I was eight years old and lived in a lovely green suburb of New Delhi. It was 1978. I lived in a small two bedroom flat with my parents and baby sister, Guttu. She was one year old and plump. Our flat was on the ground floor and faced a park and had a small veranda, overlooking the park. The park was the common play ground for all the children who lived in the flats around the park.
Our neighbours where also a Bengali family from Kolkata, like we were. The family had a father, a mother and two daughters. Tiya and Mishti. Tiya was one year older than me and Mishti was one year younger than me. We were playmates and also went to the same school. Our mothers were best of friends. Our fathers were polite and cordial with each other and hardly ever met.
The entrance doors to our respective flats faced each other and next to the staircase going up to the other floors of the small building that had four floors There were four such buildings on either side of the park. Each floor had two flats. All flats were identical.
Often my mother and her friend were found standing at the door and chatting during breaks between housework. Every man, woman and child, that walked up or down the stairs was greeted by the presence of these two homemakers. Tiya, Mishti, Guttu and I slipped through the doors to run in and out of each other’s homes, playing our various games, as our mothers shared their intimate lives.
One evening I had a brilliant idea to treat my best friends to toffees (orange drops in English but we Indians always called them toffees). I asked my mother if I could fetch milk from the milk booth that evening. It was the old woman staying with us, Budiamma, who did baby sitting for Guttu and also fetched milk most of the time. Budiamma was part of the family heirloom from my mother’ side. She came to Kolkata as a young child widow with her two-year old son along with my maternal great-grandmother in dowry and had stayed on, when the family migrated from East Pakistan to West Bengal just before Partition of India.
The milk booth was in the local shopping cluster a little away from our house. Maa handed me the required money and the milk can.
I excitedly trotted off next door and called out Tiya and Mishti. They were just getting ready to come out and play in the park. As they came out I took them aside and whispered my plan to them. I told them that if they came along with me to the milk booth I would treat them to our favourite orange flavoured Parley toffee. Tiya asked, “How are you going to get the money for the toffee,” I showed her the money, Maa had given me for the milk. She asked with a twinkle in her eyes, “Is that enough?”
I told her my plan with the cleverness of a con artist, “I am not going to buy milk with this money, I will buy toffee and tell Maa that the milk spilled when I tripped over a rock and fell,” grinning at my flawless scheme. Tiya and Mishti jumped with uncertain joy at my brilliance and the anticipation of orange toffee.
The short walk to the shops was through a wooded path. We discussed in hushed voices as to how many we could purchase with all the money. As we reached the milk booth, we went straight to the next shop which sold toffee. With all the money that Maa had given, I bought toffees. There must have been two dozens at least. I divided them equally among the three of us. Some we ate right there. And the rest we grasped tightly in our fists and walked back home. As we walked through the same wooded path, we ate the rest of the toffee. We could not risk keeping evidence. I was deeply satiated and felt triumphant for having pulled this through!
When we reached home, Tiya and Mishti waited outside as I went in to hand over the empty milk can to Maa. She looked quizzically at me and asked, “Where is the milk, Shona,?” I confidently told the lines, I had rehearsed all evening, “I tripped on a rock and all the milk spilled, sorry.” What happened next was absolutely not in my well thought out script.
Maa opened the can lid, looked deep within and then she sniffed the can. She showed me the inside of the can and asked, “How come the can is dry and there are no droplets of milk in it?” Now, I had clearly forgotten to cover up for this irrefutable important scientific fact! I had overlooked the tiny “droplets and traces.” As this realization dawned on me the sound outside faded away and all I heard was my heart beat. It was beating like the drums in a Punjabi wedding. I saw my mother talking as she moved her lips but I heard no voice.
But I think she was asking me, “What did you do with the money?” And she showed no expression on her face. Which meant the storm was coming and I was now in the middle of the lull. I found I could no longer speak and I think I had no tongue in my mouth. She stormed out of the house to where Tiya and Mishti were impatiently waiting. She asked them what I had done with money. I was certain my friends would show their loyalty towards me. But they spilled the beans. Mishti pointed her finger at me and said, “It was her plan. She bought toffees and talked us into having them and told us to keep quiet.”
Well, what happen there after is a blur!