Abhi woke up to the sound of Rahul’s protests at having to eat breakfast. This was the only time that she got backseat on her mother’s daily agenda. She patiently waited for Ma to finish her chores and come to her. It was only a matter of time. She could hear the school bus, blaring its horn at the end of the lane and Rahul as usual was not ready. Dadima never really did object to this tardiness. Homework was often incomplete and exam scores below par. But all was excused.
Ma was soon with her and Abhi twisted her mouth into a smile. “Rise and shine dear, today is your big day!” Ma said. ‘Good morning’ Abhi echoed but the words ended as guttural sounds from her out-of-control vocal cords. Ma chatted away as she helped Abhi out of bed and prepared her for the day ahead. Today would be a difficult as Hetaldi had set a new task for her. Would she able to do it? Abhilasha steeled her mind to the looming challenge. She needed to focus.
Dadima was at the table but buried herself in her knitting as soon as Abhi came there for breakfast. Abhi attacked her food with gusto. Ma always put an extra dollop of butter on the parantha just the way she liked it. The salty smoothness of the butter helped the pieces slide easily down her throat. Most of the time her cheek and tongue muscles were way beyond her control twitching and moving of their own free will. The yellow velvety blob somehow calmed them sufficiently to allow her to swallow. Dadima complained about special meals for Abhi, “I want more tea,” she said now and Ma rushed off to the kitchen to prevent another onslaught of derisive comments. “And don’t forget to put in the ginger and cardamom”
Abhi hated having to depend on anyone least of all her mother but there was precious little she could do. Ma had almost become her arms and legs now. Abhi could feel her strength, hope and joy at seeing every miniscule progress. Mother and daughter functioned at a single level as if still bound by the umbilical cord. Ma perfectly understood Abhi’s feelings, her needs and her dislikes conveyed through her expressive eyes.
Before the tea arrived, Dadima took off for her pooja. Abhi could smell the burning incense. It was rose today and she hated it. The tinkling bell accompanied Dadima’s tuneless bhajans. How could God endure this daily audio torture Abhi wondered? Did he really ever listen? Or did Dadima’s God too prefer to ignore Abhi’s prayers? But there was no time to lose, as Ma reminded her of their appointment.
They reached the Centre just as the other kids were finishing breakfast. The tantalising aroma of freshly fried fafda pervaded the entire hall with sharp overtones of fried chillies with it. Abhi smelt the sweetness of the fresh mango juice even before she saw it- was this treat in anticipation of her feat? Smell always had been her strong point and Hetaldi had used it extensively in her training. Abhi hated vanilla after those sessions.
Her first stop was with Varshadi, one she always looked forward to. “Its only a rope Abhi” she always said, “Surely you can do this” challenging her to outdo herself. Its hairy roughness mattered little to Abhi as she knotted it into patterns. The poky cords brought out the best from her rebellious fingers as they miraculously worked together under the influence of the abrasive texture. Seeing her begin to master this rope, Varshadi had given her a smooth nylon rope and some silken thread. Much to her chagrin Abhi was unable to complete the knots as the cool soft threads actually irritated her skin. So it was back to jute for her. Right now she was working on a bag for Ma and hoped to complete it by her birthday!
Her session was cut short as she steeled herself for her biggest day in her life so far. They had been preparing the past year for this event. Ma was as apprehensive and tense as Abhi, as she got ready to take her first steps after a decade and a half on this earth. Today, Hetaldi had planned her first independent walk. As Abhi struggled out of the wheelchair with her splints and boots, she saw Ma place a pair of sequinned shoes at the end of the parallel bars.
Abhi’s cousin had similar twinkling shoes and she longed to wear them for just once, the only time really, when she had envied anyone else. Sensing her desire Ma had got her similar ones and Abhi smiled in anticipation as she began walking towards them. She commanded her unwilling limbs ahead one excruciating step after another. The soles of her feet protested with the unfamiliar body weight, as the Velcro straps felt tighter than before. Abhi felt her breath coming harder and her throat went dry even as the twinkling shoes beckoned her forwards. She could see her reflection on the biggest sequin. Was she really as tall as Hetaldi? Or was Hetaldi short? The golden shoes reflected the sunlight into a zillion facets straight into her eyes, almost blinding her. Abhi was almost there, just a few more steps. She could sense Ma and Varshadi cheering her on but could not hear anything above the thudding of her heart. Three more she muttered to herself, two and then suddenly she was enveloped in her Ma’s arms, both crying copiously as if their hearts would break. Abhi tried to wipe her mother’s tears, which seemed to be glittering brighter than any baubles. She wanted to tell her things were looking up and that she need not worry anymore. So what if her limbs were not fully under her control and her speech not clear? Abhilasha was ‘special’ to everyone, but ‘handicapped’ to Dadima. She was one of God’s own children.
The shoes were a perfect fit and Abhi admired her multiple reflections in them. The sequins felt prickly on the inside. “There’s plenty of work still to be done,” Hetaldi said. “Let’s do one more round for today”. Abhi was tired but got ready to walk again. Her life journey would be rockier than most others but she could do it, she would! Such simple gifts only made it more enjoyable!