Her mother had no idea how to handle her rather malcontent child, and she soon learnt to let Vanaja do whatever she wanted. Vanaja carried her fierce competitiveness to college, which, of course had to be the best in the city, and for which she worked harder than she ever had. But when she got there, she found that she couldn’t top the class as easily as she could at school, no matter how much she worked at it. So, she compensated by enrolling herself in all sorts of events, and winning every kind of prize that could possibly be won.
Right after she graduated (with distinction), her parents decided that it was time she got married. Vanaja made an exhaustive checklist of attributes, and checked with meticulous care the credentials of every prospective groom against it. Finally she settled on (and married) the one who scored the best in terms of education, career, and looks.
She was the perfect homemaker. You wouldn’t find a mote of dust on any surface in the house. She prepared tasty dishes and served them in the best china she could afford to buy. Her home was decorated with the choicest articles, painstakingly selected and bought at excellent bargains from various handicrafts exhibitions across the city. She was a wonderful hostess, always having guests over at home and preparing fabulous spreads. She was always well-turned out, with not a hair out of place.
And inevitably, she transferred all her ambitions to her husband. He had to make the best presentations, buy the best car, rent an apartment in the best complex (until they saved enough to buy) and just had to be promoted whenever his promotion was due. And when her son Akash was born, she transferred all her expectations onto him. Even at the hospital, she gushed about how his bawl was the lustiest among the babies born on the same day as him, how he weighed the most, and how he was the pinkest of them all.
As he grew, she kept an obsessive watch over his development, charted his every step, agonised over every delayed milestone, and exulted at everything that he did ahead of schedule. She entered him in Beautiful Baby contests and sent his photographs to diaper companies. Before the year had gone by, she had listed out all the babies in their neighbourhood and confirmed that her son was sleeping, walking and speaking well-ahead of everybody else.
She was the perfect homemaker. You wouldn’t find a mote of dust on any surface in the house. She prepared tasty dishes and served them in the best china she could afford to buy. Her home was decorated with the choicest articles, painstakingly selected and bought at excellent bargains from various handicrafts exhibitions across the city.
And then, a couple of years later, Vanaja met Akhila at the local park. Akhila’s son Prajwal was just two months younger than Akash, and they went to the same school. For the first time, Vanaja found someone who seemed to be nearly equal, or did she dare admit, even ahead of Akash in certain respects. For Vanaja, Prajwal became the embodiment of all the other boys in the world. To get Akash ahead of Prajwal in every way – this became her sole ambition in life.
She had to concede that it was a challenging task, because Prajwal seemed to be naturally good at everything. He wrote the alphabet and counted upto ten before Akash did. But Akash learned to count up to 100 before Prajwal did, and Vanaja basked in her private glory for days after that.
Akash was far more athletic, but Prajwal was better at colouring, and so Vanaja bought colouring books of all types and put Akash to the task of colouring with crayons, colour pencils, and even paints, in anticipation of further challenges to come. Prajwal’s mother Akhila seemed totally unaware of this contest, and that annoyed Vanaja. It is really irksome when you are in intense competition with somebody who doesn’t even know about it.
Everything came to a head when the events of the Annual Day function of the school were announced. For the pre-school play, Prajwal was chosen for the lead role of the naughty child Lord Krishna. Akash was to be a tree.
Vanaja performed the mental equivalent of throwing herself on the bed and covering herself with a blanket. She spent entire days wondering where she had gone wrong. She compared the two boys as they played in the park, looking for any sign that Prajwal was more charming or attractive than her own son, and having genuinely not found anything, again got into a twist about what had gone wrong.
She concluded that in some way, the teacher had become biased towards Prajwal. Perhaps Akhila had sent a better card with Prajwal on Teacher’s Day? Perhaps she had paid some underhanded compliment to the teacher at one of the parent-teacher meetings? Perhaps….
This wasn’t in Vanaja’s hands – that much she realised. So she resigned herself to make Akash the best tree that anybody had ever seen. She bought him a brown T-shirt and brown trousers to represent the tree trunk. Then she made a large cardboard cutout of a tree’s foliage, with a circular opening in the middle for Akash’s face. She scoured the hobby shops for felt of the best and brightest green, and cut out actual leaf-shaped pieces and pasted them all onto the cutout. She attached red balls to it to represent fruits.
When she was finished, it truly was the nicest tree that you would have ever seen.
The evening of the performance arrived, and Vanaja sat somewhere in the middle of the audience, camera in hand, waiting to capture for posterity the most beautiful tree in preschool play history.
The characters came on to stage, little huts, trees, and tiny children dressed as cows and cowherds and village lasses – all of them forming a background for the village scene in which Krishna, the butter-thief was being reprimanded for his mischief. “They have put Akash right in the middle of the stage,” Vanaja whispered to her husband, who nodded. Someone sitting in the row behind her said, “Look at that wonderful tree, with the red balls that look like fruits.” Vanaja glowed.
But in spite of herself, she had to admit that Prajwal looked charming, with the little tiara and the peacock feather stuck into it, and that stung her. On the stage, the play progressed – a group of little girls dressed in sarees scolded Krishna for stealing all their butter and curd. Just then, one of the boys in the play, dressed as a cowherd, got bored with standing around, and was attracted by the round red balls hanging from Akash’s branches. The little cowherd sauntered across the stage, went up to Akash, and plucked one of the “fruits.”
Akash’s hands were not free, and so he stuck his tongue out and made a fierce face at the cowherd. The cowherd plucked one more fruit, and started bouncing them on stage.
A titter went through the audience. Akash was angry now. He lifted one leg and kicked the cowherd on the shin. The cowherd turned and kicked Akash back.
A few people laughed. Akash tore off the tree from his shoulders, and hit the cowherd with it. The cowherd pummelled Akash with his fists, and in the next moment, the two tots were rolling on the ground, screaming and clawing and pulling at each other’s hair. The audience was in an uproar. Meanwhile, the play was still going on, Krishna had been tied to a heavy stone mortar as punishment for his mischief, and he was dragging it along, but nobody paid any attention to it. All eyes were on the tree and the cowherd until a teacher ran out from behind the curtain, and dragged the two little fighters away.
The audience laughed and clapped, while the play ended unceremoniously.
“Disgraceful,” muttered Vanaja’s husband. “Why did he have to fight like that?”
But Vanaja did not hear him. She was floating on a cloud of supreme triumph. Nobody would have even noticed Prajwal. Akash was the star of the show.