The Gift

The Gift

The end of the world was approaching!

I knew that I had to act before a giant meteorite hit my world, a world I had been living in so-called bliss, with Raveena, my vibrant better half, and my twin sons, all of whom played a vital role in keeping me on my toes. Given the challenges I faced daily, I should have been the fittest father in the universe. However, middle-age had announced its arrival with the hint of a tiny potbelly which was once called ‘cute’ by an attractive neighbour. No points for guessing the effect that comment had on my ever-observant wife.

“Cute, my foot!” she burst out as soon as the said neighbour glided away. “Who does she think she is?”

I glanced at her from lidded eyes. Normally, that line would have sounded romantic in a book or a movie. It cut no ice with Raveena.

“Why are you looking at me in that particularly hideous manner?” I promptly adjusted my glance. Opened my eyes in a wide, non-hideous manner with a murmured ‘Sorry!’ Being the man of the house was not always a bed of roses, after all.

However, there were good moments as well. We did go for romantic dinners, a misnomer since we always had our sons around, the reason being that no babysitter worth her salt stayed beyond ten minutes in their company. That is how delightful they were! They were a handful and believed in making their presence felt wherever they went. By the end of the meal, there would be a couple of broken plates, spilt juice and saliva spots on the tablecloth, coupled with loud screams that made me want to duck for cover. The exasperated expressions around said it all… brace up, man, control your kids!

Raveena would quirk a stern eyebrow at her offspring, and continue eating. She was made of sterner mettle than me, armoured with oodles of confidence and the hide of a rhinoceros. By the end of the evening, I would be frazzled to bits and leave the handling of the bill, the kids and the car to my better half. It was not for nothing that I called her so.

To repeat, the end of the world was approaching. My adored wife’s birthday was approaching, and I needed to take a breather and decide on the apt gift for her. Every year I had the same thought, and till date, over twelve years, I had never quite managed to hit the right note. Either she hated the colour or the fit of the dress I picked up, the theme of the book, the size of the handbag or the shine of the trinket. 

I wondered how they did it in movies. The hero would walk in jauntily, a beautiful red sari with delicate golden embroidery in his hand, and enfold his petite wife in an embrace. He would hand over the sari and she would swoon in delight. This would be followed by a romantic duet where she would wear the sari, looking like an angel, and together they would waltz into the sunset, singing for all they were worth, orchestra and all.

I knew well enough why that scenario could never work for me. One time I tried to sing, Raveena told me to go into the bathroom if I needed to gargle. Another time I essayed a tune only to find a chorus of howling dogs joining me. Given the pattern of stray dogs biting people for no rime or reason, I decided that acting as the Pied Piper was not really my cup of tea. 

Coming back to the present, I needed to buy the perfect gift. One that Raveena would cherish, love and obey… oops, this was no wedding vow. Cherish and love, yes! I had exactly a week and a half to hit the bull’s eye. Or perish in the doing!

I sat before my laptop, skimming through Amazon and other websites. Clothing, accessories, stationery, jewellery… there were a million things out there. I was spoilt for choice. Except that I had no idea of my wife’s choices. The dozen gifts over the decade had been met with a resigned shrug. She did not express her disappointment, but the quirk of her eyebrow and the disinterested manner in which she eyed the gifts told a different story.

One evening, I was going for what I termed a leisurely jog when I heard a dulcet voice hailing me. 

“Hello, Mr. Sinha, are you going for a jog?”

“No, can’t you see I am fishing?” would have been my normal rejoinder if the speaker had been anyone else. However, the chivalrous bone in me demanded that I smile at my attractive neighbour and nod my head instead.

“Yes, Ms. Parvati, I am jogging!”

“Please do not jog too much and get rid of that cute potbelly. That is what defines you, you know?” she remarked with a glorious smile. I slowed down to a mere crawl. I could not afford to take that risk, after all.

It was then that a sudden brainwave came to me.

“Ms. Parvati, could I ask you for a favour?”

She looked at me, a gleam in her lustrous eyes. 

“Yes, of course! What can I do for you?”

I coughed a bit, and continued jogging in my place. 

“Raveena’s birthday is round the corner. I have no idea what to get her.” I paused and she opened her eyes wide, puzzlement nestling within them.

“Surely you would know what she likes?”

Despite my embarrassment, I plodded on. “I have never been able to give her the perfect gift. I thought that being a lady, you would know what she would appreciate.”

I could see the working of her mind as she crinkled her unlined brow. It was too much of an effort, obviously. 

“Could I think it over? I will come up with something for you tomorrow.”

I nodded and bade farewell to her, grateful for any small crumb and cut short my jogging. I had done enough for the day.

Back home, my wife gave me a quizzical look. “Finished jogging? That was quick!” I nodded sheepishly and left the room before she wormed out anything more from me. Raveena was an ace at interrogation. Half the time, I got myself into trouble with just the first two words I uttered.

The next morning, my mobile phone rang, and I picked it up, wondering at the unfamiliar number.

