Rohan opened his eyes, feeling the warmth and brightness of the sun on his face. A new day wanted to welcome him, but he turned around and covered his head with the blanket.
‘Come on Rohan Baba, wake up! Your breakfast will get cold. Hurry!’, Kamla shouted.
Rohan groaned. Kamla swiftly moved around and opened all windows, parting away the curtains, humming a song in her mother tongue. The fragrance of fresh flowers in her hair filled the room.
She came and picked Rohan up in her lap. Rohan was so lean and light that Kamla didn’t need to put any effort to carry him.
Rohan’s face was sullen. For him every morning was the same. Nothing seemed to excite him, make him feel enthusiastic. He was ten years’ old and nothing like the children of his own age in nature.
Long eyelashes skirted his large eyes with brown pupils. His nose was small and round, and lips were thin. He didn’t like to cut his hair too short–they fringed his small forehead. He looked handsome but a little small for his age.
‘Where’s Mum?’, Rohan asked in a drowsy voice.
‘She went to school, for the fundraiser’, she replied gleefully, ‘Christmas is near!’
Rohan looked at the food on his breakfast-table: a sandwich, some scrambled eggs and a glass full of orange juice. He ate slowly, neatly and mechanically–like an adult.
He never complained about anything, though he seemed cranky almost all the time. He spoke very little. His father owned a textile business and had earned a good fortune. Every other child in the world waited for Santa to fulfill their wishes, but Rohan never had to. Perhaps that was the reason he never believed in Santa.
For his mother, Christmas was the busiest time of the year. As a part of an NGO, she attended a number charity events every year. This year she had arranged a fundraiser to save an orphanage from closing down.
A heap of toys waited for Rohan in the hall, near a huge Christmas Tree that stood in all its grace and grandeur. He entered, glanced towards them and moved away nonchalantly. He looked out of the huge glass window in the hall. The park was clearly visible. Little children were running around, playing and giggling. Their cheeks flushed. Wisps of vapour came out of their mouths and gleamed in sun. Some of them had dogs to play with. They pranced and laughed and cried out in excitement.
Rohan let out a sigh.
He didn’t notice that someone had crept up behind him. He turned around, and with a start he noticed the face of a little boy.
The little mocha-skinned boy smiled raidiantly. He wore some old oversized clothes and a blue sweater which was torn near the shoulder. He held a toy dolphin with both of his hands. It was a balloon made of blue shiny material, and it smelled really bad.
The skin on his feet flaked. He stood barefoot on that marble floor. He certainly felt cold.
He waved at Rohan. Rohan frowned at him.
‘Will you play with me Rohan Dada?’, he said.
Before Rohan could answer, Kamla came running into the hall.
‘Gopal! Why are you disturbing Rohan Baba? I had told you not to’, she scolded the little boy.
She gave a nervous smile to Rohan, wiping off the sweat with the end of her old and faded saree from her forehead–she had probably been in the kitchen.
She held her little boy in her lap, and he giggled.
‘This is my son, Gopal’, said Kamla.
‘Ma gave me this’, he said to Rohan, waving his toy. His eyes glittered and he never ceased to smile.
‘Rohan Dada doesn’t have a toy like this, does he Ma?’, he said.
‘I don’t even want that kind of toy. I don’t want any toy!’, Rohan thought.
All this time he was watching that little creature, who was incredibly happy about such a little thing.
‘Good boys don’t talk like that Gopal’, she said, ‘Rohan Dada has many toys! You don’t have any of those.’
Gopal suddenly fell silent and looked solemn, as he glanced at the heap of toys. Within seconds he smiled again and ran out of the hall.
‘I’m going to play!’, he shouted, when he left.
‘Please don’t mind, Rohan Baba’, Kamla said.
Rohan didn’t mind at all. He threw a distant gaze towards the park and remained quiet.
It was Christmas Eve. The house was filled with the delicious aroma of freshly baked cakes and cookies. A party was in full swing. People poured into the hall as the evening set in.There was laughter, clinking of glasses, and jazz playing in the background. Rohan was dressed in his best tuxedo. He scratched his neck, and looked around. Each and every person looked self-obsessed. They all strove to look as important as they could. Rohan’s mother was at a distant corner, talking to some guests.
Rohan decided to sneak out of the hall towards his own room and open some of the presents, in the hope of finding something interesting.
After rummaging through them, he finally found something that was of his interest–a set of Enid Blyton’s books. He opened a few more presents. One of them was a red and white sweater with a reindeer knit on the chest. He found a pair of brown leather shoes too. He set those things aside and didn’t take a second look at any of the other presents. Some of them still remained unopened.
A different kind of music drifted into his ears from the window of his room. He saw a group of little children walking down the street, led by a man. They all wore red Christmas caps. Some of them played musical instruments while the others sang. They were carolers.
‘…and heaven and nature sing, and heaven and nature sing…’
The music seemed pleasing to Rohan’s ears. He listened to it until it faded away. He felt as if something wonderful was happening all around himself, and he missed being a part of it.
The door of his room was open and voices flowed in.
‘Can I go and see the party?’, the little boy asked.
‘No, Gopal, we can’t’, answered Kamla.
‘We are not invited to the party, and I have lots of chores to do. Madam will be angry if I miss anything!’
‘I feel very cold.’
Kamla remained silent.
‘Ma, I’m feeling really cold. I wish I had a pair of socks.’
Kamla didn’t reply.
