Birthdays are for the birds!
A pair of strong arms did declare
“We can fly with one leg, without care!
The impossible dream isn’t far
To reach the unreachable star
We’ll conquer the world if you dare!”
Sally Benson was about to help Lalli down the steps of the school bus when her twelve-year-old charge grabbed her crutches and hurried as quickly as she could into the house. It was 3:30 in the afternoon. In two hours, she would be crossing the road to celebrate the birthdays of two very dear friends, Mi-hi and Kumuda. But first she had to wrap the gifts she had bought after weeks of searching for the perfect gifts. She had finally had to consult the birthday girls’ dads. And now she knew she had the most perfect gifts ever!
Amma helped Lalli into an outfit she had bought for the party: dark blue chinos that would actually go over her PROSTHETIC leg, and a navy floral print tee. At exactly 5:29 Lalli and Nitin were ready to leave. They could hear sounds of music from across the street. Lalli wasn’t too happy about her kid brother tagging along.
“Does he have to?” she had grumbled to their parents. “They are my friends! And he’ll just …”
But Nanna and Amma had INSISTED. Grown-ups always insisted.
“Learn to be more RESPONSIBLE, Lalli! You’re not a baby anymore!”
Lalli had sulked for a minute, then relented. She suddenly remembered how Nitin had been EXTRAORDINARILY supportive during those first awful weeks after the ACCIDENT. Well, not that he wasn’t a brat now.
“But he’ll just …”
Nitin had stuck his tongue out at her. Lalli had grinned and stopped whining.
They crossed the street to their friends’ home. There was no way Lalli could keep up with Nitin. He and his two legs! He bolted across the street. But she was pretty quick with her crutches too. Dr. Sandburne had given her a whole list of exercises to increase her mobility. She had to admit that she had been very scared of returning to school, but her classmates’ super enthusiastic welcome had chased away all her fears. Her homeroom teacher Ms. Gatsby had called her a second Jessica Cox.
“Jessica was born without arms. She does everything using her feet as you children would use your hands: she flies planes, drives cars, does all the normal, everyday things you and I would do using our hands and feet. And today, Jessica holds the titles of the first person without arms in the American Tae Kwon-Do Association to get a black belt, and the first woman pilot in aviation history to fly using her feet.”
“Awesome!” the class had gasped.
At home Amma and Nanna had found a different name for her: Rabiya.
Nanna had shown her a photograph of Rabiya receiving a National Youth Award in 1993:
“Her name is Kariveppil Rabiya. Polio crippled both her legs when she was only seventeen. But that has not prevented her from becoming a social worker. She has been tirelessly campaigning to educate more adults, especially women in her home state of Kerala, and elsewhere in India.”
“She is bound to her wheelchair, but she is one of the most amazing women I have known,” Amma had added. “I met her a few years ago in Kerala – you know where Kerala is, right?”
“Yes, Amma! It’s in South India!” Lalli said in a resigned voice.
“Just checking! So – I visited schools funded by a volunteer organization that Rabiya started in Kerala. The school is for physically and mentally challenged children.”
“That’s so cool! I’ll do something like that too, right, Amma? You know what? I’ll make PROSTHETICS for all the poor kids all over the world who can’t afford them. I’ll study science and invent something, and have pots and pots of money, and …”
Her parents’ grins had stopped her in her tracks.
“You think that’s funny?”
Her Nanna had quickly placed an apologetic hand on her head.
“We weren’t laughing at you, Lalli kanna. We love your passion, your Amma and I. It just makes us smile to hear you describe your ambitious plans.”
“I know, I know,” Lalli had admitted. “I talk too much. But …” Her face had brightened again. “But wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could create a new kind of PROSTHETIC leg that would look exactly like a real leg, with nerves and veins and all?”
She had looked down at her shiny new leg and had stroked it lovingly:
“Not that this leg isn’t awesome.”
The front door of their friends’ home was wide open. As they entered the living room clutching gifts for Mi-hi and Kumuda, Lalli saw hundreds of balloons that had floated up to the ceiling, declaring in bold red letters:
“Mi-hi and Kumuda – HAPPY TWELFTH BIRTHDAY!”
