She got out of the rickshaw , eyes wide open , looking around for familiar faces , while clutching her bag , lest her books drop off. Her mom had just stitched the bottom of the bag,this morning, to the best of her ability. Her father, a small diminutive man, who worked as a helper in the ICU unit of a private hospital, thanked the rickshaw driver and paid him the fare. She saw him staring at the school building like he had never seen a building in his life. She called out to him”Baba, come quick, we don’t have all day. Lets cross over.”
He replied “Hold my hand , there’s traffic,its not safe”.
Seeing him limp across to her, she almost shouted.
“You better take care of yourself, forget about me”. He reached her , stretched his hand out and then they crossed the road ,frightened like squirrels, as the vehicles zoomed past by.
It was a parent-teacher meeting ,that day at 9.00 am ,and the fourteen year old had felt a certain numbness a couple of days back , when the teacher had announced that she would meet the parents to discuss the academic progress of the students. She had just joined the school five months back and this was new to her. She had gone home, that day and told her mother ,who was busy washing clothes. Her mother in turn would tell her father, later that night.They had discussed this in hushed tones as she fell asleep on the bedding on the floor,next to her parents bed.
Their’s was a small one room unit ,where she and her five year old brother lived with her parents. Life was a constant struggle,and more often than not, she never got the things, she saw her class mates have. She had been asking her parents to buy her a new bag for a while now but they always said she would get it soon. That soon, of course, never saw light of day. Every time ,she mentioned the bag,her mother would frown while her father would give a reassuring smile,which frustrated her no end.
Now,as they entered the school corridor,she saw her classmates,strutting around with their well heeled mothers and fathers.The ladies were looking ever so beautiful,like the ones, she saw on TV, with their expensive perfumes and clothes,while most of the fathers looked dapper in their smart shirts,trousers and glares.She stared in awe of them.They had all come in big expensive cars,whereas her father did not even own a bicycle.She felt a flush of embarrassment and looked down at the floor.She hoped to God,no body would see her.She slowly walked towards her class ,glancing back, to see her father ,limp and straighten his shirt and collar,at the same time,comb his unruly wavy hair.He had an air of curiosity and in credulousness about himself,this morning.
They sat down on one of the chairs near the class entrance.None of the chairs were occupied though, since they were the first to reach.Her father sat down with an air of expectancy,eyes wild with excitement.She looked at him and asked”Baba, are you all right?”.
“Titli” he replied” I never knew your school was so big. The school ,I went to, was a one room set up,where more than seventy of us would squeeze ourselves.Of course, most of our studies happened on a slate with pieces of chalk and here you are,I am so proud of you.”
She looked at him ,almost feeling sorry for him.”Ok,Baba,the teacher,Mrs D’costa ,could tell you how I am faring in my subjects and give her opinion”.
“Thats fine,Titli ” he remarked.
“But what can you contribute,you don’t know anything about what happens at school” she blurted out.
“Titli,Don’t you worry,I will have a detailed conversation with Madam.A father needs to know how his daughter is faring.After all ,we are paying so much money for you to have a proper education” he surmised,looking all business.
She looked at him with her mouth open and shook her head.
Slowly,the parents and children started assembling around the class and occupying the seats,around them.She looked at them,feeling as if their eyes were boring into her.She saw them look at her and look at one another.A man sitting next to her Baba,puckered his nose and got up with a sigh,shaking his head.Her Baba sat with his eyes closed,slowly humming a tune.He opened his eyes to find a lady standing ,looking for a place to sit.He promptly got up and limped to the lady ,hands folded in a namaste and gestured to the lady to go and sit in his place.She looked at him with utter disdain and looked away.He came back with a smile on his face, closed his eyes and started humming again. Titli saw him and an anger enveloped over her.How did he even dare approach the woman?What did he think of himself?All this ,only to get insulted?
“Tell me ,what do you like most to learn,Is it learning languages or playing with numbers”he whispered to her.
She looked at him and said “Its biology,I like to read about the body and its parts ,I find it fascinating”.
Her baba looked at her and said “Our daughter is going to be a Doctor, eh” and started giggling,much to her embarrassment.His giggle turned into a full blown laugh and suddenly he was holding his sides as he launched into an uncontrollable frenzy.The people around him,looked at them in fascination ,most of them, suppressing a smile.
“Baba”,she noisily whispered,”Can you please behave .People are watching us”.
He looked at her and slapped her hand playfully,”Ok tell me,what are the most important body parts”.
She looked at him and his inquisitive eyes “Many of them, the brain,the heart ,the liver and the kidneys”.
“Ah,the kidneys “,he remarked”.”The kidney is the answer to many questions”.
“Yes, it performs several critical functions for the body’s well being”she agreed summarily.
The teacher had started calling the parents,one after the other.The routine was that, only the parents could meet the teacher ,while the ward stayed out of the class.They waited for their turn. She looked around, at the people and felt small.She did not belong here.How did she get here in the first place?and that too,in a Jesuit convent, of all places. She had asked her father many times but had always got one answer.”Titli ,you are the chosen one,God is kind ,make us proud”.
She was almost as good as the others in studies,but she often wondered,how much more she could progress.She was old enough to know that her father didn’t earn very much.He had to work odd hours to make ends meet.And her mother’s frequent complaints and soft cries in the dead of the night,were not lost on her.Her father was the opposite however,always,a smile on the face.Most people called him simple and stupid.She loved and hated him in equal measure,because of this.Now ,today,he was again making a fool of himself , slowly but surely.
