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The Mantle of George Washington
|by Swapna Dutta|
Aunt Namita had always been one of my favorite aunts. Unlike most grown-ups she did not believe that children should be seen and not heard. Nor did she feel that a youngster who could read stories for herself had no right to ask for an occasional story at bed-time. In fact, Aunt Namita enjoyed telling stories quite as much as I loved hearing them.
I still remember the thrills I felt down my spine as Aunt Namita recounted Treasure Island or brought me face-to-face with The Gorilla hunters. I vividly recall how I longed to be one of The Swiss Family Robinson or The Children of New Forest, or a member of the March Family after listening to Aunt Namita. But what she loved to relate most of all were true stories of bravery and loyalty, honesty and sacrifice. And I loved them too. The fact that they were true often made me wonder if, given the chance, I couldn’t do them just as well! It was one of my favorite pastimes, visualizing myself in their roles and thinking of all that I would say.
It all began after Aunt Namita told me the story of Casabianca. It was not a true story, but I could not help being impressed by the boy who stood on the burning deck. Couldn’t I do something equally brave, I wondered. True, there were no “burning decks” to be had, but perhaps I could set fire to Papa’s study and wait there heroically for his return!
But how did one set fire to a room, anyway? I sneaked a box of matches out of mummy’s kitchen and tried lighting a fire. I still remember the throbbing pain of that first blister on my finger! I decided then and there that getting burnt wasn’t my cup of tea, whatever Casabianca’s ideas might have been!
Some weeks later Aunt Namita came to stay with us. This time she told me the story of Grace Darling rescuing ship-wrecked people at the risk of her life. This story also set my imagination ablaze and I promptly saw myself pulling out people from the fish-pond Papa was so fond of. Unfortunately there was no sea near my place and not even a river!
Only, I couldn’t imagine any one falling into the fish-pond. No one ever used it for bathing as it was full of reeds and water-hyacinths. I wondered if I could possibly push in some of Papa’s fishing cronies and then pull them out again. Considering how absent-minded most of them were, it would not be difficult at all. I could almost hear the first victim declare, “You know, I had fallen into the pond. . . but Tina was there and she fished me out! She never even thought that she might get drowned herself! Brave girl!”
I could plainly see Papa blushing with pride! Just then another thought struck me. What if Papa were to ask him, “But how did you fall in, Mr. so-and-so?” The cat would be out of the bag in an instant. I sighed. Here was my second dream of becoming a heroine dashed to pieces!
A whole month passed by, leaving me in a state of depression. Then the Easter holidays arrived and Aunt Namita invited me to spend it at her place.
“You look morose, Tina,” said Aunt Namita looking at me keenly, “anything the matter?” “N. . . no,” I said, “when are you going to tell me a story, Aunt Namita?”
“You’re big girl now,” said Aunt Namita unexpectedly. “Why don’t you read the stories yourself?”
“Oh, no!” I protested, “It isn’t the same thing at all.”
Aunt Namita laughed. “Very well, I’ll tell you one after tea. It’s raining, so you can’t go and play in the garden.”
After tea I waited eagerly while Aunt Namita turned over the pages of her favorite Book of Golden Deeds.
“Did I tell you the story of George Washington as a boy?” asked Aunt Namita, looking up from her book.
“No Aunt Namita,” I said promptly, “I’d like to hear it.”
It was the story of George Washington’s honesty and truthfulness as a boy, how he had once unknowingly chopped his father’s favourite cherry-tree with his new axe and owned up bravely, knowing full well how angry his father would be. He was not punished. George Washington had spoken the truth. So his father rewarded him instead.
“And George Washington grew up to be a great statesman,” concluded Aunt Namita, “one reason for his greatness was that he was never afraid of facing the truth.”
“I guess it wouldn’t be difficult to be truthful if one had such a poppet of a father” I said, “now, if I were to break one of Papa’s fishing rods, I know what I’d get!”
“That’s all the more reason why one should be truthful,” said Aunt Namita. “No matter what it costs, no matter what punishment you may get. That’s what I call being heroic!”
Now, this was a new idea to me. Who wanted to get burnt or fish people out of ponds if one could be a heroine just by speaking the truth? But I was a truthful child and yet I was by no means a heroine! What, then, did “being truthful” really mean? I supposed it meant going out of the way to make confessions. I imagined Mummy’s best china lying on the floor in uneven fragments. I could hear Mummy say, “Good heavens! It must be Mini the cat again!” Then . . . yes, then . . . I could see myself stepping out of the playroom, saying in a tone no less dramatic than George Washington’s, “It was not Mini, Mummy. It was I who broke it!” After that. . . frankly speaking, my imagination just refused to work ay further! In the first place, Mummy wouldn’t think Mini responsible for the catastrophe. No, I thought regretfully, I was just one of those unfortunate people who could never be a hero!
The next morning was an unusually sultry one. Aunt Namita had slept badly and had one of her headaches. Uncle Ravi announced that he had invited three of his friends to dinner and had completely forgotten to tell Aunt Namita before. Almost immediately the little son of Aunt Namita’s maid toddled in to say that his mamma had fever and would not come for the next two days.
