It was a typical pre-Indepence village in the heart of UP, baked mud houses with thatched roofs, a cow or two tied in the middle of the courtyard, goats leaping free, chickens scratching in the dust, no electricity, no running water, no sewage system. The village had a one section school held under a sprawling banyan which protected them during the blazing summer months. During winter, the solitary teacher and his charges moved out from under the shade in the welcome heat of a benign sun. The boy was a happy lad, much favoured by his mother, running about barefeet with his myriad cousins, much like all the other kids in play, climbing trees and jumping in the vast pond where buffaloes joined them on particularly hot days, doing what little boys do when they are able to run free. What separated him from the others was when he was in school! The school had boys of varied ages, all sitting on the ground, learning aloud by rote what their ‘master’ deemed fit. Sometimes he would send Bholu to wash his buffalo during school hours, sometimes it was Chiddi who went to assist his wife in her household chores…the school teacher was the undisputed king and his word law! He would sometimes get up leisurely and catch a daydreaming boy by his ear and wring him rudely back to reality, sometimes whack a slow to learn boy on his back, secure in his knowledge that physical pain often made minds keener and sharper. He never touched the young lad. One day, he called the father and told him that the lad had learnt all that could be learnt in the little open school under the tree. The father sent his boy to a larger school which was far further and one had to walk a few miles to reach it. For the sake of company, the father sent his older son and a few nephews along too. The lad soon outpaced his elder brothers and completed his schooling.
The father had realized that he had an unusual boy on his hands and made the decision of sending the boy to the city where as was expected, the boy fared well and was ready for college. The father sold some land, gathered some money and sent his son abroad for further education. The boy lived and studied in a foreign land, among an alien culture with limited resources. He made friends and lived and laughed and studied ferociously. And after seven years of exile he came back home.
Two days later he was attending his own wedding to a bride he had not seen, let alone met. She came from a vastly different background than his. He applied for a job, got it and so joined the Indian Air Force at 26 yrs.
In time he had two daughters who went to convent schools and sometimes, his wife and daughters would giggle helplessly when he called a donkey a dunkey. Once he told his girl that a “steak” was pronounced as “stake’ and she did not believe him until he brought out the dictionary. He was a fun father but very short of time and when the girls would come into his room to bid him goodnight, they would find him sitting, surrounded with books and scribbling away in reams and reams of paper. When they got up in the morning, the light in his room would still be on and when they peeped in, he would still be studying. On rare occasions, he would suddenly burst out of that cell and sing songs in a language none of the women could understand and then disclose that it was a French or a German song to his wide eyed audience.
The younger daughter would creep into that room and do her homework very importantly there and if she had important questions, of which there were many, she would always go to him for answers. When all the neighbours bought fridges, he did not as he found it pointless. And TVs were relegated to the same category….he would teach all his kids and their playmates on holidays under a guava tree in the lawn and the lessons were endless. The kids would disappear on by one, on noiseless feet after a few hours….the final hapless youngster would ultimately be rescued by an irate mother late in the day. He believed firmly in feeding the kids well and in physical exercise.
The children grew up and married, left home. And one day, the younger daughter who was now a mother herself, decided to go with her father back to the little village “to discover her roots” and so father and daughter came full circle to the tiny village with the mud baked houses and thatched roofs. And the girl turned woman then realized who her father really was. He was an ordinary Indian with an extraordinary mind who had leapt out of a village straight into the big world, straddling two lifestyles, different cultures, who had changed so much yet remained so intrinsically the same! Such a long journey traversed with such humility and matter of factness!
Yes, the lad is my father and I’m the younger daughter. I speak English effortlessly (French with effort) and drive myself around, equally at home in saris and jeans. I have one child and two dogs and live a life so different from the women in the village that we could be living in separate universes. And it happened all because a young brilliant lad in a village had the courage to leap into the vast unknown!