woman with a grey haired bun got out and helped me into the car, adjusting my luggage in the boot. And the car moved past, leaving behind it what had been my residence for the last six months and all its painful memories.
As it cruised past the narrow winding lanes, I saw stars and decorations everywhere and a melodious jingling music filled the air. But what I liked the most was the tall decorated Christmas trees with wrapped gifts at its feet placed at the front of many homes and at street corners. It was time for another Christmas.
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