The pen glittered in the sun. Shiny and smooth, it was just beautiful. Maithri could not take her eyes off it. The brown body perfectly accentuated by the golden cap and slightest of the bulge in the centre gave the pen a curve which looked classic and elegant. It sat snugly in Neha’s palms as she showed her latest possession. “Isn’t this beautiful? My dad got me this pen from Mumbai. It writes beautifully. Let me show you” said Neha. She took out her notebook, and opened the cap of the pen to reveal the exquisite nib. Maithri had never seen a fountain pen with such a small and delicate nib, it was almost not there. But when Neha scribbled on her notebook, she saw that the pen was not really fragile. It was strong and smooth.
“Can I please write with it for a while” asked Maithri. Before Neha could answer, the bell announced the end of recess and their teacher flew into the room. Everyone rushed back to their benches and within seconds a respectful silence had set in the class of fifth grade. Maithri looked at best friend with the new pen and sighed. Neha was the prettiest in the class with her marble white skin and shiny short hair. She also had the best of things - her bag, pencil box, shoes; even her school uniform looked classier than others. Everyone in class was jealous of her. Everyone, except Maithri.
Maithri and Neha were best friends. By looks there made quite the unlikely pair. Tall and dark, Maithri had unruly hair which had been tamed with oil and forced into a braid by her mother. The differences between the, ended there. Both of them were soft spoken, loved to read books and watch movies, an interest cultivated by their respective fathers. This ensured that they always had many things to talk about, unlike the other girls and boys of their age. Maithri was always happy in the company of Neha. Hence, she never felt jealous of the things Neha had. Up Till now; when that fated pen arrived.
Maithri couldn’t stop thinking about the pen. She looked down at her own plastic fountain pen. It suddenly looked ugly and fat with a hideous protrusion of nib. It didn’t very write well. It leaked and blotched and spewed ink all over her notebook. Her school insisted on use of fountain pens for fifth graders, and she had to wait for a couple of years to graduate to the more sophisticated ball point pen. ‘If I had a pen like Neha’s, I wouldn’t mind having to write with a fountain pen my whole life’ thought Maithri. Neha caught her looking at the pen again and again. ‘’Here why don’t you use my pen to write in this class” said Neha as she passed it on to Maithri. Maithri was ecstatic as she took that lovely thing in her hand and wrote a few words. The pen was not just pretty, it worked very well too. Writing with it was like gliding your hands on satin.
“It is a lovely pen. You are so lucky to have it” said Maithri, handing over the prized thing to Neha. As the school day progressed, Maithri became more and more quiet. She was working on strategies to convince her parents to get her a similar pen. She knew it wouldn’t be easy. She had learnt quite early that her parents could not afford to buy many things. She had everything which was required – school bag, uniform, shoes and a pen – but they had a sturdy quality to them –they would last for a really long time but are not really beautiful to look at, sometimes downright ugly. She had learnt not to protest for luxurious or expensive things because it would make her father sad, and mother angry. But this pen was different. She wanted it badly, wanted it with all her might. As she walked on home, she revised on all her tactics to convince Mother; for it was she who made all the important decisions.
Mother was busy cleaning the house when Maithri reached home. The two room set where they lived was right next to a busy street. It was forever dusty, despite all Mother’s efforts to keep it clean. But it didn’t dissuade her, and she took on attacking the dirt with fresh gusto every day. Maithri often felt that Mother was obsessed with cleaning, but she dare not voice her thoughts on this matter. She also knew not to disturb her when she was at her obsession, she would wait for the right opportunity. In the evening, to please her, Maithri came back early from play and opened her school books to study. Mother was genuinely surprised. “This is the first time you have come back from your games, without me having to ask you to! I didn’t even have to push you to study! What is the matter? Is there a test tomorrow in school?” she asked with concern. “No Ma, I just wanted to prepare early for the upcoming examinations” said Maithri. Mother just nodded with a smile and went to the kitchen to make dinner. Maithri followed her and stood at the door watching her for a few minutes. Then she said, “Ma, the pen I have leaks when I write. It spoils the paper and my hands and everything I touch. Can you please buy me a new pen?” Mother didn’t stop what she was doing, but said “Maithri, you just got a new pen last month after you broke the last one. Ask you father to check on it, if it has any fault. I am sure he will make it stop leaking.” Maithri knew that the first attempt will not work. Then she tried something else. “Father might make it stop spewing ink, but he cannot make it smoother. This pen is so rough; it is quite difficult for me to write. I have to write quickly in the tests, there is never enough time. How can I score good marks if my concentration is on the pen rather than the test?” said Maithri.
This time she caught Mother’s attention; but in the wrong way. “Young lady, do not make the excuse of a pen for your low scores. Students are marked on their answers, not on the pen they are using. What you need to do is practice writing with this pen at home. Go back to your books and copy down today’s entire class notes into your practice book” said Mother. Maithri was crestfallen. She didn’t expect this and was quite upset with the unexpected penalty. Not able to stop herself further she spurted, “Mother you have to see Neha’s new pen. It is just wonderful; it writes so smoothly, that I can finish an entire essay in half the time required. It is very strong too, will not be damaged like my pen if it falls down. That pen would last for years. Please get me this one pen, and I will never ask for anything else”. But her pleading had no effect on Mother. “Maithri, you know we cannot afford to buy things like Neha’s parents. We have talked about this quite enough; I do not want to go over it again. The pen you are talking about must cost hundreds. Your father is providing you everything you need. Do not ask for all this expensive things” said Mother sternly. Maithri gave up. She knew that there would be no more discussion on this matter, without her getting scolded. If she insisted again, there would be serious reprimands. She went back to her books miserably.
