in the mirror long, carefully, and critically.
‘If Jim doesn’t kill me,’ she said to herself, ‘ before he takes a second look
at me, he’ll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl. But what could I do-oh,
what could I do with a dollar and eighty seven cents?’
At 7o’ clock the coffee was made and the frying-pan was on the back of
the stove, hot and ready to cook the chops.
Jim was never late. Della doubled the fob chain in her hand and sat
on the corner of the table near the door that he always entered. Then she
heard his step on the stairway down on the first flight, and she turned white
for just a moment. She had a habit of saying little silent prayers about the
simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: ‘Please, God, make him
think I am still pretty.’
The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and
very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two - and to be burdened
with a family! He needed a new overcoat and he was without gloves.
Jim stepped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of
quail. His eyes were fixed on Della, and there was an expression in them
that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise,
nor disapproval, nor horror, not any of the sentiments that she had been
prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression
on his face.
Della wriggled off the table and went for him.
‘Jim, darling,’ she cried, ‘ don’t look at me that way. I had my hair cut
off and sold it because I couldn’t have lived through Christmas without
giving you a present. It’ll grow out again - you won’t mind, will you? I just
had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast. Say “Merry Christmas!” Jim, and
let’s be happy. You don’t know what a nice-what a beautiful, nice gift I’ve
got for you.’
‘You’ve cut off your hair?’ asked Jim, laboriously, as if he had not
arrived at that patent fact yet, even after the hardest mental labour.
‘Cut it off and sold it,’ said Della. ‘Don’t you like me just as well,
anyhow? I’m me without my hair, ain’t I?
Jim looked about the room curiously.
‘You say your hair is gone?’ he said, with an air almost of idiocy.
‘You needn’t look for it,’ said Della. It’s sold. I tell you-sold and
gone, too. It’s Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for you.
Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered,’ she went on with a sudden
serious sweetness, ‘but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I
put the chops on, Jim?’
Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Della.
For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential
object in the other direction. Eight dollars a week or a million a year-what is
the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer.
The Magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark
assertion will be illuminated later on.
Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the
‘Don’t make any mistake, Dell,’ he said, ‘about me. I don’t think there’s
anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me
like my girl any less. But if you’ll unwrap that package you may see why you
had me going awhile at first.’
White fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper. And then an
ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! A quick feminine change to hysterical
tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting
powers of the lord of the flat.
For there lay The Combs-the set of combs, side and back, that Della
had worshipped for long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure
tortoise-shell, with jewelled rims-just the shade to wear in the beautiful
vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had
simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession.
And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted
adornments were gone.
But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look
up with dim eyes and a smile and say: ‘ My hair grows so fast, Jim!’
And then Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, ‘Oh, Oh!’
Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him eagerly
upon her open palm. The dull precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection
of her bright and ardent spirit.
‘Isn’t it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You’ll have to
look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to
see how it looks on it.’
Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands
under the back of his head and smiled.
‘Dell,’ said he, ‘let’s put our Christmas presents away and keep’em
awhile. They’re too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the
money to buy your combs. And now suppose you put the chops on.’
The Magi, as you know, were wise men-wonderfully wise men-who
brought gifts to the Babe in the manger.They invented the art of giving Christmas
presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the
privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have
lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat
who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their
house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all
who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts,
such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the Magi.
FOR READERS’ PRACTICE
I. Answer the following questions:
1. How did Della save the money she needed for buying the Christmas
2. How did Della make full use of the Pier-glass?
3. What kind of present had Della planned to buy for Jim?
4. What were the proud possessions of the Dillinghams?
5. What did Della decide to present Jim? Why?
6. How did Jim react on entering the house?
7. How did Della convince Jim who was visibly upset?
8. Were the couple leading a happy life?
9. Why was Jim unable to digest the fact that Della had sold her hair?
10. ‘True love builds its edifice on sacrifice’-Explain.
11. Who were the Magi?
12. What is the irony in the story?
II. Read the following passage and answer the questionso given below:
One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it
was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer
and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the
silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied.
Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty-seven cents. And the
next day would be Christmas.
There was clearly nothing left to do but flop down on the shabby little
couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that
life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.
While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first
stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per
week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on
the lookout for the mendicancy squad.
In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would
go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring.
Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name ‘Mr James
The ‘Dillingham’ had been flung to the breeze during a former period
of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now when
the income was shrunk to $20, the letters of Dillingham looked blurred, as
though they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and
unassuming D. But whenever Mr.James Dillingham Young came home
and reached his flat above he was called ‘Jim’ and greatly hugged by Mrs James
Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very
1. How were the precious pennies saved?
2. Why did Della count the money thrice?
3. Were the Dillinghams leading a life of comfort?
4. Did the decrease in income upset the couple?
5. What is the author’s reflection on life?
I. Rearrange the following sentences in the correct sequence:
1. The gift was a set of combs.
2. Jim reached home late.
3. Della held out to Jim the platinum fob chain.
4. Jim was shocked when he looked at Della.
5. Della found that she did not have enough money to buy her husband a
6. Jim suggested to keep away the gifts for a while.
7. Jim said that he had sold his watch to buy the gift.
8. Della sold her hair and bought a platinum fob chain.
9. Della said that her hair would grow fast.
10. Jim gave Della his gift.
II. Write an essay on ‘True love and sacrifice’ by developing the hints
Jim and Della - ideal couple - humble living - life - a combination
of sobs and smiles - two proud possessions - Jim’s gold watch - Della’s
hair - Della’s Christmas gift - wishes - most valuable gift - sells her hair -
buys - Platinum chain - Jim sells his watch -buys combs for Della - both
the gifts meaningless now - but remain a symbol of true love - sacrifice
being - the edifice - Jim and Della - wisest Magi.
Amma was lying on the cot and I was curled up on the floor right next
to it. Amma and I were free to get up as late as we pleased. We had made it
our habit over the years. We had to put up a battle of sorts to win it. Ours is
a family that takes pride in the fact that we safeguard the dharma of the
early-riser. For generations now, we’ve all bathed before sunrise. But then,
Amma and I were invalids. Amma had asthma and I suffered from joint
pains. Both could create problems early in the morning.
Outside, there was sounds of the horse shaking its mane, of its bells
jangling. The horse buggy was ready. This meant that Appa had picked up
the bunch of keys for his shop. It also meant that the clock was inching
towards eight-thirty. He would now put on his slippers. Kweech. Kweech.
Then, once downstairs, the abrupt impatient sound of the umbrella opening,
closing. The daily umbrella-health-test, that.
The door opened slightly. A thin streak of sunlight pranced into the
room, a shifting glass-pipe of light, dust swirling inside it. Appa! I see him
in profile-one eye, spectacles, half a forehead streaked with vibhuti and a
dot of chandanam paste, golden-yellow, topped by a vivid spot of red
‘Boy!Ambi! Get up!’Appa said.
I closed my eyes. I did not move a limb. As if I were held captive by
‘Ai! Get up. You good-for-nothing,’Amma said. ‘Appa’s calling.’
On the sly I looked at Appa. He looked affectionate, even gentle.As if
I were being roused from heavy slumber, I opened my eyes with pretended
‘Get ready,Ambi. Eat and then go to Aanaipaalam,’ said Appa.
‘Go and bring Rowther to the shop straightaway. I’ll send the buggy
back for you.’
I looked at Appa, then at Amma. I had told her about the squabble
between Appa and Rowther in the shop the previous day.
‘Can you or can you not manage without him?’ asked Amma.
‘This farce has gone on far too long,’ she said. ‘Making up one day
and parting the next!’
Appa’s face reddened. It seemed as if, if it grew any redder, blood
might start dribbling from the tip of his nose.
‘Onam is round the corner. You can come to the shop and make the
bills,’ he screamed. Anger twisted his lips, slurred and flattened out the words.
‘Is Rowther the only person in this whole world who knows how to
make bills?’asked Amma.
‘Shut your mouth!’ yelled Appa. Abruptly he turned to me. ‘Get up,
you!’ he ordered.
I sprang up from my bed and stood taut as a strung bow.
‘Go. Do what I told you to,’ he growled.As if someone unseen had
tugged at the wheels attached to my feet, I moved swiftly out of the room.
I heard the horse buggy leave the house. I got ready in double quick
time. What briskness! I wore-as I usually didn’t-a dhoti over my half pants,
and a full-sleeved shirt, all in the hope that it would make me speak up with
some confidence. I didn’t feel my usual anger with Appa. I didn’t feel sad
either. It seemed as if even some little fondness seeped through. Poor thing!
