Short Story of Childhood Memory – Ramana and I
It was 1955 and I was 4 years old. And so was Ramana who I imagine was about 3 feet tall at that time. The thought of Ramana brings with it the picture of his innocent face that seemed to have a quizzical expression about everything in the world. His sunken eyes, high cheek bones with skinny cheeks, unkempt hair and a half sleeved shirt that he wore with the missing top two buttons out of the four it were to have, complimented his innocent character and appearance.
He wore a shorts that seemed a couple of sizes larger for him and it held onto his waist with a black thread tightly wound over it. With the hindsight I can now say that he was probably under nourished. He was the son of a hired help on the 10 acre farm that my father owned on the outskirts of a village in Andhra Pradesh, India. The walk to the village was a distance of one kilometer from the farm and that restricted my access to the kids in the village. Ramana was my only friend.
My father’s farm was spread over a rectangular area that was divided into two equal strips through the length of the farm. Lilies, ground nuts and paddy were grown on one strip, and the other strip was a mango grove. At one corner of the farm, by the lily flower fields, my father had built our 3 room brick house. The rooms were laid out next to each other in a row with each one having its own entrance on the wall facing the east. Coming out of any of the three rooms, one could see the lilies directly in the front, followed by sections of ground nut fields and paddy.
The fence for the farm went by about 100 meters to the left and about 15 meters behind the house, covering the rectangular perimeter of the farm. About 100 meters away to the right of our house was a one room thatched hut with mud walls and an entrance on the east side wall, where Ramana lived with his parents. Between Ramana’s hut and our brick house was the cowshed with cows and the oxen that were used to plough the fields. In the wide gaps between our houses and the cowshed were strewn the different types of vegetable plants.
Pretending a foot long mud brick to be a bus, we played around my house. I, the bus driver, pushed the brick on the sand with my hands, squatted and hopping along behind the brick as I pushed it, leaving behind a flattened path in the sand. Ramana always followed me acting as the conductor in my game of driving the bus. The idea of driving a bus fascinated me after I saw the hero in a cinema driving one with his sidekick being the conductor. My brick bus stopped at imaginary bus stops where Ramana the conductor helped the imaginary passengers to get on and off the bus. Once in a while we enacted a scene when an imaginary troublesome passenger on the bus beats up the conductor Ramana and he would come to the bus driver asking for help. I would then play the tough bus driver and beat up the passenger and make him apologize to Ramana. In our ‘bus game’ as we called it, I made the bus jump over a canal, drove it ‘super extra’ fast and did all the same things that the hero in the cinema did. Ramana having not seen the cinema was not privy to my source of influence for being a heroic bus driver and hence could not relate to the heroics of the driver and never insisted on being a driver in our bus game.
The norms dictated by the prevailing social structure determined the lifestyle for the different classes of people in the village. The farm owners’ income from the farm enabled them to send their children to school, afford multiple sets of clothes, some jewellery chairs, cots and other such items to provide a basic level of comfort to their family lives. The labourers working on the village farms earned very limited cash. They were paid incentives in the form of food grains and other produce from the farm. The cash earned by the labourers provided for the little cooking oil, salt and other such bare essentials for them to carry on their family life.
I attended the government school in the village where my father dropped and picked me up after the school on his bicycle. Ramana, like most other farm labourer’s kids dropped out of the school soon after he started at the age of 4. While I was at school till noon, Ramana assisted his father on the farm with whatever he could. On my return from the school I ran off to where Ramana would usually be working with his father on the farm. At times, I found him relaxing, lying in the flowing water in the canal that supplied the water to different parts of the farm from the big circular well. The canal was just a few inches deep.
Seeing Ramana lying there shirtless with his arms folded and tucked under the back of his head forming a pillow, the water flowing just over and by the sides of his bony body while he was staring into the sky not particularly looking at anything, I wondered what went on in his mind. Seeing me come by brought a smile to his face. Often times he would excitedly tell me about his exploits from that morning on the farm. He would talk about the bird nests with eggs that he would have spotted, the foot prints of the wild boars by the farm fence that he would have seen or about the rabbits that he would have seen digging up the ground nut fields and how he and his father had chased them away.
Often times we went outside the farm premises exploring the nearby bushes and hills. In exploring the bushes Ramana was always the first one to go into the thicket and ensure that it was safe for me to go in too. He would excitedly give me any valuables that he found during these exploits. Smooth surfaced white stones, wild berries, wild flowers and other such items formed our treasure. Ramana’s sense of pride and happiness was in letting me have the treasure.
Climbing up the hills, Ramana would tell me about the ghosts that he had heard about dwelling on the top of the hill. Sensing my apprehension arising from our ghost talk, he would say that if we were to meet a ghost on our way up he would face it and utter the curses that his mother taught him to get rid of the ghosts. Since I was always walking behind him on the way up, he would say that on seeing a ghost I should run down the hill as fast as I can while he would keep the ghost occupied with his cursing utterances. As it was to be, we never came across a ghost. The spectacular views of my father’s farm from the tops of various hills that we climbed are still green in my memory. Memories of those views are another precious treasure that Ramana gave me.
Till the age of 11, I studied in the village school and completed my fifth standard. That was the last standard in the village school. If the parents sought further education for their children they had to send them to the middle and high school in the nearby town. Father decided something else for me. He admitted me into a boarding school in Madras, a cosmopolitan city in the neighboring state of Tamilnadu. I left my parents, the farm and Ramana with a heavy heart.
