THURSDAY: The Incredible Journey of the Red and Green Shoebox

BY PURABI DAS

Copyright is held by the author.

THE GIRL SMILED to herself while humming a popular Bollywood tune. She had accompanied her father who was a rag picker to the huge dump beside the rail tracks in the slum city of Dharavi, in central Mumbai. Her mother did not want her to wake up so early, it was still dark at five in the morning, but she had insisted. And, as always she had won. Leela knew she could twist her folks round her finger. She loved her parents and they in turn loved her unconditionally, feeding her the choicest bits from the cooking pot and buying her toys whenever there were a few extra rupees. She was also registered at the local government funded school where she learnt the local dialect along with English and was able to read and write quite fluently. Her parents were thankful since they were both illiterate.

Today was Christmas. Leela knew all about this special day from some of the stories the teacher told them if they finished their work early. Their teacher had also said they would each receive a surprise at school on this Christmas morning. Oooh, it was too much to wait, she wanted to run to the school building right now but classes would not start until eleven.

***

She left the office early that evening intending to get a head start. Guests were supposed to arrive for cocktails around six. She should have enlisted Mark’s help but stubborn that she was she had wanted to show off her skills to her husband. Anyway, once they were done with the party and it being Friday, she would have time to go through the packages she had been hoarding all this time.

These packages, all 10 of them, that she had been hiding in the basement of their house were actually gifts for an 11-year-old girl. They were meant for the shoebox she had picked up from church. Each year the month before Christmas each family at church picked up these red and green boxes, the size of a shoebox, took them home and filled them with goodies appropriate for a boy or girl in the particular age group. When everyone had brought them back to church the shoeboxes were blessed and sent off on their journey to a chosen destination.

Her heart had leapt when she heard that their church was going to send the boxes to Mumbai in India and ever since she had not been able to concentrate on anything. She would creep down the stairs in the middle of another sleepless night to go through the gifts she had picked up — a bag of hard candy, colour pencils, an eraser, a notebook, half a dozen hair clips glittering with multi-coloured stones, a staple and staple remover, a couple of pairs of pretty socks, a bracelet and a face cloth.

She started to go through the items and as it had happened almost constantly for the last couple of months her mind raced back 12 years when she was a girl of 14. School and all it entailed had been a chore that needed to be done to get it out of the way leaving the rest of the time concentrating on field hockey. And she knew she was good at it. Their school, a prestigious girls high school nestled among the trees in the mountains of Munar, in the south of India, was famous for churning out great athletes. And she was certainly in the forefront. She hated the time spent in classrooms could not understand why they had to study out of dry books when the outdoors beckoned. As a result, her grades were always on the borderline. That year had been no different. Then her parents were called to meet with the principal. The upshot of that meeting was they decided she would spend the summer vacation at school getting extra tutoring to make up for her failing grades. She had cried relentlessly hoping to change their minds. But it did not work. So she resorted to sulks and outright rudeness.

After waving her friends goodbye she turned back towards the brick building that served as their dormitory resolving to spend the rest of the day in bed. But it was not to be.

“You are not going to go back to bed, are you?” Sister Anastasia’s nasal tones jarred on her nerves and brought a dark scowl on the girl’s face.

She was told to bring her books to the classroom, now empty and seeming strangely unfamiliar, where she was supposed to wait for her tutor. She went reluctantly dragging her bag. The nun’s orders had to be obeyed. Any show of temper would certainly result in a strict diet of bread and water.

Immersed in her own misery she had not noticed the young man standing by the blackboard and only looked up when he greeted her with a cheery good morning. She did not respond but sat down heavily in her usual chair at the very back of the classroom.

“I believe it’s better if you sit in the front,” he said conversationally. “I don’t want to have to yell unnecessarily,” he finished with a chuckle. It brought a responding smile out of her and she looked up finally to be met with a face that had so much life in it that it seemed to spill out into every corner of the classroom. He was still smiling. He was rather handsome but she would have died rather than acknowledge it. It was all so wrong. She should been at home at this very moment romping with her dog Lumps and planning the day. It was all her parents’ fault, of course they only wanted her to study and not enjoy life.

The first day passed with her ignoring the young man but he persisted and somehow by the end of the week she had thawed to an extent that she showed an interest in the calculations and formulas he had on the blackboard. She even began to look forward to being tutored asking him questions about himself although Sister Anastasia frowned disapprovingly and shushed her most of the time. But the tutor seemed only too glad to chat with the lonely young girl.

One day he suggested a jog around the hockey field. The nun nodded so off they went and ran around the track until laughing and out breath they collapsed in a heap on the grass. This was the beginning of their friendship. She started to count the hours to morning when she would be with her tutor and he was always punctual never missing a day. She loved the way his eyes lit up when she walked into the room. She would pretend not to have noticed but when his hands brushed against hers when he returned her notebook she felt something deep in the pit of her stomach. It was an uncomfortable sensation, one she was not familiar with but liked it nevertheless. And wanted more. Ducking out of the dormitory in the dark of night she met him several times behind the hedge that bordered the boundary of the school. He had no compunction in seducing her. She turned out to be a willing pupil.

Vacation over her friends returned with bulging bags and chatter about the holidays. She listened with a small smile hovering around her mouth. He had said he would be back for her when she finished high school and in the meantime they would write. Everyday she waited for the promised letter. When it did not arrive she made excuses for him.

