In India, on your birthday, the tradition is to offer small gifts to the important people in your life.
Today, my dear friend Purnima turns thirty-five.
We had lunch together in Shukla-ji’s garden, and then she had to work. She was stressed, however, because she hadn’t had a chance to prepare a gift for Sharat, our yoga teacher and her boss.
I wish I had remembered to buy him an apple strudel, she fretted.
And now it’s too late. I have to be at work in ten minutes.
I remembered the little bakery down the hill. They sell pastries and eggs from their back door.
Do you want me to go down there and see what they have? I asked.
WOULD you!? she asked dramatically, her already big eyes huge.
Of course, I said. Go to work. I’ll bring the stuff up in a little while.
I finished my chai in the sun, then started down the hill into the glen.
Two Indian men were hacking up the hillside to build a path. They put aside their tools and let me pass. I crossed the bridge over a little creek, and climbed up the steps to the tiny house that is obscured by plants and trees. In the small courtyard, hens pecked at the ground, their big claws splayed and yellow. A cow twitched his tail in the sun.
I walked to the backdoor and knocked. I could hear cartoons playing inside. A few minutes later, a sleepy looking Indian man came to the door, scratching his head.
Yes? he said. How can I help you?
I told him I was looking for apple strudel. He apologized and said they didn’t have any today. He offered me cinnamon rolls, wheat rolls, and plain white bread instead. I told him I’d take three cinnamon rolls.
And do you have organic eggs? I asked.
Yes, Madame, he replied.
How many you like?
I thought about it. I’ll take three, I said.
He nodded and began filling a paper bag.
And fresh milk? I asked. Do you have any today?
He nodded again.
How much? he asked.
Mmmm… how about a half kilo? I said.
Yes, of course, he replied.
He disappeared into the house and returned a few minutes later. A tiny, mewing kitten was clinging to his shirt. He was about to throw it outside, but I held out my hands instead.
Can I hold him? I asked.
He gave me a half smile and extracted the kitten from his shirt, placing him in my hands. I pressed the tiny gray kitten to my chest, and immediately he started purring and massaging his paws against me.
The Indian man wrapped everything up, and then came back to the door. I hated to put the kitten down, but it was time to go. I handed the furry bundle back to the man, and took the bag he offered me. I watched him carry the kitten to an outdoor oven that had been covered and sealed with cement.
Warm, he said, seeing me watch. Little cat likes the warm.
I walked over and put my hand on top of the oven. It was very warm, and covered in old canvas sacks. The kitten turned in several circles, and then settled down into a tiny indent in one of the bags.
I thanked the man, watched the kitten for a few more minutes, and then emerged into the open courtyard. The sun was soft and warm. The chickens were still pecking the ground and the cow was still flicking his tail. I had Purnima’s birthday rolls, and tomorrow’s breakfast for myself. It was time to take a little nap.