Dadaji (grandfather) comes visiting during summer holidays. And stays on till Diwali, which makes it half a year of fun. I’ll tell you why. First, he arrives with bundles of gifts. Stuff that no one ever brings me. Homemade laddoos bumpy from fingers that shaped them, sticks of sugarcane that smell of his fields, papads rolled out in his courtyard. I never know which is more fun, opening the bundles or wolfing the stuff down!
With Dadaji comes a new order of discipline. Suddenly, Daddy doesn’t want to tweak my ears. Perhaps because it reminds him of the years when Dadaji tweaked his! Ma can’t spank me because Dadaji clears his throat to show his displeasure. Six months of freedom!
But then, nothing is perfect. There is a little glitch that comes with Dadaji. His dress code. He insists on wearing a spotless white dhoti and kurta topped with a pink turban. Pink, imagine! The dhoti and kurta aren’t all that bad, but none of my friends has a relative who wears a turban. We’ve tried to tell Dadaji that he can leave his head uncovered.
“I’ve always worn a turban,” he counters. “Even when I went abroad.” Once, Daddy tried to tell him it was a waste of cloth and effort. Dadaji looked Daddy up and down and said in a tight voice, “You look odd to me in these trousers and shirt and that piece of cloth so tight around your neck.”
“Pitaji (father), I have to wear a tie to work,” said my Daddy, in a voice that was only reserved for Dadaji. “If you can tie that cloth around your neck, why can’t I tie one around my head?” countered Dadaji.
Ma giggled. She was normally a silent listener when father and son argued, but today, Dadaji had hit a sixer. He looked at her and grinned. Daddy looked at her and scowled. I looked at her and burst out laughing.
One afternoon, as Dadaji snoozed on his charpoy (cot) in the courtyard, Eeshan dropped by. Every winter, Eeshan and I prayed for it to rain, since Dadaji had told us winter rain meant more mangoes. When the mango flowers bloomed, Eeshan and I would watch the bees buzz lazily around their feast.
Ours was yet to come. This tree produced the most amazing khatta-meetha sweet and sour mangoes. Last week, we’d polished off all the stuff ready. Now, another crop was ripe. We tripped past Dadaji and into our favourite branch. The first nip made your teeth tingle. Then came the soft sweetness.
Into his second mango, Eeshan chuckled. “Look at Dadaji’s turban rising and falling with his breath!” When I saw with Eeshan’s eyes, the turban did seem to have a life of its own! “The pink panther,” I suggested.
“The pink python!” corrected Eeshan.
We giggled. Then, disaster struck. Eeshan and his hair-brained ideas. He picked up the catapult we brought down distant fruit with and said, “Watch me strike the python down with one mango!” “No!” I yelped, “You might hurt Dadaji!”
“Not” Dadaji. The python,” drawled Eeshan. His imagination had run as wild as the panther and the python.
“The python. errr. the turban, is on Dadaji’s head!” I tried to reason. “Heard of William Tell?” shrugged Eeshan, “See him in action.” Before I could say, Tell Tale, the mango was out of the catapult. And the turban was rolling on the floor, unraveling like an awakened serpent.
Dadaji sat up, startled. He rubbed his eyes and looked at the turban on its last uncoil. He picked it up gingerly, dusted it and looked around, perhaps for a squirrel. My heart was pounding so hard, I’m certain Dadaji heard it. He looked up. His face turned red. I thought he’d burst into flame.
“Down!” he thundered. Dadaji had never used that tone with me. My knees turned to jelly and my feet felt like lead. We slithered down and landed in a sorry heap. Dadaji looked strange with his beetroot face and his bald, turbanless head. He glowered at Eeshan, “Go home.”
Eeshan fled. Dadaji looked at me. “What would your father say?”
Say? Not much. He’d do something. Like give me a walloping.
“Sorry, Dadaji. I’ll never do it again. Please don’t tell Daddy,” I pleaded, apologising for something I hadn’t done, strictly speaking. But I couldn’t let Eeshan down. Dadaji fell silent. He coiled the turban back into a slumbering serpent and planted it on his head. “Will you do what I tell you to?”
“Sure,” I squeaked, without hearing him out.
“On Independence Day, you’ll go to school in a pink turban.” I think a part of me fainted. He had to be joking. But of course, he wasn’t.
Dadaji was serious enough to march me up to the market to buy a pink turban and a white kurta-pajama. Every evening, he’d lock the door to his room and we’d practice tying the turban. One, two, three rounds, then a neat tuck. It didn’t help to tie an untidy fold, because he’d make me do it again. There were days I wondered if I’d made the right choice. One hiding from Daddy couldn’t have been worse!
I couldn’t sleep the night before Independence Day. This was one night I wished wouldn’t end. But it did.
Dadaji nudged me, “Time to get ready!” He sounded so cheerful, I couldn’t believe he was my grandfather. Couldn’t he see, how wretched I felt?
First, I wiggled my feet through the churidar legs. Then, with Dadaji holding the sleeves straight, I shook my head through the kurta. Finally, it was time to twist the turban around my head. Dadaji had starched it so that it would hold its own. The pink python wound round, crushing my head with its grip. I could hardly breathe. But Dadaji didn’t seem too perturbed with my failing health. He strode out of the house.
I took the tiniest steps I could. But school was just a couple of blocks away and the final act of my 57-day ordeal was around the corner. I couldn’t bear to see the disgust on my friends’ faces, so as the gate approached, I shut my eyes and slipped my hand into Dadaji’s huge paw. I heard familiar voices. That was Borun. What was he saying? “Oooh wow! Is that Charu?”
“No,” I wanted to scream. “It’s Charu’s ghost.” But someone had stuck my voice inside my throat with glue.
Ayesha gushed, from somewhere close to my right ear, “He looks like a prince!” She had to be joking! I opened my eyes. But she looked as if she’d seen a giant lollipop.
“Smashing!” squealed Eeshan. “Dadaji,” pleaded Divya, “will you please teach me to tie a turban?”
I puffed myself up and was about to tell her, turbans are only for boys, when Dadaji declared, “I’ll teach you all how to tie a turban!”