Shortly after, the whole school was thrown into the turmoil of studying for midterms. Most days she could not eat bringing up whatever went into her stomach. The morning of the exams she fell in a dead faint. The nurse was summoned and they carried her to the small room beside the nurse’s office and left her there for an inordinate amount of time. Then the nurse returned accompanied by the principal. Her parents were coming to take her home.

But how could she go home in the middle of term? And she had to stay here for her tutor. True he had not written but surely there was a good reason. Many a time she had started a letter only to realize she did not know where to send it. She did not know anything about him but it made no difference. She wanted him, badly.

Her parents arrived. Tight-lipped they hustled her into the car without touching her. Why were they behaving this way? No one bothered to answer. When they reached home her mother took her aside and said she was going to stay home until such time when she would journey to another place to have the baby. What baby? She screamed. Why should I have a baby? I am only 14. I want to go back to school. Her mother fixed her with a steely look and refused to answer any questions. From that day she was made a virtual prisoner in her own home.

When her body started to change she was bundled into the car and driven to Mumbai to a non-descript looking house. Here she stayed until the baby arrived. She knew it was a girl for she had heard the woman who took care of the birthing mention it. She had not wanted this foreign object in her body and was happy it was out, finally. How dare it spoil everything for her?

But always at the back of her mind there was a glimmer of hope that he would find her and explain why he had never written. She stayed at that place for a few more weeks then her parents brought her back to the familiar old house. How happy she was to be back and rushed to her room to touch the familiar objects and reassure herself that she had returned.

She did not spare a thought for the baby. That was something over and done with. When she turned eighteen, her parents found a nice boy, a recent graduate from medical school, and she was married. They left for Canada a week later.

***

Leela’s mother looked up from the pot she was stirring on the open fire when she heard her daughter’s footsteps. A fond smile lit up her face. She was so fortunate that God had placed her in her lap 11 years ago. She had been a sweeper at a nursing home in the outskirts of Mumbai, only it was more of a half way house for unwed mothers who could have their baby without fear of exposure. It was all done in secrecy. The babies, once born, were taken away to a chosen orphanage or a foster home.

On that fateful day, she had entered the room to take away the soiled linen and mop the floor off blood when she noticed the young girl. She lay quietly staring at the ceiling and something in her stance was so lost and pathetic that her heart had gone out to her. The baby had not been removed and lay in a basket. Obviously these were well-to do folks for the little thing was wrapped in a soft blanket. The baby started to cry. She had lost her own little one two weeks back but her milk kept flowing. Without thinking she picked up the baby and placed it against her breast.

The girl tuned her eyes towards the woman, “Her name is Leela,” she said, and continued contemplating the ceiling.

The poor sweeper woman put her thumb print on a long piece of paper when it was brought by the owner of the house, was given two thousand rupees and told she could keep the baby. That’s how Leela came to her.

Her husband accepted Leela as a re-incarnation of the baby girl they had lost recently.

***

After she had re-arranged the gifts in the shoebox she took a piece of notepaper and began to write.

When she had finished writing she folded the letter and placed it in the middle of the box on top of everything, closed the lid and brought it up ready to take it to church the following morning to be blessed along with the rest of the shoeboxes.

She had always wanted to come clean with her husband but the thought of her parents stopped her. They would surely not survive the trauma although it was herself that had suffered the abuse but had to keep quiet. What would society say? her mother had threatened her.

***

Leela sat cross-legged on a mat in the tiny schoolroom. There were 35 children between the ages of seven to 15 sitting in neat rows divided according to age. She was hard at work on her times tables but her mind was too busy thinking of the endless possibilities. Teacher did say there would be a surprise for each of them, yes she did. It was hard to concentrate with the result she was the last one to hand in her work. Actually, the teacher made her sit in a corner by herself while she started to take out boxes out of a sack. Each student was handed a red and green box and were strictly told to open them at home. These had been sent by some nice people from Canada.

When everyone had left teacher crooked a finger at Leela and she ran to the sack where a lonely red and green shoebox awaited. She scooped it up; hugging it to her chest and without being told ran out of the schoolroom and did not stop running until she reached the shack that was home.

“Amma…look what they gave me at school today.”

Her mother looked up from the pot of rice that would be their midday meal and smiled enquiringly.

“See this box, amma, the teacher said it has come from bilayat, foreign land.” She flopped down on the mud floor and opened the box. In wonder she took out the letter that lay on top and started to read, mouthing each word laboriously:

Dear little girl,
I have put together this box just for you. I hope you will like the gifts I am sending you for Christmas. I want to call you Leela but do not know if that name would belong to you. I have prayed that this shoebox will reach the baby who would have grown up to be eleven years this year and if fate so chooses that you are the one then I am truly thankful. Merry Christmas, from Leela, in Canada. (Yes, that is my name, also).

Leela’s mother took her daughter in her arms as she re-lived that momentous day, 11 years ago. Surely God had a hand in this miracle, she murmured, wiping her eyes.

6 comments

  1. Susmita

    Lovely. Especially poignant, since we packed a shoebox for a little girl as well. Loved the descriptions of my favourite place in the whole world!

  2. Sudeshna Chakraborti

    Very poignant and more so as my little 11 month old much cherished granddaughter is called Leela.

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