The Hibiscus Thief

story about childhood

At the beginning of the summer of 1986, my parents separated. My mother and I left the flat on Gurusaday Road where I’d lived all my life, to stay with my grandparents on the opposite bank of the Hooghly River in the district of Shibpur. As we sat in the taxi, Ma told me that at the end of the holidays, I wasn’t going back to my school.

‘You’re only eleven,’ she said. ‘I think a bit of change will be good for you.’

‘So won’t we live here anymore?’

‘I need to figure things out first.’ She offered me a mint from her handbag. I didn’t really feel like it but took it anyway.

Ma hadn’t decided what we were going to do or where we were going to live. ‘Let’s just take a bit of time out.’

She smiled, and her smile was insincere and disquieted me a bit, so I turned away and watched as the city lights slipped past like another smear on the dirty window.


My grandparents lived close to the famous Shibpur Botanical Garden. Their house was large and in desperate need of repairs, which they could no longer afford. Most of the rooms weren’t safe because of the crumbling ceilings, so we stayed together in the spacious drawing room. It had a high carved ceiling now cracked in places, and the plaster on the walls peeled like open sores. Ma and I slept on a double bed in one corner and my grandparents took a bed on the opposite side of the room.

I didn’t mind this arrangement so much; it was like the time Baba took us trekking to Darjeeling. We’d shared a dormitory with three other families in an old guesthouse on the outskirts of the Hill Station. Ma had complained then, as she did now.

‘Look what your Baba has reduced us to,’ she said, shoving her suitcase under the bed.

I went to the window at our end of the room and sat on the window seat. I could see the blue sky and the unruly garden with its wild lantana bushes and knotted hedgerows. A hibiscus tree stood just inside the front gate. The red-petaled flowers drooped in the heat.

‘We’ve got a view of the gardens from here, Ma.’ I turned around, but Ma was busy arranging her cosmetics on a side table.

‘Stay out of trouble,’ she said, without even looking up.

That window seat soon became my favourite place to spend the long summer afternoons. I figured that if I opened the slatted wood shutters on both sides and then folded them backwards, they created a kind of partition between me and the rest of the room. I enjoyed being cut off from everyone. The only company I had was the occasional stray dog or goat that wandered in from the street.

That was enough for me.


It was on one such afternoon soon after we moved there that I first saw the hibiscus thief.

I was sitting on the window seat with an Agatha Christie novel, a present from Baba on my tenth birthday. My fingers caressed Baba’s handwritten inscription on the first page. I wished I could speak to him, but my grandparents didn’t have a phone, and in those days, there were no mobiles.

The front gate creaked, and a figure slipped inside.

As the person came closer, I saw it was a woman. She had thin arms, and the loose end of her sari covered most of her head, and when she looked up I saw she was neither old nor young, but her face was lined and weathered as if she’d just come from a dry desert scape. As she moved past the gate, she seemed to me to be floating on air, her bare feet almost skimming the ground. I blinked a few times to make sure it wasn’t my imagination.

The woman stopped beside the hibiscus tree, looked at the garden and up at the house. I stayed still, not wanting her to notice me. Then she turned and began plucking the bright red hibiscus blossoms off the tree, dropping them into a small basket she held in her left hand. She worked fast and moved under and around the branches, ducking and weaving.

Pluck and drop, pluck, and drop, until the tree stood completely bare.

What she was doing was harmless really, just taking some flowers from a tree that no one seemed to care about, but her actions, both furtive and brazen, somehow made me unreasonably angry. I wanted to shout out and scare her off. But I kept quiet and sat and watched from my window seat with a growing sense of agitation.

I could hear Ma’s gentle snoring, so different from the fractured groans of my grandparents as they turned in their sleep. Sweat trickled down my forehead onto my nose, but I didn’t wipe it off. I leaned against the rusted iron bars of the window. Orange flakes of rust stuck to my skin.

And then, as quietly as she’d appeared, the woman slipped out through the gate, leaving no trace of her brief presence except the naked hibiscus tree. I waited for a while, then got off my seat and went outside.

The afternoon sun blazed overhead. I went close to the tree but didn’t know what I was hoping to find. There were no footprints on the dusty garden path, so I peered out of the front gate. Ma had given strict instructions not to leave the premises by myself. I looked back at the house. Nothing stirred.

