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Rated: ASR · Short Story · Contest Entry · #2228335
Second Place 'What A Character'!
1968 words, excluding author's note.

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Author's Note: Indian children call family members by the exact relationship
'Uncle' and 'Aunt' are specifically addressed -- mother's side or father's? By birth or by marriage?
The generic terms 'uncle' and 'aunty', in English, are used after the name to show respect to any adult who isn't related.

Vishnu's thin brown hands were trembling so much he could hardly count the coins. He dropped one, and it rolled under the bed.

"What's the matter with you?" his mother scolded, as he scrambled to retrieve it.

"Nothing, Ma, nothing," Vishnu responded, wriggling out, coin in hand.

"Why are you so restless? Calm down and let me sleep a bit."

Vishnu tiptoed out of the room, every precious coin in his shorts-pocket. His Ma needed her sleep. With this big birthday party coming up, the ladies of the house had been working her hard. This was nothing new, of course. When a child celebrated a birthday in an upper middle-class family in Mumbai, the maid had her work cut out for weeks beforehand. Decorations, gifts, food, clothes, cleaning ... it was fortunate that both Vishnu's parents worked for the Dodji family, at least his Ma had his Pa to help with the heavy stuff. Households in Mumbai didn't have too many gadgets if they had servants ... the floor was swept with a broom and mopped with cloth, and spices and chutneys were hand-ground on a big black stone. His Pa did the hard physical work under his Ma's supervision.

The Dodjis were kind bosses. They had given Vishnu's parents a room to themselves with a double-bed, with mattresses. Most servants slept on blankets on the steps of the apartment house. The Dodjis even gave them toothpaste to use, instead of tooth-powder, like the other servants got. Vishnu knew his parents were the envy of the other adult servants in the apartment house, as he was the envy of the other servant children.

You see, unlike the other servant children, Vishnu went to school. And not just a free school run by the government, his was a proper school, a private one, an English-medium school. His mother oiled his curly black hair to make it look smart, and he donned his blue uniform proudly each morning. He was now in the third standard, and could write complete sentences in English. Next year, he was going to be allowed to use a pen instead of a pencil to do his classwork and homework.

"My son is going to be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer," Ma beamed, each time he brought his report card home.

Mrs. Dodji gave a comfortable laugh at such times. "Let your son choose his own career, Shanti dear," she always said. It was she who went to the school every three months in her posh car, to pay his fees and meet his teachers. She always wore a starched saree on such occasions, and her tall frame made her stand out among those in the queue at the fee-counter. Vishnu's parents had impressed upon him how lucky he was, and the boy repaid his benefactors by becoming a model pupil. The teachers never had a complaining word to say of him, and academically, he was usually among the top five in his class of seventy boys.

Mrs. Dodji's chubby little son, Dayaal, was about to celebrate his third birthday. This was Vishnu's chance to repay the family that was so kind to his family.

Vishnu and Dayaal adored each other. Vishnu had helped his Ma with little tasks for Dayaal when he was a baby -- it was five-year-old Vishnu who folded the newborn's napkins and put his milk-bottle in the sink for washing when he was done with it. But most importantly, it was Vishnu who sang Dayaal to sleep every night.

"Your son has magic in his voice, Shanti," Mrs. Dodji had said to Vishnu's Ma. "Look how my baby falls right to sleep when he starts singing the lullaby."

Vishnu had held the tiny hands as Dayaal learned to walk. Photographs in the Dodji family album showed the slim boy with gleaming black eyes beaming as he steadied the tottering toddler. Now that Dayaal could walk and talk and run, the two were playmates. Vishnu showed his friend the drawings he did for school, and let him in on the secrets the other servant children told him.

And now, Vishnu was going to fulfill the dream he had cherished for ages.

He was going to buy a nice chocolate for Dayaal, for his birthday.

Dayaal had uncles and aunts who went abroad, and brought him chocolates. Mrs. Dodji always gave Vishnu one or two out of each box, and he loved them -- but what he loved more was watching Dayaal's eyes light up as he bit into the sweet offering.

And today, he, Vishnu, was going to bring that light into Dayaal's eyes.

He had been saving his money for months, for this. The money he had received at Diwali , the money he had earned for washing Mishra Uncle's car, the money he had won in a bet against Harvansh, about whose kite would fly the highest. All those precious coins were now in his pocket, and it was enough to buy a big slab of branded chocolate with a shiny purple wrapper for Dayaal.

Every night, as he counted his stash of coins, he pictured Dayaal's face lighting up, heard him gurgle with pleasure, felt his little arms close around him in a hug of gratitude. He really wanted this -- wanted to make his small playmate happy, the way he had seen the foreign-returned adults make him happy.

Vishnu crept downstairs, stepping over the sleeping Maadhav Uncle (Usha Aunty's chauffeur) as he did so.

"Ah! Vishnu, and what has your mother sent you for, today?" Bindra Uncle, who owned the little shop on the ground floor, knew everyone in the apartment house. "Has she run out of cooking oil or sugar?"

