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Yellow Strawberries — Part 1

March 21, 2024 | By

Four guests. Seven children. An aggressive pet. And two preoccupied parents. All present inside a Delhi apartment. A doting dad’s rollicking account of the antics of his two daughters on a given day.

Enjoy Part -1 of this Short Story by Prosenjit Purkait.
Part-2 will be published on Thursday, March 28

“Hello, Siri! What is the lock code of this phone?” asked 5-year-old Riya. Her query was directed at her Mom’s iPhone held firmly in her baby hands.

They are the apple of my eyes. The angels who have made me the proudest Dad on the Planet. Forever mischievous, always restless, and an eternal source of bliss and agony in equal measure. My daughters Jhilik and Riya.

Jhilik is ten. I had the privilege of naming her even though grandparents have traditionally enjoyed the exclusive privilege of naming the firstborn in my family. Jhilik means flash of lightning/sunlight in Bengali. And my Punjabi wife had no idea what it meant.

So, when it came to naming our second child, my wife flexed her muscles and asserted her right. “No more Bengali names,” she said. And the tiny little bundle of joy was named Riya, which, though not a Bengali name, is not Punjabi either, and has a more secular feel to it than any other name in my clan.

By the time she was three, Riya was fascinated by her mother’s iPhone. It became her favourite toy. Even though she could not read or write beyond the alphabet, she could identify the various apps on the phone by their icons. She would scroll and swipe nonstop for hours, devoting most of her time to listening to music on YouTube.

On her 5th birthday, she demanded an iPhone as a birthday gift. When that request was turned down, her obsession with the device increased. In the end, my wife had to resort to locking her phone to limit Riya’s access. And that action gave rise to a unique set of problems.

“Papa, Papa…” she came toddling to me one day, holding the phone in her tiny palms. “What is the lock code of this phone?”

“I don’t know, dear,” I told her the truth. “I have no idea. Why don’t you ask Mamma?”

“I did. She said nothing,” Riya replied with a hint of dejection in her voice.

“Well, maybe you shouldn’t play with it, then,” I told her in my softest tone. “Return it to Mamma. Play with my phone instead.”

“No,” she shook her head adamantly. “Yours is not an iPhone. I want to play with an iPhone only.”

I stared at her and at my Samsung phone alternately. Not sure how my phone felt, but I certainly felt disheartened. Not as much by the implied inferiority of my Samsung to my wife’s iPhone, as by the evident disdain in the 5-year-old’s response.

And that’s when my eldest entered the room. In her perpetual state of constant motion, Jhilik neither paused nor breathed nor sat down for a second. But she planted the first seed of rebellion in her sister’s mind that day.

“Ask Siri,” she told Riya before leaving the room. “Why are you asking them?”

Chapter 1 – The Guests

Jhilik has always had a fiercely rebellious streak in her. Must have inherited it from Mom. My Mom, not hers. My wife is the sweetest and most docile person on Earth, while my Mom was the exact opposite.

It is not just character and personality traits that she has inherited from her grandma. Her face and hair are exact replicas of my mother’s. The same oval face, large eyes with long dark eyelashes, and a dense mop of curly long hair on her head that reaches down to her waist. She is a mini version of my Mom in looks and spirit, albeit a lot faster in speech and sharper in reflexes.

And that is what everyone notices about her at first glance, before they get a glimpse of the pocket dynamo that is her personality. Like it happened the last time I invited my clients over for dinner. Elizabeth and Michael from New York, along with my work colleagues Tanya and Vishal from Delhi.

I had picked them up from Indira Gandhi International Airport and brought them home sometime midday. They were to spend a few hours with my family before having an early dinner and returning to their hotel at night.

It was the middle of March and the sun was already boiling in the grey Delhi sky. The guests settled down in my living room with the air conditioner on at full blast. I excused myself to go to the kitchen and help my wife prepare welcome drinks for them. And that’s when the front door of my apartment flung open with a loud bang.

In rushed a tornado of rapid footsteps, yells, screams and shouts, unleashed by half a dozen kids. Lost in their argument, or whatever it was, and unmindful of the presence of guests, they assembled together in the middle of the room, creating a commotion that can be rivalled only by a tropical cyclone.