He had got himself into a fix. On an impulse, he’d spoken harshly to Rowther.
He could have been more calm. Now, if a person is merely short tempered,
one can talk of calmness. But if he is anger personified?
Excited by this paradox, I went and stood before Amma. I looked her
straight in the face and I said, ‘If he is anger personified where is the question
of calmness?’Amma laughed; almost at once, she made her face stern and,
‘Smart, aren’t you?’ she asked. ‘ Now, if you are a clever boy, you’ll go take
Rowther to the shop.’ Placing her right hand over her heart she said, ‘Tell
him whatever he may have said, I apologise for it.’
I went and climbed into the buggy.
I too thought that we could not manage the Onam festival sales without
Rowther. Who could do sums like him? He was lightning quick in mental
arithmetic. Five people sitting in a row, with paper and pencils, would not be
equal to one Rowther and his brain. Remarkable. Even regular buyers who
flocked round him to have their bills tallied were amazed. ‘Is this a mere
human brain?’ many wondered aloud. ‘If the man can be this fast just by
listening to the figures, what would he not do if he’d been granted sight?’
And to think that Rowther has only studied up to the third class. That’s two
grades less than Gomathi who works in the shop, fetching and cleaning. The
dispute between Appa and Rowther had started mildly enough the previous
evening. ‘Look here, Rowther, what are you going to do if you let your debts
keep mounting like this?’ Appa asked. Rowther had chosen all the clothes
he wanted, piled them up by his side, before thinking of asking Appa for
credit. It was quite clear that Appa did not like this.
‘What can I do, Ayyah? My house is full of women. My sons are
useless. My sons-in-law are useless. Four sons, four daughters-in-law, eight
granddaughters, eight grandsons. How many is that? Just one piece of cloth
each, and the cost goes up.’
Appa was staring at Rowther, as if thinking. The man is getting out of
hand. I must cut him to size. Right away.
‘Kolappa, wrap up the clothes and give me the bill,’ said Rowther.
How dare he take the things before permission had been granted?
Appa’s face reddened. ‘It is not possible for me to give you credit this time,’
‘So, you’re saying you don’t want our relationship to continue, no,
Ayyah?All right. Girl, take me home.’
Rowther stood up. Gomathi took his right arm placed it on her left
shoulder. They went down the steps. When the shop closed in the evening,
he would usually look in the direction of my father and take permission to
leave. That particular evening he did not take permission. That is, he had
I thought I would first pick up Gomathi and take her with me to
Rowther’s house. That would perhaps lessen his hurt. But Gomathi was not
at home. ‘Rowther had sent word that he was not coming. She’s just left for
the shop,’ her mother said.
I took a shortcut through the grove, and reached Rowther’s house
through a narrow lane. A tiled house, the roof low. In the front yard there
was a well on the right hand side, its parapet wall, stark, unpainted, broken.
Velvet moss sprang around it in bright patches. Stone steps led to the house.
A strip of gunny bag hung from the main door.
‘It’s me, Ambi!’ I announced my arrival loudly.
A little girl came out followed by another who was obviously her twin.
‘Who is it, child?’ came Rowther’s voice from inside the house.
‘It’s me. Ambi,’ I said.
‘Come! Come! Said Rowther. His voice bubbled with happiness.
I pushed aside the sack curtain and went inside. The floor had been
swabbed smooth with cowdung. Rowther was sitting cross-legged, like a
lord. His arms reached out for me. ‘Come, come,’ his mouth kept saying.
I went and knelt in front of him. He put his arms around me. His eyes
stared and stared, as if trying to recapture the vision they had lost long ago.
He pressed me down by my shoulders, dragged me towards him and sat me
down beside him. His emotions seemed to overwhelm him.
‘Ah! You seem to be wearing a dhoti today!’ he said.
‘Just felt like it.’
‘What’s the border like?’
‘Just like Ayyah, uhn? The boys in the shop tell me that you look just
like your father, too. It is my misfortune that I can’t see you.’
He ran his fingers over my face, my nose, my mouth, my neck, my
eyes, my ears, my forehead. ‘Everything in place, thank the Lord.’ He laughed.
I thought that this was the right moment to tell him why I had come.
But words stuck in my throat, as if held there by an unseen hand.
‘Amma….’ I started to say, making a tentative start.
