The newly weds were still living with ramshackle old furniture and gadgets ~ different pieces collected over the years that my son had spent as a graduate student in Cambridge, Massachusetts. So the first duty as a doting parent was to take them to the nearest Ikea store and pick up all the pieces they needed to make their home cheerful and comfortable. The truckload of new boxes arrived soon and it was fun reading the instructions and assembling the pieces as if we were grown up children having fun with Lego toys. Then arose the million dollar question. How do we dispense the old stuff? Finding buyers for such hand-me-downs was a painful exercise. We could not leave them on the sidewalk or the dumpster next to the house. The city authorities would charge us a fee even to remove them. Suddenly someone suggested that we put up an announcement in the local Craig's list.
The posting on the list via the internet was done around 9 o'clock at night. We wanted to give away for free a microwave oven, and particularly a queen-size box spring bed with the mattress. Within half an hour my daughter-in-law Mou's phone went on ringing continuously and the mailbox flooded with queries. What was the condition of the mattress? Was it bug infested? Could we send some pictures of the articles? Within no time even that was done. The camera came out, and pictures of the bed and the mattress taken from different angles were posted, along with the information. They looked so attractive; I took out a needle and thread and stitched up the frayed corners of the mattress. Mou was thrilled. She kept on assuring every caller that things would be donated strictly on a first-come first-serve basis and she could not promise we could hold them for anyone in particular till the evening. She spent the rest of the night cleaning the microwave to make it appear as shiny as possible.
Just after breakfast next morning a young couple arrived to pick up the fifteen-year old GE microwave oven. Mou heated a cup of water to show them that it was working, albeit a little slowly. “Oh, we'll take it,” said the young man and they were off in no time. The kitchen counter stood empty, as if waiting for the new oven to be unpacked from its box. The queries for the mattress went on unabated. “Sorry, you will have to take the metal frame of the bed too. We can't give you only the mattress,” I overheard Mou on the phone. One lady was desperately asking her to hold it till seven o'clock at night as she would need someone with a big car to come and pick it up after office hours.
Around five o'clock a tall African American man arrived in an old big car to take away the free gifts. He spoke very little but was well prepared with a bundle of ropes to tie the mattress on the roof of the car. Mou welcomed him like a royal guest and brought him inside the house. Within a few minutes and with the help of another person whom he had brought along with him, he managed to pack the things in his car in a very professional manner. As he was about to leave, Mou ran after him with a nice looking pink bag. “Sir, please wait. I would also like to give you a mixer/grinder for free. It leaks a little but you can still use it. Please take it.” The man nodded and accepted it. Good riddance, I thought and was reminded of the slogan we hear in our shopping malls nowadays --“Take one and take something else for free.”
Cheering ourselves for such efficient disposal and the generosity we had showered on lesser mortals, we chafed away in the front living room till my son returned from his lab at around eight. After hearing about the whole day's events from us he went inside and soon came back to the living room. “Where's my laptop? I had left it next to the bed for recharging.” Sure enough the laptop had disappeared and the mesh of the bedroom window was slightly open. We were stunned. How could such a thing happen when three people were still in the house? I clearly remembered that Mou had brought in the stranger though the kitchen door when I was sitting working at my own laptop on the dining table. As I tried to figure out what had happened, I chanced to look at the chair next to the dining table. Sure enough the plug and the chords were all in place but my own new Samsung Notebook had also made a decent exit. The rest of the night was spent in anxiety, tension and narrating to the local police what had happened. “This is a safe area you know,” the policeman said, “but never let a stranger in the house.” Well so much for charity!
Somdatta Mandal is Professor of English at Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan.