A cool breeze blew in from over the sea. Waves lapped lazily along the shoreline, creating their own music in tandem with the breeze. They sat in the verandah of the bungalow, enjoying the sea and the palm tops flaring in a slow dance. Afreen and her mother had taken a few days off to be together in this idyllic place which they had not visited again after Afreen’s father had died.
As they sipped refreshing coconut water, they watched Afreen’s toddler playing in the sand. It was all over him – in his hair, ears, pockets - like he was bathing in it. He watched every grain with awe as it trickled through his fingers in his futile attempt to fill a pail. He squealed with excitement and looked frequently at the two women following his every action with surging pride and joy.
‘Very soon, these carefree days will be over and he will begin school. Enjoy him while you can, Afreen.’ After what seemed like a short trip down to some corner of her mind she said again, ‘It seems just a short while ago I used to watch you play this way. And before we knew it you were off to school.’ Afreen smiled.
Her mother continued, “I remember the day I took you for your interview for pre-primary. When the Sister came for you, you refused to enter the class. You just pouted at her and turned away. About an hour later, after she had conducted some more interviews, she was called away. Most of the interviews were over and the children and parents had left. I was afraid that was the end of you getting admission in this school. But no sooner you saw the nun leave, you were ready to enter the classroom!! The other teachers found it very amusing and they took you in. Immediately, you started questioning them. ‘What is this? Why is that so? Why was that lady (nun) wearing such funny clothes?’ You delighted them so much, they knew they wanted you as their student.”
Again Afreen said nothing. She had heard this one before as she had about other childhood incidents. In the ensuing silence it was her turn to slip into memories. She remembered two little books her mother had carefully saved till this day. Other prizes had followed but these being the first two held place of pride.
“Little Pets” was a prize she had won for ‘enthusiasm shown in class activity, good grasping power and poetry’. That was in nursery class.
In senior K. G. she had been awarded “Big Animals” for general knowledge. She remembered being told that there had been a little hoo-ha at that time. The prizes were to be given away on the sports day. The Senior K. G. class were to perform exercises to music, holding colorful flags. For that the school was to make a special dress for each girl. The parents were asked to cough up Rs. 350/- each. In those days it was an exorbitant amount for what would be a little dress with a skimpy, tutu-like skirt, which no girl would be able to wear again. Afreen’s father refused to pay. He asked them to make the dresses slightly bigger so the girls would be able to use them again later. The principal would not budge. Instead she tried to cajole him saying that they would have to leave Afreen out from the performance and it would reflect badly on her relationship with her parents. ‘She may never understand and may not forgive you for being the only girl left out because her parents would not pay.’
‘I am sorry,’ replied her father. ‘Today she may not understand, but she will when she grows up. This is not so much about money as about values and principles.’
So Afreen stayed back in the room while the rest of her classmates performed to the delight of their indulgent parents who had buckled to authority without a whimper. But she was told that she had not been left alone there. Her mother was with her all the time reassuring her, telling her how proud they were of her; how, soon her name would be called out and she would walk up to receive her prize.
She also recollected a party she had attended with her parents. Some of the men were drinking and soon the atmosphere lightened with people laughing and joking. Suddenly, one of the men, quite drunk, addressed her dad rather loudly: ‘Arre, yaar. What clothes are you wearing? You should wear smart expensive clothes, not such rags.’ There was total silence. All eyes were apprehensively on her father. Very calmly, with absolute poise and dignity he replied, ‘Oh, I am so sorry. I thought people mattered. Not their clothes. Next time around I’ll send rich clothes to the party.’ The tension immediately dissipated and her father had won the day. Next morning, when he was sober, the man who had made this remark, called to apologize to her dad. She was so proud of her beloved father.
Afreen got up from her chair, went over to her mother and kissed her, after hugging her warmly. ‘Ma,’ she said, ‘I am so proud of you and Daddy. You have instilled wonderful values by your example and the courage to stand up for them against all odds. Today, I am respected and loved for who I am and not for the things I possess. I do not need outer embellishments like branded clothes, the latest in fashion accessories, regular visits to beauty parlors or anything else considered a status symbol to feel good and confident. I can meet the world on my own terms. Thank you Ma. And thank you Dad, wherever you may be.’
Mother and daughter sat holding hands, secure in the warmth of their love and understanding, reflected in the sun setting over the horizon.
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