Rowther interrupted me. ‘ How is madam’s health now?’
‘I have Thuthuvalai, Khandankattri leghiyam. No better medicine for
asthma. Only, Ayyah likes to see English labels on his medicine bottles. I
don’t have English here. Only medicines,’ he said, enjoying his own joke
This was the right moment to tackle him.
‘Amma wants me to take you to the shop. She wants me to tell you
that she is very sorry if Appa has said anything to hurt you. You are not to
misunderstand him. She says please don’t turn down her request.’
Rowther’s face visibly brightened. He raised his hands in salute.
‘Mother, you are a great woman,’ he called out, ‘Get up, let’s go to
the shop at once,’ he said.
That year the sales during Onam were very good. Rowther was in his
element. With great elan he supervised the shop boys who constantly jostled
around him. He looked like Abhimanyu in the Mahabharata fighting a whole
battalion, single-handedly. He would state the price as soon as the cost and
quantity of the material were mentioned to him. Only the good Lord knew
what spark it was in his brain, what genius that did not need even a minute
to calculate? A brain that could multiply and total up the cost of sixteen
different items in a trice to announce, ‘Item sixteen. Grand total - 1414
rupees 25 paise,’ how could that be called an average brain? Even if the
whole thing were written down on the blackboard, I would have easily taken
half an hour to work it out. But for him, answers slipped forth like lightning.
He had never till now made a single mistake. Amma has told me that in the
early years of their association, Appa used to sit up half the night, checking
Rowther’s calculations. It seems he’d say, ‘That man is getting beside
himself. I must find at least an error or two.’ But he never could. He just
lost a good night’s sleep.
One day, a cart drawn by a single bullock, heavily curtained on both
sides, stopped in front of the shop. From inside came the wailing of women
‘Sounds like the females from my household,’ Rowther said.
Rowther’s house had come up for public auction! Apparently amina
was taking all the household things and flinging them on to the street.
Rowther started crying like a child and called on God to help him out.
Even as he was emoting, Kolappan came with a bill saying, ‘45 metres and
70 centimetres at 13 rupees and 45 paise.’ Rowther stopped his keening for
a moment and said to him, ‘Write this down, 614 rupees and 66 paise.’ He
turned to my father who sat at the cash counter and sobbed. ‘Ayyah. I have
to pay the court the loan and the interest on it, more than five thousand
rupees. Where will I go for the money?’
Appa took Rowther in the horse buggy to see a lawyer.
Rowther did not show up for work the next day. Kolappan said he
had with his own eyes seen Rowther, reciting the bills in Chettiar’s shop.
‘What injustice! I have just come back after paying the court the entire
amount for his debts. He’s let me down, the ungrateful wretch!’ Appa
The shop assistant Kolappan also whipped himself into a fury.
‘He knows how to calculate, but he’s a senseless idiot. Wait, I’ll go
this minute and drag him here by his hair,’ he said as he jumped onto his
Appa sat down on the floor, devastated. He started to mumble.
‘This is a wicked world,’ he said. ‘These days you can’t even trust
your own mother.’
In a little while, Kolappan returned. Rowther was sitting behind him,
on the carrier. He marched stone like Rowther to the cash-counter.
‘I lost my head, Ayyah,’ said Rowther as he stood before Appa, his
hands folded in supplication.
‘A time will come when you will be cut down to size,’ said Appa.
‘Please don’t say such things, Ayyah,’ pleaded Rowther. ‘Come work
for me and I’ll pay your debts, the Chettiar said. And I lost my head.’
Appa only repeated, ‘The time will come when you will be cut down
And, surprise of surprises, things soon happened that made it look as
if Appa was going to be right after all. When Appa returned from Bombay
that year after seeing his wholesalers, he brought back a small machine and
showed it to Amma. ‘This can do calculations,’ he said
Amma made up a sum. Appa pressed a few keys. The machine gave
I quickly worked it out on a piece of paper. ‘The answer is correct,
Amma!’ I shouted.
‘Have they transformed Rowther’s brain into a machine?’ asked my
That whole day I kept trying out the calculator. That night, I kept it by
my side when I slept. I gave it the most difficult sums I could think of. Its
every was right. I remembered something Gomathi had once told me.
‘Thatha! How can you do sums in a nimit?’ she had asked Rowther, mixing
up as she always did, the Tamil and the common English word. It seems