A few seconds went by before one of them noticed the four strangers on the couch, staring at them in half shock and half bewilderment. One by one, the other kids slowly turned their heads. The voices quieted down, the commotion gave way to placidity, and the children appeared as perplexed at the awkward situation as the adults in the room.

One of them quickly regained composure and flashed an embarrassing smile. “Hi! I am Jhilik. You must be Papa’s friends.” Then, as an afterthought, she added, “Welcome to our home.”

“Hi!” Elizabeth blurted out. “I am Liz and he is Michael. Nice to know you.”

“We are not naughty. We will not disturb you,” Jhilik tried to convince her guests.

“I am sure you won’t,” smiled Liz. “Who are your friends?”

Jhilik made a rapid hand gesture to the other kids to step forward. Gradually, they all gathered around her with some trepidation. And she took charge as she always does.

“This is Kasumi. She is from Japan,” she said holding the girl standing next to her. “That’s Conor from Belfast, Matt from Australia, Ted from London and Amit from Delhi.”

“Wow!” Liz appeared awestruck at the diversity of ethnicities standing in front of her. “You guys are from all over the world!”

“Yes, we study at The British School in Chanakyapuri,” responded Jhilik with an air of confidence. “Their parents are all diplomats.”

“Aha! That explains it,” said Liz. “Didn’t you have school today?”

“No, it’s holiday now,” replied Jhilik. “New academic session will begin from April 1.”

They all fell silent as soon as I entered the room with drinks for the guests. With prying eyes, Jhilik scanned the glasses and asked me bluntly, “Where are our drinks?”

“Your Mamma will be bringing them any moment now,” I replied. “I see you have introduced yourselves to your guests. Now, go and sit down quietly over there with your friends and don’t disturb us.”

“I know,” Jhilik shot back unhesitatingly. “I have already told them that we are not naughty. We are all good kids.”

“Sure you are,” Liz chuckled, as did the other guests. She then looked at me and added, “I have kids of my own, you know. I don’t mind a bit of noise.”

“Thank you,” Jhilik flashed a big smile at her. Turning towards me, she said, “You heard that?” And then huffed and puffed her way to the other end of the room with her friends. They all settled down on the kids’ sofa chairs placed in front of the wall-mounted TV set.

“You have a lovely daughter,” chipped in Michael.

“I have another one,” I replied. “Here she comes.”

Riya had just toddled her way in, staring alternately at the other kids and the guests. She saw me extending my hand in her direction and walked over to hold it.

“This is my youngest,” I declared with equal measures of affection and pride.

“Hello there! What’s your name?” Liz asked her with a beaming smile and sparkling eyes.

“Hello! My name is Riya. I am 5 years old. I study in Kindergarten at The British School. I live in Greater Kailash with Mamma, Papa, my sister Jhilik, and my brother Zorro,” she finished her speech without a pause or flaw as she has been trained to do.

“Oh! You have a brother too?” Liz looked surprised. “Didn’t know that.”

“Yes. Zorro,” Riya replied softly.

“Where is he?” Liz asked affectionately.

Chapter 2 – Zorro

Zorro appeared soon after. Tied to a leash, the end of which was held by my wife as she entered the room. In her other hand, she held a tray containing glasses of freshly squeezed pineapple juice for the kids.

Zorro is our beloved pet. A dachshund. A pure-bred dachshund, somewhat of a rarity in Delhi. He was a tiny pup when he joined our family, and is now 8 years old.

Dachshunds are fiercely loyal. All dogs are loyal, but dachshunds more so. And they are hunting dogs – restless, hyperactive, need lots of exercise and are generally very good with kids. But above all, they are fiercely protective and fearless, which makes them an ideal pet if the protection and safety of your family are your topmost priorities.

I hurried over to help my wife put the tray down on the coffee table in the kids area. And that turned out to be a mistake. Because, with a series of loud barks and a sudden pull, Zorro freed his leash from my wife’s grasp and charged menacingly toward the guests.

