Rita Chatterjee usually got up early in the morning. After preparing breakfast she saw her twin children Sumedha and Som off to college. Then she waited while her husband Raj got ready, finished breakfast and set off for his office. Her entire morning was a whirlwind of activities. ‘Ma, where are my shoes,’ ‘Ma, I can’t find my pen,’ ‘I don’t want parathas for breakfast.’ or a softer, ‘Dear, I can’t find my mobile’ from her husband. Only after everyone had left she had some time to herself. She had a leisurely bath and a peaceful cup of tea before her maid turned up. The maid’s tongue moved faster than her hands as she did the dishes and then proceeded to clean the house. Then Rita would cook lunch, wait for the children to come back, serve them lunch and then eat herself. Her afternoons were lazy affairs spent in her room or on the balcony depending on the season. She could curl up with a magazine, listen to her favorite Rabindra Sangeet and take a nap. Raj reached back home around six while the children vanished on their own mysterious errands. The unwritten rule was that they had be back home before eight. The family usually had dinner together. This had been her unwavering routine for the past few years. Ever since she got married, Raj had been the fulcrum around which Rita’s life had revolved. The arrival of twins a year later had made her busier still. Her life had been completely centered on the three individuals that made up her family. Years had flown and suddenly her kids were grown up and in college. Raj had got more and more involved in his office and the silences between them had been growing. Rita had started feeling increasingly unimportant in the family’s scheme of things.
She occasionally regretted her decision to discontinue her studies after graduation and settle down in matrimony. She had been a fairly good student and a swimming champion in college. Many of her peers had been shocked by her decision. They had felt that there would be no dearth of proposals for a beautiful and accomplished girl like her and she would be better off continuing her studies and building a career. Her best friend Sucheta had said. ‘Why do you have to get married at such an early stage? Complete your post-graduation first. You may have a good career in swimming itself. And sportsperson get preference in Government jobs. You are a good student. I don’t think you should throw away all this for the sake of marriage.’ But at that stage she had been completely devoid of ambition and had quietly accepted her parents’ decision to marry her off to Raj. She had not had any reasons to regret that decision for many years but only recently dissatisfaction had started raising its head. ‘What direction would my life have taken if I had continued my studies?’ she thought. ‘Could I have been an IAS or a Bank officer or a Lecturer? Maybe I would have been a state level swimmer or a coach in National Institute of Sports.’ She tried imagining herself in different roles and occasionally regretted her routine house-wife existence. Then she would look at her family and would think, ‘I have done a good job of raising my family. They need me to be around.’ ‘Sure.’ A voice would whisper in her ears, ‘They need you but do they really care about you. The children need their mother and Raj needs his wife but do they really care for Rita, the individual?’ She would be forty next week, she remembered. ‘And I bet they don’t even remember your birthday.’ The voice whispered insistently.
‘Do you know what is special about next Saturday?’ asked Sumedha at the dinner table. Rita was happy. ‘She has remembered my birthday.’ But she feigned ignorance. ‘What?’ ‘Papa is taking us for a visit to Corbett Tiger Reserve.’ Sumedha was jumping with joy. ‘All arrangements are in place.’ Rita hid her disappointment. ‘Nobody remembers my birthday!’ she thought. ‘And I’ll be forty. Officially a middle aged woman who has devoted the best years of life to a family which does not care to remember her birthday.’
They started their journey on Saturday early morning, Raj driving their Maruti Swift. Som sat beside him and took a perverse delight in counting the number of trucks which had turned turtle while negotiating the highway. They reached their destination, a wildlife resort on the banks of river Kosi, situated on the periphery of Corbett Tiger Reserve by lunch time. The resort boasted of all the trappings of modern living, from AC rooms to a well maintained swimming pool, while being away from the noise and chaos of urban existence. Rita tried to remember when she last entered a pool. ‘Probably four or five years back,’ she decided, ‘and I have not even brought a swimming costume.’ She was still disappointed that nobody had remembered or mentioned her birthday. She toyed with the idea of giving them oblique hints but her hurt won the day and she decided to keep quiet. They had a surprisingly lavish lunch and the children decided to go on a safari in the Bijrani range of the tiger reserve. Rita wanted a nap after the long drive and a heavy lunch but as usual the kids got their way.
They hired an open jeep and set off. The jeep entered the park and set off on the rough track fashioned by the wildlife department. Rita was enchanted by the tall Sal trees and the thick undergrowth of bushes which characterized the jungle. The first animals they spotted were a herd of Sambhar deer. They also came across many Barking deer and Cheetals. ‘The barking deer is also known as Kakar.’ informed their guide. Rita was the first one to make the most unusual sighting of the day. She saw a pair of large raccoon like animals who were rushing up and down the tree trunks. They had beautiful black colored pelt with yellow undersides. Even their normally stoic guide was excited. ‘That is a pair of yellow bellied pine martens.’ He whispered. ‘They are sighted very rarely.’ The driver stopped the car while the animals raced up and down the tree trunks without a care in the world. ‘They hunt birds, small animals and steal eggs from the nests.’ informed their guide. ‘They are better tree climbers than even jungle cats and leopards.’ When Som tried to photograph them, they just vanished into the undergrowth. They came across many birds, wild boar and a herd of elephants. The herd consited of female elephants and many calves. The tuskers were conspicuous by their absence. 'Even here females have to bear the brunt of raising the children!' thought Rita. ‘Where are the tigers?’ demanded Sumedha. ‘After all, this is a tiger reserve.’ But the king of the jungle proved elusive and tired but happy, they returned to the resort. Rita felt like a dip in the pool and regretted not packing her swimming costume. ‘I don’t even remember where it is. I haven’t used it for such a long time.’
The moon came out with its entire splendor after some time as Rita sat outside the cottage all by herself. The children had disappeared and Raj said that he had to talk to the resort manager. The river Kosi glistened in the silver moonlight but the sight did not offer any solace to Rita as she had started feeling blue again. ‘I can’t believe it even Sumedha has forgotten my birthday.’ She thought. Suddenly cries of ‘Happy Birthday’ rent the stillness of the night. Sumedha realized that her family had sneaked up from behind. There was Raj carrying a huge cake and grinning from ear to ear. The kids hugged her and said, ‘And you thought we all had forgotten. Haa haa.’ Rita was surprised. ‘Where did you get the cake from?’ ‘I specially ordered it and had it delivered from Ramnagar.’ ‘But that is twenty kilometers away!’ ‘Anything for you, my dear wife. After all, whatever my little family is, it is only because of you.’ Som spilled the beans, ‘We thought that we will give you a surprise party on your fortieth birthday. So we all pretended that we did not remember your birthday while Papa arranged the tour.’ And then there were the gifts. Raj gave her a Pearl set. There was an Ipod from Som. ‘I have loaded all your favorite Rabindra Sangeet in it.’ He said. Sumedha had brought her a new swimming costume. ‘I know my mom is a champion swimmer. We will hit the pool tomorrow morning and I’ll race you.’ Rita was happy at last. The creeping depression she had been feeling vanished and she felt fulfilled. She knew that the years she had invested in raising this little family of hers had been a worthwhile enterprise and that the value of a home maker was not less than of a career woman. She hugged all three of them and said, ‘Thank you, Raj, Som, Sumedha and thank you God, for giving me such a loving family.’...............................THE END.......................................