I attended a humble Hindi-medium elementary school till the age of 8 before being introduced to the world of quintessentially trendy English schooling. I still carry three memories of that institution in my now grown-up heart: the messy business of using ‘syahi-kalam’ (Ink and wooden pen); the guilt of watching my then best friend being bullied without standing up for her and finally Ganga Bai.
The former two are stories for another day but the last memory compelled me to pen it down after a recent unintended visit to it.
While I was pursuing a UG degree, I would rush back to my parents’ house for almost every vacation available to me. The house is based in a society which wakes up from its deep summer slumber during monsoons. I used to make the most of these short lived spells of rain by pretending I had settled into a hill station to write the next ground-breaking novel. I would pull a chair out to our balcony and make myself comfortable with my writing gear and a bowl of fried, unhealthy snacks. The view of bright emerald trees would fill my eyes and the squawks of tiny, excited birds after the cool shower would ring in my ears. At that point it would seem so important to turn my reality into an essence of fiction and present it to my meager strength of readers as soon as possible, that a slight interruption from my mother about mundane matters such as dinner would annoy me to no end.
It was during one of these wet, overcast days that I was running an errand and drove by my school. I stopped and regarded this almost forgotten reminiscent of my childhood. As soon as I stepped up to the gate, my eyes were drawn to a small, broken structure that once Ganga Bai held supreme dominion over.
Ganga Bai was the keeper of a Pyaoo (a place that supplies drinking water stored in earthen pots) in my school. The students would often crowd up the pyaoo during the scorching heat of the summer afternoons for a drink. Oh and what a drink it was! The water was as pure and deliciously cool as if it had been poured directly into our tumblers from the river that was her namesake – the holy Ganges. Of course, it was a time when I believed that the Ganges was devoid of any water pollution that has now smothered its glory. But the attraction of those few sips was not just contained in the taste or coolness of water. Ganga Bai’s half veiled face always beamed with benevolence. She knew a great many folk songs which she would hum while she went about her business of fetching and pouring water. All this was enough to beckon us towards her at least once during a long, tiring day of learning. She was a simple, naive and cheerful woman who seemed to not have a care in the world. But what does the mind of an even more naive child know of worries? I later understood. To say that life had handed her lemons would be an understatement. Life had squirted lemon juice right in her eyes and snatched away the napkin with which she could dry her tears.
It was the last working day of school before the much awaited summer holidays began. Everyone was proudly announcing their holiday plans. I was curious; where was Ganga Bai going? A tinkling laugh burst from her lips when I asked her.
“Where would I go, little one? My home is here, with my husband.”
“Not even to your grandparents’ house?” I asked with wide eyes.
“No, not even there,” she replied, her smile faltering.
When we returned after two months, Ganga Bai greeted us with a surprise.
“You’ve become fat, Ganga Bai!” I exclaimed staring at her round belly and swollen face.
“Lord Vishnu has blessed me with a baby Krishna,” She beamed down at me.
I didn’t completely understand but smiled widely nonetheless. Her happiness was contagious. A week later tragedy struck.
A teacher was doing rounds of each class, appealing us to ask our parents to donate a small sum of money to help build a new house for Ganga Bai. Her old one had burnt down in a fire the previous night. Her husband had perished in it. I ran to the pyaoo during lunch break but she was not there. When she returned after a few days, I found I couldn’t muster the courage to utter a single word of condolence. I went up to her and grasped the end of her sari. She simply nodded and touched her belly as if saying, “I’m living for his arrival.”
But fate’s cruelty seemed to know no bounds. One day I went for my fill of water and found the pyaoo empty. Ganga Bai had delivered a stillborn. She never returned to the school after that. I passed the pyaoo often and looked for her through the windows but my eyes met only a strange face. I began carrying my own bottle of water. Eventually, my parents decided English language needed to be an integral part of my learning and shifted me to another school a year later.
Now, 13 years later, the sight of that broken pyaoo dug deep in my mind and the thought of Ganga Bai and her plight took center stage. I recalled the location of her previous house, which was just behind the school and drove to it. It was just as I had expected; a half-caved in ruin with burnt walls. What I hadn’t expected was to see a tree grow in the middle of those ruins and a cat lying at its base feeding her newborns. The place where Ganga Bai had seen her happiness dashed to death was now harboring life. The sight made me believe that Ganga Bai had found some hope around her and lived the fulfilling life that she deserved after all the horrors that befell her.