(First Published in the Urban Shots: Crossroads Anthology)
I ran out of the door, as soon as Padma turned her back on me. Before she could catch me, I was jumping down the stairs, two at a time. I slowed down after I crossed the gate to look behind me. Padma was not on my trail. She would surely be calling Mummy to tell her I ran off without permission. But she was a maid–why did I need her permission?
I set off towards the library. Sudha and Ramya were hiding behind a car in the parking lot. “Diya… come hide. Lakshya is searching for us.”
“No. I am not in the mood. I am going to go to the library to see my dad.” Ramya made a face. I stuck out my tongue in response. They were so silly; hide-and-seek was their idea of fun. But I didn’t want to play today. I wanted to read. Waving good-bye to Sudha, I walked on.
Ashoka, gulmohar, peepal, neem and other trees whose names I didn’t know, spread their arms, preventing light from brightening the black tar streets. I hopped on the spots where sunlight managed to penetrate the canopy of leaves and kiss the ground. I loved living here. It had been a month since we moved to this new home in the Mumbai University. I had soon discovered which trees were easy to climb and which bricks were loose enough to use as hiding places for various things. At night, the rising and falling crescendo of the buzzing insects lulled me to sleep. In the morning, the cawing of the crow unfailingly perched on the tree outside, woke up me. It was a far cry from the jarring shrieks of the vehicles that jolted me awake each morning at our previous residence.
Soon, I was near the library building. I immediately walked erect to feel taller than my four feet. This was the first time I was headed there alone. As I neared the entrance, I noticed a very old man sitting by the door. His eyes, framed on the top by thick white eyebrows and on the bottom by dark half-moons, were sunk far into his bony face. The skin on his neck hung loose in layers, and in his brown pants and shirts he looked…dusty.
Daddy had mentioned a watchman who was away on vacation. Was this the man? I remembered the cranky old man in the story Mummy often told me; the man who took children away if they were too naughty. With my head bent low, I scurried past him. But the voice that emanated from him was firm. “Where do you think you are going, baby?” he asked in Hindi.
I whirled around. Baby! “I am not a baby. I am eight
He bent down with a quizzical expression on his face.
It took me a moment to realise that he didn’t understand English. And so, I repeated in Hindi that I was eight years old and was on my way to meet my father, who was in-charge of the library.
“You are Maheshji’s daughter? Does he know you came here alone?” he enquired.
“He’ll know when I go inside,” I replied cheekily and rushed inside before he could respond.
That night, I scowled at the blank television at home. After stating that he had no problem with me coming alone to the library every day, Daddy had decided to punish me nevertheless, for coming without permission this time. Actually, he was not angry. But when Mummy returned home from work, Padma had narrated a tale so exaggerated that Mummy was mortified at my behaviour. Mummy had then convinced Daddy to ban my television viewing for the day.
Daddy was seated on his woven bamboo chair and Mummy was on her small stool cutting vegetables for the night. They were discussing what they had read earlier that day in the newspaper. When I couldn’t bear the boredom anymore, I dropped the doll I was playing with. “Daddy, what is inflation?”
“Read up about it in the library tomorrow,” he teased and beckoned me to come closer. Optimistic at his response, I asked him if I was forgiven and if I could watch TV. Mummy’s stern gaze was the reply. Pouting, I walked back to play with my doll.
If there was one thing that made me forget the world around me, it was books. I could spend hours without food, water, TV or play, if I had a book in my hands. Both Mummy and Daddy encouraged this habit. Since Daddy started working as the librarian at the university, my appetite for books was suitably sated by the number of books he brought back home. But after I started going to the library by myself, I felt as if I had been granted access to a magical world. Every afternoon, I spent hours on the floor between bookshelves, poring over words that exhilarated me or which I didn’t understand. After I was done, all I had to do was put the books back on Daddy’s desk.
One exceptionally hot summer afternoon, about ten days after my first interaction with Bhau, the watchman, he smiled at me as I approached the building. “Does your father know you spend such long hours inside?” Bhau asked.
I looked back at him defiantly. “Of course, he knows. He encourages my habit.”
Bhau laughed as if he didn’t believe me. I caught sight of the bushy white hair that grew on his earlobe. As he turned his head to look for something in his pocket, the hair jiggled in the breeze. I covered my mouth with my hands but couldn’t stop the sound of laughter from escaping. Bhau shot me a look. Without waiting to explain myself, I ran inside the library laughing. That day, on my way back, I felt myself warm up to him and smiled at him as I left. He reminded me of Santa Claus, of how he would probably look after he had wiggled down a sooty chimney.
I established a ritual of talking to Bhau before I stepped into the library. As I grumbled about vacation homework or how mother scolded me for sticking a paper tail on our maidservant, Bhau would patiently nod. Whenever I encouraged him to talk, Bhau would regale me with stories in which animated trees and wildlife would prominently figure. His descriptions were vivid. He moved his arms to describe a bird’s flight or a rat’s scuffle. And each time he mentioned a bird or tree that I didn’t know, he would take the time after the story to point out that bird, if it nested in the trees nearby.
It was this search for birds that started us on the habit of going for evening walks after he finished his shift at five. Bhau’s sharp ears would seek the whistles of the birds and in minutes he would point them out. He knew so much about nature that I began to be increasingly fascinated by it myself. I even decided I would spend my adult life studying animals and birds. When I told Bhau this, he smiled indulgently, which immediately made me angry. Then he took me for a walk and soon I was lost in his stories. I asked Bhau if the people at the university had forgotten to retire him, at which he just smiled.
