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This November Women’s Web, with JustBooks, is running Book Talk, a writing theme where you get to write (read) about books that inspire us.
For November, our writing cue was: “Ask the books that I read why I changed. Ask the authors dead and alive who communicated with me and gave me the courage to be myself.” – from My Story by Kamala Das. Our second winning entry is by Sangeeta.
“Did you see her?” Reena nudged me sharply. “She is at it again.”
I turned around gently, so as not to catch the attention of Maina, Reena’s four-year-old niece.
Maina was talking rapidly in a low voice to someone. Despite my caution, she caught me watching her.
“Bill the Lizard just got a letter from his mom,” she beamed happily at me. “The dormouse told me so!”
As I nodded kindly in response, Reena rolled her eyes in exasperation.
“The child just goes on and on with her gibberish games,” she complained bitterly. “It gets onto my nerves.”
Reena flopped down on her big, cushy sofa with a tired sigh.
“I wish her mother would recover soon,” she said wistfully. “I confess I am no good with little children and their make-believe worlds.”
I looked at Maina, who was then squatting on the ground and peering at something keenly. A surge of pity filled my heart. She had seen too much pain in her short life. The unexpected early demise of her father in a violent accident the past year and the hardships that came their way had left her mother wracked with despair and disease. Maina had to lodge with her relatives, from one family to the other, like a rolling stone, while her mother lay despondent in a hospital bed.
“She is a queer child,” her relatives would say, not unlike Reena, her present benefactor. “One moment she is all grown-up and silent, and the next moment she is all hyperactive.”
Later, as I paused by the sleeping child after dinner, I noticed the corner of a book peeking out below the pillow. I gently pulled it out and read the title.
Alice in Wonderland.
“Papa had given it to me.”
I looked up to see Maina sitting up on the bed.
“But you cannot read yet, can you?”
“No, but he used to read out the stories to me every night,” she said, reaching out to reclaim her book. “When I grow up, I am going to read it all by myself.”
That was how I remembered Maina all these years –the little girl sitting upright on the bedwith a faraway look in her eyes, clutching a heavy, hard bound book of fanciful tales.
It must have been twenty years hence that I stumbled upon Maina once again. I had heard about her mother passing away after a prolonged bout of depression related ailment. The last update I had of Maina was that of her being packed away to a boarding school run by a charitable society. After that I heard no more of Maina. Her memory had almost faded away in my mind, till the day a smart young woman at my grandson’s school carnival approached me with a broad smile.
“Hello, Auntie,” she said, her smile lighting up her eyes.
I responded weakly as I agonized over connecting a name to that familiar smile.
“You might not remember me, Auntie,” the girl continued, recognizing my discomfiture. “We met at Reena Auntie’s house many years ago. My name is Maina.”
I choked as I recollected the little girl and grasped her hands tightly within mine, suddenly overcome with emotions. She laughed and hugged me, wiping off a stray drop of tear from my eyes.
Later, over cups of tea, she told me her story. How life had treated her and how she ended up where she was today – a children’s book illustrator. I had no inkling that the name Mrinalini printed on my grandson’s story books belonged to Maina.
“It was difficult, Auntie,” she said, sipping on her tea, that familiar faraway look returning to her eyes. “Difficult to even go on living, sometimes. But I had a rabbit-hole where I would dive in whenever things were too hard. It gave me immense strength and peace and I could face everything calmly.”
“I know, my child,” I replied. “I had a best friend once and we spent our childhood together. It was not easy to grow up in a household where parents lived as strangers. I discovered my rabbit-hole, too, reading a particular book. My friend played along and we passed many a spring afternoon living out characters from the book. One day, I realized that I was healed. There was no loneliness in my heart. I gifted the book to my best friend the day we parted. It was a beautiful hard-bound edition.”
Maina looked at me with growing comprehension. She pulled out a battered copy of Alice in Wonderland and flipped it open, fingering the name scrawled across the top of the first page.
Just as I had not known the Mrinalini of my grandson’s story books, Maina had not known the Anamika on her book.
And two strong women shared a smile between themselves.
Sangeeta wins a Rs.500 voucher for this entry, from JustBooks, India’s First & Largest Community Library Chain.
JustBooks gives you (and your entire family, from toddlers to teens, dabblers to bookworms), a wide selection of 9 lakh books on an affordable membership plan! You can read unlimited books and at your leisure with no late fee. Don’t forget to check out their excellent reading list for women, and other book recommendations!
Here is a JustBooks special offer just for Women’s Web readers! Use coupon code JBWWD250 to redeem Rs.250 on JustBooks membership plans when you signup. Offer until November 30th only!
Cover image via Shutterstock