"No, Bindra Uncle. This time, I am shopping with my own money."

"Wow -- and what is the important thing you want to buy, with your own money?"

Vishnu couldn't pronounce the name, but he pointed at the display.

"Oh, you are splurging! But Vishnu, why not buy those chocolates instead? You'll get five of those for one of these."

"No, no, Bindra Uncle. It is for Dayaal, for his birthday. It has to be the best chocolate."

"Child, buy this one. Get five of them, you can eat some and give some to Dayaal."

But Vishnu was adamant. Dayaal had to have the best chocolate, so that he, Vishnu, could see the biggest smile.

if Bindra Uncle had his forebodings, he hid them well. In honour of it being a gift, he put the chocolate into a special fancy bag instead of the usual brown paper bag, wished Visnhu luck with his gift,and turned to another customer who had just walked up.

Maadhav Uncle was sitting up and yawning. "And why is young Vishnu looking so happy today, and jumping up the steps like a gazelle in the wild forest?" he asked.

Vishnu dangled the red bag in front of him. "I saved all my money to buy a gift for Dayaal, for his birthday!"

Maadhav Uncle frowned slightly. "May I ask what it is?"

Vishnu didn't notice that the jauntiness had vanished from Maadhav Uncle's tone. "It's chocolate," he replied, pulling it out slightly so that the gleaming purple wrapper was visible. "Special chocolate."

"And you are giving this to Dayaal?"

"Yes, yes, it's his birthday!"

"Son, that chocolate is expensive. Exchange it and share the other among your friends."

"Dayaal is my friend. And he gets the whole thing. It's his birthday."

Vishnu had to calm down when he got to the door ... his mother greeted him with 'Where have you been? Help your Pa put up the balloons, he's climbing the ladder himself. You get on top of it now and start working. Hurry." Her red-and-green bangles clinked on her wrists as she gestured. She, like everyone else, was dressed up for the party. Her saree was green, too, the one her mother-in-law, his grandma, had gifted her on the day she got engaged to Pa. A green bindi had taken the place ot the usual red one on her forehead.

When she was impatient like this, drawn up to her full height of four-feet-three-inches, she looked commanding. "Yes, Ma," Vishnu uttered, as he ran to their room to hide the precious gift under his pillow. That done, he was soon hard at work with the decorations.

When his father gave him a break, he sneaked back to the room and pulled the package out. Dayaal was in Dodji Aunty's room with Ma. Now was his chance.

Holding the package behind his back, he tiptoed in till he was face to face with his playmate. Then, he flourished the gift with a 'ta da!'

It was as he had pictured it. Dayaal's little fingers clasped the gift, pulled the slab out -- the little eyes gleamed as the shiny purple paper fell, in shreds on the floor. The mouth opened wide.


"What a mess!"

Dayaal's cries mingled with Ma's, as she wiped the chocolate the boy had spat out. It took Vishnu a moment to realise what had happened, and he stood, frozen with horror.

"Don't just look like that!" Ma admonished, her bangles jangling. "Wet this tissue and bring it before his new shirt has a permanent chocolate stain. What on earth did you give him?"

Vishnu could have wet the tissue with his tears, but he ran to the bathroom and used the tap instead. When he returned, Ma was throwing the rest of the chocolate into the dustbin. "Oh, Mrs. Dodji should not see this. If you've made the child sick ... hurry, help me wipe this."

It didn't take much time. They had the child wiped and smiling before his mother entered the room. It was then that Ma noticed the wetness on Vishnu's cheeks. Muttering an excuse to her mistress, she pulled Vishnu into their own room.

"Tell," she urged, gently.

He gulped, trying to calm down. She stroked his hair. The bangles clinked softly, soothingly. He looked up into the face he loved. Ma might not be as tall as other mothers, but her face was the most perfect of them all.

The story came pouring out.

"My son, my son," she said, hugging him close, not even caring that her engagement-saree was getting crushed in the process. "My son! Trust you to spend your precious coins to make someone happy."

"But I didn't make him happy."

"He is used to foreign chocolates, my son. The taste of this one must've come as a surprise. I know, I know, it was a good, expensive chocolate, but it's not what he is accustomed to. And you have made someone very happy."

"Who? Nobody will be happy. Bindra Uncle and Maadhav Uncle told me not to spend so much money on one chocolate. I could have got five."

"You could have got five, but you wanted to make one person happy. And you've made one person happy."


"Me, my son. I am very happy. I am happy you thought of spending your money on someone else. I am happy you are grateful for what the Dodjis have done for you. I think your Pa is going to be happy, too, when he hears this. So you've made two people happy."

Vishnu wiped his eyes. "Are you really happy?"

"Yes. And one day, when both of you are grown up, you'll share this story with Dayaal and then both of you can have a good laugh over it."

"Laugh? Laugh over wasted chocolate?"

"Some things count more than wasted chocolate, dear, even chocolate you've bought with your own money."

Character Prompt for August 2020:

"What A Character - August 2020 Winners!
Second Place - "With My Own Money"
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