I first stepped into school in 2001 in senior K.G. I hated going to that school, or any school for that matter. I despised the big open gardens, the cozy classrooms and the beautiful teachers smiling sweetly down at me.
Just like any other kid, my 5-year old brain searched for excuses. Groping for anything in the dark dreams of school corridors.
What came my way was a fairly reasonable excuse- which I believed would convince my parents to reconsider their actions of sending me to school which was half-an-hour away from home. The previous school had been mere 5-minutes away. I complained of the long distance.
“It is so hot in the afternoon on the scooter. I feel hungry half-way. I get so bored!” I bickered persistently.
But you know how parents are.
They can find solutions to all your problems. Even those you do not want an answer to! That is exactly what my parents did. They hired me a school auto. And a smart move it was! All my woes vanished with the shudder of the starting engine!
I had didis and bhaiyas and a teacher as companions. The teacher never allowed me to sit on the corner seat scaring me with ideas such as this,
“You might doze off and fall out and none would notice and you will be lying on the road until a ‘policewala’ carried you off somewhere.”
That was the end of it. She occupied my desired seat and dozed off herself, her mouth half open and her bun of hair undone.
The elder students created enough nuisances too. Rolling newspapers and hawking them off to passers-by on the traffic signals, howling songs and falling about in pure ecstasy, imagining pencils to be swords and fighting like brave knights in a war were there favorite pastime. Once, they went as far as to write on a piece of paper, ” a thief will break into your house tonight” , crumpling and tossing it into a passing house. I had not found it funny.
The ‘autowala’ was a drunkard, so I was informed much later. One rainy day, his auto stopped working and he dared to leave us standing on the roadside while he drove to the nearest mechanic. We had stood there, splashing dirty water on our bare knees as people stared shamelessly. He was gone ten minutes and my first thought had been, “He has gone for good, taking my bag and books and the new Tiffin box!” I had recalled my father’s number in my head, preparing for the worst. He did come back though, our things intact and I remember considering him nice.
This was one particular incident which had enthralled me. Though, it failed to create the desired appeal in my parents when I narrated it to them. They were, on the other hand, completely horrified. The teacher added fuel to fire by arriving at my house one fine day and announcing, “ The autowala drinks” thus putting an end to yet another thing. For me, it meant the end of excitement. What I didn’t realize was, that excitement, with all its features, was there down the road, rubbing his hands, waiting for me to arrive.
My parents proceeded to enroll me in the school bus. I despised the very idea for two reasons. I missed the auto. I suffered from motion sickness. The first day in the bus was a disaster- as my first day anywhere is. The bus was over-crowded, over-noisy and basically, anti-me. I was unable to find a decent seat for me or my sister, Rewa, let alone a window seat. I felt nauseated and spent the whole way pushing down the thing in my throat, chewing frantically on toffees and mouth fresheners. I couldn’t spot a familiar face in the bus, which made matters worse.
This was everyday in my first month in the bus.
After that, things changed. Miraculously, my motion sickness left me and life in the bus took a turn. I was making new friends and playing ‘rock-paper-scissions’ and ‘catch’ before I realized it. Soon, I began to refer myself as a part of the bus’ ‘family of 40’! This family, like every other had elders and younger and among the elders, there were nice elders and not-so-nice elders. One such ‘nice’ elder, my favorite, was Sapna. She and her sister Alpana were the last to get off the bus and thus, she acted more or less as a head. Nobody dared to go against her. She had many titles to herself- ‘badi wali didi’, ‘dantne wali didi’, ‘chashme wali didi’. She decided to add another feather to her cap by becoming the ‘kahani wali didi’.
She lay before us, a proposal.
“I will tell you a story daily if each one of you meditates for 5 minutes from the school to Yash’s house.”
Now, this may seem easy, but meditation was something each child would readily exchange for an hour of extra homework. These minutes of closed eyes stretched like years. Seasons changed outside and the calendar pages flipped past. Still, we agreed unanimously because the reward was a story and she had a casket full of them. She kept her word and each afternoon, her voice would take us to faraway unknown places to meet unknown people across mountains and oceans and over vast stretch of plains. She left us open mouthed, food half-way. Driver uncle had to shout twice, “Kaustubh, will you EVER get down?”
According to me, the children in the bus could be classified among two categories, ‘weird’ and ‘interesting’. One such entry going into the ‘interesting’ category was my friend-Vibhuti . She was tall and cute and chubby. She had round eyes and a curly brown bush for hair. Every one preferred to stand an arm away from her because as she was strong and held the capacity to knock people off their feet. On the other hand, was Yash –her exact opposite. He was small and tiny-just skin and bones. Imagine two opposite forces colliding. What would the result be? A disaster of some sort.