I walked a few steps down the road.

A rickshaw was parked by the side. The driver was curled up, asleep in the backseat, his face covered with a thin towel to keep off flies. I thought I might wake him and ask if he’d seen the thief leaving the gates. I even reached out and tapped the stretched tarpaulin of the rickshaw hood.

The driver sat upright, and the towel fell off his face. When he saw me, he looked angry at being woken from his nap.

‘What do you want?’ His eyes were red and puffy, and there were crescents of sweat on the material under his armpits.

I turned and ran back inside.


The next morning, I looked out of the window. The tree was covered in hibiscus blossoms again. I went and stood beneath it for a while, listening to the confusion of the myna birds that were swooping in and out of the canopy of the Simul trees above. I counted twenty-seven hibiscus blossoms and, satisfied with the tree’s ability to regenerate its losses, I went to the small courtyard at the back of the house.

A stray black and ginger cat jumped off the wall and came towards me, arching its back. It purred and rubbed itself against my bare legs. I fetched a small bowl from the kitchen and when I was sure no one was looking, poured some milk from a cracked milk jug left on the table next to the stove.

I knelt beside the cat and stroked it as it lapped the milk in the bowl.

‘You’ll catch fleas.’

I looked up to see Ma brushing her hair as she leaned against the door. I hadn’t heard her come out. The corners of her mouth were turned down. These days she hardly ever smiled at me.

‘Now leave that feral creature and go have a bath.’

‘It’s just a stray kitten, Ma,’ I said. ‘It’s so soft to touch.’

‘We need to step out. I have to make some calls.’

She turned her back and went into the house. I wished so much we could have back the old order of things between us, when she’d smiled so easily at everything I’d do. It was almost as if I was a reminder of the anger and resentment she felt toward Baba.

My chest hurt from the tears I bottled up inside.

Later that morning, I walked with Ma to Shibpur Market, an uneven road with open stalls and shops on both sides. A wet market had cropped up overnight and it was busy with shoppers and display baskets overflowed with fresh produce brought in from the surrounding villages.

Ma carried her handbag against her chest and lifted the hem of her sari well above her ankles to avoid the bloody puddles around the fish stalls. Silver fish scales floated in the water, leaving behind a luminous trail. Bicycle bells rang and a rickshaw came so close to us I smelt the pungent sweat on the driver’s skin.

‘Stay close,’ Ma said, without taking her eyes off the road ahead.

We approached a narrow shop with a glass phone booth. Bold red lettering read BALARAM’S STD CALLS. Lowest Rates. A man with thick, meaty hands sat on a stool and drank tea from a glass. Gold rings glinted on several of his fingers.

‘International call?’ he asked Ma as he slurped his tea.

‘No, Calcutta,’ she said. He took her money and pointed her to the phone booth.

‘Wait here.’ Ma took a folder out of her bag.

‘Will you be calling Baba?’ I whispered so the shopkeeper would not hear.

She said nothing, handed me her bag, and went inside the phone booth with her folder.

She made her phone call. I knew it must be something important from the way she waved her hands as she spoke. She raised her voice, and I jumped forwards and shut the booth door.

The thick handed shopkeeper came out from behind the counter holding his empty tea glass.

‘You from the city?’

I nodded but added nothing. He spat a jet of yellow saliva into the dust around the shop front.

I stepped away.

Next door, chickens squawked inside a stack of crates. A bare bodied man sat on a stool sharpening a bloody knife against a block of wood and haggled with a customer. As he got up, the birds fluttered and screeched. He reached inside a crate and pulled out a chicken by its neck, then placed the struggling bird on his wooden block and brought down his cleaver in one swoop.

The dismembered chicken head rolled away into the dust.

I watched as the headless chicken slipped off the chopping board, flapped its wings, and ran about. The chicken shop owner threw back his head and laughed.

‘It happens every time,’ he said.

The last thing I noticed before I fainted was the streak of chicken blood across his face, like war paint.


Ma stopped taking me to the market to make phone calls after that day. She stayed home a lot and brooded and wrote long letters to her lawyers and spent the afternoons crying about how unlucky she was and how she should have known this would happen all along.

