Fading Pages Of A Diary
Fading Pages Of A Diary9 mins 334 9 mins 334
Our school got over for the day at 2.30 PM. As the last session progressed, the growing restlessness among the students was palpable. Our hearts leapt with joy on hearing the ring of the brass bell. But before stepping out of the classroom, the custom was to sing a particular prayer. What fun it was - as everyone recited the verses as fast as his or her tongue and lips could carry out the feat. In the hurried chorus, the initial phrase of salutation - 'Jaya Jaya', would sound more like 'JeJe'! As for the final notes, I suppose only the singers themselves could distinguish the words. In fact, there had been instances when we were made to repeat the entire prayer because our teacher declared our ‘singing speed’ too fast to be acceptable. And amidst those repetitions, we would gloomily witness students from other classrooms walking past with smiles on their faces and giving us the dramatic 'Oh! You are still singing!' look. Of course, we were supposed to keep our eyes closed during the prayer and hence, not supposed 'to see' those grins!
It was not for any particular reason that we hurried through the verses - it seemed to be an already existing trend. Guess it was one of those ‘traditions’ which had transcended generations of students at the institution. As soon as the recital was over, we would rush out of the door, hurrying towards the school gate - a tall structure with iron bars mounted on a metal frame – all painted all dark green. Through the gaps between these bars heads of parents, guardians, and rickshaw-walas would eagerly peep in from time to time - checking if their kid had arrived among the frenzied waves of sprinting children.
Amidst those anxious looking people, you could easily spot the weathered yet calm face of a tall, lean man wearing a white shirt gone gray with only its bottom-most button in use and a coarse once-a-trouser short. And not to forget the bidi, the cigarette kind of roll of tobacco wrapped in leaves, firmly placed behind his right ear. This was Krishna Da - the rickshaw-puller who had been entrusted with the duty of my daily travel to and from school. He had been recommended to my parents by another parent, and immediately hired on a monthly payment basis. As a ten year old boy, I had found Krishna Da very intriguing – the uneven growth of greyish beard covering most of his face and an untidy yet somehow stylish-looking haircut – he came across as an unconventional character. With a permanently arched back and drooping shoulders which reclaimed their ‘normal’ positions only during the occasional bouts of incessant coughs possibly acquired from smoking the bidis, Krishna Da had the appearance of a seventy-year old man. Somehow I felt that he perfectly fitted into the image of a grandparent sitting beside a warm hearth on a winter evening and leisurely narrating brilliant stories to his grandchildren. But he often mentioned that he was only fifty years of age – seems his mother chronicled his date of birth as simply as five days after the great earthquake – and that, of course, was about five decades back. And evidently, there was not any official birth certificate to prove this claim of hers!
The thing I admired most about Krishna Da was that he was never in a hurry. Initially, only two of us from Standard II - me and a classmate of mine, travelled by his vehicle. Whether we arrived early or were much delayed in arriving at the school gate, Krishna Da always had that same calm and patient look upon his face. As soon as he spotted us among the sprinting children, he would wave his hand until we caught the movement and ran up to him. He would then lead us to the rickshaw, which stood parked at different locations almost every other day.
A couple of months later, our co-passengers multiplied – we were joined by a girl from Kindergarten and two boys from Standard III. Krishna Da got a small narrow wooden bench secured to the metal base beneath his seat and placed on the platform in front of the passenger seat. Though a bit wobbly, it easily accommodated two of us. The new sitting arrangement was - three of us on the 'usual passenger seat' and the rest on the wooden one. It became a daily target to 'wrestle’ our way to the standard seat and hence escape sitting on the bench – adding yet another reason to sing the prayer faster. Me and my friend tried holding onto the declaration that we were riding the rickshaw much before others joined, but it never worked in our favor because the two seniors almost always captured the proper seat. Finally, Krishna Da came to our rescue, and decided that seats would be allocated on a rotational basis, more or less like the system in our classrooms. How thoughtful of him indeed! Peace!
With more number of children and a slightly altered route, the trip which used to take fifteen minutes, now took almost half an hour. Krishna Da continued to ferry the five of us into the next academic year too. The routine continued smoothly till our half-yearly exams, when all of a sudden he missed the pick-ups for almost two weeks. We learnt that he had some kind of an infection had led to a prolonged fever. In his absence, our parents took turn attending to our daily commute. Krishna Da was soon back – but with a leaner frame and pale eyes, the calmness though still intact upon his face. The junior girl and one of the senior boys had moved on to hire another rickshaw-puller. With three of us travelling, it appeared to be roomier despite the wooden bench. Krishna Da was not pulling the three-wheeler as fast as he used to, but we were not complaining – we still reached school on time. It seemed all was back to the usual setting. However, the speed of the rickshaw showed no sign of increasing and there were a couple of instances when we had to miss the morning assembly. Adding to our dismay, Krishna Da’s coughs became more frequent and he breathed heavily as he rode the rickshaw. He had weakened and was failing to recover. Even my young eyes could identify that with each passing day it was as if he has shrinking - the arched back growing more prominent and the thin body gradually curling into a ball, more like that of an infant. Our parents noticed the changes too, and they were concerned. Yet they did not have the heart to just relieve him of his duties. Instead they helped him visit a local doctor.
But it seemed Krishna Da’s health was on a permanently downward spiral. It was not long before he started missing the pickups almost regularly. I would stand in our front verandah and stare at the road for him to arrive, and about twenty minutes later father would rush to drop me at school. After school got over, we did not have to wait long - because if we did not see him near the gate, we knew for certain he wasn’t coming that day, because he never was late. We would then hire a random rickshaw to get back home.
His condition worsened, and his absence grew frequent. He began to stay in bed for two or three days almost every week. Whenever Krishna Da did not show up, father would drop me at school and proceed to his office. But his office hours were from 10 am and whenever he took me along, he reached office even before the security guard opened the gates. This setting was not going to work for long.
While I went to school with father, the other two children either had to skip school for the day, or arrive late and stand outside the school gate till the morning assembly concluded. Our school was very strict about punctuality (it was strict about many other factors too, but surprisingly it was a discipline we cherished). The gate closed sharp at 8.45 am when the morning assembly began and was opened only after the assembly got over. The Principal would walk up to the entrance and each 'late-comer' had to provide a proper justification for the delay. Though I don’t recall anyone being sent back home for lack of proper defense, the ‘late-comer’ tag was not welcome among us students. But for our guardians (and the rickshaw-walas of course) we would rather go back home and cry our hearts out, then to stand outside the gate during assembly! Hence, as Krishna Da kept falling sick now and then, one by one the children stopped availing his services for the daily commute.
And finally one day, it was only me travelling by the three-wheeler, the bench still tied to the metal frame below Krishna Da’s seat. It was empty always, except once in a while when some students needed an occasional lift.
I continued to commute by the rickshaw till the end of that academic year. Next year, I was gifted a bicycle and allowed to ride it to school. I often saw Krishna Da at the local rickshaw stand sheltered under an old fig tree, often sitting beside and leaning against the ancient looking tree trunk, now and then caught up in persistent coughs. We would often wave at each other and he would call out something like ‘ride safely’ and grin at me. Sometimes he was at the school gate, filling in for some other rickshaw-puller who had taken the day off. For the next two years, till our family shifted to another town, I never saw his rickshaw without the bench, the wooden seat continued to stay fastened in its place. Most probably he did not go for the usual public-rickshaw service; else the bench would have been removed - grown-ups could not fit onto the vehicle with that additional frame onboard.
Now, nearly two decades later, when nostalgia engulfs me, like many of us - I remember the school days, and amidst those waves of memories I find Krishna Da’s face – weathered yet calm, smiling gently. I wish I could meet him again, and this time tell him how precious his memories have been for me. I wish I could find him standing somewhere near a school gate, or sitting at a rickshaw stand. I wish I could turn back the clock and bring the wheels of time to a stop. I wish I could hug him and say a thank you.