Sundar Dadi was completely unlike her name. She was dark skinned and wrinkly. Her hair was a mix of white & yellow due to henna which she had stopped applying ages ago. A little bent with age she had a very peculiar grin because of her paan stained lips and two gold teeth which showed when she gleefully smiled.
Sundar Daadi was the maid in a big household in the old city of Lucknow. Though she had retired and new servants had taken over. Sundar Daadi remained with the family as an integral part. She was like a watchdog, keeping an eye on the toddlers and the only person who could gather the entire gang of children in one call. The children adored her. She always had an interesting story up her sleeve which she would tell while applying oil to the children’s hair. Even the family dog ‘Tiger’ would follow her everywhere around the house.
One day the children were being extra naughty and not listening to their mothers at all. It was way past their bed time but the frequent power cuts kept them awake in the sultry Lucknow summer.
“Come along children I will oil your hair and tell you a story!”
All the children started jumping around her, “Sundar Dadi, me first … please oil my hair first.” But Sundar shook her head.
“I will first apply oil to Vidya’s hair. Come here.” she ordered the eldest of the kids. Vidya too dutifully obeyed and sat before Sundar.
The customary oil application with a story was about to start. The children tried to sit around Sundar choosing the best space possible. Just as Sundar was about to start the story, Vidya’s ten year old brother Viju naughtily asked, “Sundar Dadi, why is your name Sundar?”
Ignoring the children’s smirks, Sundar picked the bottle of oil as she said, “Don’t be deceived by my appearance, I was so beautiful once, that everyone who saw me was mesmerized. My mother used to work in the Nawab’s palace in those days and I used to play in the palace grounds while she worked. One day the Nawab’s Begum saw me and she christened my name as Sundar.”
The children looked at her in disbelief.
“What … you don’t believe me. Come to my home someday I will show you the Begum’s picture with me sitting on her lap when I was four years old.”
“Sundar Dadi, why did your mother stop working in the palace? We could have visited the palace, if she still worked there.” said Shraddha, the six year old.
Sundar smiled at the child and said, “But she worked in the palace till her death. Even I worked for the Begum when I reached a teenage, but then I fell in love.”
The children looked at her in disbelief.
“You know, I was once married to a jewel thief! And that to a very famous one of our time.” she said, with a twinkle in her eyes.
“Children, I have never told anybody about this and I hope you will keep my secret.”
The children nodded their heads vigorously in agreement.
Sundar started telling the story, “It so happened that I was around fifteen, working in service of the Begum along with my mother. A lot of rumors about a jewel thief were rife around Lucknow and Faizabad. Everyone had theories about who he could be but in reality no one had seen him. As months passed, the thief’s targets shifted from business men & jewelers to the distant royals. One fine day the thief targeted the Nawab’s palace. This was unimaginable. The Nawab’s Palace was extremely well guarded and surrounded by walls so high that no man could jump over it. The palace was like a maze and it was not easy for anyone to find their way out unless they knew it.
But for the jewel thief, it was a piece of cake. He entered the palace in the middle of the night and easily reached the gallery of the Begum’s courtyard. It was a hot summer night. Amma and I were sleeping in an open shed near the Begum’s room. The sound of a thud and rustle amongst the jasmine bushes woke me up. At first I was scared. I lay still for a while. Then as things were quite again, I gathered courage and got up to drink water. The pot was kept in the corner of the courtyard. I walked up to the corner and just peeped into the gallery. There he was, a stranger standing with a smile on his face, holding a bag. I froze. He too stood there looking at me … admiring my beauty.”
The children were by now too engrossed in her story to notice her naughty smile.
Sundar Daadi continued, “It was love at first sight, but within a moment he vanished. The palace guards came running. My mother & I were ushered into the Begum’s room to be with her. The Begum was wide awake and very upset. All her jewels from the dresser had vanished. The palace was sealed to question all the staff. Everybody was checked, but nothing was found. No one knew from where the thief came and how he left the palace. Nobody had seen him. But I !” said Sundar.
“So did you tell the Nawab about the thief, Sundar Dadi?” asked Shreya.
“Oh no, how could I? I was just fifteen. Nobody would have believed me. Actually nobody even asked me.” said Sundar in a disappointed tone.
“I remained quite. A lot of jewels and artifacts were missing. No one could answer how the thief entered and how did he exit with so many goods. Finally it was concluded that the thief was actually a magician or evil spirit who could float through any wall.”
“This rumor was spread by the palace guards more to get away with their incapability to catch the thief. But I knew. Yes, I knew he was for real. I could never forget his face,” Sundar sighed.
“And neither could he forget mine.”
The children were now excited. “Tell us more Sundar Dadi.” they exclaimed. No one remembered about the oil. So she continued massaging Vidya’s hair.
“Well the Begum was very upset after the theft, so the Nawab decided to send her to Hyderabad to her brother for a few days. Amma was to accompany her. I was not allowed. She asked me to stay back and take care of my younger siblings.”
“The trip that was supposed to be for a few days was extended for nearly a month as the Begum fell ill at Hyderabad.”
“Initially the arrangement seemed fine as I got a chance to roam around freely though I never went too far. One day I felt as if someone was watching me. I looked around, but could find no one. After that I always felt as if someone was watching.”
“One day I covered my face, took my grandmother’s walking stick, bent a little and walked out of the door. At first I thought I had deceived the watchful eyes, but just a few yards ahead, somebody jumped right in front of me and removed my veil. It all happened so fast that I could barely run away. I looked up at the tall silhouette, it was him. It was the Jewel Thief.”
