My Voice - 2020


The Story I Needed

By Palak Trivedi

Most days in third grade went similarly; I sat at my desk, listening to my teacher drone on about either something the South Carolina curriculum propagandized into “history" or the foreign concept of rounding numbers. This particular day was almost over and our substitute teacher had grumbled his way down afternoon attendance, getting dangerously close to my name. I'd already prayed to every god I could remember, hoping the bell would ring before he got to me, but no such luck. I raised my hand, not even bothering to correct his absolute butchery of my name, and heard a few kids behind me snicker. The sub stopped to look up, but the bell rang and before he could say anything, half of us were out the door, with me leading the way.

As usual, Mom picked us up and dropped my sister and me off at Ba's house. The moment we arrived, Ba (grandmother) smothered us in her embrace and herded us indoors. She had already set out our favorite meal - macaroni and cheese with a dash of ketchup - so we ran into the dining room, sliding across the slippery vinyl floors in our socks.

“Don't do that, beta!! You'll fall and hurt yourself!" Ba scolded in Hindi, but as always the smile on her face gave her away. “Eat up," she said with a familiar twinkle in her eye, “I have something special in the drawer to show you today."

My sister and I shoveled down the macaroni and galloped up the stairs to her room, glancing at one another in anticipation. In the corner of the room was the large, chestnut dresser with an upper compartment and three drawers below. The upper portion contained Ba and Dada's clothes, as did the first two drawers of the lower portion of the dresser. The last drawer, however, was home to various trinkets and toys that Ba had saved over many years and would surprise us with when we came to see her. From little toy cars to bangles she would break into pieces for a makeshift board game - she always had something. We sat on either side of her, craning our necks to watch as she carefully opened the drawer, almost feeling a golden light from inside illuminating our faces.

After going back downstairs, my sister plopped onto the couch to watch TV with Dada and to play with her new race cars. Meanwhile, I meandered over to the dining room and my attention shifted to the ring on my hand. It was big; too loose and heavy on my small finger, so I let it slip off and ran it down the luminous, gold chain Ba gave me to wear it around my neck. My fingers trailed down the chain to the ring and followed the design around the gems. I lifted my gaze and watched them catch the light from the dusty chandelier above and send reflections dancing across the room. After finishing her work, Ba came over to the patch of the dining room floor where I sat.

“So, what will we play today, beta?"

“Actually, Ba, can I ask you something?"

“Why are you asking me, dobi? Just demand, 'Ba! I have a question you must answer!'" She smiled the way only grandmothers can; her eyes twinkled and crinkled up around the edges. Her wrinkles looked like writing on a page; deep smile lines and deeper worry lines on her forehead, but no angry crinkle between her eyebrows like Dada.

I smiled back and sheepishly brought out the ring.

“Ba, where did you get this from? Some of my… friends from school might ask about it and I don't know what to tell them."

Ba paused for a minute and looked at me with an expression I recognized. Her smile fell for a heartbeat and the lines on her forehead deepened, but in the next moment she lit up again.

“Well that is a fantastic story, beta. Come, sit here while I tell you."

I crawled over to her and laid my head on her lap. She stroked my hair and brushed it off my face as she began her story, this time in Gujarati, as she always did when she told stories of back home.

When I was young, we lived under the rule of a great king we called 'Maharaj.' My father Mohanlal - who I called Baba - was an advisor to the king. After my brother's wedding, Baba went to see Maharaj and found him pacing anxiously. He told Baba the village was in trouble; crops were failing, the treasury was almost empty, and our village was on the brink of starvation! Maharaj waived all taxes to help the people of the village and sought help from other kings, but to no avail. He felt defeated; the village always supported him. How could he call himself king if he could not support them?

A seed of an idea popped into Baba's head and he deliberated on this seed until it blossomed into a plan. He told Maharaj that he found the solution to their problem himself!

