A bungled-up school assignment and a pen-pal to the rescue

Daya slammed her school-bag down on her bed and bit her lip hard, trying not to cry. “Everything ok?” her mother called out. In reply, she slammed her door and slid down against it, tears now flowing. Everything was not ok. Her mind returned to the scene she’d tried to blank out, on the never-ending bus ride home.

During her favourite period (English), her favourite teacher (Miss Bimla) had called her up in front of everyone, and held up her essay. Daya went pink, remembering how she’d strutted up, waiting for the usual praise.

“Daya, did you write this story yourself?”

“Every word,” she’d replied, chin up.

Miss Bimla began reading. “The morning sun filtered in through the leaves of the old oak tree, when—” Here she stopped and sighed.

“Daya, describe an oak tree?”

The first whiffs of doubt crept in.

“It’s enormous, with err, oaky wood and err…hollows in which ten children can make play-houses during a picnic and … ”

“Daya, have you ever seen an oak tree? HERE in Chennai. Or anywhere?” Silence.

“Your story is filled with the unfamiliar. Redo the whole thing.” WHAT!? The silence was broken with titters behind her.

A sudden handle-jiggling at her door brought Daya back to the present. She let her mother in. “Just let it out,” said her mother. Sobbing, she repeated that humiliating, unjust conversation.

“Then what did you say?” gasped her mother.

“I said – ‘Miss, the best children’s books all have oak trees. Big, old oak trees.”

Mother and daughter’s eyes swivelled to the bookcases lining Daya’s room. Side by side, from her mother’s old paperbacks, to Daya’s latest purchases, their magnificent collection of 582 books by Enid Blyton stood proud and resolute as the look on Daya’s face.

“I didn’t back down Mama. I said – ‘If I’ve seen nothing magical HERE, I have to imagine or learn about it from other places, no?’

Her mother nodded, looking again at the books, where pixies and elves, adventurous children and their pets, saucepan-men and moon-faced men had one thing in common – their love for climbing on/ living in/ disappearing into old oak trees.

“I won’t change a word,” decided Daya.

“So what’s your punishment for being ‘rude’?”

“That was the weird part – nothing. When I spoke of other places, Miss said she had a brainwave. She’s starting a pen pal letter-writing project, so she showed me a list of kids and said – “you want to learn about other places? Write to this girl, Ava, from England and you can learn about each other. Remember — share facts about India!””

“Sounds fun!” said her mother, surprised she’d got off lightly. “Finish writing and come. Your aloo paratha is getting cold.”

Daya rolled her eyes at all the unfairness. Life in a muggy city, with no magical trees, no adventurous picnics away from it all; and instead – aloo paratha! Did that have the same ring and zing as Blyton’s ‘buttery scones with cream thats clotted, or sandwiches with meat that’s potted’? Wonder what those were, though? Perhaps she should write that letter…

She tore off a page from her composition book and wrote:

Dear Ava,

This is Daya, from Chennai, India. I’m 9, in third grade, have a dog named Prince, (how lucky, you have real Kings and Princes!) and a cat named Moonface (you will soon see why.)

I want to hear ALL about your country. India is very large, very crowded, and very hot. It is famous for the Taj Mahal (I studied about it but haven’t visited yet).

Honestly, I know a LOT about England. That’s because Mom and I are SUPERFANS of Enid Blyton. We run a ‘Bonkers about Blyton’ fan-club! I still have questions.

Where do you picnic with your friends? Do you make your own scones and sandwiches for your travel hampers? And can you describe an Oak tree?

Can’t wait to hear back,

Love, Daya.

‘Can’t wait’ was an understatement. All week, heart pulsing, Daya waited for a reply.

Next Monday, Miss Bimla had a heart-pulsing, unbelievable moment of her own, when she read Daya’s rewritten story. She began reading again to make sure: “The sun’s rays lit up the tiny tree-spirits, busy at their looms on every leaf; some spinning breakfast (steaming idiyappams, with lashings of ghee), some spinning stories, and the rest swinging up and down the vines to their homes in the old, banyan tree..”

“Daya!” she called, soon as class began. “Your story…”

“I wrote every word,” said Daya.

“I have no doubt!” said Miss Bimla, still puzzled at the change. “It’s brilliant!” Then — as Daya turned away, face glowing — “Daya – did your pen pal write back?”

Daya turned, slowly. Slower still, she pulled out a letter from her pocket and handed it to Miss Bimla.

Hello from Sussex, England!

A pen-pal from India! Soooo exciting!!! I’m 9, in third grade, and have a dog named Messi. Yup — I’m crazy about football.

How lucky YOU are. I’m freezing right now, and you’re probably bathing in sunshine ☺

Your Book-Club sounds fun. I’m in a music group, we love pop and hip-hop and your bhangra!

I haven’t met any Princes or Princesses… and I haven’t gone picnicking with friends (??) I travel a lot with my parents though, and guess what? Next summer, we’re visiting my dream destination – India! Maybe we can meet and see the Taj together.

From Granny – here’s a photo of an oak tree. Thanks, we have one right up our street and I never knew what it was called. Can you imagine that?

Love, Ava.

P.S Who’s Moonface?

P.P.S I know what I’ll be eating when I travel, but I won’t need to pack any hamper. It’s my favourite food — Indian curry!!

Miss Bimla chuckled. “Looks like she opened your eyes to the magic of HERE more than your letter or I did!”

(Nandita da Cunha is an award-winning children’s author based in Mumbai. She has written several picture and chapter books for young readers)

Come back for more Children’s Day special stories tomorrow, November 14

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