A loud gasp reverberated across the room. It was a collective gasp that escaped from everybody’s throat – me, my wife, the kids, and most of all, the guests. No amount of training has been adequate enough to curb Zorro’s natural aggression and hostility towards strangers. The very sight of outsiders in the living room sent his protective instincts into overdrive.

“Zorro! No!” Jhilik was the first and the quickest to react. She lunged forward to grab the free end of Zorro’s leash. But Zorro was stronger and faster. He kept charging forward, dragging Jhilik along with floor with him.

“Zorro!” I yelled in my loudest voice. “Come here.” That stopped him in his tracks. He was inches away from the guests, and would have pounced upon them any second. But it is not in his nature to disobey a direct command. He whimpered, turned around, and retraced his steps back to me.

Jhilik sprang up on her feet and tied his leash to the coffee table. I apologised to the guests and left the room to fetch more refreshments from the kitchen. Jhilik took it upon herself to reassure the guests and soothe their frayed nerves.

“Sorry,” she smiled at Liz and Michael in embarrassment. “Zorro is not dangerous. He just gets worked up when he sees a new face.”

“Ah! No issues,” responded Liz with a sigh of relief, nervousness still written large on her face. “It was a bit unsettling, that’s all.”

“It’s all Papa’s fault,” Jhilik stated boldly. “Zorro is innocent.”

“How so?” Michael asked, looking a bit perplexed.

“Well, it was Papa’s decision to adopt a dachshund. Mamma would have been happy with a Labrador,” explained Jhilik. “Papa is paranoid about security. You see those 5 different locks on the main door? That’s Papa’s decision. All the windows are double-paned. And he has deliberately trained Zorro to be fierce and hostile.”

“I see,” replied Michael, looking less perplexed now.

“And he feeds Zorro a diet of raw meat only,” added Jhilik. “We are not allowed to give him cooked food. The raw meat makes him more aggressive.”

“Okay,” Michael and Liz nodded their heads and stared at each other.

“Papa says Zorro will always protect us, come what may. He will succeed even when Papa fails,” Jhilik continued her argument as if to drive home her point. “But I don’t think of Zorro as a protector. He is like my brother. We grew up together.”

“Zorro is my brother too,” Riya jumped in. And that brought out a smile on everyone’s face.

“Zorro does not listen to everyone,” Jhilik carried on. “He only listens to Papa and me. Mamma is always a bit scared of him.”

“He listens to me too,” Riya chipped in again. And to prove her claim she ran over to Zorro and asked him to open his mouth. The moment he opened it, Riya stuck her tiny palm inside his mouth.

“See? He will not bite me,” she turned her head towards Liz and smiled, her hand still inside Zorro’s open mouth.

“Take it out. Don’t do that,” yelled Jhilik at her sister. “He won’t bite you, but he won’t close his mouth either. He will keep it open as long as your hand is there. That’s cruelty.”

“You might consider keeping him in chains when guests are around, you know,” Tanya spoke for the first time. “He seems quite ….. ferocious.”

“Never,” Jhilik replied promptly. “Papa says no member of our family shall be kept in shackles. Ever.”

Chapter 3 – The Kids

“You two sisters have such lovely long hair,” gushed Liz as she tried to change the subject of discussion. “I have never seen such dense long hair in kids this small.”

“Well … it’s all genetic,” Jhilik said, looking a bit flattered. “I have inherited my hair from Grandma. And Riya has inherited hers from Mamma.”

“Yes, your Mom has great hair too. I noticed,” Liz replied. “You both look like angels.”

“And that’s where the similarity ends,” I overheard their conversation while re-entering the room and could not help chipping in with my opinion. “Looks are the only department where they resemble angels.”

“Aww! I am sure that’s not true,” Liz said in mock disbelief. While Jhilik glared at me with a deep frown on her forehead.

“Excuse me, please. My friends are waiting for me,” she walked over to the kids at the other end of the room.

A couple of hours went by. I chatted with the guests on every topic of mutual interest – the climate, the economy, the necessity of having a work-life balance, global trade and the future of our children. Nothing was left out. And when we ran out of topics, Jhilik walked over and brought up the subject closest to my heart.