Confined to the house, I was left to my own devices and after lunch each day, I’d head to my window seat to wait for the hibiscus thief to appear. I made sure I was well hidden, and watched, enraptured by her bony arms and bare feet and the stealthy efficiency with which she plucked the blossoms off the tree as if she owned it. Once or twice I’d even crept out into the garden to see if I might get closer to observe her, but she was always too quick for me. I never got there in time.

‘What on earth do you get up to back there?’ Ma asked one afternoon.

She was sitting cross-legged on the bed surrounded by sheafs of papers. It was already the end of June by then; grey monsoon clouds gathered every morning followed by rain showers. There was a fresh breeze blowing through the house that day.

‘I read books,’ I said, and showed her the pile of books I held in my arms, but she took no notice.

‘I got a letter from your Baba today.’ She held up a piece of blue paper and looked at me with that familiar downturn of her mouth.

‘Is he coming to visit us?’ I said.

Truth was, I spent a lot of my time fantasising about my parent’s reconciliation and wrote letters to Baba, pleading for his return. I hadn’t gotten around to posting even one yet, but each day I hoped he’d just walk through the gates of my grandparent’s house to collect us.

But none of this, of course, happened.

‘No, Layla.’ Ma chewed the corner of her thumbnail as she spoke. ‘He’s busy with work. He has a new job, you see.’

I knew she wasn’t telling the whole truth because I’d pried into her mail and seen a letter from a law firm last week. Their marriage was ending on the grounds of an ‘irretrievable breakdown.’ I didn’t quite understand what it meant, but I knew it wasn’t about Baba’s new job.

‘Okay, that’s good,’ I said. ‘Maybe he’ll come next week.’

I excused myself and went to my window seat to wait for the hibiscus thief.

She was always on time.


An afternoon in mid-July, almost a month after I first saw her, the thief didn’t appear. I waited, flipping through the pages of a Tintin comic book. It was past three o’clock, her usual time.

I shifted on the window seat, craning my neck so I could see right up past the gates, then I got up and went outside and stood alone beneath the hibiscus tree. Perhaps today would be the perfect day for me to come face to face with her, I thought. In the garden, the air was full of insects and the ground felt mushy and soft beneath my feet. The gate moved a bit and a lame dog slunk in, its teats sagging, scraping the ground. I hoped the hibiscus thief would follow, but she didn’t. The dog sat and licked its hind leg and then disappeared behind the house.

I waited until the Shibpur temple bells chimed the evening prayer, followed by the hollow echo of conch shells. When I went back to the house, I heard Ma stirring from sleep, followed by the whoomph and click of the stove being switched on in the makeshift kitchen under the stairs.

That evening, I tore up all the letters I’d written to Baba.


Soon after that, things moved quickly, and more changes came our way.

‘Layla, I’ve found a job,’ Ma said.

It was a morning at the end of July. I’d nothing better to do so was playing with the stray cat in the courtyard again. I had scratches all over my arms. It turned out the cat didn’t like being held, but I did it anyway.

Ma stood beside the old metal hand pump and waved a paper before her. ‘It just arrived in the post,’ she said.

‘What?’ I trailed the string I’d tied to a stick along the ground.

‘A job,’ she said. ‘Now we can leave this dump and go back to Calcutta.’

‘Will we go back home?’

‘We’ll have a new home, sweetie,’ Ma said. She never called me sweetie. It sounded false. ‘And you’ll be going to a new school, too.’

I wanted to ask her if Baba would be with us, but I knew by then what the answer would be.

‘You’re going to make new friends,’ she said. The cat whacked the tissue I’d tied to the end of the string. ‘God knows you need to get out of here.’ She curled her upper lip in disgust. ‘You’re turning quite feral.’

The cat rubbed itself against my knees.

‘Come inside for breakfast,’ she said, ‘and make sure you wash your hands.’


My mother’s new job was in an advertising firm, and we moved to Behala, a neighbourhood not far from Gurusaday Road where we’d lived before.

In the months that followed, Baba never visited us in our new apartment, which was small and poky and nothing like the one we’d lived in before, with a narrow living room that looked onto a busy market street.