The girls’ parents Ronald Armstrong and Anuraag Kulkarni were really cool. Of course, her own parents were okay, too. But Ronald and Anuraag – they were something else. For Halloween they had transformed their house into a haunted mansion with screeches and howls and rattling skeletons. And the four of them had dressed up as the Addams Family. They were definitely Lalli’s most favorite neighbors. No, that wasn’t quite true. Old Mr. Steave in the house bang opposite to theirs was wonderful too. He was a MENNONITE. She remembered how after the ACCIDENT (this word had been life-changing for her) when she was confined to a wheelchair, she had begun seeing the old man, really seeing him. She had not only helped distract him from grieving over his dead wife, but had uncovered a mystery that had allowed him to keep his house and even gain a new family.
Lalli was curious about her friends having two men for parents. But Amma and Nanna had explained what gay meant. A man could love another man, just like Amma and Nanna loved each other. It was called HOMOSEXUALITY (homo meant genus – she had learned all about AUSTRALOPITHECINE, HOMO HABILIS, HOMO ERECTUS, AND HOMO SAPIENS in science class). But because only a woman was BIOLOGICALLY equipped to give birth to a baby, Ronald and Anuraag had adopted Mi-hi and Kumuda. They had also exchanged MARITAL vows the previous year. In fact, Lalli’s friend Sharon knew all about it. Her dad, a JUSTICE OF THE PEACE, had performed the ceremony.
“How come they have a birthday, like, on the same day? Are they, like, twins or something?” Nitin had asked her the previous evening.
“No, silly! Mi-hi is Korean, and Kumuda is from South-Asia. They were ABANDONED by their mothers. That means, their mothers couldn’t look after them,” Lalli explained, an ‘I-am-your-older-sister-I –know-so-much-more’ tone tingeing her voice. “Ronald found Mi-hi at a local hospital in Seoul when working as an interpreter for the US army in Yongsan Garrison in Seoul. And Anuraag discovered Kumuda in New Delhi when someone took her from the auto-rickshaw where her mom had left her to an ORPHANAGE.”
“So they were, like, born on the same day? That’s so COOL!!!”
‘No, Dumbo! Since Anuraag and Ronald didn’t know when exactly Mi-hi and Kumuda were born, they just chose a day – RANDOMLY.”
“Wow! Wish I could, like, choose my birthday rand… what you said!” Nitin had exclaimed. “My birthday nobody’s, like, around! A summer birthday sucks!”
They heard excited voices. Kumuda and Mi-hi rushed in from the kitchen to greet them. Kumuda ripped open the gift that Lalli’s dad Sastri Mantha had wrapped so carefully.
“Wow!” Kumuda cried out. “A set of Nancy Drew mysteries! Cool! Thank you, guys!”
She looked over at her sister.
“What’d you get? Come on, sis, hurry up!”
Mi-hi glared at her sister. She placed her ear against the wrapped box and listened intently. Frowning, she sat down on the carpet, tenderly untied the bow, and carefully peeled off the tape that kept the wrapping paper together. Kumuda hid her face in her hands, unable to bear the suspense. Lalli’s face tightened as Mi-hi removed what looked like an old-fashioned mechanical typewriter. She jumped up and clapped her hands delightedly.
“COOL! The best gift ever!”
She ran up to Lalli and hugged her tightly.
Kumuda and Nitin shouted as one:
“What is it?”
“It’s an En…”
Ronald and Anuraag came into the room at this moment.
“… Enigma Machine!” Anuraag exclaimed. “You did it, Lalli! Give me five!”
They excitedly raised their hands.
“The enig… machine … what, like, what does it do?”
Mi-hi lovingly touched the keys and said, all the while looking at her parents for confirmation:
“Enigma Machine, Nitin. It looks like a typewriter, but it’s a very so-phis-ti-ca-ted device. The Germans made it during the Second World War, right dad?”
She looked at Anuraag who nodded encouragingly.
“So how, like, how does it work?” Nitin persisted impatiently.
