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The Birthday Party
by Swapna Dutta Bookmark and Share

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!


Tinku's New Friend

< class="t14">Tinku was looking for pine cones. Three months had passed since her coming to the little town of Duliatal on the hills. Three months since she had joined the Hilltop school which had roses on its tilted roof and wisteria creepers on its walls. And a garden which sloped upwards to reach the road on the upper shelf. It was full of flowers in every color you could think of with hosts of butterflies flocking round them. Tinku could not imagine why she had disliked it so much at first. True, it was very different from Delhi and she still missed her old friends at times. But Duliatal was a lovely place to be in. And her new friends were jolly too.

Tinku liked the pine trees best of all. They looked so tall and majestic against the sky! And the pine cones were lovely. She was collecting them for her friends in Delhi. She was sure they would like the cones. She had quite a collection already. Ashish had pointed out a pine grove way up above and the rough and narrow track leading to it. All of them had planned to have a picnic there some day. But it would have to be during a weekend because it was quite a climb. It would take quite some time to get there and back.

Tinku was really keen to get to the pine grove. She wanted to go there at once and not wait for weeks. Supposing she went there by herself? She knew the way. But no, that might be a foolish thing to do. Supposing it started raining or a mist came down as it often did? It wouldn't be at all funny to get lost in the hills! It could be quite scary. But there was nothing to be scared of in the wood just above their cottage. She had been there hundreds of times looking for butterflies. Bablu and Mona had promised to come for tea that evening. Tinku decided to run up to the wood and look for pine cones and wild flowers till they arrived.

The wood was an interesting jumble of all kinds of trees growing together. There were pines and oaks and rhododendrons and many others whose names she did not know. And there were all kinds of wild flowers. Tinku ran towards a clamp of bright violet flowers. She had never noticed them before. 'They will look lovely in mummy's shallow crystal vase' said Tinku to herself, 'I wonder what they are called?'

'Just violets' said a voice behind her.

Tinku turned back, startled. A girl of her own age stood there smiling at her. 'Hello' she said in a friendly voice, 'I am Mirry. You are Tinku, aren't you?'

Tinku looked at her pretty hair plaited with bright red ribbons. She had golden hair and eyes as blue as the violets. She was obviously a foreigner. But she seemed very much at home at Duliatal. Then she remembered that she had heard her father say that a lot of foreigners, specially missionaries, who had come to India during the British Raj, had stayed back in the hills even after Independence. Some had even taken Indian citizenship. Obviously Mirry's father was one of them.

'How did you know I am Tinku?' she asked, 'I've never met you before!'
'Oh I know everyone here' said Mirry in an airy voice, 'I live up there in the cottage among the pines. You can't see it from here, of course, but it's not too far if you take a short cut.'
'Have you been here long?' asked
'Oh ages!' said Mirry, 'I was born here. My dad's a doctor. He knows everyone here too.'
'I don't think I've ever met him' said Tinku.
'How can you?' answered Mirry laughing, 'You haven't been ill! No one sends for a doctor unless they're sick. The people here know him very well ... and his horse.'
'Horse? You mean he goes to see his patients on horseback?' asked Tinku opening her eyes wide, 'How interesting! I've never known a doctor who does that.'
'Well, how else can he visit patients who live right up in the hills ?' asked Mirry.
'Of course' assented Tinku, 'I've hardly seen any cars here - the roads are all so narrow. I suppose you can ride too?'
'Not very well' said Mirry sounding wistful, 'I haven't been very well, you see and I am not allowed to do anything my father thinks strainous.'
'Why don't you come to school? asked Tinku curiously, 'You are not ill now, are you?'
'No, I'm not ill any more. But my father's still worried about me. So I have a governess who teaches me at home. I don't have a mother, you see.'
'Oh I am sorry' cried Tinku, 'It must be horrid not to have a mother'
'I have Nanny and she is a dear. But I don't like my governess. She is always running to daddy with tales about me.'
'How horrid!' said Tinku. 'Did your mother appoint her?'
'No. Mummy died soon after I was born. I don't remember her at all. Anyway, what were you looking for?'
'Pine cones' said Tinku, 'I am collecting them'
'You'll find nice, big ones in the wood out there. Come with me and I'll show you.'

Tinku liked Mirry. She didn't seem like a stranger at all.

'I hope we won't get lost' she said a little apprehensively, 'I've been told by everyone here not to wander off alone'
'Lost?' Mirry laughed, 'I know this whole place like the back of my hand. And you're not alone. I'm here and there's Shadow as well.'
'Who is Shadow?'

There was a tiny bark and Tinku turned back to see the sweetest, cutest little puppy wagging its tail.

'What a darling!' cried Tinku, 'Is he yours?'
'He is. He always follows me everywhere just like a shadow. So I call him that. Also because he is usually so silent.'

