The story is old but timeless, as all good stories must be.
There was nothing distinguishing, let alone spectacular, about those two girls. They lived in houses opposite each other. They studied in the same school, in the same class. They went to school by the same school bus. They both loved to read.
Well, the last was more or less a given. The story is of a time when a love for books was considered becoming in a little girl and was actively encouraged. Little girls were supposed to grow into young ladies of discernment and taste some day, which could never be accomplished without books. Why, you might as well have tried to make bread without flour as to transform an inky- faced little miss into a lady without a hefty diet of reading!
One of the girls (Ila) possessed a sibling, an older brother called Piyush (read pest). The other girl (Ritu) was siblingless. Both had parents; indulgent and strict, together. Both were rather silly and uninformed as twelve year old girls were in an era when Enid Blyton’s creations ruled the reading diet of little wannabe ladies. Of course, there was no TV. But there were mango groves and guava gardens. And bicycles. And shady, quiet roads with hardly any traffic. Enough said.
Ila’s father bought her a wrist watch for her twelfth birthday. It had a shiny, glinting gold casing with a moon faced dial and tiny hands. The strap was of deep tan leather. The two poured over the watch for hours on end. It fascinated them.
On the back was a tiny steel cover on which, among other things, was the legend ‘Waterproof and Shock Resistant’.
“What does water proof mean?” asked Ritu.
“I asked Piyush. He said it means that it wont get wet.”
“Not get wet?! How is that possible?”
“I don’t know. But that’s what he said.”
“Hmmm… Do you think he was pulling your leg?”
“He’d better not..!” Ila looked crestfallen and dismayed. Even though she possessed a brother, she was uninitiated into the ways of the pests; specifically of the mayhem older brothers regularly wreaked on hapless little sisters. Ritu, though bereft of the organism, was much wiser in the ways of the creatures. One is compelled to acknowledge this trait as pure wisdom. There is no other way of explaining it.
“I think we should dip it in water to see if it gets wet or not”, declared the miffed little sister.
“No! Don’t be so silly! The watch will drink the water and it will slosh about under the glass. Then you’ll have to throw the watch. I know my dad had to throw his when water got into his watch one day when he was out and it began to rain suddenly.”
“Oh you are such a scardy cat! The watch is waterproof!”
“I am NOT a scardy cat! Take that back!”
“Oh alright! I take it back. So, shall I bring some water?”
“I told you, NO. Your dad will be angry- and sad. You don’t want to make him sad, do you?” (Didn’t I say the little miss was clever?)
“No, I don’t want to make him sad. But nothing will happen. It is waterproof.”
“For the last time, I said no. And if you want to do it still, I’ll not be friends with you anymore!” With that, Ritu stood, feet apart, tightfisted hands rigidly to the sides, breathing fire from both nostrils, looking mad.
“It is my watch, not yours”, came the cutting blow.
Stung to the quick, Ritu glared at Ila for a few seconds. Ila, not having had the adage about how words (and arrows) cannot be returned to the quiver dinned into her yet, was equally dismayed. Before she could articulate her contrition, Ritu swung majestically on her heels and stomped off. That was that, as far as she was concerned.
They didn’t speak to each other when they stood together at the bus stop in the morning. In the bus they sat as far away from each other as possible. The ignored each other prodigiously during morning prayers. During lunch break they ate alone respectively. They were both sad. They were both waiting for the other to look their way so that they could exchange a smile… and get back together. But it didn’t happen.
The school day dragged to a close. In the evening, Ritu wandered on her terrace trying to attract Ila’s attention. Ila, however, was conspicuously and insidiously invisible. Ritu frowned. She went stomping downstairs and took out her Enid Blyton to read.
A few minutes later, Ila came flying into her room looking scared out of her wits. “What happened?!!” Ritu forgot her anger in her concern.
“Oh Ritu! Look..!” Ila dropped the new golden watch on Ritu’s hand and burst into tears. The watch had indeed taken a deep sip of the water which was glug-glugging merrily under the glass dial. Ritu’s jaw fell.
“You stupid girl! I told you not to do it! Now you’ve ruined it!!” Intuitively, Ritu’s voice had dropped into a furious whisper. She was mad clear through but she didn’t need histrionics to show it.
“W-w-wha-what a-a-are we g-g-g-going to dooooo?” wailed the water sport athlete, all at sea.
“Go get your bicycle quietly. If Piyush asks you, tell him we are going down to the shops to buy some fountain pen ink I need. And stop crying. Here, wipe your face with my frock. Look cool. Go now.”
Having unconvincingly prattled off the prepared story to the brother (read pest) and shaken to the core by the experience, Ila crept out with her bicycle. Within minutes they had stopped in front of a small gift shop. Ila had never noticed an old watch maker right outside the shop. Ritu marched up to the old gentleman who sat bent over the innards of a watch, a magnifying lens screwed to his left eye socket. She handed over the watch wordlessly.
He looked up and glared at the two girls for a brief moment. Then he quietly went to work. Ten minutes later, he handed back the watch sans the drink. Not a word had been spoken all this while. Ila happily strapped her precious watch back on her wrist. She and Ritu knew they were in for it from the old man.
He spoke to them for nearly an hour. He taught them what was meant by ‘Water Proof and Shock Resistant’. He lectured to them about the value of money. He told them to learn to appreciate the sacrifices parents make for their children, buying them things they can often ill afford. More than anything else, he spoke to them about the things people do for you when they love you. Then he told them to get lost and stop wasting his time. He never charged them anything.
On the contrary, he made them richer in more ways than one.
Note: This story is a tribute to the simplicity of a time when two errant, silly children, being scolded for their misdemeanours by a complete stranger, wouldn’t have dreamed of turning around arrogantly and asking him what right he had to scold them. They would not have dared to throw money in his wise face a told him to keep his advice to himself. On the contrary, they would have accepted the reprimand as something they well deserved. They would have been suitably chastened and would have learned valuable lessons.
We no longer live in such simple times. Let alone a stranger, today children can ask even their parents what right they have to scold them for a perfectly ordinary mistake.
The fault, surely, must be ours.