Penny bolted up the arching gateway cutting across her neighbour's spruced lawn,the moment her own garden came into view from the pavement she had restricted her pathway from school to home to.
Everyone greeted her with the warmest humane touches conceivable…well, for something as non-Homo sapiens as plants!
Sarah spread out her tendrils and caressed every inch of Penny uncovered by her Gujarati print top and jeans. Little Tim cocked his head and reached out with his little cuticular branches for Penny's attention to seek.
David, the stubborn old one remained resolute, and moody that Penny had even thought of leaving them…but melted in her touch and bent forwards to tickle her ears…
In her garden, no one was nameless. Nobody was just a plant…
But the irony was…they weren't just plants either. They were weeds. Weeds that her neighbors had scorned at, and at Penny for indulging in their growth .Weeds that her mom had long given up trying to persuade her to exonerate their backyard of. Weeds that Prerna Gupta,commonly called Penny, found exotically beautiful.They, with their purple-eyed petals with smidgens of green and yellow here and there, she felt were some unknown work of art of God that somehow got derailed on their way from factory to the House of Pretty Things. But Penny had revived them, and loved them, and named them.None deserved to be nameless and unloved.She called the whole house of these forsaken beings Flowers. Just Flowers.
"Penny?" A once- pretty woman in her thirties, whose sagging shoulders and eye-bags made no secret of her recurring sleepless nights, stood framed by Penny's Flowers.
Penny's Mom was another thing, another stop at her wonderland. She never ceased to smile when she began talking.For the times they had had together, they had played rain flutes, slept under the stars on the sands of the beach,gone on midnight runs through the woods on the outskirts of the town, and had made shapes, and slowly matured to discerning Bangkoks and Hoolahoola Town up among the clouds of the sky. Penny never ceased to believe when her mom was around. That was when she begun to believe…
She believed that ants,when they touched mouths in a trail between a source of sugar and ant-nest ,actually conversed in Antlish.
She believed that the wooden cupboards could still feel it if you chop them.
She believed her life was a pyramid where everystone just fit in and gradually came together as it ascended, and terminated at the peak, with a single stone.
That's what her Mamma told her to believe…
Presently as her mom stood there looking like the ideal idol of Penny's hero, Penny looked up from her Flowers, smiled and followed her in.
"Someone's here." Her mother had an odd simpering tone.
Penny walked to the door and there stood a girl from her school, Sandra.
"Hi, Penny! I just thought I'd let you know about this play we're doing this fall. And Mr.Burnette, recommended you for a part. I won't say more. I have the script here though."
"Oh…" No one in her entire life in America had ever come to their house, and since they didn't have a phone, Penny basically severed all connections with school the moment she left that building. Her only reminder was homework.
Sandra peered at her expectantly.
Sandra nestled on the couch in the living room. It was less of a couch and more of a patchwork on a chair. But Sandra fingered it with an fascinated air. That boosted penny's confidence .Better much.
Sandra held out a thin booklet.
Penny took it and immediately began leafing through the pages. Principally it was projected to avoid looking at Sandra. But words stood out.Strange.Outcaste.Detached.
Somehow the words made a 'strange' impression on her 12 year old mind. She didn't have much of vocabulary…but even so, they lingered and tickled some quiescent emotion.
Finally Penny raised her eyes to find an empty couch. Some inner instinct told her to panic. And she did! Big time!
She screamed, "San---Sandra?" She warped through the hallway---there was a deliquescent smell about that hallway…always had been. But today it gave Penny Goosebumps. Somewhere ahead shuffling footsteps echoed up to her. She followed it, and gradually her brisk footsteps silenced to tip-toes. And where was Mom!?
What had happened!? She shouldn't have had let anyone in. People didn't just pop up on their porch everyday! What if something had happened to her Mom! She would never forgive herself!
She rounded a curve and came upon a sight that exceeded her fears extensively…and it nauseated her. Her Mom and Sandra. And they were laughing…her mom was laughing; like Penny had seen her once in a blue moon lately!And Sandra was holding up one of the vases her Mom made…
Penny could be a very sulking child when it came to sharing her Mom.It wasn't that she was a jealous type or anything,but just that,when her mom said that Penny was all she has,she believed it.She was all Penny had.
When the Guptas had come to US,almost two years ago,Penny thought she was the luckiest of all her road-side cricket and football friends back home,but fate has a way of unwinding when life has been wound to the near-highest point 9.9.
