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Janhavi Acharekar

Janhavi is 31 years old and has studied for a BA (Honours) in English from St.Xavier's College, Bombay, and Master's in English from the University of Bombay. She has worked variously as journalist, advertising copywriter, wine-seller and art researcher. Janhavi's interests are travel, culture, forts and ghost stories. She now writes features on travel, art and writing for various publications. Her short stories have appeared in Indian publications and is currently seeking a publisher for her complete collection of short stories. Janhavi is based in Bombay.

Janhavi has kindly agreed to share a previous unpublished short story with us! (All Rights Reserved)

Birthday Party

It was a different sort of birthday party that Brinda dressed her children for, that day. She pulled the little neck of the Smash T-shirt over an even littler Arnav's head, and asked Eva if she had done her potty. Eva sauntered out of the loo with a look of smug satisfaction and proceeded to entangle her curly locks in the bristles of her mother's hairbrush. When the mammoth task of getting the kids ready attained its successful completion, Brinda hurriedly put on her clothes and bundled them out of the house.

The kids were excited. It was Grandpa's seventieth birthday and they had never attended the birthday party of anyone that old. They had made a birthday card for their favourite grandparent while their mother had baked the cake. Their cousins would be there too, and it would be a celebration of sorts. Every kid loved Grandpa. He spoiled them with Double Decker chocolate bars, mawa cakes from the Irani cafe, and told them stories they had never heard before.

Brinda’s brother had decorated the house with balloons and streamers, and in his ever-enthusiasm, was busy doling out party hats to the five grandchildren. Everyone oohed and aahed as Brinda placed the cake in its rightful place, next to the dolled-up butter knife. Her father, with party hat sportingly placed over receding hairline, was dancing his fifties’ style dance to ‘Funky Town’, along with Ira, the oldest grandchild, at fourteen. The family deliberated over whether they ought to wait until Amol’s, Brinda’s husband’s arrival, for the cake-cutting ceremony, but Brinda insisted they carry on with it as there was no knowing when he would get there. So her father helped her prop her invalid mother up on the sofa, from where she gazed at the do in spurts of glazed, glassy stares, not knowing or caring what the fuss was about. Then, aided by his grandchildren, he snuffed the candles – all seven of them, for as Ira quoted from her birthday card, seventy would cause an in-house fire.

Brinda’s sister-in-law brought the snacks out before the kids killed their appetite with too much cake. Brinda watched with love-filled eyes as their grandfather made them spit out the cherry seeds. She saw her children clap with glee and knew they were being told their favourite horror story. Their grandfather pulled his shirt up to share the secret of that scar along his navel. In hushed tones, he narrated the story of the evil fruit tree that grew inside your stomach if you swallowed its seeds. In conspiratorial whispers, he confessed that his curiosity had got the better of him as a child. He had swallowed a large plum seed - his tiny stomach had nursed its plant until its tentacle branches grew bigger and longer, making their way to his belly button and out. His father had had to take him to a woodcutter to kill the tree that ripped his shirt and blocked his view of the road as he walked to school.

Brinda often wondered what he was really thinking of during his storytelling sessions. Did he re-live the pain of the War or had it dulled over the decades just as the pain from the wounds had? Perhaps it helped him deal with the memories that persisted as obstinate unrelenting scars, when he trivialized them.

The children never tired of Grandpa’s impressive collection of scars. And, and Grampa, tell us about that one theeere on your eyebrow, drawled Abha. Effortlessly, Grampa told her about the time he had gone to ask her father’s father if he would accept her mother as daughter-in-law. Grampa pulled out the insides of his empty pocket as a sign of pennilessness, simultaneously pulling down the corners of his mouth, as he continued with his tale. Your other grandfather was a rich man and he said, how can my son who has been raised in such regal splendour marry a woman of such humble origins? I begged and pleaded with him until he was so annoyed that he hit me on the head with the lance held by that bronze statue in your living room. Stop it, Baba, don’t fill her head with nonsense, laughed Brinda’s sister Rishita. She recounts your stories to my father-in-law who is as humourless as his wife, she said.