“All people are good,beneath their skin,not above,only they don’t like to believe so”,suddenly he whispered to her.
With that, he got up and started limping towards the farthest corner, where the rude man who had cringed his nose, was sitting,working away on his mobile phone. Baba stood before him with folded hands as her eyes turned low towards her lap,fearing what was to follow next.She slowly raised her eyes to find the people in front looking towards her Baba’s direction.She followed their cue to find that both men had their hands intertwined with each other,talking softly.
After sometime,she saw her Baba stand up and put his hand on the man’s shoulder while,the man kept looking at the ground.He turned and look back,pointing at her.The man looked at her as well and waved at her,with a kind smile.She waved back gingerly.They both hugged then and her Baba hobbled back with a smile on his face.He sat down as she kept looking at him.”Baba,what did you say to that rude man,What just happened?”.Baba just sat there ,quietly smiling away.
After a few minutes,Baba spoke again. “Titli,you know people get angry with people because they are generally angry with themselves.You should let them be.”
With that he got up again and slowly walked to the lady who had refused to sit ,when he had offered her the chair.She looked on in amazement as Baba folded his hands,respectfully.The lady looked like she was going to explode in rage but as Baba started talking,suddenly her face went numb ,then tears started flowing through her eyes.After what seemed like eternity,the lady calmed down and gave a hint of a smile. Baba pointed at his daughter as the lady’s gaze followed him with a smile full of affection. Baba folded his hands and bowed down slightly before he started to walk back to his daughter,who continued to gape at him.
It was now time for their turn,as Ms D’costa called out her name.She was now beside herself with worry “Baba,just nod at anything she says. She does not understand Hindi very well and you won’t understand her , so please do not spend much time.”
Baba looked at her and smiled “Titli,I am here to know how you are doing and that I will. Don’t worry,the heart doesn’t need language .It can make the dumb speak and the deaf hear”.
He went in slowly as Ms D’costa regarded him carefully.She peeped in through the door to see silence at first, followed by Ms D ‘Costa smiling and then talking in animated fashion.Her Baba was all attention.After a while Baba got up ,followed by the teacher ,who tapped him on the arm in appreciation. Baba slowly walked back ,a smile on his lips,as his daughter beamed away in absolute delight. She excitedly clasped his hands,looking at him,her eyes asking questions, as they began the walk to the school gate,a job well done.
As they passed the Principal’s office,her Baba stopped and walked across to the attendant and said something to the attendant.At first,the attendant looked at him with suspicion and then grudgingly walked into the principal’s office ,as Baba waited.She was left aghast as she saw the Principal,Father Dias walk out hurriedly, looking earnest.He found Baba standing there all by himself and rushed to him,calling out his name.They embraced and the Father held him by the shoulder,talking and hugging by turn.Baba was overwhelmed too,as she could see clearly.
She stood there thinking about what she had just witnessed.Her Baba,a mere commoner ,whom she had only embarrassment for, had turned it completely around for her.She now saw strength and power in him like never before.She couldn’t help but love him more than ever, as she ran into his arms.They bade farewell to the Principal,who had good things to say about her and then walked out of the school premises,smiling and laughing.
As they waited to board the bus home,she asked her father in excitement .”Baba ,what did you tell the rude man?”.After taking a deep breath ,he said “Nothing,my child,I reminded him that he was once in the hospital,I work in,dealing with extreme pain,after an accident and that I had sat through three nights with him,holding his hand,as he kept crying through his pain.He remembered me then and was very thankful for the time we had spent together”.He’s absolutely fine now”
“As for the lady,she lost someone dear to her heart ,at the hospital .Call it coincidence,but I happened to take care of that someone, while she was away.By the time she knew,it was too late.I remembered seeing her there,grief stricken.I just told her that she should not feel responsible because she was forgiven and that I was witness to that forgiveness being given.That was probably the cause of her anger and what I told her ,may have given her relief,Thank God”,he smiled sadly.
“What about Mrs D’Costa?,she asked, eyes wide with expectation to which Baba replied “I just told her somehow, that my daughter is extremely worried, I will embarrass myself,and then she would feel let down,so for my and your sake, if she could please spare time and act as if we were having a meaningful conversation.I want her to be proud of me,I told the kind lady”.She was quite surprised at my request but the nice person ,she is,she smiled at me and said,”I will do anything for the two of you as no one deserves it better.”
Amazed but feeling happy she asked him again, “Baba,How do you know the Principal,of all the people”.Baba looked at the distance and slowly responded. “Titli, Father Dias is the man who gave you admission in this school ,otherwise we are small,uneducated ,poor people.He was very ill some years back,when you were a toddler.He had bad kidneys,I needed the money so I gave him one of mine,very simple” he smiled.He is man of God,didn’t forget me ever and returned the favour,by allowing you to study in this big school. Kidneys have all the answers,you see” he chuckled.
She kept looking at Baba with a new found admiration and love ,as he closed his eyes with his benign smile,lightly humming, as the breeze blew over them.She would go home and tell her Mom and brother, that her Baba was no mean man.He was their unsung hero.
Not before long, she lay her head happily on her father”s lap ,with a content smile on her face,feeling the love and pride,she would forever have for him,as the rickety bus led both of them to sleep.
Ashish Arvind Nayar