I don’t think Stone Soup was the first story I wrote. But it is the first story I remember writing with a pen on four sheets of A5 paper torn from the middle of my rough-book. I had heard the story in class the day before and decided to recreate it and pass it off to my mother as my own.
“I love it,” she’d exclaimed. “That’s such a good story.”
It was. It really was. It was set in this town where a terrible drought had ruined the crops and the people had absolutely nothing to eat. Desperate, desolate, the children had no energy to play, choosing instead to sit outside their houses and moan.
Their parents looked upon them with sadness in their eyes, guilty that they had nothing in their bare cupboards except the odd piece of bread, or meager leftovers from last night’s dinner. But then suddenly this stranger arrived with a mysterious smile on his face and from his bag he pulled out a large cauldron. In this cauldron he placed the biggest stone he could find and filled it to the brim with water. He lit a fire and lo-and-behold, the children, so devoid of energy suddenly perked up at the sight of the bubbling cauldron.
“What is he doing?” the children asked each other and moved closer to the man to get a better look. “I’m making stone soup, can’t you see?” he exclaimed. The children shouted in glee.
“Does anyone have any salt?” asked the stranger. “I seem to have misplaced mine.” So a child’s mother ran into her house and returned with a pinch of salt.
“Anything else, you got in those bare cupboards of yours?” Another mother came out with four tomatoes. “We were saving it for our dinner but, here, you have it.”
Seeing everyone contributing to the cauldron other mothers too scavenged through their cabinets to find something to add. One returned with some onions, another with bread. One had nothing but a few corns of black pepper. But in no time, little by little, the cauldron was filled to the brim with vegetables and steaming with a fragrance that none of the town’s folk had smelled in days.
“Stone soup’s ready. Come, grab a bowl!” And grab they did. The town’s folk come forward for bowls of hot soup and they feasted until the sun went down.
On second thought, it wasn’t such a good story and I suspect I may have missed a few details from the version my teacher read us. I think I got the moral of the story but might have missed the ending which obviously lacked an answer to what happened the next day and the day after that until the drought got over.
But my mother liked it. She even gave me 2 rupees to run down to the market to get it photocopied and placed the original in a file.
“Very nice beta,” dad said when he got home that evening. I think I remember him and mum getting misty eyed, faces beaming with pride as a light from heaven shone on me.
So a few days later, I decided to write another story. This time I came up with it myself. Well, almost. It was about a girl called Blue Riding Hood who went into a forest and met a little boy called Bert. Bert was very nice, friendly and handsome. But no sooner had he taken her to visit his sick and ailing mother so that she could give them her blessing to get married, than she realised that Bert was actually a blue jay who was under a wicked witch’s spell.
You see, he took Blue Riding Hood to a hollow tree that had a little blue jay inside who wasn’t moving at all. But she was still alive because Blue could hear her singing a really sad, melancholy song. It was her song of death. This made Blue and Bert cry. Bert told Blue about how the wicked witch of the forest had heard his mother sing one day and said, “Why little blue jay! What a lovely voice you have. Give me your voice and I shall give you a beautiful red ruby.”
“No,” said Bert’s mother. “I shan’t. My son is still very young and he must hear my voice so that he knows how to get home each evening.”
“You wretched little bird! I shall curse your son for your disobedience. I shall place this red ruby in a little girl’s picnic basket and should he eat it mistaking it for an apple he shall turn into a little boy and won’t be able to understand your flute-like language ever again!”
“Oh no! I shall have to find my Bert and warn him of this.”
The witch had merely laughed and disappeared. She appeared in another part of the forest, where little Bert was munching on some worms. The witch had disguised herself as a little girl dressed in a red hood and carrying a beautiful wicker basket. Bert noticed her immediately because even though he was a blue jay, red was his favourite colour.
He followed the girl as she made her way around narrow paths and ducked under sharp branches from tall trees. He followed her for a long time until he saw her trip and spill all the apples from her basket. She hurried and gathered them into her basket and set off again. Just as Bert was about to follow her he saw a the shiniest apple he had ever seen lying on the ground. He immediately descended upon it, picked it up in his beak and swallowed it. Yum, he thought as he licked his lips.
He spread his wings to fly off again when he realised that he didn’t have wings anymore. Instead he had two little arms. He looked down and instead of bird feet he had human feet. Bert had eaten the wicked witch’s red ruby.
“Oh no! What has happened to me? I must find my mother,” he cried. He tried to listen for her singing but couldn’t hear a thing except for the crickets signaling sundown. He was so upset that he sat down on the ground and started to cry.
That’s when he noticed the red figure standing between two trees in front of him. “Your punishment, my pretty, for your mother’s disobedience. You shall never be a blue jay ever again!”