Father and Mother visited me at the school every month. My chance to visit them at the village farm came by every year during the two month summer vacation. With every summer visit that I made to the farm, I found Ramana more and more involved in the farm duties helping his father. During those visits, Ramana found less and less time to spend with me as years passed by. There were no more bus games or the bush and hill adventures. While I continued my boarding education in Madras, Ramana was gaining expertise in farm work so that he, like his father, could also get employed on another farm as a permanent hire. I was about 19 years old and had just gotten admitted into a medical college in Madras for my Bachelors in Medicine, Bachelors in Surgery (MBBS) degree.
I took the train from Madras to visit my parents to spend the few days that I had before the college started. Staring into the dark night from the train window I was indulging in my childhood memories of my days on the farm with Ramana. I realized how I and he had distanced away from each other as we grew into our teens. I should have made an effort to spend more time with him during my previous visits I thought. I would do it this time I decided then. I made plans to take him to a cinema in the town, treat him to Masala Dosa and ice-cream and take walks with him around the farm and tell him about my Madras school days. Probably Ramana had some teenage village exploits to share with me I thought. And if father permitted, I made a plan to take Ramana for a ride on my father’s Rajdoot motorcycle. If I let Ramana have a chance to ride the motorcycle, it would excite him I thought.
On my arrival I learnt from mother that Ramana was married and lived on a different farm that was about 3 hours away by bus from our village. He was married about 6 months ago and found employment on a farm as a permanent hire and moved there. I was disappointed to hear the news of him not being on the farm but was happy to hear that he was married. I would visit him during my stay I decided. My days passed by visiting the relatives and fathers friends in the neighboring villages.
Father made it a point that I should visit as many families as I could to declare that I am going to be doctor in few years. As per father, that would make our family more respectable and I would become a sought after bachelor by the families with daughters, wanting to marry their daughter to me after my graduation. My planned visit to Ramana never happened. The mention of my plan to visit Ramana always met with discouragement from my parents as they thought that I should be taking care of the more important social visits around the family circles.
The vacation days that I had during my 4 and half years of college were very less. I could not visit my parents for the last 2 and half years of my college. They visited me at the hostel every 4-5 months during that time. We talked about our lives and my future plans. On my enquiring about Ramana, father told me that he is doing fine for himself on the farm where he was employed. He had a son and he had visited my parents after his son was born. Ramana had lost a bit of weight from whatever his five and half feet under nourished body otherwise had and appeared to be sick, said father.
After graduating, I joined the government hospital in Madras as a physician. The social visits around the family circles during my previous trips to the village bore fruit. My wedding with a family friend’s daughter Sneha from the neighboring village was arranged. She was still in the second year of medical college in Tirupati, another town that was about 2 hours by bus from my village. We exchanged letters as talking on the phone was still an unaffordable luxury. I ensured that the 2 or 3 days of vacation that I could manage to get after every 3 to 4 months, coincided with Sneha’s trip to her parents. Those vacation days were spent visiting Sneha’s parents so that I could get to see Sneha. During those days, I must admit, Ramana never occupied my thoughts for more than a few fleeting moments.
I finally saw Ramana in 1979 during my wedding ceremony that took place after Sneha graduated. He appeared to have grown just in height and appeared as slim as I had seen him during my visits from the initial schooling years. I watched him serving coffee while I and Sneha, attired traditionally in dhoti & Sari respectively, were performing the rituals sitting with the priest in front of the assembled relatives & guests.
After the ceremony, I found Ramana sitting under the tamarind tree away from the gathering, with his wife, son and a daughter. Watching me approach them with Sneha, all the family members stood up with an inviting smile. ‘Bagunnara Ayya (Are you doing well, Sir)?’ asked Ramana. That is the first time he addressed me as ‘Ayya (Sir)’. That is when I realized for the first time in my life that even as a kid, he never called me by my name. He identified us as just ‘you’ and ‘me’ in his conversations as a kid. Even in our bus game, I was the ‘Driver Anna (Brother)’ and that is what he called me during our bus game.
On enquiring more about how he and his family were doing is when Ramana’s wife first indicated that Ramana was sick and they did not know what it was. It started about 4 or 5 years ago as occasional fever she said. The village medic prescribed the traditional village medicines to bring down the fever. The situation worsened in the last 6 to 8 months she went on to say as the fever showed up almost every other day and that his coughing would never stop. Their monetary situation did not enable them to seek help of town doctors on a more frequent basis. Although they managed a few visits to the doctor in the town, the medicines prescribed by the doctor from the town did not bring about any positive change in Ramana’s health, she continued to say. Every attempt that Ramana made at talking to me was interspersed with a spate of violent cough that seemed to have made a permanent place in his chest.
Emotions welled up in my soul and I was at a loss of words. I assured Ramana that after I go to Madras the next day, I would come back in 10 to 15 days and take his family with me to have him examined at the hospital in Madras. He and his family could stay with me at my house in Madras I told him. This would also give a chance to his kids to see the beaches, I said.
It was over a month before I could come back to the village to take Ramana with me. And it was too late. Ramana had passed away a week ago in his sleep. My parents did not want to give the bad news to us newly married couple. I took the bus to visit the farm where Ramana was employed to check on his family. I was late again. His wife had left with the kids to her parent’s house. Ramana’s parents were at Ramana’s hut to settle the financial accounts with Ramana’s employer before they could go back to my father’s farm.
Life has been busy for me and Sneha with our own hospital that we have now. Years went by in bringing up our two girls who are married now.
After Ramana’s death, I rarely visited the farm. Father passed away 10 years ago. I sold away the farm and brought mother to live with us. I am 60 now and Ramana’s thoughts often occupy me on my morning walks at the beach. I don’t know if I could have saved Ramana, but I know I did not try enough. I couldn’t be the bus driver to him in real life that I should have been.