Anjali got up. Her grandmother was still asleep. It was quite bright outside. ‘It must be eight. Why hasn’t Naani got up?’ she thought to herself. She placed her hand on her naani’s forehead. It felt warm.
“Naani,” Anjali softly whispered in her ear. Naani opened her eyes and looked around. “Oh my! You will be late child. I am sorry I should have got up earlier,” she said attempting to get up.
“Take it easy Naani,” said Anjali, placing her hand on Naani’s arm. “There is no hurry. Last night’s khichdi is there. I’ll have that and go. You take rest. I think you have fever.”
“No, child. Don’t worry about me. I am all right. I just have a slight cold and cough. I’ll boil tulsi leaves and pepper and drink the concoction. By the time you come home in the afternoon I will be all right.”
Anjali was a nine-year-old orphan who had lost her parents when she was four. Ever since, she had been staying with her naani in a garage which belonged to a retired army captain. The captain had sold his car and was not using the garage. He had rented it to Naani for Rs 75 per month.
Naani was a thin and frail sixty-year-old woman with a lot of determination. She had passed her matric exams way back in the early fifties. After the death of her husband and her only daughter, she had managed to run the house on the money she got by taking tuitions. Since the past one year her health had started failing and she had had to stop taking tuitions. It was then that she had been forced to send Anjali out to work to ‘Nikhaar’, a beauty parlour run by Mrs. Ipsita Choudhary, a qualified beautician.
‘Nikhaar’ was just around the corner and Anjali would go in the morning at nine and come home by one. From two to five in the afternoon she would attend a school run by the local ladies’ club for poor children. In the evening, from six to eight, she would again work in ‘Nikhaar’. Though the job was not difficult, it was quite tiring. Anjali had to help Mrs. Choudhary in preparing creams, lotions and face packs, keep the place spotlessly clean and run small errands. Mrs Choudhary was a hard taskmaster and some of her clients were quite rude and often ill-treated Anjali.
The poor girl would suffer everything silently. She knew if her naani would come to know she would not allow her to go to ‘Nikhaar’ and instead would resume taking tuitions. And Anjali did not want naani to do that at any cost. She was aware that any strain would prove dangerous to Naani’s health.
Anjali was on her feet the whole day. The only time she looked forward to was bed time when she would cuddle up to naani and listen to stories. Naani was a real treasure house of stories. She would tell a new one everyday and in all these years Anjali had never heard Naani repeating a story.
That evening, as Anjali was returning from ‘Nikhaar’, she stubbed her toe against a metallic object. She looked down. It was shining brightly. She picked it up. It looked like a computer game – the kind she had seen Mrs. Choudhary’s son, Bablu, play with. It was the size of a slate with a screen covering the top half and rows of knobs below. The knobs were bright red in colour with numbers written under them in yellow.
‘Today is eighth August and the time now is eight. So let me press eight three times,” she thought to herself. She pressed 888. Suddenly the screen came alive and a beautiful girl dressed in pink appeared on the screen.
“Hi Anjali! Did you recognise me?”
Anjali stared in amazement, not believing her eyes.
“W..wh..who are you?” she managed to stammer.
“I am Cinderella.”
“But Cinderella was in a fairytale …once upon a time, long, long ago.”
“I am the very same Cinderella from FTC.”
“Yes, Fairy Tale Country.”
As Anjali stared goggle-eyed, Cinderella asked her, “Anjali do you want to visit FTC?”
“Y..yes,” Anjali stuttered, not quite sure what she was letting herself in for.
“Okay, now first press 5, then 20 and finally 3. F is the fifth letter of the alphabet, T the 20th and C the third. Thus 5,20,3 stands for FTC. Close your eyes and don’t open them unless I tell you.”
“Anjali carefully pressed the numbers and then closed her eyes. She felt herself being lifted and carried away at great speed. After what seemed only a few seconds she heard Cinderella’s soft voice, “Anjali, now you can open your eyes.”
Anjali slowly opened her eyes and looked around. The sight she saw she would never ever forget in her life. She was sitting on a bench in the middle of a beautiful garden. All around her were the prettiest flowers she had ever seen. Roses, tulips, daisies, daffodils, lilies, dahlias, chrysanthemums and many more she couldn’t name. Birds were singing the sweetest melodies she had heard and animals were frolicking in gay abandon. She could see men, women and children clad in colourful clothes, singing, dancing, laughing and playing.
“W…where am I?” Anjali asked looking around. She saw Cinderella coming towards her, holding the hand of a handsome young man.
“Welcome Anjali to Fairy Tale Country. Meet my Prince. We are now happily married and are proud parents of two beautiful girls.”
Anjali held out her hand shyly. The Prince went down on one knee and taking her hand kissed it lightly, making Anjali blush.
“Come Anjali, we will take you on a guided tour of FTC,” Cinderella said.
She took Anjali’s hand in hers and the three of them walked along a narrow path which led to a garden even more beautiful than the previous one. There she saw a young man and woman sitting under a mistletoe tree, looking deeply into each other’s eyes.
“That is Snow White with her Prince Charming,” Cinderella said.
As Anjali stared in fascination at the attractive couple, she saw a boy and girl walking hand in hand.