‘Can I have one of those pastries? The ones for the party?’
‘No, we can’t! It’s not for us’, she said, ‘Now be quiet!’
She had perhaps realized that she had been too harsh on him.
‘I’ll be done with my chores in an hour. Then we’ll go home and have hot and soft rotis and bhindi-subji for dinner. I have prepared some lemon pickle too’, she said most affectionately, ‘Now go and sit there quietly.’
Rohan didn’t understand why his mouth had started watering.
‘Okay Ma!’, Gopal replied. His voice was full of hope.
Rohan saw a glimpse of Gopal as he walked along the corridor, casting sideaway glances into Rohan’s room.
At night Rohan’s mother came into his room. She was frangrant in the most exquisite French perfume. Her slender body looked regal in her blue silk gown. The party was over, and guests had left.
She sat on the bed and placed her hand on Rohan’s cheek.
‘How did you do today, my darling?’
‘As always’, said he.
He looked away while he spoke. She took away her hand from his cheek and placed it on his hands, holding them tight in hers. Rohan didn’t hold her fingers. His hands remained still, one upon the other, unaffected by his mother’s touch.
‘Don’t be angry my sweetheart!’, she said, ‘You know Mum remains busy at this time of the year.’
‘You’re always busy. It has nothing to do with the time of the year’, he coldly replied.
His mother stared at him for a few minutes and sighed.
‘I’m so sorry’, she said, ‘Please understand my child, I have so many things to take care of, that I don’t get enough time to be with you. Let this Christmas be over, and we’ll go for a trip somewhere. I’ll tell your Dad to plan something. The three of us could spend some time together, maybe in a resort in Goa, or maybe–‘
‘Mum!’, Rohan interrupted, ‘Can you prepare roti and bhindi-subji for me tomorrow, with some lemon pickle?’
‘What!’, she exclaimed.
She could not believe what she had heard from her son. Rohan looked down at his own hands. Suddenly she started laughing.
‘From whom did you learn about this food? Kamla?’, she said, stifling her laughter.
‘Yes’, Rohan said, ‘I overheard her telling Gopal that they’ll have it for dinner.’
‘That’s not what we eat. How do you know that you’ll like it?’, she asked.
‘I don’t know, I just wanted to taste’, he said.
He wanted to feel how it was like to eat a meal prepared by a mother.
‘Okay, I’ll ask Kamla to prepare some for you’, she said, and kissed his forehead.
Her breath smelled of wine.
‘Now go to sleep’, she said softly, tucking him in, ‘Good night!’
She switched the lights off and left, slowly closing the door behind her.
Rohan remained awake. His eyes became moist.
On Christmas morning, Rohan found another heap of toys under the Tree. He segregated all his presents into categories: clothes, shoes, toys and books. He looked different this morning. His eyes glittered and he occasionally smiled.
For breakfast, Kamla brought two fluffy rotis, some bhindi-subji and lemon-pickle made by herself.
‘Madam told me this morning to give it to you for breakfast’, she said as she put it on his breakfast table.
Rohan gave a broad smile. He ate it all wholeheartedly, savouring each morsel. Kamla watched him with eyes wide in wonder and delight.
‘Do you need anything else, Rohan Baba?’, she asked.
He shook his head.
‘Where is your son? Hasn’t he come today?’, he asked.
‘Yes he’s here’, she said, ‘playing in the garden at the backyard.’
‘Can you bring him here?’, he said in a serious tone.
‘Yes sure’, she said and left to fetch her son, frowning in anticipation. Had her son done something wrong?
Gopal came into the hall, but lingered behind his mother. He hesitated to go near Rohan.
‘Come here’, said Rohan, in a commanding voice.
Gopal looked at his mother. She nodded in affirmation.
He slowly walked to Rohan, avoiding eye contact.
Rohan gestured towards a box and asked Gopal to open it. Gopal obeyed him.
There were two sweaters, a jacket, two pairs of socks and a pair of brown leather shoes. There were two toy cars and an airplane. Gopal stared at all of these without blinking his eyes.
‘Do you like them?’, Rohan said.
Gopal gaped at him.
‘These are yours’, he said, ‘my Christmas presents for you.’
Both Kamla and Gopal stared in disbelief. They stood still.
‘Don’t do this Baba’, she said, ‘Won’t Madam scold you?’
‘Why would she?’, said Rohan, ‘I have more than enough!’
Kamla’s eyes filled with tears. She embraced Rohan tight in her arms.
‘How can I thank you enough Rohan Baba? You’re an angel’, she said, kissing Rohan on his forehead.
‘Do one thing’, Rohan replied, ‘Ask Gopal to take me out into the park, to play with me.’
Gopal had already started dancing around Rohan, around the Christmas Tree.
‘Thank you Rohan Dada’, he said, hugging Rohan.
‘Now wear sweater, socks and shoes before we go out’, Rohan said.
Gopal got dressed in the red and white sweater with the reindeer on it. He wore a pair of white socks and the shoes fitted him perfectly.
Gopal pushed Rohan’s wheelchair and took him to the park. Gopal was stronger for his size and age. He moved the wheelchair round and round. Both of them shouted and laughed.
They chased butterflies and ran after puppies. The sweetness of winter sun caressed Rohan’s face. Other children came and started playing with them.
For the first time in his life, Rohan felt free. He felt he was flying. The fact that he couldn’t walk didn’t matter anymore.
‘Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!’, they shouted together.