They walked along the winding path, Shadow at their heels.

'What's that sound?' asked Tinku looking about her.
'The waterfall, of course'
'I didn't know there was a waterfall so near. Is it a proper one?'
'Look there' said Mirry. And there behind the row of pines a waterfall rushed down in cascades hurling down on the rocks way down below.
'It's strange no one told me anything about it' said Tinku staring at the water fascinated, 'Where does all that water go to?'
'To the lake down below. The Duliatal. Haven't you seen it?'
'Yes I have. Daddy told me that this place is named after the lake. But I didn't see any waterfall nearby' said Tinku, 'I suppose I didn't look carefully.'
'Sometimes there's very little water so you don't notice it. It gushes along like this only when it rains hard' said Mirry, 'There are your pine cones - lots of them.'

Tinku clapped her hands and ran down to collect them. Mirry joined her and started picking cones too. 'Why don't you come home with me, Mirry?' said Tinku after she had filled up her little bag, 'Please do. My friends would love to meet you and so would my mother.'

'Sorry, but I can't' said Mirry looking serious, 'And you must promise me that you won't tell anyone about me'.
'Why ever not?' asked Tinku surprised.
'Because I am not supposed to step outdoors and run about' said Mirry, 'No one knows I am out. Nanny's resting and my governess has gone shopping. She'll be returning any moment. If she finds I'm not there she'll tell daddy and there will be a real to-do. And I'll never be allowed to run about in the woods sagain. I'll be absolutely miserable and so will Shadow. You don't want me to get into trouble, do you?'
'Of course not' said Tinku, 'Don't worry I won't tell anyone that I met you.'

The sound of bells wafted across the pines. 'What's that ?' asked Tinku.

'The church bell. It always rings at this time.'
'I always thought that the church was on the other hill?' said Tinku surprised.
'This is another one' said Mirry, 'It's much smaller than the other.'

Mirry looked at her quaint watch which looked like a bracelet, 'It's nearly four' she said, 'Aren't you expecting friends to tea?'
'How did you know?' asked Tinku amazed.
'I just guessed' said Mirry laughing, 'Here are some more cones.'

They heard the sound of horse's hooves in the distance.

'That must be daddy' cried Mirry, 'I must rush! Run down that slope in that corner and you'll be home in two secs. Ta ta!'
'Ta ta' said Tinku clutching the cones as she made for the slope shown by Mirry. A strange girl, thought Tinku. Strange but really nice. She made up her mind to bring her home the next time.
 

 

The Way to School

Tinku peered out of the drawing room window and frowned. It had stopped raining at last but the sky still looked as black as an old umbrella - moldy black, faded in streaks. It felt as though it might start pouring again at any moment! Not the kind of steady drip-drip you had in Delhi. Rains which came and went with everything looking more or less the same afterwards. Out here it felt like someone overturning huge buckets in the sky in a nonstop relay race! Ugh! Tinku didn't like rain even in Delhi. It meant horrid puddles in the roads, shoes getting wet, clothes feeling clammy and uncalled for traffic jams. But here, in this out of the way, back-of-nowhere hilly wilderness it was downright unbearable!

Tinku's dad was a professor in Delhi. He was writing a book about some rare plants which grew in these hills. They were of great importance to medical research. Tinku's father had discovered them here at Duliatal during a trekking trip. But it was necessary to live here so that he might be able to study them properly. So he had taken this little house for a whole year. And brought Tinku and her mother along with him. Tinku's mother loved visiting out of the way places.

Duliatal was truly and literally out of the way! For one, it was perched on a part of the Kumaon range which was quite difficult to reach. It hardly had any proper roads and just a few buses passing by. There was a small cluster of cottages and houses around the oval lake from which the place got its name. It had the bare basic facilities, of course. There was a hospital, a post office, two or three schools and several small churches set up by the missionaries when Duliatal had been part of a cantonment, a cinema house, a club house and quite a few shops, among other things. But there had been a kind of 'division' right from the beginning, with the 'Whites' living on one side of the lake and the 'locals' living on the other. The main reason why Duliatal hadn't 'grown' was because other tourist spots nearby were so much easier to go to. And were, therefore, far more popular. Tourists always passed it by in favor of Nainital, Bheemtal, Almora or Ranikhet.

People who had landed up at Duliatal from other parts of the country, mostly trades people and government officers on transfer, were those who had to for some reason. They now stayed in the colony once set up by the British. Of course there were no British people now except for one or two who had chosen to stay behind even after Independence. The Hilltop School, set up by one of them, was said to be good. So Tinku's parents felt that she could very well study there for a year at least, since she was just nine years old. But Tinku, suddenly uprooted from Delhi and her friends, felt very differently! She felt both indignant and miserable. Grown-ups were so unfair! Why couldn't they have asked her if she wanted to come or not? She would have certainly stayed back in Delhi!

