Sarita adjusted the pleats of her blue saree as she got out of the cab. She took a couple of steps forward and turned back hesitantly.
‘Would you mind waiting for me? I will be back in half-an-hour. I will pay you for your time, of course.’
The cab driver, happy at the prospect of being paid extra for waiting, agreed immediately. When people said they would be back in thirty minutes or an hour, they rarely meant it. The prospect of a good tip soothed him. He stretched back in his seat, plugged his earphones in, and resumed the three-hour-long movie he had started watching on his previous trips.
Meanwhile, Sarita entered the elevator eagerly. She carried a large tote bag which, being empty, hung limply by her side. When Mr Rao had called her a week ago, telling her that she had received an award from the Youth Club, she struggled to believe her ears.
‘But…what are they giving it to me for?’
‘Excellence. 1971 to 1979,’ said Mr Rao, in a bored voice.
‘Oh, and are the others getting it too? Shyam, Anupama,…’
‘I don’t know.’
Having taken over as secretary only recently, Mr Rao did not have any personal relationships with the club’s former members. After all, the club had been around for over sixty years, and he couldn’t be expected to stay in touch with all these retired men and women. He had better things to do, and would rather have been organising a cricket tournament than calling up people he didn’t know to hand over awards to. But the current patrons of the club, who were sponsoring the awards (and made up half of the awardees), had time and money on their hands; acquiescing was wisdom. It gave the elderly patrons something to do, while promising some money to the Youth Club for future events. They might actually have a Diwali party next year.
Meanwhile, Sarita was delighted. She had worked long and hard as a teacher, but her efforts had rarely been acknowledged. She wasn’t brilliant at the things she was expected to do, had been a bit strict, but kind and fair. She had made an effort to be a good teacher. She wasn’t the one students called on Teachers’ Day, twenty years after they had passed out of school, or the one they instinctively put on favourite teacher lists. However, she was happy and at peace, sailing through the days with temple visits and phone conversations with other retired friends. So when news of this award came out of the blue, it felt like a chance to shine — it was a return to a time when her extracurricular activities had been prized over pure academic or professional achievement, and she had thrived in an environment that simply celebrated being young and bold. She might even be able to get in touch with some of her college friends again!
‘Can you come to Chennai to receive the award?’ asked Mr Rao.
‘Oh, I would’ve loved to…but I can’t travel right now, Mr Rao. I…’
‘Okay. Please let us know if someone can pick it up from Chennai.’
So here was Sarita, riding up in the elevator to the flat of her ex-colleague’s sister’s nephew, Sanjeev. He had kindly agreed to bring the award to Bangalore on his return from a work trip to Chennai. Sarita was overwhelmed by his kindness, and also looking forward to a little chat about her achievements. An award, even a belated recognition, was no small thing. When she was a member of the club, they had regularly picked out former members to honour. Mr Rao, for all his lack of grace on the phone, must surely have told Sanjeev something about her accomplishments at the club. She knew that the current patrons were NRIs with plenty of clout — they were sure to sponsor something memorable and fancy. She was touched that someone had traced her whereabouts because she deserved the award. She clutched her tote bag in anticipation. She wasn’t greedy, no, but she enjoyed any recognition that came her way. And who didn’t like gifts?
Sarita rang the doorbell and was invited in by Sanjeev. He and his wife, Rekha, made her very comfortable, and she glowed in the warmth of their reception. They asked her to stay for lunch. ‘But my taxi is waiting!’ —they wouldn’t listen. Sarita finally agreed. She could pay the driver a little more, for such recognition didn’t come along every day, and it was only rarely that she had an opportunity to talk to people in their thirties.
Sarita, Rekha, and Sanjeev sat down to a leisurely lunch. She ate, praised, and revisited her younger years with the couple. All through, in the back of her mind, she dwelt on her award. Sanjeev hadn’t mentioned any conversation with Mr Rao, beyond briefly saying that he had picked up her award. But that didn’t stop Sarita’s imagination from running riot and revisiting the glories of her youth. Her wonderful people skills, the magnificent competitions she arranged, and the sponsors she talked into supporting their quizzes and cricket matches, had taken the Youth Club to new heights. As she answered Rekha and Sanjeev’s polite questions, her heart swelled in anticipation.
Sarita’s restlessness rose. She had to see her award. She had already cleared a shelf in her living room to display the prize. If it was a painting of the kind they had presented their seniors with in the seventies, she had a spot for it, too. If only Sanjeev and Rekha would finish lunch soon!
‘Some ice cream, Aunty?’
‘Oh, no, please! I really have to leave now,’ said Sarita, looking at her watch and pushing her spectacles back up her nose. She put on her best schoolteacher face, one that had quelled generations of unruly students and tamed them into meekness.
‘Right. Let me fetch your award.’ Sanjeev looked hesitantly at Rekha, a lightning glance that didn’t escape Sarita’s keen eye. She watched as Sanjeev slid open the glass cover of the bookcase and drew out a little trophy that fit snugly in his hand. He placed it on the table in front of Sarita.
She stared at it silently for a few moments. It was a store-bought trophy, the kind you could find in many gift shops. She picked it up gingerly and examined it for an engraving or some sign of personalisation. Nothing. Her hand strayed to her tote bag, which lay on the sofa beside her. She looked up at Sanjeev. He wrung his hands nervously; an expression of sympathy, combined with mirth, was on his face.
Sarita burst into laughter.
‘You know, I think I’ll have that ice cream, after all! It’s bound to be better than my award for excellence,’ said Sarita, through waves of irrepressible giggling. Sanjeev and Rekha joined in, relieved.
When Sarita left an hour later, she had a trophy tucked into a corner of her bag — and an invitation to brunch at a five-star hotel the following week. The award itself may not have amounted to much, but she had found some new friends. How many people in her circle could boast of having young friends who would go out with them willingly? She couldn’t wait to meet them again and learn how to use Facebook to find her Youth Club friends, which they had promised to help her with. New and old — what a time she was going to have!
Rekha watched Sarita drive away in her cab. ‘But why did they pick her for the award? And how did they find her?’
Sanjeev shrugged. ‘Good question. I never thought about that.’
In Chennai, Mr Rao gazed at his list. His plan was slowly falling into place.