“Do you know that Papa has the largest coffee collection in Delhi?” she spoke completely out of turn and uninvited.

“I didn’t know that!” Liz exclaimed in genuine surprise. “Do you?”

“Um … I have a decent collection, yes,” I replied modestly. “But I wouldn’t call it the largest in Delhi, or anywhere else for that matter.”

“That’s not true,” Jhilik blurted out, her motivation still unclear to me. “He has coffee beans from all over the world – Sumatra, Java, Ethiopia, Brazil, Italy, Colombia. Jamaican Blue Mountain is the best. You should try it.”

All four guests stared at me with inquisitive eyes. And I had to nod my head and say yes. I could not figure out why my daughter would be so keen to have the guests taste my coffee collection. But I could not evade anymore.

“Let me offer you a cup of Jamaican Blue Mountain. It is indeed great coffee,” I got up from the couch and went straight to the kitchen. And Jhilik flashed a mysterious naughty smile which was more of a wicked grin that revealed nothing of her true intention behind bringing up this topic suddenly.

“You seem to know a thing or two about coffee,” Michael asked her once I had left the room.

“Oh yes!” Jhilik replied with her usual exuberance. “Papa is very protective of his coffee collection. And he is obsessed with the details of preparation.”

“Is he?” Michael was curious now. “I love premium coffee too. I have a Gaggia Classic Pro at home.”

“Papa uses a simple French Press,” continued Jhilik. “But the way he makes it is unique. The ideal temperature of the hot water should be 90°C. So, Papa dips a thermometer into the water to check its temperature.”

“Really?” Michael looked astounded. “Never heard of anyone using a thermometer to make coffee.”

“How much is 90°C?” asked Liz. Americans follow Fahrenheit to measure heat. Celsius sounds alien to them.

“It’s close to 195°F,” said Jhilik after doing a quick mental calculation. “And Papa is so obsessed with perfection that he has to check with a thermometer. He will not allow the water to be a degree hotter or colder.”

“What else?” asked Tanya gleefully. Evidently, she was enjoying these juicy titbits and nuggets of trivia coming out of the 10-year-old’s mouth.

“There’s plenty more,” Jhilik carried on, encouraged by Tanya’s query. “He follows the exact ratio of coffee to water needed to make the perfect cup. Strictly by the book. He is embarrassed to reveal his madness to guests. That’s why he went to the kitchen.”

“You find it amusing, don’t you?” asked Tanya with a chuckle.

“All my friends do. They think he is a nutjob. They all make fun of him behind his back,” replied Jhilik without a second thought.

“And what do YOU think of him?” asked Liz.

“I think he is a little crazy,” Jhilik smiled embarrassingly. “But he is also nice in a special sort of way.”

“Such as?”

“Such as, he could kill you with his lectures and long speeches. Whenever he catches us doing something wrong, he starts giving a long lecture on ethics. It always begins with ‘Once upon a time …’ or ‘During my great grandfather’s time …’.”

“And?” Tanya egged her on.

“And then he continues explaining what is right and what is wrong. He moves onto his grandfather, then to his mother, and finally to my mother.”

“Is that so?” Tanya looked ecstatic with the gossip she was hearing. “Never heard any of your father’s lectures.”

“Ask them,” Jhilik pointed at her friends sitting on the other end of the room. “They have all been bored to death by his lectures and sermons. Once he starts, he doesn’t stop. He can go on and on for hours. By the time it ends, you either feel dead or sick, or end up with a headache.”

She laughed out loudly and the other kids also joined in. The guests started laughing too.

“He scolds you guys too?” Tanya asked the other kids. “Yes, everyone,” replied Kasumi. “None of us has been spared. He teaches us manners and scolds us as if we were his own children.”

“That does not sound right,” Liz stared at Kasumi and nodded her head. “If you are doing something wrong, he should be informing your parents.”

“Nope, he will never do that,” said Jhilik.

“He will never snitch behind our backs,” added Kasumi.

“That’s why we like him and tolerate him,” Matt chipped in with his support. “He treats us equally harshly. No preferences. He treats us all as his own kids.”