The next few days, Maithri was quiet. She didn’t speak much both at school and at home. All the time, she was brooding on how much she wanted that pen but couldn’t have it. She was also angry with Neha. If she hadn’t shown her the pen, Maithri wouldn’t have known the pain of not owning it. Neha enquired about her glumness several times, but couldn’t get an answer out of her. For Maithri was too proud to tell her the truth. She would rather not have the majestic pen than be pitied. So she went about her days dejected and alone, staying away from her best friend and her beautiful pen.
One morning in class, she was told that school was going to be closed the next day for Christmas. That’s when an idea formed in her head. She had read about Christmas and Santa Claus in many books and seen in the films on their black and white television. She was too young to understand what religion meant, but old enough to know that they didn’t celebrate Christmas. But it didn’t matter to her. The books said that Santa Claus always bought a gift to all the good children. All one had to do was write their wish down in a paper, put it in a stocking and hang it on the fireplace on Christmas Eve. Behold, the next morning, the gift would be sitting at the Christmas tree, all beautifully wrapped up and waiting to be opened with eager hands. This whole thing always fascinated her. But she never thought of giving it a try. Maybe it was because they didn’t celebrate Christmas, or had stockings or a fireplace to hang them on. Or maybe because she thought there was no Santa Claus, rather it was the parents who buy the gifts their children wished for. Or maybe because she had never wanted something so badly that she would hope. Hope that Santa Claus really existed and would get her that gift, which her parents couldn’t.
Deciding that the pen was worth the effort, Maithri came home from school that day and hunted for her father’s sock. “No stocking here, but a big sock should do” she mumbled to herself. Having found the perfect one; she hid it under her pillow and went about her chores quietly. That night, just before bedtime, she wrote down her wish for the pen, in the best writing she could. Carefully folding up the torn piece of notebook paper, she put it in the sock and placed it under her pillow. She went off to sleep easily that night; with a light heart filled with faith. That night she dreamt of talking to a huge man dressed in all red, with flowing white beard and a jingle in his step while he listened to her earnestly.
The next morning she woke up before Mother could call out to her. There was no Christmas tree in the house, so the gift she asked for must be in the sock itself. She pulled out the sock from under her pillow and thrust her hand inside eagerly. Her mind told her she was being silly; there wouldn’t be any pen there. Despite that, she was crushed to see that the sock was empty. She started to cry, not knowing why. Was it because there was no pen, or was it because she had hoped for a miracle and it didn’t happen? Father came rushing to comfort her, and Mother asked her the reason for her tears. But she didn’t answer. How could she tell them that she was upset that Santa Claus didn’t come and give her a gift? She was too old for that. Mother was getting angry with the delay being caused on a school day. So Maithri dried her tears and went to school. That day she stopped pining for that pen.
The next couple of months passed away quickly and the school year was coming to an end. Maithri tried be her usual self after the incident with the pen and Santa, though she was still sad. She also disliked not speaking to Neha and missed her very much in the days she had spent away from her. Deep inside she knew that there was no fault of Neha’s in this whole pen affair. So she was back with her best friend and wondered how she could ever have been angry with her. Neha not knowing what had disturbed Maithri those few days, was relieved to see Maithri becoming normal again. They both grew closer after that break, as if to make up for the lost time. With the advent of the final examinations, they studied together after school and spent a lot of time together.
On the day of the last test, Maithri skipped back home almost happy. She was free from the tyranny of studies and school for the whole of summer and she looked forward to two whole months of fun and play at her grandparent’s village. The only thing she would miss was Neha and times spent with her. But then they would have the whole of next school year for that. Maithri couldn’t get herself to worry about anything that day and went about humming to herself.
That night, she had visitors. Just after dinner, as Mother was clearing up the kitchen, there was a knock on their front door. Father opened the door and ushered in Neha and her father. As the parents exchanged their pleasantries over some tea, Neha looked at Maithri with very sad red rimmed eyes. Evidently she had been crying. She gave Maithri a beautifully wrapped box, tied up with a red ribbon forming a bow on the top. Maithri had never got a present so delightfully packed. She was lost in admiring it, and forgot to wonder about the reason behind the gift. Then, Neha told her the terrible fact. “My father has got transferred to Mumbai. We all have to move there. We are leaving early tomorrow morning so that I could attend the admission process in the school there.” said Neha trembling. Maithri was too shocked to give a response. When she didn’t give a response, Neha burst into tears. Her father gently steered her towards the door, saying good buy. “I will miss you so much; we had such good times together. We will be friends for ever. We will write letters to each other. That is why I have given you this gift. This will remind you of me always” said Neha, while leaving.
Maithri still couldn't understand what had just happened. Neha had always been around for as long as she remembered. She couldn’t imagine times without her. Her mind couldn’t recognize school classes, and lunch times and books without Neha. She just stood there, trying to make sense of it all. Mother and Father knew she was very upset at the loss of her friend. Hence they tried to distract her. “What did Neha give you?” asked Mother pointing to the gift in her hands. Maithri sat on the bed while she gently unwrapped the box and took out the gift Neha had given her. It glittered even in the dull light of their home as it nestled in her palm. Tears streamed silently down her face as she ran a finger over the smoothness of the brown and gold.