I was scared and awed at the same time. “You can’t fool me, beautiful.” the jewel thief said. I remained silent. We started meeting every day.
Secretly I used to move out of the house while most of my younger siblings were away. We spent hours talking. He showered me with gifts. At first, it was flowers, then ribbons for my hair and glass bangles. Then one day he gifted me a pair of earrings. It was the first time he had given me something so expensive but it was a mistake.
He gifted me the earrings he stole from the Begum. I recognized them the very moment I saw. Suddenly the harsh reality struck me; I was in love with a Jewel Thief.
He understood and quietly kept the earrings back in his pouch. The same evening, a messenger from the Nawab’s palace came. The Begum was now well and would be returning in three days. I had been called upon to set the Begum’s room ready before her arrival.”
I was dismayed. The Begum’s arrival meant my mother was returning too. It meant that my clandestine meetings with the Jewel Thief would be over. Mother never left me alone. I had no time. I rushed to tell him everything. He smiled and asked me to return home.
He instructed me not to show any sign of recognition if I see him anywhere. I obeyed what he said.
A few days passed but nothing happened. Stories about the theft were now hushed. One day he arrived at the palace gates.
He looked quite different. He spoke to the guard and was soon taken in to meet the Nawab. I watched all this as I stood on the terrace – confused. A message was sent for the Begum to come and meet the Nawab’s guest. I was flabbergasted. How could a jewel thief come in as the Nawab’s guest?
I knew I had to keep quiet. And so I did!
The next thing I hear is Amma calling, “Get Ready Sundar. There is a proposal for you.”
Another maid announced that the Begum had summoned me to her room. I followed my mother. The Begum smiled at me and said, “I hope you are not annoyed Sundar, but we found a suitable match for you. There is a merchant outside who was approached by the jewel thief for selling my jewels. The moment he saw the pieces, he guessed they could not belong to a commoner and must be the ones stolen from the palace. Though the thief ran away but the clever merchant managed to save a few jewels from him. He came to return those today.”
I looked at the Begum but immediately turned away my eyes as I did not want her to see my amusement. How could the Nawab and his followers be fooled by such a story? Like always I kept quiet. I accompanied the Begum to the room where the Nawab attended his common guests and there he was sitting on the chair, really looking like a young merchant, eating an apple slice. I just stole a glance and he winked at me.
During their conversation he had mentioned to the Nawab that he in search of a young and beautiful bride. The Begum in a hurry to return his favor suggested my name. And so there I was standing amused before the man I loved and no one knew that they had just become pawns once again to the Jewel Thief.
We were married within a week. The Nawab and his Begum were kind enough to arrange for the necessities. One night before our marriage, I thought of telling my mother about the jewel thief as I felt guilty about lying to her. But I could not bring myself to it. I believed I could change him after marriage.
Our initial years were bliss. I could not have been happier. He tried his hand at many other things and we lived comfortably but soon, he seemed to be withdrawn. It seemed as I was binding him. And then I realized that he wanted to steal again.
It was not as if we were in need of money, but stealing jewels was an art for him. It gave him a thrill that no other work would. At first I ignored thinking his feeling to return to his old profession would pass. But as time went by, he became more & more depressed. It was then that I knew he would never be happy unless he remains a jewel thief. And so I told him one day, “Dear, no matter how much you love me, you will always love your profession more. And I want you to be happy, so go back to doing what you are best at.”
He looked at me, surprised but relieved. “If I go back to stealing, I will be putting you in danger. After all you are my wife.” he said.
I smiled, “No, I was actually a beautiful jewel that you wanted to steal. I now understand that you really never stole for the jewels. You stole for the thrill.” He smiled and said, “I know I chose the right one. But I forgot how wrong I was for you.” But I had decided I will not come in his way. So that night he packed his bags. When I woke up next morning, he had left. On my night stand was a pair of earrings; the same earrings which he had stolen from the Nawab’s palace. I understood what this meant. He did not want me to go back home. He wanted me to stay so that he could come and meet me. But now I was in a dilemma, how would I fend for myself. Gradually I took up work here and there. He did come sometimes, but as the grip on finding the jewel thief grew; he moved away to greener pastures.
My good for nothing brother and his wife shifted with me after my mother died. Somehow my brother knew that I had married the Jewel Thief. Maybe he remembered our talks from earlier days as he used to linger around when I secretly met him. He and his wife believed that I might have some hidden treasure left by my husband and tried to search every nook and corner of the house.
But I was smart. The older I grew they became more frustrated as they could not locate even a dime, let alone some jewel. I supported their children though. In fact they studied in the same school where your grandmother – Principal Didi taught. That is how I ended up working here since your mother was of Shreya’s age.” said Sundar as she finally tied Vidya’s hair.
“But Dadi,” exclaimed Shreya, “What about the Begum’s earrings? Did your brother take them? Did you sell them off?”
“Not at all, I alone had the right to use them. And nobody, not even my brother had the right to tell me what I should do with them. So I followed my heart and hid them.” replied Sundar.
“But Dadi, where did you hide the earrings?” the children asked in chorus.
Sundar Dadi gleefully smiled showing her two Gold Teeth.
 Sundar is an Indian name meaning Beautiful
 Dadi – Grandmother in Hindi Language
 Paan – Betel Leaf
 A Muslim Noble Man/ Royalty or a person of high status