The guests exchanged glances at each other, unable to make up their minds over whether to condone this behaviour or condemn it.

Just then, I entered the room with a pot of aromatic hot coffee and cups. “Jamaican Blue Mountain tastes best without milk or sugar,” I announced while passing on steaming hot cups of coffee to the guests.

But Vishal and Tanya requested for sugar with their coffee. So I left the room to fetch sugar. And then something unexpected happened.

Like a flash, Jhilik darted silently from her corner to the coffee table, took out a tiny cup she was holding in her hands, poured coffee from the pot and filled it up, and exited through the balcony door at lightning speed. She lifted a finger to her lips, whispered at the guests, “Shh! Don’t tell Papa!” and  closed the balcony door from outside.

The adults and the kids were left flummoxed at this swift and sudden turn of events. Before they could fully grasp what they just saw, I returned with a bowl of sugar cubes.

Everyone enjoyed the coffee that day. I could tell by the looks on their faces and the smiles they exchanged. As well as by the praises they heaped on my barista skills. What I could not figure out, though, was the reason they kept glancing at the balcony door time and again.

When it was over and the pot was empty, I collected all the cups and excused myself to return to the kitchen. That’s when the balcony door opened and Jhilik stepped inside the room. She held the tiny cup in her hand, but it was empty now.

“Papa does not allow me to drink coffee,” she told the guests. “He says I am too young. That’s why …”

“I will tell your Papa,” Matt blurted out.

“Like hell you will,” came Jhilik’s sharp retort.

“No, we will,” joined in Ted. “You drank the coffee all by yourself. What about us?”

“What about you?” Jhilik raised her voice. “My house, my rules.”

A screaming match ensued. Followed by a fight, in which the kids threw paper balls, empty wrappers and pretty much everything else at each other. In less than a minute, the entire corner turned into a junkyard, with trash strewn all over the floor and a couple of chairs lying overturned.

“What on earth is going on here?” I yelled as soon as I entered the room.

“They were fighting,” Riya pointed her tiny finger at the other kids. Zorro barked immediately as if to support her claim.

“I will not have trash scattered all over the floor,” I addressed them with hands on my hips. “I want this mess cleaned up in 10 seconds. It took 20,000 years for monkeys to evolve into humans, and less than 20 minutes for you guys to reverse the process.”

The kids kept their eyes fixed on the ground. None uttered a word or moved a muscle.

“We have guests here,” I continued admonishing them. “What will they think of you? Behaving like little monkeys – shame on you.”

I left the room immediately as I usually do after giving the kids a dressing-down to allow them a few moments to realise the gravity of the situation. But Riya spoiled it all by shouting at them, “Shame on you, little monkeys! Behave yourselves.” She then ran away from the room and followed me to the dining space.

A couple of minutes went by in hushed silence. Then Jhilik sprang up on her feet and untied Zorro’s leash from the table.

“Zorro,” she pointed at the trash, “this goes there,” she moved her finger to point at the trash can.

The guests watched in stunned silence as the fearsome Zorro dutifully obliged. One by one, he picked up every bit of garbage from the floor with his mouth, and dropped them in the trash bin.

The area was cleared in seconds. Jhilik flashed a condescending smile, clasped her hands and told the guests, “Delegation of work. I learnt it in school. I delegated my work to Zorro.”

(To be continued — DON’T MISS PART 2, COMING UP THURSDAY, MARCH 28)

More Must Read in LnC Stories

The Silent Whistleblower    

The Gandhi Within

A Pursuit on a Pilgrimage

The Letters from Girish

Prosenjit Purkait is a 22-year veteran of International Trade residing in Delhi and an amateur author. Now self-employed, he devotes considerable time to his first love — writing fiction. His passions include cinema, literature and book reviews.
All Posts of Prosenjit Purkait

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2 thoughts on “Yellow Strawberries — Part 1

    1. Prosenjit Purkait

      Hi Jyoti! Glad you liked Part 1. Part 2 is now available to read. The story begins in Part 1 and continues in Part 2. Hope you will find all your answers in Part 2, especially on the choice of the title of the story.

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