“This is the last straw!” said Aunt Namita mopping her forehead.
“May I help you, Aunt Namita?” I asked eagerly.
“No, dear. Just go and play in the drawing room. If any one calls, come and tell me in the kitchen. I better get on with the dishes”
I went to the drawing room and settled down with my sketchbook and crayons. I had barely finished sketching the outlines of a teddy-bear when the door bell rang. It was Mrs. Parker from next door, a lady with a long nose who spoke with a funny accent. I knew that neither Aunt Namita nor Uncle Ravi liked her though I did not know why.
“Aunt Namita!” I cried at the top of my voice, “here’s Mrs. Parker from next door to see you.”
Mrs. Parker guffawed loudly and said, “you’ve got the name wrong, little girl. I am Mrs. Suri and not Mrs. Parker. I don’t look English, do I?”
“Oh no!” I said promptly, “uncle and Aunty always call you “Nosey Parker” so I thought it must be your name.”
Mrs. Suri’s nose turned a lurid purple as she glared at me. I thought she was still cross about my mistaking her name. I wanted to convince her that the mistake wasn’t mine. Just then Aunt Namita walked into the room.
“Aunt Namita, you made a mistake about her name” I said promptly, “It isn’t Parker but Suri.” This time it was Aunt Namita’s turn to turn purple. “Don’t talk rubbish, child!” she sad in a stern voice, “I never mistook her name.”
“I’m not talking rubbish” I said, “I have heard both you and Uncle Ravi calling her Nosey Parker.” This time both Aunt Namita and Mrs. Ahluwalia blushed like fury.
“For heaven’s sake go and dust your bedroom, Tina,” cried Aunt Namita, shooing me out of the room. Then she turned to Mrs. Suri and said, “You must not mind what she says. She’s highly imaginative and makes up the most absurd stories.”
“No need to blame the child” said Mrs. Suri in a booming voice, “children merely repeat what they hear from their elders. I’ll never bother you again.”
“Oh dear!” cried Aunt Namita. “I don’t know how I can make you believe me.”
I wondered why Aunt Namita was so keen to convince Mrs. Suri that she hadn’t called her Nosey Parker. What did a name matter, anyway? My friends often called me ‘fatty’ or ‘tubby’ and I didn’t mind! And what if Mrs. Suri never came again? Neither Aunt Namita nor Uncle Ravi liked her. I supposed it was because Aunt Namita was peaceful by nature and hated falling out with anybody—even Mrs. Suri!
I was lost in thoughts for quite some time. When I heard Aunt Namita and Mrs. Suri again they seemed to be talking quite amicably. When at last Mrs. Ahluwalia rose to leave, Aunt Namita said “you can’t go without having tea with us.”
When I was called in for tea I saw a groaning table, full of goodies. Mrs. Suri’s eyes shone. “This is a gorgeous spread, Mrs. Sen” she said. “By the way, I hope I’m not wasting your time!”
“Not at all,” said Aunt Namita, “I hardly have any work in the evenings?”
“Good heavens!” I cried, “have you forgotten Uncle Ravi’s dinner guests? When are you going to cook it if you speak to Mrs. Par… er… Suri all evening?”
“For Heaven’s sake, speak when you’re spoken to!” said Aunt Namita frowning.
I subsided at once and attacked the pudding with gusto. Mrs. Suri did the same. “The kababs are absolutely delicious” she remarked, smacking her lips.
“Have some sauce,” said Aunt Namita and poured a generous portion on the kababs.
“Lovely!” said Mrs. Suri, “you made it yourself?”
“Yes,” said Aunt Namita.
“Have some, little girl” said Mrs. Suri, pointing to the bottle of sauce.
“No, thank you,” I said. The mantle of George Washington was still upon me. “You see, a huge spider fell into the sauce when Aunt Namita was boiling it. So she said we were not to touch it. She said she’d either throw it away or……give it to the beggars!”
There was pin-drop silence after my words, while both Aunt Namita and Mrs. Suri turned white and red in turn. (I learnt later that Aunt Namita had thrown away the pot of sauce then and there and made a fresh lot the same evening. But how was I to know that?) I merely looked from one face to the other. That postscript about giving the sauce to beggars had been my own bright idea. But I failed to see how it mattered.
Mrs. Suri threw the plateful of kababs on the floor and covered her face with her handkerchief.
“Good bye” she said and left the room abruptly. This time Aunt Namita did not make any attempt to stop her. She sat down in a crumpled heap.
“How could you, Tina?” she said more in sorrow than in anger.
“I was merely trying to speak the truth. To be like George Washington, you know. You said it was the greatest thing in life!”
“Don’t rub it in” said Aunt Namita, “And it was NOT the truth. That sauce was not the same and I never said I’d give the first lot to anybody.”
“I’m sorry,” I said feeling smaller than a cockroach, “I’m awfully sorry.”
“I guess it was partly my fault,” said Aunt Namita. And she never told me another story again!
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