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The Birthday Party
by Swapna Dutta

Just behind the Lodge, the only boarding house at Duliatal, the path dropped down suddenly. A narrow track overgrown with wild flowers led to the house and the drooping trees formed an umbrella-like roof overhead. The track led to a cottage standing by itself, lonely and forgotten. Or so it seemed to Tinku who had found the place quite accidentally. A friend of her father's was staying at the Lodge. So Tinku and her father had come to visit him. The friend was a botanist too and the two were soon talking animatedly about herbs that grew in the wilds of Duliatal. Tinku was sent off to play in the garden. That was when she had seen the place.

But it was not really an empty cottage as Tinku had thought at first. Looking at it carefully she saw smoke coming out of the chimney. This was another thing that Tinku found intriguing about Duliatal. People here still used wood to make fires. At Delhi everyone she knew used gas for cooking. Tinku had asked her father if the beautiful forests of Duliatal would vanish some day if the people here continued to use wood for lighting fires.
'Yes, if they keep cutting down trees' her father had told her, 'Luckily the people here seem to use dry twigs and leaves. And many others are beginning to use electricity. So I suppose the woods are safe for the time being!'

Anyway, the people who lived in this cottage obviously used wood! And there were white sheets and lace-edged pillow-cases drying in the backyard. She wondered if there were any children in the house, someone she could play with. Knowing that her father and his friend would be talking for hours and would not miss her at all, Tinku ran down the path reaching the wooden gate that led to the cottage. There was an old name plate which said 'Primrose Cottage'. 'Nice name' said Tinku to herself, 'The garden must be full of primroses'. She stood before the gate wondering whether she should go in. Well, it made no sense to walk this far if she didn't! 'I shan't disturb anyone' she told herself, 'it can't possibly matter if I just peep through the window'.

There didn't seem to be any one around. The doors were all shut tightly. The windows had curtains drawn across them so she could not see what lay inside. Then she saw a long window which belonged to the room at the corner. There were no curtains there. Tinku ran to it and peeped inside. It looked like a prayer room with holy pictures on the walls and a crucifix at the centre, just like their school chapel. There was somebody kneeling before the crucifix, her head bent. It was an old lady with silvery hair. She wore a blue skirt and a pale yellow jersey. She was praying. Tinku knew that one should not disturb people at prayers for her grandmother had always told her that. She crept back quietly wildly curious about the strange lady who obviously lived at the cottage.

Tinku asked her friends about her the next day. Most of them knew about the old lady but not very much about who she was and what she did or who she lived with. 'She's just a strange old lady who lives in that cottage' said Mona.

'My mom says she is a nice old lady. Only, she doesn't mix around with anyone here' said Ritu.

'Perhaps she's a witch like the one in Hansel and Gretel' suggested Sonu, 'that's why she lives in that far away cottage. I'm sure she catches little boys and girls .... and ......'

'Eats them up? Don't be silly!' said Tinku.

'Is her cottage made of chocolates and things?' asked Ashish curiously, 'I haven't been that side so I haven't seen it.'

'Don't be ridiculous, of course it isn't' said Tinku, 'Where would she get so much chocolate from? And she can't be a witch. There aren't any witches these days. She seemed a nice old lady.'

'How do you know?' jeered Ricky, 'You haven't even seen her face! Besides, you've been here just a few months and can't possibly know the first thing about her.'

'Well, I know she is nice' said Tinku with conviction, 'Don't ask me how I know. I don't know myself!'

They soon got busy planning a picnic for the weekend. They were to have it in the birch wood behind their school. There was a cleared space within the wood which was protected from the wind as there were rocks and boulders on three sides. So people could play there without their shuttle-cocks and Frisbees blowing away. There was a rose garden on one side of the clear space and three swings on the other, both made by settlers of long ago when this place was part of a cantonment. It still remained a favorite picnic spot for local people as well as occasional tourists. Everyone was going to bring eats and pool them together. Tinku looked forward to the picnic like everyone else.

The day dawned bright and clear - just right for an outing. They reached the birchwood long before mid-day. They were soon playing frisbee and swinging by turn. Tinku got busy collecting roses and ferns. They were so beautiful and in such gorgeous colors. Tinku had only seen such flowers in shops when she lived in Delhi.

'What on earth are you going to do with so many?' asked Mona.

'I am making a bouquet' announced Tinku.

Everyone burst out laughing.

'What for?' asked Bablu, 'You find roses all over the place! And ferns too.'