One fine morning,Penny woke up to find her mom clutching her face,gawping at the TV screen where…
Something was on fire,…no, something had collapsed,…no, people were falling from the sky….
The only thing Penny could discern for certain was the trauma that emanated not just from the scenes,but also her mother's face,her shining eyes,…the blood-stained silence of victims,and blood-stained faces of people crying over bloody bodies…blood,blood…and more blood….everyone was a victim.
The date was 9/11/2001.
They had to overcome the grief a little too soon.Just like millions of people had to;to stay up nights after night,to evade sleep,and the consequent haunting memories in the shape of dreams of the bleeding nation,to go away on long drives to distant themselves from the room,the aura,the lingering scent of the ones who were future in a not-so-distant-past,now the past themselves…
The subsequent national security policy precluded them from returning to India,for a while,and even afterwards,it seemed that as Penny and Jessi Gupta had come to US as J2,that is dependant on Rahul Gupta's passport,or something of as complex structure as it seemed to Penny's young mind,they couldn't leave as yet,without complicated procedures.One day Jessi Gupta returned home in tears.She had been out to make international call to her hometown.That scared Penny to death! Her mom was stronger than anyone she had seen,ever!
It became apparent that nobody back home was willing enough to help,---believing that might engulf them into the potential terrorist list or something as stupid,no doubt!, Penny thought angrily! Both Jessi's parents were long dead,leaving her orphan,which probably accounts for her infinite strength,of mind,and also why Rahul fell so overtly in love with that bespectacled and unstylish damsel who studied like a complete geek, with a 100% scholarship at Calcutta University.Penny's only living grandparent was her paternal grandma,and the sole in-law who borne Jessi into the Gupta family with honest acceptance and more than---a wisp of a woman.Like a expansive white wisp of smoke.All white.And all wispy.And so were her opinions and feelings regarded by everyone…wisp.
One day, having moved from their old house to a run-down house on the outskirts of Manhattan,NY,while attempting to convert the damp domicile into a inhabitable home,Penny asked her mom,about any further developments for returning to India,Jessi froze,then slowly approached her daughter and told her,that they didn't need to return to India,that they had nothing to return to,that she had some great ideas about what she could do here,---she could start with a vase-selling business,and then try to polish her English up,and then she'd be as good as any freelance writer,for it was her ability to express herself that earned her the title of a prize Bengali literary scholar,not just the language itself, at the same time,for she was a good with her hands,be it writing or sculpting.She was trying to convince herself,even Penny could see that…
They didn't need anyone.Penny had to agree.
She had started school at Ridgeview Junior High,and instantly knew it was going to be one long struggle.Through the entire school life!
It probably would have been made easier had all the seats at the cafeteria not been hitched for someone or other,and she didn't have to share her lunch with conversing ants,among the grass.Or,if Ron Shelby didn't have to trip her everyday,every two periods when she's approach her locker to exchange books for the next two periods.Or if, Amanda wouldn't have revealed to everyone that Penny talked to ants at 12.Or if,some of the girls hadn't found her in the restroom singing 'Ki brishti,ki mishti…" and even dance in step,making a total fool of herself.Or,if she wasn't such a good student to top it all of,for adding the geek factor to her dorky disposition.Or,if….maybe,maybe,just maybe,,,if she had made some effort to blend in,to lose the Indian-looking clothes,the Bengali music,and for once,once,she opened her mouth and said 'hi' to someone.But the moment she'd find someone staring at her,and looking away whenever she made gestures of advancement,she'd lose all the surging urge.She had a hunch it had something to do with her dad being a victim to 9/11 a few months within their arrival here,and them being South-east AsiansBut fact was,she knew it was partially her fault too.But she didn't care.She just didn't.She was sad,at first after her father's death,then as time flew by,the sorrow became replaced by a permanent anger,a made fury at the whole world,the universe that conspired so against her mom and her….She hated them,hated them all! But,not her Flowers….
A week after Sandra had dropped by their dumpling home, someone slammed a magazine onto Penny's desk.Thats how people passed her things.They slam it.The school weekly.US---Underneath the Students "Foreign communities among us…like Prerna Gupta….her mother's vase-selling business that has descended to the pavements among the Billyhoos….others less under stress is our janitor's son…---Sandra Hachet" .The words sprung up to her face like white-hot scorched beetles…striking her face cold….