The king's face lit up, but when Baba said the answer was the people, his face fell. He believed a good king should never place burdens upon his subjects; besides, they had nothing left to give. Still, Baba persisted that the reason Maharaj's reign had been fruitful for the people was that he had always put them first by forgiving debts, waiving taxes, providing justice in court, or giving up his own need for the needs of the village; he should allow them the opportunity to give back.

His wise words convinced the king. A gathering was held and Maharaj told the village his predicament. Immediately, people threw themselves at his feet, ready to sacrifice anything to help, but the king explained he had come to ask for their hands; he realized the village could use their strengths to raise enough money to pay the neighboring king for food for their children, if nothing else.

The village readily agreed. Scouts were chosen to make deals with distant kingdoms and to spread word of what their village had to offer. Women crafted the finest jewelry seen for miles and sold it faster than it could be made. Villagers donated cloth to be made into beautiful garments to sell and tailors offered to repair garments for travelers. Farmers offered their labor to farms in neighboring villages for a share of their crops and skilled cooks made delicious sweets from the sweet mango trees to be sent out and sold. Anyone that could provide any kind of service did and quickly, the treasury was filled completely! With these funds, Maharaj held a grand feast for everyone and bought food from nearby villages to last them until the next crop.

Months later, Maharaj held a meeting of the royal court and asked Baba to stand before them. He revealed Mohanlal was the man who had solved their problems; the village was prospering, merchants were selling exponentially, and the new structure of their economy would sustain the village for generations to come. Baba shook his head humbly and Maharaj went on to tell him that his wisdom and humility had doubled his respect for him. For his noble actions, Maharaj pronounced Baba Chief Advisor to the King and as a token of his gratitude, he removed a large ring from his pinky finger and placed it in the palm of Baba's hand.

A few years after that, I married your Dada. Before I left home, Baba enclosed the ring in my hand and asked me to pass it on in my family to tell them of our legacy and what it means to be a part of our family."

I stayed quiet for a moment.

“So what does it mean to be a part of our family, Ba?"

She looks down at my wide-eyed face and smiles.

“Baba was a wise man, beta. I see that his wisdom was passed down to you. People will try to cut you down, but you must always remember where you come from. You are more than what children at school say to you. You are more than what people in our family tell you that you should be. You are smart and capable of changing lives; it's in your blood.

She carefully lifted my hair and placed the necklace the ring hung from around my neck. “Keep this ring to remind you that Ba is always with you just as I knew that Baba would always be with me."

Many years later, I sat with Ba on the first anniversary of Dada's passing. It was quiet in the house; we were surrounded by clouds of our own thoughts. We would look up occasionally, often forgetting the other was there. I spun the ring around my pointer finger, as I had so many times before.

“Ba? Do you remember this ring?"

“Yes, I do beta."

“Do you remember the story you told me about it? Was it real?"

“In some ways, yes. In other ways, no."

“Why, Ba?"

She looked more tired than I remembered and the lines on her face were more pronounced, but when she smiled, the twinkle in her eyes remained the same.

“My Baba was the greatest man I ever knew and a trusted advisor to the king. That was true, but the ring did not come from him; honestly, I'm so old now that I don't remember where it came from anymore. You needed something to hold on to, beta. You're a smart girl, but you allow others' opinions of you to hold you back from achieving your full potential - both at home and at school."

“I didn't know you knew about school."

“Of course I did, dobi," she smiled cheekily, “you should know that I know you better than you know yourself."

I couldn't help but smile, shaking my head.

Ba pulled my head into her lap and stroked my hair, pushing it off my face, “I didn't tell you that story to fool you, beta. You needed a story to make you feel as special as you are. It was the story you needed."

The ring never left my possession. In times of hardship, I grip it to remind myself of Ba's constant presence and that her and my great-grandfather's wisdom will always help me find my way. One day, it will provide a source of inspiration for my own grandchildren. I will tell them the story and the reason why Ba created it for me. It was the story I needed.

------------

Palak Trivedi hails from South Carolina. She has been writing for 10 years, has published a children's book, and is working on her first poetry collection. Contact: ptrivedi2017@gmail.com