“Oh please, miss. Please don’t say that. I must be with my mother again. Please tell me how to turn this curse around.”
“I shan’t. But if you ever meet a girl in a blue hood bring her to me. I will tell her how to cure you.” And just like that with a cackle and a high-pitched laugh, the wicked witch took her original form and disappeared.
Bert had searched far and wide for this girl in a blue hood until Blue Riding Hood had finally come along. But when he requested her to go to the witch to reverse the spell so that he could be with his ailing mother, she wasn’t too pleased.
“You said you wanted to marry me but you just used me to remove your stupid curse,” she cried. “I don’t want to see you ever again.” And she turned around and walked straight out of the forest. She never saw Bert or his ill, ailing blue jay mother ever again.
Mom and dad went apeshit with this story. They gave me 10 rupees and asked me to make as many photocopies as I could. They kept the original in a file, one on the mantle to show any guests that came through and distributed the rest to my grandparents and their friends.
“Someday you will be a famous writer,” they said to me every time I came to them with a new story. Their pride knew no bounds. I hadn’t been published yet but I did have photocopies of my stories to give other people so to me that was almost the same.
But then I grew up and realised that I was pretty good at math and other stuff. I left school and decided to pursue a career in business. For this, I took commerce in college and graduated with a distinction. I decided to work with a bank while simultaneously studying for my MBA entrance exams. I did pretty well too because a year later I had been admitted to the best business school in India.
Mum and dad were really proud, they told me as we visited the school together to pay my fees and sort out my accommodation. “But are you sure this is what you want?” Mum asked.
“I will be the highest paid executive in the country, mum. You just wait,” I said.
Mum smiled and dad patted me on the back. “Good luck!”
I did really well in business school too. So much so that at the end of two years I graduated in the top five in my class, not like it mattered because I had already been recruited to work with a big fast moving consumer goods corporation with an offer to work in the financial capital that meant that I could retire in five years and start my own fast moving consumer goods corporation if I wanted to.
As it turned out I didn’t just last five years. I worked for 10 years non-stop. The only reason I took time off at the end of my decade-long career, was because my mother fell sick. I hadn’t had much time to see my mum and dad since I started working because the job kept me so busy – I was in charge of the oral care products and it required a lot of hours put into commissioning market research on oral hygiene, advertising campaigns, conferences for dentists and quarterly sales reports. But when mum fell sick I decided to take a few months out of all the leave I’d piled up.
“Are you happy baby? Is this all that you ever wanted?” she asked, smiling as best she could with the tubes going through her nose and a drip pouring clear liquid into her arm.
“Why do you ask? I have enough money to retire tomorrow if I want to,” I responded.
“But you ate a red ruby. And now you’re not a blue jay anymore.”
I thought that the medication was probably fogging her mind so I kissed her on her forehead and suggested she rest and that I’d be back tomorrow.
Dad and I had a quiet dinner that night. He too hadn’t been doing very well lately. The cataracts in his eyes had just been removed, which meant he had to walk around with really dark glasses even in the night time and the arthritis in his knees weren’t allowing him to go for his daily walks.
“So are you happy beta?” he asked me. Of course I was happy, I said. Was he happy, I asked? I knew he wasn’t that badly off. Health aside, he’d retired a few years earlier with a really good payout from his company, a retirement fund that I’d started him on when I started at that bank before business school and his own provident fund that had gone into our farm house. He was definitely leading a very comfortable, though ailment ridden life.
“I’m okay, getting by. It’s tough you know…”
“Mum being ill? Yeah, I know it’s tough for me too.”
“No it’s not your mother being ill beta. It’s you.”
“Me? Whatever did I do?”
“It’s not what you did. It’s what you didn’t do. You fell for the shiny red ruby and now you’re not happy anymore.”
What in the name of Hans Christian Anderson were they talking about?
“You’re not a blue jay anymore…”
I honestly thought both my parents had lost it that night. Talking about blue jays and red rubies and children’s plagiarised stories. But then dad brought out a thick book. I opened it and there they were — pages and pages of black and white photocopies featuring words and sentences in my juvenile penmanship. I could feel the blood rushing to my face.
“Do you remember these?”
“It’s blue. The book, your mother bound it in blue.”
“Yes, blue like the blue jay and Blue Riding Hood.” I couldn’t help but smile at the thought of my parents having kept this after all these years.
“You need to break your curse. Here. Take it.”
“But I wrote these for you and mum.”
“We have the original file locked away in the treasury. But this blue book here, this will break your curse.”
I took the book and went to my old own room to read my old stories that night. They were awfully bad. But I haven’t gone back to selling dental care products since.
First published on The Caterpillar Cafe on March 2, 2012