She was barely aware of her classmates shamelessly pointing to her, whispering behind their neighbors' ears, and heard snippets of conversations like "I hear they're like really poor…I hear they live on a broken down house her grandfather once owned…no, I hear they have a jungle in their backyard…My mom says her mom's real weird…Someone told me they drink from the lake….". She was standing hidden from view by her locker-door, but fuming she slammed it shut, but only to provoke another comment "Her mom's a psycho…"
"Yeah,my mom's a big psycho and we're all real poor and poor people are mean and if you don't shut your trap she's gonna come and get you in your sleep! You lousy no-good weasel…" Penny had stridden upto that boy and spit in his face. And her clenched fists were already swooping up to make contact with the boy's jaws ,had it not been for someone big and burly to pin her arms back and drag her away.
The big someone turned out to be her Principal, who locked the door, and turned to her with furrowed eyebrows.
"Considering your situation ,miss, you should know better than to get yourself into any fights or anything that might affect your mother,as she's already…" He trailed away,and produced a fake cough,blinked at Penny for a fractional second,coughed again,and the resumed, "Anyways,point is… What do you have to say for yourself!?"
Penny pursed her lips. She had a lot more than he could envision 'to say for herself'. She wanted to tell him that she had no 'situation'that she was just like any girl,like his daughter,but they were he were one of the ones acting all freaky and shoving her away.She wanted to tell him that they had it all wrong,that her mother's profession never touched what she had grown up to be,her mom was too cool to do that to her,that she was the bravest person she had ever seen,and far and better off than the home-maker moms who kept to home and got fat.And she wanted to scream at him that she was just another girl,but like everyone else she had her differences in little ways,the very proxy for distinguishing Egyptian mummies and human beings.She wanted to yell at him,cry,and tell him to open his eyes and listen to himself.She looked at him with his eyes propounding a pregnant silence from her part,urging her to end it already.
"Nothing sir. Nothing."
The day disregarded the space-time continuum and froze and passed by in a daze. Like a horrible perpetuating nightmare it drifted off till it found Penny walking down the gravel-covered archway through the backyard. It wasn't till she saw her mom looking extra-pretty in an autumn lipstick and lilac scarf and holding a cup-cake that had a candle on it,that she remembered it was her 13th birthday.
Somehow that thought drew her out of the trance that her whole day had swinged into,and that brought back the suppressed fury that had been suffocating within her,the memory of the ticking moments when she had watched as if from a distance,a discrete existence,her Pyramid go crashing to the sands as someone had pulled out a stone and the first rational thing in her irrationality, that occurred to her ,was to and she did ,charge
towards the Flowers in a mad rage and begun uprooting them…Sarah, Little Tim, David…all.
Her Mom rushed down the steps dropping the cake, and pulled Penny towards her by her shoulders, shaking her as if to get a loose globule of sense back in their places in her head.
"Stop! Stop! What are you doing!? Sweetie!"
"They're weeds! They should know better than pretend to be flowers! And how dare I let them think they're flowers! How dare I! How dare they! How…" Penny was breathing heavily.
"Oh dear, what did they say!?"
Penny paused in her furor,turned to look at her mother's face, her own stained with muck and tears. She looked into her eyes and whispered in an unusually serene voice, "They just told me I needed to de-weedify my garden.".
Jessi stared at Prerna,perceiving beyond the words…
"Well, they may be right…from the common point of view…but---" Her mom pointed to what remained of the Flowers, "--- hey, look at them, aren't they just pretty? It would be a shame to lose them when they're just as pretty as any rose or lily…I mean, so what if they're of a different kind…doesn't matter…And they grow by themselves, they don't need anyone…so much easier…" Penny looked at her mother cock-eyed…her mother was talking feverishly, and fast, as if to not to waste anytime to let her daughter know that it was alright.It was ok.
"Mom!? Mom!?" Penny spoke as gently as possible but to bring her mother out of her spell.
Her mother looked up at her daughter's face and it seemed to have aged far beyond her years.
Wiping her face,she had only one thing to say to her daughter---
"Happy oh…Prerna. Happy birth..oh my Penny. Happy Birthday."
They say,you have to say Happy Birthday three times,to make it really happen,in the true sense of the term where age in one's mental and physical world must merge,giving rise to manifestation of the word maturity which itself is a relative term ,as a tadpole loses its tail to become a frog ,while some develops the same to attain adulthood.
But fact---it had already happened.For our little heroine,Prerna Gupta.Only that doesn't make her so little anymore.