How else will he explain away the shrapnel, so deeply embedded in shards of memory. The long wait in the forests of Burma, before he could fly back to his wife-to-be, whose father had refused even an engagement until he returned from the War. Brinda glanced at her drooling mother on the antique settee. Ten years ago, the same woman would have been horrified at the trace of spittle on her precious tapestry.

Now, now the bell-shaped one on your arm, Grampa. Ooooh, that’s a nasty story, you sure you can stomach this? He asks the children with wicked delight. Yes! Yes! They clamour feverishly. Well, listen carefully then…It would be his dramatic narrative of the cupboard story, Brinda knew. Of how his brother had hidden in the cupboard while playing Hide ‘n’ Seek and locked himself in. Of how Grandpa had broken down the door with his shoulder, before his brother suffocated. And of how, one should never hide in cupboards and other closed places.

Perhaps that was the scar from the tunnel. When he, along with two other air force pilots like him, had run for their lives, to escape the bombing overhead. When they had decided that they would not live to reach their aircrafts, leave alone fly them. And then an explosion had rocked the earth and thrown them off their feet. When Grandpa looked around him, he saw a dismembered leg. He looked down to check his own, and was relieved that the stray limb was not his. He shouted out to his colleagues, in warning. The one standing on the extreme right fainted. He died shortly after the War, broken-hearted at his disability. Grandpa had shuddered while sharing with Brinda the only War experience he had ever shared with her. It could have been me, he had said.

Brinda fed Arnav as he listened to the stories in wide-eyed wonder. Mashing the potato from the batata wada, she made little balls that would be easy for him to digest. Like her mother did, when Brinda was little. When they lived near the airstrip, the hum of aircraft engine keeping her occupied, distracted.

As she watched him softly entertain his grandchildren, she thought, how he’s mellowed with the years. Just as he had loved his children with an abandon not displayed by fathers of his time, he had also shown them the rod. If he had braided Brinda’s hair and made her an omelette before she left for school, he had also vehemently opposed her taking up a job after college. If he had been amused by her mini-skirts, he had been disgusted with her army boyfriend. No Forces man for you, young lady, he had sternly informed her, and arranged a match with the UK returned Amol.

Her husband Amol made his entry, fashionably late from work. Is it Scar Wars again? he teased his father-in-law before embracing him warmly as a birthday greeting. They made male conversation and the children dispersed. The vodka and whisky surfaced from the bar and Ira was allowed a sip from Grandpa’s Black Label. Brinda’s brother cracked bawdy jokes that he had memorized from the Rugby series and Ira went red in the face while her father shuffled uncomfortably. Grandpa guffawed.

Brinda wondered if Grandpa felt lucky to be alive.

Before the party was further inebriated, Grandpa called for a gathering around his armchair. He bequeathed his stamp collection to Ira who he knew would take good care of the stamps he had collected during the War. He gave his porcelain collection of the Thai and Chinese Buddhas to Abha and her sister, who he maintained had a spiritual bent of mind. The large life-like Geisha doll that had been Brinda’s, went to Eva, while the fighter plane models were won by Arnav on the sole merit of his being the singular male of his generation in the Salaskar family. In addition to this, Grandpa gifted each grandchild a Gift certificate of Rs. 50,000 that was to be used for her further education, on maturity.

Then, he sat quiet, as if to muster strength for the task that he had assigned to himself. He looked at Brinda’s mother for her silent support. And he pulled out a familiar jewellery box. Equitably, he distributed Brinda’s mum’s jewellery – her precious stones from Thailand, jade from China, her Swiss watch, between his granddaughters. His wife looked from daughter to daughter in helpless confusion.

And Brinda understood.

Grandpa hoped to lay his demons to rest. Next year would be a step closer.

- Janhavi Acharekar