“When you press a letter, the cipher letter lights up on the screen. The Enigma machine has several wheels that connect letters with wires. That determines which cipher letter will light up.”
“Go ahead, Mi-hi! I know you can’t wait to try it out,” Anuraag said lovingly. “Come, kids. Gather around.”
“The Germans used very sophisticated technology to create a machine with which they could send messages that would be practically impossible to decipher. In fact, do you know that our present-day computer is the direct descendant of the Enigma Machine?”
Lalli asked: “The Germans sent codes to spy on us?”
He bent down and gently removed the machine from Mi-hi’s unwilling hands.
“Look here. See how the wheels inside are placed? They are the key to figuring out the messages. When you know in what order the wheels are placed, you can break the code. Each wheel rotates after a certain number of letters are typed, so the cipher is continuously changing within a message. And that makes it much harder to encipher the messages.”
“Wow! You didn’t tell me all this when I asked you what Mi-hi would like for her birthday, Anuraag!” Lalli gasped. “I know you are an expert CRYPTOGRAPHER. But when you said you could get this machine from someone who collects World War II souvenirs, I really truly didn’t know what to expect!”
Anuraag plugged the machine into a wall socket.
“See how it lights up? We can play with it later on. But …”
“Dad?” Mi-hi tugged Anuraag’s sleeve impatiently.
“Yes, Mi-hi, you may take it into my study. I know you want to try it out. It’s an old machine. I’ve replaced the old frayed cord with a new one. So, we’re all set to go!”
Mi-hi smiled, unplugged and picked up the machine with Anuraag’s help, and they carried it into the study. She didn’t remove her eyes once from the machine, even as her dad gently pushed her down into a chair. He looked lovingly at this twelve-year-old girl who never ceased to amaze him with her extraordinary ability to focus on things. He planted a kiss on her head, and returned to a chaotic scene: kids were piling into the living room, Ronald was darting here and there, desperately trying to manage food, kids, and gifts.
“Anuraag, help!” he yelled. They hurried into the kitchen and carried back two cakes, one chocolate – Kumuda’s favorite – and the other a mousse cake with a caramel topping – Mi-hi’s favorite. Twelve candles graced the top of each one. Lalli looked around. The couple stood back with a sigh of relief.
“Time to get that absentee daughter of ours,” Ronald said with a smile. “I’ll go get her.”
“Wait!” Lalli cried out. “Let me! I want to see how long it’ll take her to hear me!”
“Okay, Lalli! Thanks!”
Lalli guided her crutches to the study, pushed the door open, and yelled:
“Mi-hi! Come on! Everyone’s waiting!”
There was no reply. The room was empty, the window open.
“Just like her to wander off into the garden, just to play with that new toy!”
She went up to the window.
“She must be hiding in that tree-house Ronald built for them.”
She hopped back into the living room.
“Ronald, Anuraag! She’s hiding. Has to be the tree-house, right?”
“I’ll get her.”
He came back a few minutes later with Mi-hi in tow:
“I had to carry her out of that tree-house!”
“Oh dad, stop!” Mi-hi protested. “But you know what? I’ve already figured out at least twenty different permutations and combinations!”
“Sure, you have, young lady!” Ronald said. “But haven’t you forgotten something?”
“Forgotten?” Mi-hi looked at him in surprise. “What?”
“Do you know why all your friends and your family are gathered here?”
“Oh, oh!” Mi-hi smiled, a dimple appearing in each cheek. “Sorry, dads! Sorry, sis!”
A few minutes later two happy faces blew out twenty-two
candles. Admiringly sticky mouths and hands surrounded Mi-hi as she
demonstrated the wonders of the Enigma Machine.
 ‘Dad’ and ‘Mom’ in the Telugu language of Southern India.
 Kariveppil Rabiya (born 1966) is a physically challenged social worker from Vellilakkadu, Malappuram, Kerala in India, who rose to prominence through her role in the Kerala State Literacy Campaign in Malappuram district in 1990. Her efforts were recognized at a national level by the Government of India on multiple occasions. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K._V._Rabiya)
 See Lalli’s Window by the same author!