“Could you recognise Hansel and Gretel?” Cinderella asked pointing at the two kids.
Anjali nodded. Just then a hare dashed off followed by a tortoise walking at a slow and leisurely pace.
“These two are the hare and the tortoise from the Panchatantra. They keep running races to decide who is faster,” the Prince explained.
Anjali saw a boy with funny, knobbly, limbs and a long nose running towards her.
“Are you Pinocchio?” she asked.
“No,” he replied and in an instant his nose grew longer by an inch. Anjali burst out laughing. Embarrassed, the boy touched the tip of his nose ad said,”Yes, yes, I am Pinocchio.” Immediately his nose shrunk by an inch and he ran away singing to himself.
Cinderella and her Prince led Anjali to a clearing where she found a mongoose, a python, a bear, an eagle and a young boy clad in deer skin playing.
“Is that Mowgli?”
“Yes. And with him are Baloo, Bagheera, Cheel and Ricki Ticki Tavi, the mongoose.”
“Then Sher Khan too must be around,” Anjali said looking fearfully over her shoulder.
“No. In FTC only the good and noble characters live. That is why you will not find evil witches, wicked giants, spiteful queens, cruel kings and nasty animals like Sher Khan or the big bad wolf.”
“It must be really lovely to live in such a beautiful, happy and peaceful place.”
“Of course. Do you want to stay here?”
“Why not? These characters from the pages of fairy tales, fables and folk stories you saw were all children like you – poor and neglected. Many of them were orphans, some others were abandoned by their parents and quite a few were disabled. FTC is for kids who are basically good, kind and honest but are suffering for no fault of their own.
“When we identify a child, we ask him to choose a character he wants to be – man, woman, child or animal. Then we transform him into that character and he or she lives with us forever.”
“Then Mowgli, Pinocchio, Bagheera, Hansel and Gretel, Snow White – were they all kids like me.”
“Yes. I too was a girl very much like you. I was staying in Yugoslavia with my parents. During the civil war my parents were killed. I wandered the streets of my hometown for days, hungry and homeless, before I was picked up and brought to FTC.”
“In case I want to become Rapunzel or Sleeping Beauty, how will I be changed?”
“There is a magic waterfall close by ; it is called Jadu Jharna or JJ. All you have to do is to first decide which character you want to become and then closing your eyes walk under JJ. By the time you emerge at the other end you will have been transformed into your favourite character.”
They had by now come back to the bench. Anjali sat down, deep in thought.
“C…can…I..bring my grandma along?”
“I am sorry Anjali, that will not be possible. FTC is only for children – young people who believe in the magic and mystery of fairy tales, not for adults. You will have to leave her and come.”
“But Cinderella how can I do that? She has no one else to call her own. Without me she will die of loneliness.”
“The choice is yours Anjali. If you want to live the rest of your life in FTC you will have to come alone.”
Anjali thought for some time and said,”Okay Cinderella, thanks for giving me a chance to see FTC. Now please send me back. My naani must be waiting for me.”
“It is very considerate of you to be so concerned about your naani, Anjali. You are a very nice girl,” Cinderella said patting Anjali affectionately. “Now close your eyes and after counting up to ten open them. Good bye and good luck.”
A few seconds later Anjali opened her eyes. She was standing in front of her house. She went in. Naani was lying in bed looking pale.
Anjali rushed to her side,” Naani are you all right?”
“I was worried about you. It is past ten. You are more than two hours late.”
Anjali told her the entire story.
“Oh! Anjali. You are so sweet and caring.” Naani pulled her close and hugged her. “But child for the sake of this old and ailing woman you lost a golden chance of spending the rest of your life in FTC.”
“Naani, how could I leave you and go? And as far as I am concerned wherever you are that place is FTC for me.” Naani took Anjali’s face in her old and wrinkled hands. As she kissed Anjali’s forehead, her eyes were wet with tears.
Just then there was a blinding flash of light and a beautiful girl dressed in gorgeous pink appeared before them.
“Cinderella!” leaping to her feet Anjali rushed towards her.
“Anjali, I have come to take you.”
“But I told you I can’t come alone.”
“Yes, little one, I know. Who is asking you to leave Naani. She too is welcome to FTC.”
“B..but what about the rules of FTC?”
“My dear, for special kids like you we have to bend the rules a little bit. After you left, I called all the residents of FTC and told them your story. We then took a vote whether we can allow an adult into FTC. Believe me Anjali, each and every one voted in favour. So now both of you can come and stay with us.”
“Thank you Cinderella, thank you so much,” Anjali said hugging the beautiful princess.
“Now tell me which character do you want to be?”
Without hesitation Anjali replied, “I want to be Little Red Riding Hood. Naani can be my grandma just like in the fairy tale.”
“Okay it will be done. Now both of you close your eyes…..”
When Anjali opened her eyes she found herself clad completely in red, basket in hand standing in the middle of a forest.
She started picking flowers on her way to her grandmother’s house. The only difference was that unlike the fairy tale there would be no big bad wolf at the end of the journey. Instead she would find her beloved Naani waiting for her with her favourite jalebis, gulabjamuns and laddus and also a huge treasure chest of never-ending stories.