'Well, I want a bouquet' said Tinku obstinately, 'I've never seen such beautiful roses before or such velvety green fern'.

'Poor little city-girl!' teased Ashish.

They were in the middle of a number game when the sunlight was suddenly blotted out and a thin mist descended on the party. And then it started drizzling.

'Goodness gracious! It was bright and sunny only a moment ago' cried Tinku pulling on her raincoat.

'That's how it always is in the hills' said Ritu, 'bright and sunny one moment, foggy and rainy in the next. We're used to it by now.'

'I know a short-cut to school' said Bablu, 'Follow me.'

'What a shame' grumbled Mona, 'and how tame to have a picnic in the school building! It will feel just like a school lunch.'

'No help for it' said Ricky, 'We can't picnic in the wood amidst this downpour.'

Everyone gathered up their bags and baskets and ran after Bablu down a narrow, winding path slipping and stumbling.

'This isn't the way to our school' said Sonu. But no one heard her. Tinku was still clutching her bouquet of roses and ferns. The mist was really thick now and they could hardly see anything.

'Here we are' said Bablu triumphantly, falling against the gate.

'But this isn't our school. It's somebody's house' cried Mona.

'Never mind' said Ritu from behind, 'I am sure we can wait here until the mist lifts and it stops raining. And she knocked loudly on the wooden door.

'This is the cottage I told you about' cried Tinku recognized the place suddenly, 'You know, the one where the strange lady lives alone.'

'I hope she isn't dangerous' said Mona with a shiver, 'Even if she isn't a witch she could be an escaped convict or... or... a loony!'

'She's nothing of the sort' cried Tinku, 'I'm sure she is....'

The door opened quite suddenly. A tall, silver-haired lady stood smiling at them as she said, 'Please come in, children. Come and dry yourselves. I'll switch on the heater and get you fresh towels.'

'Thank you so much' said Rita who was still shivering, 'We had gone for a picnic and it suddenly started raining and we just ran and landed up here.'

'I'm very glad you did' said the lady, 'Come this way, all of you.'

They walked in and looked about them curiously. It was a beautiful hall, tastefully done up with polished wooden furniture and quaint lace curtains. And the place was all set for a party. There were colorful streamers, balloons and flowers in vases. The table at the centre held an enormous cake and plateful of delicious goodies. There were patties and sandwiches, buns and pastries, biscuits and chocolates, apples and oranges. Quite a fairy-tale spread!

'Is it your birthday?' asked Tinku as the lady handed out fresh towels to everyone.

'We shouldn't intrude' said Ritu, 'We'll leave as soon as it stops raining.'

'Please don't' said the lady looking at them wistfully, 'You must have tea with me. I can't tell you how very happy I am to see you. For the first time in years I shall have a real party and not a make-believe one! The children looked at each other, not understanding her.

'You see, I live all alone here' said the lady looking at their puzzled faces, 'I seldom have any visitors and I hardly ever go out myself.'

'But who does your shopping?' asked Mona, 'You must need a lot of things for your house and garden.'

'My gardener does most things and his wife helps me with housework' she said, 'They have been with me for years and are nearly as old as I am.'

'Don't you feel lonely ?' asked Tinku.

'I am used to it now' said the lady, 'But it's my birthday today. I just pretended that I was not alone and baked a huge birthday cake and made other things for imaginary guests. I would have sent it all to the orphanage tomorrow. I am so glad you have come today and I can have a real party after all!'

'A very happy birthday from all of us' said Tinku offering her the bouquet, 'I am really happy that I made this.'

'It's just beautiful' she said, 'Thank you so much. You must tell me your names. You may call me Aunty Julie.'

'Many happy returns, Aunty Julie' said Ashish giving her a big bar of chocolate which he had brought for the picnic, 'Shall I light the candles for you?'

'Thank you. Please do' said Auntie Julie, 'Shall I cut the cake now?'

'Oh you must wish first' said Tinku.

'I don't need to' said Aunty Julie smiling at them, 'My wish has already been granted. I had been wishing for friends to share my birthday with.'

'We shall come again' said Tinku, 'And we won't let you feel lonely again.'

Ritu had already started singing 'Happy birthday to you.....'

Everyone joined in merrily!    

Those who are interested in reading more about Tinku may buy the book "Tinku at Duliatal" directly from www.orientlongman.com

Image under license with Gettyimages.com

24-Sep-2006
 
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