“Hello, Mr. Sinha!” I almost choked over my coffee, as I recognised the dulcet voice. My wife got up to thump me on my back as I stammered, “Hello… hello, what can I do for you?” I got up, almost overturning my omelette in my hurry, signalling to my wife that it was an important call.

“Hello, Mr. Sinha, I have the perfect gift idea for you. Why don’t you buy her some perfume? All women love to smell nice.”

My heart soared as I replied, “That’s perfect, Ms. Parvati. However, I have no idea what brand I should get her.”

“Leave that to me. I will pick it up and get it delivered to your address. It is a brand that smells heavenly, and leaves a lingering fragrance. Perfect for your wife!” As I thanked her and cut the call, I wondered at our limited vocabulary… ‘perfect’ had proved to be the perfect word for the occasion! I saved her number as ‘Parth’. I had the loveliest wife in earth, (my opinion, of course!) but I did not want to rock the boat. Even lovely women could be tigresses when it came to protecting their own even though she had nothing to worry about. I was a tamed tiger! 

The next few days meandered by in perfect, sorry, in blissful harmony. I whistled at work, and then I came home and whistled a bit more. Nothing could take away the contentment that enveloped me as I thought about how I had outsourced my wife’s gift. After a dozen mundane gifts, maybe this would be the year of ‘the gift that blew her mind’. As I went for my daily jog, I would wave at Ms. Parvati, a feeling of gratitude filling my heart. 

Birthdays came and birthdays went. Every time we attended a birthday party, I would look at the various colourfully wrapped gifts and smirk within as people gushed over them, waxing eloquent on how carefully they had been chosen. I was getting off scot-free. I congratulated myself on the delightful plan, even as I made a toast to the friend whose birthday we were celebrating. When ‘Parth’ called, I kept the calls simple. No roses, because Raveena was allergic to them, and no lurid wrapping paper! Preferably in baby pink or shiny ivory!

One day, I received a call from the boys’ school. It was the principal’s PA.

“Mr. Sinha, the principal would like to meet you and your wife at ten a.m. on Friday.”

I was a bit taken aback. It was Raveena who had gone to school to admit our boys, and she it was who attended all the meetings, pleasant and otherwise. I jogged my memory to find a pleasant one connected with school, but soon gave up. Neither the school, nor I, had been able to keep up with the energy of our boys. It was as if they had been born with a contraption that supplied them endless energy. Obviously, that gene had come from Raveena who was herself filled with boundless energy and enthusiasm. Just looking at her and the boys tired me out most of the time!

“Look here, Mr. and Mrs. Sinha, the teachers are at their tether’s end. They have run out of ideas on how to deal with your boys. Their energy levels are exhausting!” The principal, a vision in a starched cotton sari, looked at us with narrowed eyes. 

“Exactly my sentiments!” I felt like saying, but that would have defeated the whole purpose, besides turning my wife into a defensive tigress with her cubs. I kept mum and left it to Mum to handle.

“Mrs. Sekhon, they are normal kids with a bit of extra energy. If they do not hurt themselves or anyone else…?”

“That’s the point, Madam. Your sons attacked one of their classmates. His mother is understandably upset, but does not want to lodge an official complaint.”

“That’s very nice of her. Could we meet her and apologise?” Raveena was at her charming best. 

The principal unbent a bit, and her tone softened as she nodded. Apparently, the aggrieved parent was waiting outside to meet her. “I will call her in, and you can make your peace with her,” she said.

My eyes widened when I perceived the vision that materialised – our charming neighbour, Ms. Parvati, looking distraught. Raveena rose and went swiftly to her. “Oh, Ms. Parvati, I am so sorry. I hope Montu is not too badly hurt?”

Ms. Parvati shook her head, trying visibly to control her emotions. “Luckily, he missed breaking any bones when your boys pushed him down the stairs. When I heard they were your boys, I did not want to pursue the matter any further. After all, we are neighbours.” Raveena clasped her hand in gratitude and turned to the principal, who had unbent further.

My vulnerable heart missed a beat when Ms. Parvati turned slightly and gave me a insouciant wink as though to say, “Cheer up! Things are not so bad!” An Oscar-worthy performance!

Matters settled, we went our respective ways after having assured the principal that we would try and curb the animal spirits of our boys. Short of tying them to their chairs, I had no idea how we would do so. My only hope was Raveena and her agile brain.

Raveena proved to be a master strategist. She invited the unfortunate Montu over and fed him to the gills – her delicious cupcakes, mutton cutlets and coconut barfi disappeared down the hutch faster than one could imagine. By the end of the magnificent repast, Montu was her devoted slave. The boys also watched him gobble down all the snacks in awe. This was a man worth cultivating, they whispered to each other, or words to that effect. From now on, he would be their food guru, their friend and guide.

The result was that Montu turned into a third wheel in our family. I stumbled over him wherever I went. When I sat watching TV, there he would be, stuck to me like an extra rib. I enjoyed my siesta in the afternoon, but sometimes his screechy voice would make me almost jump out of my skin. Every time Raveena made a new delicacy, the first one to sample it would be Montu. Even acquaintances who visited us assumed that we had three boys. All very well, except that Montu was beginning to get on my nerves – the friendly neighbourhood Spiderman who had spun a web around all of us.