Once Ma said she was going out to meet Baba. She didn’t take me with her, even though I asked. ‘Your Baba and I need to discuss a few things alone,’ she said. She wore her best pearl earrings and high heels.

When she got back, she didn’t tell me anything, kicked off her shoes in the cramped hallway and went into her bedroom.

‘Never marry someone you’ve only known for a few months,’ she said later as we sat down with our dinner trays in front of the television.

The smudge of hope I’d held onto of my parents getting back together was gone.

I changed homes, school, friends, all in one summer. By autumn, I had my set of front door keys and, after school, made my way back to an empty apartment. On weekends, I visited Baba, who had moved to the North of the city to an apartment not unlike the one my mother and I lived in.

From then onwards, my life was split in two. Two halves of the city, two homes, two sets of keys.


It was over a year before we visited the house in Shibpur again. I was now a gawky twelve-year-old. I wore braces, which made my mouth sore.

It was the tail end of summer. The house seemed unchanged. I was sure the creepers had grown taller against the walls and some second-floor windows were missing. There was a signboard stuck on the front wall. JODHUNATH CONSTRUCTIONS, it read. Ma informed me that the house had been sold and my grandparents would soon move out to a small apartment close by.

As I walked through the rusted gate, I noticed that the hibiscus tree was no longer there. All that was left was a cracked stump.

‘Lightning struck it in the storm at the end of last summer,’ my grandfather told me when I asked.

I sat beside him on the front porch on a rickety green bench.

‘Do you remember the thief who’d sneak in and steal all the flowers?’ I said.

‘Thief?’ He looked confused.

‘Yes, she came in each afternoon that summer we came to stay and stole all the hibiscus flowers.’ I swung my legs back and forth. ‘Do you remember?’

My grandfather took out his snuffbox and pinched the powder between his thumb and forefinger. His hand shook as he brought it to his nose and inhaled. A few specks of the powder fell on the front of his starched white shirt. ‘There was no thief, Layla,’ he said. ‘Probably just your imagination.’

I said nothing. I guessed no one would believe me because no one else had seen her. Maybe I’d imagined it after all.


The day before we were due to go back to the city, Ma and I walked to the Shibpur Market. It was early evening and some shops already had on fluorescent lights.

‘I need to let out the hem of some of your skirts,’ Ma said. ‘It’s cheaper to buy thread here.’ Ma had become quite frugal these days. ‘I wish you’d stop slouching, Layla.’ She poked me between the shoulder blades. She couldn’t resist.

I straightened my shoulders and then dropped them when she wasn’t looking.

We headed to a shop at the far end of the street, well away from the phone booth and the poultry shop.

On the corner of Shibpur Market, a beggar woman sat on an empty chicken crate.

‘Spare some change, dear,’ she croaked. I stopped before her, but Ma walked ahead without me and disappeared into a general store.

The beggar rattled a basket in which were a few paltry coins.

‘Can you spare some change for an old woman?’ This time she looked up at me and although her face was half hidden in evening shadows, it stirred in me a memory, so I bent down to see her more clearly. She was somewhere in her sixties and even in the twilight gloom, I noticed a familiar sadness in her lined features. It was the hibiscus thief.

‘Hello,’ I said and crouched down so my face was close to hers.

She shrunk back. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘Do I know you?’

I wanted to ask her if she remembered coming to our garden, and why she’d stopped, but before I could say anything, Ma called me from the shop up ahead. ‘Layla, stop dawdling and come here.’

‘I’m coming Ma.’ I reached into my pocket and took out a compact bundle of notes that Baba had given me as pocket money the last time I’d visited. His guilt served me well.

I dropped the entire bundle into the beggar’s basket.

‘God bless you, child.’ She touched the notes to her forehead.

I hurried on without turning.

On our way back from the market, the hibiscus thief was gone. There was nothing to show that she’d even existed except my empty purse and the upturned chicken crate.

We walked back to the house in the soft blue light of the evening.

‘I think next summer you’ll be old enough to visit your grandparents on your own, don’t you think?’ Ma said as we turned into the gate.

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I will be.’

Ma went in and I stayed behind for a while, staring at the burnt stump of the hibiscus tree.

Then I followed her inside.




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