A Christmas story by Asha Nehemiah
There was a time when I would try and submit a Christmas story to one or the other of the children’s newspapers I wrote for. Every year, I would post a hard copy of my typed manuscript to either The Hindu’s Young World or the Deccan Herald’s Open Sesame, some weeks in advance. I would never know whether my story was accepted and had to wait eagerly for the Saturday morning before Christmas, which is the day the children’s sections were published.
What a thrill it would be when I found my story was published!
As a special Christmas gift to my readers young and old, I am sharing here the Christmas story I wrote in 1999. It was published on Christmas day in the Open Sesame.
The story will be available to read on my blog all of the remaining days of December and right through January 2023. I hope you enjoy reading it.
Merry Christmas dear readers and may the spirit of love and sharing permeate every single day of a wonderful new year.
A SHAWL FOR THE BABY
A Christmas story by Asha Nehemiah
This year, Rakhi offered to be a woolly lamb. Shyam was eager to be a cow (probably the first cow ever to wear spectacles!) while Diya, with her head freshly shorn over the weekend, insisted on being an angel.
‘I suppose even angels are sometimes bald,’ conceded their teacher Miss Dawson reluctantly, as she handed out parts for the school’s annual Christmas play. ‘And Rina,’ she turned to the girl sitting morosely, her swollen ankle encased in pink, crepe bandage, ‘Stop looking so glum. You’ll be helping me with the props and costumes this time.’
Rina cheered up. A sprained ankle ruled out a part for her in the school Christmas play, but helping with the costumes would be fun.
She made out a list of everything she required. Silk saris to be draped as robes for the three kings. Dark-coloured kurtas and striped towels for the shepherds. Gold paper for making the crowns, silver foil for fashioning angels’ wings … on went the list.
‘Ma, remember that lovely, white shawl of yours. Can I borrow that for baby Jesus in the play,’ she begged her mother.
‘Not for a baby! It might get spoilt!’
‘We’re not using a real baby this time. Not after the chaos our piano- teacher’s baby created on stage last year. Bawling loudly throughout! Miss Dawson is using a doll as baby Jesus this year.’
A whiff of mothballs enveloped them as Rina’s mother, Mrs George, took the white shawl out of her cupboard. It was beautiful. Delicate ivory-coloured embroidery ran along the border and the silk tassels at the edge were still glossy.
‘There are so many memories that this shawl brings back,’ said Mrs George, holding the fine, soft wool to her cheek, ‘The last time I wore the shawl was at your christening. It was in December and every bit as cold as this year. I don’t think I’ll lend it to you. You children are so careless that you’ll probably lose it. Remember how you tore Papa’s coat and dented my candlesticks which you took for the school play last year!’
‘Ma!’ protested Rina, ‘There’s no way the shawl can get torn or dented or lost. Remember, I’m in charge of the costumes.’
Rina sounded so confident and convincing that there among the costumes that she carefully put away in the school cupboard the next day, was her mother’s expensive white shawl.
The cast practiced earnestly for days and, finally, it was the night of the dress rehearsal. Rina rushed about pinning up the silk saris that displayed an alarming tendency to slither on to the floor and taping up crowns that persisted in slipping over the actors’ eyes!
‘Bring the shawl to wrap the baby!’ Miss Dawson called out.
Rina looked in the cupboard. She rummaged under piles of costumes. No shawl!
‘Hurry up Rina! The play is about to begin!’ Miss Dawson was getting impatient. Rina quickly whipped a faded green tablecloth off a small corner table and wrapped the doll in it.
‘Where’s the white shawl the baby was supposed to be wrapped in?’ hissed Miss Dawson.
‘I don’t know. It’s missing from the cupboard!’ Rina was very upset. Bad enough she seemed to have lost her mother’s favourite shawl, and here was Miss Dawson scolding her for it. How was she ever going to explain it to her mother!
The next day she and Diya searched every inch of the green room behind the stage. They emptied every cupboard, they crept under furniture, they explored every dark corner — no shawl!