Ms. Parvati seemed to have disappeared. Maybe the fact that her son had adopted a brand-new family impelled her to do her own things… shopping, job hunting, trysts with her friends and sometimes, even overnight trips to exotic locales. I had to keep my cool because I was still waiting for her to deliver Raveena’s birthday gift. Once that was done, I would find an excuse to haul Montu, the gourmand, out of our house, and lives. I missed the days when it had been just the four of us.

As D Day approached, I found myself a bundle of nerves. If Ms. Parvati failed in our mission, I would be left with no gift, and that would be catastrophic. Two days before the day, I gave ‘Parth’ a tentative call. 

“Hello, uh… Ms. Parvati… what about…?”

She cut me short with a guffaw. “Don’t worry, Mr. Sinha. The gift is ready… I will gift wrap it and bring it across.”

“No, no, no, please! I… I will come and pick it up from you. Thank you so, so much,” I spluttered. 

“Anything you say. By the way, Ms. Sinha has invited me for her birthday party. So, I will see you there.” Before I could respond, she had cut the call.

Birthday party? Really? I had organised a small function with just a few friends, an intimate get-together with people who meant something to us. Where did Ms. Parvati fit in, in that equation? I sauntered across to Raveena mustering up all the nonchalance I could. “Hey, Raveena, how many people are coming for your birthday party? I need to order the cake.”

Raveena smiled. It was as though her birthday round the corner had raised her spirits to the extent that she was not even bickering with me.

She waved the list under my nose. “Here you go, honey! Around twenty-five people… oh yes, I forgot to tell you. I have invited Parvati as well.”

“Parvati who?” The nonchalance seemed a bit strained.

“Our neighbour, of course!” Raveena said, raising her voice. “Our Montu’s mother?”

“Really? Why? She isn’t part of our inner circle.”

Raveena looked at me with a frown. “She was so gracious about the scrap our boys had with Montu. Besides, Montu is now part of the family, remember?”

How could I not remember? The dratted boy was all over the place, eating for all he was worth, after all. I pretended to be affronted with the idea, and then gave in with a bad grace. Oscar-worthy!

The next evening, Ms. Parvati handed over a beautifully wrapped silver package to me. It was wrapped in blushing pink and embellished with a beautiful bow. 

“Thank you so much, Ms. Parvati. I will transfer the money to your bank account. Please do share it with me.”

That done, I went back home, happy as a lark. For once, I had the perfect gift, the thirteenth gift in as many years. I visualised Raveena’s excited face as she unwrapped it and found the perfume bottle within. I couldn’t wait.

The birthday morning dawned, balmy with the promise of bright sunshine. A lovely day for the party. The boys and I prepared breakfast for the birthday girl – eggs, toast, bacon and a refreshing pot of tea.

Raveena smiled in delight. So what if the toast was darker, the eggs runnier than usual. She felt pampered, and she gave us all three of us a huge hug. Did I say three? Sorry, four of us. How could I forget the ubiquitous Montu?

After breakfast, we handed over the gift to her ceremoniously. The scene was exactly as I had visualised. The pink wrapping paper crackled and gleamed as she carefully pulled it open, and at the sight of the classic bottle, her eyes lit up in glee.

“Oh, thank you dear ones! I have always loved this fragrance. How did you guess this was my favourite?” She threw her arms around me, then the boys, and finally Montu as she did not want him to feel left out. Then she doused herself liberally with the perfume, and I closed my eyes in rapture. The fragrance had a personality of its own. It began as a floral tune, swelled into a citrusy song and ended on a rhapsody that was indescribable. A fragrance that once experienced could never be forgotten! We all loved it. 

That evening, guests started arriving, one by one. Raveena looked resplendent in a sea green outfit that made her resemble a water nymph. Her eyes sparkled as she went around greeting her friends, and oohing over her gifts. Her perfume was unmistakeable, and they all remarked on how powerful it was, and how distinctive. 

As always, I was the wallflower, but I did not mind. My heart fluttered when I saw how happy my wife was amidst an adoring crowd. This was the ideal setting for a jewel like her.

When the doorbell rang, the party was on in full swing. The cake was about to be cut and Raveena had picked up a knife, delicately poised over the exact spot where her name was written on it.

One of my sons ran to open the door. There stood Ms. Parvati, looking charming in a chiffon sari. She had a bouquet in her hand, and her smile was pure sunshine. As she walked in daintily, there was a silence that spoke volumes. 

Her fragrance had a personality of its own. It began as a floral tune, swelled into a citrusy song and ended on a rhapsody that was indescribable. A fragrance that once experienced could never be forgotten! 

I looked at Raveena’s face. The knife was no longer poised over the cake. It was pointing straight at me. If looks could have killed, I would have been burnt to a cinder.

It was truly the end of the world!
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Deepti Menon
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