Nirmal’s son Mohit turned three on May 1, 2015, the day before I got here, but he waited until my arrival to have the party. We talked about the party at the Mewar Haveli Hotel restaurant while we waited for my room to be ready. He told Rafiq and I that he was planning a large get-together with maybe around 120 people.
“Oh, no!” was our immediate simultaneous reaction. You have a big party, and you end up doing nothing but working to serve the guests. No time to enjoy yourself. Nirmal finally settled on around 20 relatives to invite.
The party was to start at 7:00. Pushker came to the hotel to pick me up in an auto rickshaw at 6:45. We were the first ones there. Rafiq and wife Shahi came shortly after, and Madu, a good friend of Nirmal’s also showed up. I was really glad that the party had been scaled down. Most of Nirmal’s relatives don’t speak English, and I was exhausted after the 30 hours of travel to Udaipur from Washington, DC. I knew I wasn’t going to be an effervescent party guest.
At around 8:00, I asked Nirmal, “Where are all the guests?”
“They are coming,” he replied.
They are not, I said inside my own head.
“Indians don’t come on time,” he continued. “You say seven o’clock and it could be eight, eight-thirty, and nine before they come.”
“Then you should have told them six.”
“I should have told them six,” he agreed.
It didn’t matter. They didn’t come.
I gave Mohit a copy of The Cat in the Hat, the only gift I’d had time to wrap before Pushkar picked me up. A typical American three-year-old would have had the wrapping paper torn off in a split second. In fact, Mohit’s two-year-old cousin was happily reaching out to do that honor because Mohit seemed to be frozen in time and space. He didn’t want to open the present, but he didn’t really want his cousin to do it, either. It took about an hour for the unveiling to take place.
“Ah, a book,” Rafiq said when he finally saw what it was. “Kids don’t care for books.”
But I had brought a copy of Horton Hatches the Egg the year before, and I was told that Mohit loved it. He did seem interested once he started paging through it and seeing the illustrations.
They brought out the birthday cake about an hour later, sang the birthday song, and Mohit blew out the candles. Apparently it’s traditional to feed each other a bite of cake. Mohit offered me a piece in his tiny hand after much coaxing by his parents. Even though he had seen me many times talking on Skype to his dad, he was very shy and didn’t want to approach me. I tried not to intimidate him by avoiding eye contact. Nirmal said it wasn’t just me, Mohit is shy around all strangers.
I asked Rafiq when would the presents be opened. I learned that in India presents are not opened in front of the guests. I also noticed there didn’t seem to be any presents other than the ones Rafiq and I had brought. Snacks were brought for the guests. We ate and chatted.
Nirmal’s stepmother noticed how tired I was. She asked if she could oil my hair and give me a head massage. She doesn’t speak English, so Rafiq interpreted. He said the head massage would lift the tiredness and give me energy. I never have to be convinced to get a massage, especially a free one, and happily consented. I was treated to the best head massage I’ve ever had. She used almond oil, which smelled wonderful. She worked on my head, neck and shoulders for about 20 minutes. And sure enough, a short while later I did feel less tired and more refreshed.
It was getting late and time to go. Tradition or no tradition, I wanted to see Mohit’s reaction when he saw the stuffed toy horse I’d brought him.
Nirmal had told me how much Mohit loves horses. I thought that maybe the toy horse might elicit a reaction other than the terrified frozen stare I’d seen most of the night.
I took his gifts from my bag — the horse puzzle, the toy laptop and the little stuffed horse — and put them on the coffee table. I hadn’t had time to wrap any of them. The horse was in a clear plastic bag, and I had tied a gold ribbon around it. All of the adults cooed over the toy horse.
The two-year-old cousin was excited and tried to help Mohit yank off the plastic bag, but Mohit refused. He didn’t seem to care much that the cousin grabbed the toy from him and began to play with it. Interesting, I thought. I bet all that will change once I leave.
Sure enough, I got an update from Nirmal the next morning. “Mohit loves that horse,” he said. “He won’t let anyone touch it. He slept with it last night.”
I laughed. “Did he ever take off the plastic?”
“No, he refused. He wants to protect it.” Nirmal smiled. “You won’t believe. He talk about you a lot. He asked me last night for each present, ‘Marie brought this for me?’ I say yes. He thought about it for awhile and say, ‘I like Marie.’”
I returned to Nirmal’s home that evening so we could all go out to dinner. Mohit hid when he saw me, but I saw him playing with the toy laptop on the bed.
Nirmal’s wife Bharti smiled. “He love the laptop. He sleep with it last night.”
I was glad he was having fun with his toys. Maybe next year he’ll come out of hiding when I visit.