Remembering Sarojini Naidu

(Edited version of an article published in the Statesman April 27, 1979 on Sarojini Naidu’s 100th birthday))

We were three little girls ranging from 12 to eight years. There was a party at home and a great deal of activity in the house. We peeked from behind the curtain as the guests arrived, With suppressed giggles, we commented on their clothes or imitated their walk. As I tweaked the curtain and looked through the crack with one eye, the visitor saw me. To our horror she came straight towards us instead of turning into the drawing room bright with lights, conversation and gaily dressed guests.
We scampered away, but it was too late. Three girls in pajamas blinked as an elderly formidable looking woman came into the bedroom. She wore a maroon sari with a pair of long earrings and a long necklace that looked rather incongruous on this heavy set woman with a not-too-handsome face.
“Hello”, she said, “what are your names?” The youngest ducked behind the bed, the two older girls stammered their names.
Father walked in surprised to find the guest of honour in the children’s room and attempted to lead her out to meet the other assembled guests. “Why aren’t your daughters at the party?” she asked in her resonant voice. Mother came in at the moment and explained that we had to go bed early because the next morning we had to go to school.”But this party is for them!” she cried. Taken aback and a bit flustered, mother agreed that we could come out.We dressed rather hurriedly, greatly excited that we were to join the party.
We sat on the floor at her feet as she talked to us ignoring the guests who stood around.
“What time do you go to school? How early do you leave?” she asked.
“Our bus comes at six-thirty.”
“Isn’t that a lovely time of the day?” she said
“No,” I blurted, then bit my tongue in embarrassment at having contradicted her.
“Why is it not a nice time?”
“Well, we always have to rush to get ready in time, and the thought of going to school is not nice.”
“But then think of all the beautiful things that a morning brings you. Can you tell me of the things you like.”
We listed all the funny, joyful, beautiful things we knew – colours, sounds, scents. She described he own childhood delights, and we agreed that the smell of rain on dry earth, the rustle of dried leaves under our feet, the silk cotton tree in bloom, a dog’s wagging tail, a weaver bird’s nest were all beautiful.
“What are your favourite colours?”
“Not white,” I said, “we have to wear white uniforms to school and also white reminds me of nurses and hospitals when I was ill.”
“But think of all the beautiful things that white reminds you of.”
As she talked, encouraged us to express ourselves, and listened to us, her face was transformed, her words wove descriptive strands of colour into picture poems.
It was 10 o’clock. Dinner was served. The spell was broken. Three little girls were hustled off to bed.
* * * * *
The next morning, I carry my schoolbag to the kerbside and set it down, and wait for the school bus. Soft fluff floats down from the silk cotton tree. I try to catch it before it touches the ground. A group of Rajasthani labourers come down the road. The women follow, russet skirts swinging above gleaming silver anklets. They sing, shrill cadences that rise and fall as they walk in rhythm. One of women looks at me and laughs. It is a beautiful morning!
* * * *

This childhood memory stays green after a passage of seventy years.
This summer morning I see a red vented bulbul pecking at wild mulberries on the tree outside my window. As I get ready to go to work, the laburnum tree drips gold petals on my parked car. At the traffic light a smiling urchin comes to the window selling jasmine gajras. I hurriedly scrabble in my bag for change to buy one before the light changes. White jasmine fills the car with fragrance. Yes, white is a beautiful colour.
Thank you Mrs. Sarojini Naidu for awakening a child’s mind to beauty. Then and ever since. You are a hundred years young in a child’s memory.

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