The route was such that Yash was dropped just before Vibhuti and so she stood behind him, as he got down, to take her place near the gate. On that day, we were already late. The mighty Vibhuti was impatient with all the stuffy weather. We were getting edgy too. It was so hot and humid, we could have suffocated. When the bus stopped, Yash proceeded to extract his bag from the pile. On the first seat was the stack of our bags. Some smart kid has once suggested that we keep the bags in a serial wise descending order so that we just had to pick our bags from the top. As usual, no one paid any attention to this important idea. Thus, there he was squeezing his bag out. Since he was so skinny, it took him some time to hang it on his bony shoulders. Patience was beginning to wear off. His mother was standing ready to receive her little boy and wet him with kisses. Now, his bag was big and horizontal. He had to take support of the rod to stand still. As he got down the steps, the big bag got stuck between the two sides of the gate and would not let Yash get past. Nor did he have enough strength to turn back and take his bag off. He stood there , bewildered while we asked him to turn this way and that.
This was when the strong Vibhuti exhibited her daring. I like to imagine it in slow motion. Her hands flew back behind her as she raised one leg her mouth opened in a shout and she kicked the boy’s bag and sent him flying down in his mother’s arms. Her hands and leg then slowly came back to their original position. She had the calm of a great warrior on her face. All of this had occurred in a split second. We gasped allowed. Some of us were trying to stifle our laughter by bending on our knees and stuffing our fists in our mouth. Yash’s mother stood horrified and glared at Vibhuti, leaving her stuttering and stammering until the bus sped on. We then looked seriously at her and howled with laughter, re-enacting the scene until we were too tired to stand. The next morning, Yash, very generously, was busy narrating his own account of being kicked. That inspired me. The courage to laugh at yourself when you’re part of the joke!
We also had an unusual driver and conductor duo. Driver uncle- Ajmera Singh was from Haryana and had a cheerful aura around him. The conductor- Bhanwar Singh , was a layman to the core. For me, they were classic people with classic names!
Driver Uncle was adorably humorous-making a joke out of every situation. He called Kashish Vasandhani as Kashish Roshandani and likewise, Chandani became Chatnikhani! He used to pick up little children and haul them into the bus. He did not mind us singing and jumping around even when passers -by were staring at us! He smiled and patted us on the head if we drew images on the seat covers. He sometimes played Haryanvi songs on his stereo, cracked Haryanvi jokes and guffawed to himself!
Bhanwar Singh was different. He seemed nice and funny-but only to us. To the teachers and driver uncle, he was nothing but nuisance. “You are never serious, Bhanwar”, they complained. “You don’t care about your job or life. Grow up!” they chided him. He nodded solemnly and we knew he’d already forgotten half the talk! He often asked us for a part of our lunch and when the teachers glared at him, he quietly came to our window at the back of the bus and we smuggled him the eateries. He stuffed it all at once, winked and offered us his best grin. There were times- a lot of them- when he would forget that he had a job and the bus would leave without him, while he chatted away with a peon. Times like these, he would run for a considerable distance behind the bus , waving his hands madly until driver uncle took pity and a series of lecture would follow.
One day, he quit his job. Driver Uncle said he’d gone off to become a government school principal. I realized later that it wasn’t true. Which meant our dear conductor was still out there somewhere. I was happy for him. After all, he was Bhanwar, ‘a wild wind’.
I remember clearly, one fateful day. Driver Uncle was ill and so another driver had been hired for the day. We were all ready to go but the new driver was nowhere to be seen. Minutes passed. Still no sign. A teacher called the reception. Seconds later, a child came running,
“Shhh, Director Sir is coming!”
Our school director was a charismatic person with big mustaches, strong built and kind eyes. He scanned our faces, genuinely. To me, it seemed menacing. To our utter astonishment, he casually climbed into the driver’s seat as if it was the most natural thing in the world! And without as much as a glance at our wide-eyed faces, he turned the key and pulled the gear. You can imagine how silent the bus was. Some of us even bought out our course books and pretended to read as if that is all we did in the bus. We spotted the hired driver at a tobacco shop. Director Sir got down, there was a volley of shouted words, and he got in again. He followed the normal route dropping us of at the correct places (with some help, of course). He even waved the smaller ones, “Tata!”
I couldn’t help but stare at his back in the pure admiration.
The bus closed down when I was in the Seventh grade. It was sad. It was like the death of a royal family or the fall of an empire.
I realized, love and happiness were easy to find. In an auto. In a bus full of unknown people. I realized too, that people were better than they looked. That it was possible to laugh even when you were being kicked. And each one of us is equal. This was the reason why a driver could be gentleman, a director, a ‘sir’ could be a driver and a conductor was simply someone wanting to be free. The days in bus taught me that stories did come out to be true. That life was simple and easy at the end of the day and that there were seven happy dwarfs and beauty and beast and there were Hansel and Gretel and a house of cake.