'Tinku, aren't you ready yet? It's time for school' said mummy coming into the room. 'Good heavens, you haven't even got your shoes on as yet! Here are your gumboots. Get into your raincoat. Quick!'
'It's not raining now' said Tinku frowning, 'And I hate gumboots. They look so clumsy.'
'Don't be silly, you'll need them if it starts raining again. It's bound to, just look at the sky! Remember, there's no school bus here. You'll have to walk up to your school.'
'I wish I were back at Delhi with all my friends, waiting for our lovely green school bus at the corner of the road.....'
'You'll like it here after a while, dear. See if you don't' said mummy hushing her up, 'It's such a lovely place .... when the sun is shining.'

There was an impatient knock on the door. It was Ram Vilas, the gardener. He was to take Tinku to school which was about half a kilometer away on a higher shelf. There was no real need to do it because a crowd of children went to school by the same path. But mummy had said that Ram Vilas should also go and keep an eye on her, just in case she found the climb difficult at first.

There was a short cut to school by the narrow track along the hill and most of the children took it. It had a wall of solid rocks and boulders on one side and a steep drop to a lower shelf on the other. 'It's lucky I'm not scared of heights' said Tinku as she buttoned up her raincoat, 'But I hate the slush and the puddles. It's so slippery!'
'Mind your steps and be careful' said mummy.

A small crowd of children stood outside the low wicket gate. All of them were in their raincoats and gumboots, carrying waterproof school bags.
'Hurry up' said Ritu, the oldest of the crowd. Her dad was a police officer and lived right at the top of the hill.
'Your raincoat looks quite nifty' said Mona, 'Better pull on your hood, though. The rain comes on quite suddenly sometimes. You wouldn't like to go to school with dripping hair!'
'Got any newspapers?' asked Ricky.
'Newspaper?' asked Tinku amazed, 'What for?'
'You'll see' said Mona looking mysterious.

Everyone burst out laughing. Tinku shrugged. She wasn't interested in their silly secrets. She didn't like them. She didn't like anything about this horrid rainy place. Nothing at all.
'Why do you frown all the time?' asked Ashish, 'Got a tummy-ache?'
'Of course not! Don't be rude' said Tinku, 'I just don't like it raining day in and day out.'
'Why not?' asked Ricky, 'Not made of sugar, are you?'
There was a trill of laughter.
'Tinku is afraid she will melt' cried Mona and Ashish together.
'Oh look!' cried Bablu who had rushed ahead, 'Just look at our stream! It has become a regular water-fall!'

Tinku looked curiously. Just in front of them was a break between the boulders. A thin trickle of water which flew silently along the track at other times was a regular torrent now, falling through the break in the boulders on the slope down below. 'Where's the newspaper?' asked Ritu, 'Give Tinku a sheet'. The others were already making paper boats - single ones and boats with sails. Bablu's and Ricky's had double sails. Everyone put theirs in the stream. The boats rushed along the water, falling down... down.... down! The boats were in line now, moving forward, one after the other. Everyone clapped. Tinku was the only one who didn't know how to make a paper boat.

'Don't you know how to make boats?' asked Ricky surprised. Tinku shook her head. She really wished she did. It was fun floating them in the water and see them rush away.
'Here, take mine' said Ashish giving her one with double sails. Tinku took it and threw it on the gushing stream. Whoosh! It fell down the break in the boulder along with the others. Perhaps some little wood fairy would ride it! Tinku fell a thrill down her spine. Of course there were no fairies these days! .... But what if there were? And if one of them really rode Tinku's boat?

'Hurry up, folks' shouted Ritu, 'The bell will ring in a minute and I don't want to be late.'
'I'll teach you how to make boats' said Mona falling in step beside Tinku, 'We could float them on our way back.'
'I'd like that' said Tinku smiling at her.
'Look behind you' said Bablu, 'There, just where the water's falling down'.
Tinku turned. A streak of sunlight was struggling through the clouds and along the spray of water was a little rainbow.
'How beautiful!' cried Tinku. She had never seen anything like it in Delhi. Nor had she ever floated paper boats before.

They were in front of the school gate now. My new school, thought Tinku, feeling interested despite herself. She looked at the sloping roof made of red tiles with wild roses climbing all over it. The garden rose in a gradual slope round the school building. Tinku also saw the wild riot of color against the velvet green grass. All the flowers seemed to be in bloom. She had never seen such vivid colors before. As she stepped inside the gate with the rest Tinku told herself that the new school might not be quite so bad after all!

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

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02-Nov-2019
More by :  Swapna Dutta
 
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