We were in a queue. Queue is a big ‘no’ word for the husband and the son. They will do anything – short of killing me, I hope – to avoid being in a queue. And today, the looks on their faces indicated quite plainly that just the fact that they were standing in a queue for me should have been birthday present enough.
But I was having none of it. I’d just tucked another one under the belly, somewhere below where the belt buckle lurked – another birthday, I mean. And I had emerged from the shock of hitting the half century a harder and more focused woman, even if it had taken me till the next birthday to get there.
The husband and son had got by for many years without having to work at finding me a present. The excuses came in many forms, but the most worn one ran thus: ‘We don’t know what to get you. You’re so particular about what you want.’ And then the hasty addition, if it were the husband: ‘Not that that’s such a bad thing. It’s good that you know your mind.’ The son, more sure of maternal love, is seldom to be moved to such blatherings.
Really, I don’t know what it is with my family. I mean, I’m not such a difficult person to give gifts to, I’m sure. Yes, I did once look askance at the six-inch-long dangling shell earrings, but, seriously, I barely have a neck, they would have looked like epaulettes on me. And what is the point of the son getting me a sari at the behest of girlfriend of the hour, instead of the dupatta he had sensibly chosen, when the last time I wore a sari was at his nursery school interviews?
But I did enjoy that holiday in Istanbul last year, which the husband and son chose to mark my golden jubilee. How could I not, when every inch of it had been planned to cater to my idea of a perfect holiday? So, there was minimal sightseeing and lots of eating and only slightly less of drinking. Sure, walking had been scaled up, while shopping had been scaled down on the itinerary, but then, nobody can be perfect, especially men. It’s really not their fault that I came away wishing for something more tangible as a fiftieth birthday present than a clutch of mobile phone photos and two Turkish spoon rests.
It’s not as if the husband’s all that perfect in the present acceptance department. Three years in a row, he made me buy him shoes (expensive ones!) for his birthday and still lives off the story on the party circuit, finishing off with the line, ‘Mujhe to joote milte hai birthday par.’
What’s particularly disturbing is that the husband’s lament of my being difficult has found a chorus in many places. The Ma-in-Law has handed me so many envelopes stuffed with cash, professing the same sentiment as her son, that I seriously feel I should take pity on her and give her back the envelopes at least so that she can recycle them.
Amma also sings the same tune as her son-in-law when handing me, yes, the ubiquitous envelope of cash. Except that this envelope, thanks to Appa’s obsession with packing and all the spare time he has hanging on his hands after he has watched Saathiya three times each day, is festooned with pictures and messages from whatever scrap of paper has crossed his path.
This year, with my newly hardened self having learnt to focus on what really matters in life, I hadn’t dithered when the annual present question came up. ‘A charm bracelet, that’s what I’d like,’ I said. ‘And this is where you can get me one.’
And, really, it was the one thing that I wanted. And that was the only way I would get it. Ever since I first read about a bracelet onto which you can hang little charms to mark the significant moments of your life, I’d lusted for one. That would have been a good forty years ago and most of the significant moments of my life wore distinctly sepia tones now, but I still wanted a charm bracelet.
The husband looked momentarily relieved till the actuality of it struck him – he would have to do more than get greeting cards and roses and string up balloons this year! ‘We’ll go over the weekend,’ he promised hastily, fending off the inevitable by a couple of days. What he did not take into account was the fact that my birthday falls right in the middle of silly season when the world and its sweetheart(s) are hurriedly seeking tokens of love before that fat red Cupid lurking over their shoulder gets really nasty.
That was the first queue, by the way. When we got out of the shop an hour later, the husband was crimson in the face as he staggered to the nearest coffee shop, while I, equally crimson in the face, was beaming proudly at the silver bangle that now adorned my wrist and the little amethyst (my birthstone!) charm that dangled from it, still tingling from the buzz that overtakes me (a) when we go shopping and (b) especially when we go shopping for jewellery.
Next weekend found us back at the jewellers. The son had left the safe environs of his metropolis to pay his tribute at the maternal shrine. Don’t worry, he visits for his Dad’s birthday too – I’m not fussy like that. In a hasty moment, he told me to buy whatever I wanted as a present. And I had made known my wish – another charm for my newly acquired bangle.
So there we stood in a queue that made the last one seem niggardly in comparison – after all, we were that much closer to Valentine’s Day by now. By the time we got to the counter, the two men in my life were holding their handkerchiefs to their faces, lest they swooned like the Victorian maidens of yore. The salesperson laid out a range of ‘Mother’ charms on the velvet board. And that was only the beginning.
When we got home, the son collapsed into the rocking chair. ‘Can we do you Christmas presents next year?’ he asked weakly, as I gave him a glass of water, the charms tinkling on my bangle.
‘Why’re you complaining?’ came an accusing voice from the depths of the sofa. ‘You did the queue thing only once. I did it twice in one week. And she had the charms all ready and decided for you. I had to stand for her trying on all the possible permutations and combinations that damn shop offered.’
This was a call to battle and the son has ever been quick to pick up the gauntlet. ‘Talking about presents,’ he said, ‘do you remember my eighteenth birthday when you and Mum went and bought yourselves those ridiculously expensive watches as presents to yourselves for having survived me?’
He’s right. We did. I told you we are a bit of a peculiar family when it comes to presents. But with the sun glinting on the charms on my bangle, it was no real hardship to tune out the sounds of the husband and son arguing it out.
First published in Democratic World in March 2016.