‘I think the shawl must be lost!’ Diya concluded wearily, trying to remove some of the cobwebs that covered her head and clothes after the search, ‘Will your mother be angry with you?’
‘Not just angry! Furious is more like it!’ Rina sounded upset.
Both girls sat exhausted on the floor, resting against one of the screens for a while before they began putting back all the stuff they had removed from the cupboards. The school was very quiet as almost all the students had gone home. Suddenly, the green room door creaked open and a soft patter of feet moved across the floor. The girls could see a pair of bare feet on the other side of the screen.
‘Who is it?’ Rina called out. There was a gasp, and a flurry of quick movements but the girls got up before the person could dash out of the room. It was one of the women who worked as a cleaning maid at school. And there in her hands lay the missing white shawl.
‘Please, don’t think I was stealing the shawl,’ the cleaner’s voice trembled with nervousness, ‘I meant to put it back in the cupboard. I didn’t know it would be required yesterday. I thought the Christmas play was only on the last day of school. It is so cold, I didn’t think anyone would notice if I used the shawl for my baby — just for a few nights.’
The miserable story came tumbling out. The cleaner lady’s six-month-old baby finding the winter too cold. Wringing her hands wretchedly, the woman pleaded, ‘Don’t report me, please, or I’ll lose my job.’
Rina looked from the cleaner’s tired face to the shawl. ‘Please,’ she heard a voice that she scarcely recognized as her own, ‘Please keep the shawl for your baby.’
The cleaner looked uncertain. ‘Please take it for your baby,’ Rina repeated, and when the woman continued to protest, Rina insisted, ‘Think of it as a Christmas present from us.’
Taking the shawl from Rina, the cleaner whispered, ‘Bless you,’ and scurried out of the room.
‘What a girl you are! Frantic one minute about losing the shawl, scared your mother will be furious with you … and then giving it away yourself the next minute.’ Diya’s voice was exasperated but the big hug she gave her friend showed that she approved. ‘How are you going to explain this to your mother?’
‘Maybe it’s better to let her think the shawl is lost. That might be easier than trying to explain what I’ve done. What do you think?’ Rina asked and the two girls planned how they would account for the shawl’s loss to Mrs George.
But things don’t always work out as they’re planned.
On the night of the Christmas play, Mrs George noticed with surprise that baby Jesus was wrapped in a crumpled, faded green tablecloth instead of her beautiful, white shawl.
‘I suppose you’re wondering about your shawl!’ whispered Diya’s mother who was sitting next to Mrs George at the performance. ‘Diya told me about it.’ And she went on to reveal everything that the girls meant to keep secret.
Mrs George was both puzzled and annoyed. ‘Oh no! How could Rina give away my favourite shawl! And why does she want me to think it’s lost?’
‘Rina thinks it’s better that way. She’s scared you’ll be very angry if you know she’s given away your favourite shawl to the cleaning woman’s baby without even asking you.’
For the rest of the evening, Mrs George didn’t hear a word on stage. She was wrapped up in her own thoughts. Suddenly, she felt very small indeed.
After the play was over, she went backstage to pick up Rina. Miss Dawson, smiling and flushed with the wonderful success of the play, was complimenting all her students.
‘Rina did a terrific job of the costumes,’ she told Mrs George, ‘Those wings she made! And those fantastic masks for the animals in the stable! So realistic. You should be proud of her!
‘Of course, I’m proud of her. But more than the animal masks or the angel wings, it was thinking about the baby — the real little baby I mean — wrapped up warmly in my shawl that made the Christmas story really come alive for me.’ Mrs George spoke to Miss Dawson but her eyes rested softly on her daughter.
Miss Dawson didn’t have a clue what Rina’s mother meant. Rina too was puzzled about how her mother had found out that she had given away her shawl. But of one thing she was certain. Mother wasn’t angry about losing her shawl.
first published in the Deccan Herald’s Open Sesame on December 25, 1999
For your reading enjoyment only. NOT to be reproduced or used without the author’s permission.