“I just have a week before school begins, Bhau. I am…” I saw that Bhau wasn’t paying attention and was instead searching in the bushes for something. “What did you see, Bhau?” I ran behind him. Bhau pushed aside bushes and scurried ahead.
“A snake, little one–stay behind me. I’ll catch it for you, if it’s not poisonous.” I was scared and exhilarated at the same time. A snake! I had never seen one before. Bhau jogged hurriedly on a small path that I had never seen before. It seemed to wiggle between trees. Soon we reached an open ground. Fresh translucent grass was sprayed over the earth. Bushes had sprung up in a haphazard manner. Tall trees stood at the periphery of this patch. Wandering about touching each tree, I noticed one tree whose trunk caved in. It was a lovely place to sit. With a whoop of joy, I immediately seated myself there. Bhau scooted over to sit beside me.
“Bhau, why haven’t we come here before?”
“It is a little out of our way,” he explained. “But isn’t it beautiful?” The snake forgotten, I jumped up and down from the tree trunk while Bhau became nostalgic about his favourite hiding spot by the river in his village. He spoke about his childhood, his family, their struggle for money, and eventually became silent. I only caught snatches of his monologue because I was busy playing. Then noticing his glazed eyes, I went to sit with him. I did not understand all he had said to me, but I understood the tears in his eyes. When I placed my palm on his knee, Bhau smiled and covered my tiny hand with his wrinkled one.
Just then a crow shrieked. Bhau looked at it startled. Dusk had begun to set it. “Oh, my God… I didn’t realise I spent so much time talking. Come on, let me take you home.” Bhau held my hand and I ran as we rushed back home. The sky was blue-black by the time we reached my building. Mummy was standing at the entrance rubbing her eyes with the edge of her sari while some neighbours stood talking among themselves nearby. Mummy let out a squeal when she saw me and rushed towards me. Bhau let go of my hand and I ran into her arms. She held me so tightly I felt suffocated. Just then Daddy came around the corner of the building.
I had never seen Daddy lose his temper that way before. He yelled at Bhau, questioned him if he was about to kidnap me, and if his actions suited a man his age. Bhau, who stood silently taking in my father’s anger, looked stricken when Daddy said that. He opened his mouth to respond. Then obviously changing his mind, he stared at the ground while Daddy shouted. Asking Bhau to be more responsible, Daddy dragged me away by my hand. I turned to catch a glimpse at Bhau, guilt gnawing at my heart.
The next morning, Mummy and Daddy announced I wasn’t allowed to go to the library anymore. My pleas and screams had no effect. So, over the next two days, I ensured that no one at home could rest. As soon as Mummy turned her back after stacking books on my desk, they would reappear on the floor. Daddy’s spectacles wound up in the refrigerator, and Mummy’s bedroom slippers were found wet and soggy in the bath. After I interchanged the labels on the salt and sugar bottles, Padma vowed to quit her job if I stayed home. Since there were just three more days left for school to begin, Mummy allowed me to go to the library again after many warnings. But on the condition that I present myself in front of my father every hour. I hurried out of the door before she could change her mind.
I ran to meet Bhau. I had to explain that I was scared and that’s why I had not supported Bhau when Daddy was shouting at him. It was not like Daddy understood, when I told him at home that I had gone with Bhau of my own volition. He didn’t seem to understand how Bhau could be my friend.
Bhau saw me but looked away as I walked inside the library gate. Seated on his stool, he drew patterns with his stick on the cracked tiles below. I was used to a Bhau who held up a hand to give me a high-five, the way I had taught him to. “Bhau are you angry with me?” I asked holding out a hibiscus flower I had plucked on the way. Taking it, Bhau asked me how I was doing. At the sound of his voice, I burst into tears. I placed my head on his knee and sobbed.
“That’s enough, little one. Did your parents scold you a lot?”
“A little, but I am sorry for not standing by you that evening.”
Bhau’s cracked lips parted to reveal his broken teeth. “Big words from a little girl,” he said rolling the flower between his fingertips. Then he looked at me with an inexplicable expression. “You are a child of the earth. Remain rooted to it and be who you are. Never let that connection with nature go away. It’s that relationship that will teach you about relationships with people,” he said. His voice broke towards the end as he wiped his eyes with a tattered sleeve. He gave me a slight nudge to leave. “Go inside to your father,” he urged. I went inside and spent the remainder of the afternoon amongst musty books.
The next day as I neared the library, I noticed the empty seat outside. Hurrying inside, I asked Daddy about Bhau’s whereabouts since he usually never missed work. Getting up from his seat, Daddy took my hand and led me out. I was puzzled but pleased with the attention. Walking down the road, I heard an Asian Koel sing. I stopped and pointed it out to Daddy. Then I kept pointing out plants, birds and flowers to him, bombarding him with the information that Bhau had passed on to me.
“Who taught you so much about nature, Diya?”
“Bhau did. When we went on our walks. Where is he, Daddy? Why didn’t he come to work?”
“He has gone home, Diya,” Daddy said calmly. “He won’t be working here anymore.”
“But he didn’t say anything yesterday. He didn’t even say bye. How could he go like that?” I was angry and kicked a stone on the road. As we walked, I looked at my father’s feet covered with black shoes and remembered Bhau’s brown cracked feet encased in a slipper that was always covered with the dark brown mud found everywhere in the university. Why didn’t Bhau tell me he was leaving? Wasn’t I his friend? I told him everything.
“Bhau was old, Diya. He must have wanted to be with his family.” Daddy whispered. I remembered Bhau’s smile the day he told me about his family. He missed them and had now gone home to them.
“Bhau must be happy,” I said aloud to no one in particular. Holding Daddy’s hand lightly, I walked back to the library.