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Blossoming of Little Minds (4)
And the story continues . . .
This is the fourth chapter of the story "Blossoming of little minds". That even supposedly sedate professions such as teaching little children have poignant and agonizing moments, is highlighted in this episode.
The inclusion of two new nursery rhymes needn't be particularly mentioned, though it has been.
If you wish to revisit the first chapter at this point, please click on the following link:
If you wish to have a re-look at the second chapter now, please click on the following link:
If you wish to have a re-look at the third chapter now, please click on the following link:
If not, please scroll down to read the fourth chapter titled "Close Encounters".
Eternal questions . . .
Chapter 4: Close Encounters
The thrill and excitement of adventures and escapades is not the exclusive domain of spies, commandos, and private detectives. Teachers experience their share of it too. They generally do not come out with it into the open, because they would invariably be branded culprits, even if their exploits were to outdo those of the most seasoned member of the group that is legitimized to indulge in such activities.
Whether extolled or censured, the trauma of going through such an experience is not something that can be easily forgotten. Suhasini Ranganathan and her band of dedicated teachers had been in the thick of such close encounters in the past. Each time it occurred, they fervently prayed to the good lord above, that such things would never happen again, forgetting that the lord had lost almost all control lately, upon the world that he had so enthusiastically created, harboring extraordinary and idealistic visions about its future.
Under normal circumstances, it would have been just another day at school. The symptoms of the morning were, however, ominous. It smelt, tasted, sounded, and felt, as a horrifying day to be. It had rained continuously the previous night, making the already pot-holed roads, nightmarish to be driving on. However depressing a night may have been, looking at the Sun rising over the horizon at dawn, can make the most pessimistic to believe that all was well with the world. That too was not to be, as the sky was overcast, threatening more rain.
The teachers would have preferred staying back at home, but the image of an infuriated principal in her elements - which was an extremely rare occurrence, was not a very comforting thought. Suhasini would condone the gravest of offences, but not absence, or being late. Even if the heavens were to fall, she and Abida - the General and her adjutant, as the other teachers referred to the duo in private - would be at their respective posts in the corridor leading to the principal's office and the other classrooms, monitoring the punctuality of her troop. That day was no exception. The only discrepancy in its likeness to a normal day was that the General was pacing the corridor, a pall of concern covering her countenance.
The teachers trudged in one by one, the last one to make it being Godavari, who was reproved with a withering look, for having come two minutes late. The principal's sway did not, however, extend over parents and their wayward conduct. Many had decided on not sending their wards to school. A few who had braved the gloomy state of affairs, had a change of mind after reaching the school gate, and had turned back, as it had started to drizzle again.
The teachers huddled together, out of earshot of the principal, and the meddlesomeness of her henchwoman, to conspire and challenge the principal's unjustness. A depressing atmosphere generally discourages initiative, but for once, it provided impetus to the repressed, to confront their tormentor. They were not women enough to mount an open rebellion, but took to deviousness to achieve their objective.
"It would be only fair to let the poor children go back home, considering the weather," ventured Hema, the senior-most of the teachers.
A little girl, who had been deposited inside the safety of the corridor, was overwhelmed by a bout of sneezing just then, which was a timely reinforcement for the suggestion that Hema had hesitatingly offered.
The principal turned and focused her incomprehensible gaze upon Hema, who held her own steady, despite her heart threatening to skip a long series of beats. After what appeared to the imperceptibly quavering teacher to be an eternity, Suhasini stepped out into the drizzle and investigated the sky, and its likely preferences. Convinced that the outlook was truly bleak, she reluctantly acquiesced to the majority request, and mournfully announced that the school should be closed for the day.
The teachers turned their faces away, and looked to everywhere, but the principal, to hide their glee at having bested her. The three-wheeler drivers, who had lingered expecting just such a decision, herded their respective group of children to take them back home. Suhasini assigned the job of overseeing this exercise to Abida, to ensure that no child was left behind.
"So, that is all for today, I suppose," declared the principal with a heavy sigh, crestfallen at the loss of a working day.
The teachers happily put on complimentary expressions to bewail the joyful turn of events, said their good-byes, and departed. There was a springiness in their step that was markedly lacking, when they had come in half an hour go. They believed that they had earned a well-deserved holiday for themselves. What was more satisfying was the thought, that they had forced Suhasini into granting it.
However, little did they know what the remainder of the day had in store for them.
Preeti, a seven year old with Down's syndrome, was one of those who had returned home in one of the three-wheelers that day. Not being severely afflicted with this malady, her understanding was that of a five-year-old, though her body had developed commensurate with her age. On reaching the girl's apartment block, the driver had taken her to the front door of her apartment on the first floor, rang the doorbell, and seeing that the rain was beginning to intensify, rushed back to the vehicle to hasten away, and return the other two children that he was ferrying to their respective homes.
Unfortunately for the driver, he did not realize that there was no one at Preeti's place to open the door, her mother having gone out on some errand to one of the neighbors across the landing. The driver had requested the security guard of the apartment block on his way out, to inform the parents the reason for the child having returned home. The girl stood at the door for a while, and when the rain slowed down to an unhurried drizzle, went down the steps to the car park on the ground floor.
Preeti had two passions. One was riding her bike, and the other was going to the airport's terminal building with her father, on occasional evenings. It was located about half a kilometer from their block. She loved to watch the aircrafts land and take-off, and the conveyer belt at the baggage-bay going round carrying bags and suitcases in an assortment of shapes and colors.
With nothing else to do, she answered her passion's call. The schoolbag and lunchbox were dumped unceremoniously behind a concrete pillar, and her bike leaning forlornly against a wall in the parking area, found unexpected company at this hour of the day.
Initially, Preeti's biking maneuvers were restricted to the floor space within the compound walls of the apartment block. On seeing her, the security guard remembered the three-wheeler driver's request, and marched away to report to the child's mother. Two things happened in quick succession at this point. The rain took a breather, and Preeti heard the call of her second passion in the midst of responding to the call of the first. Her reaction was immediate. The bicycle zoomed out of the partially open gates, and sped towards the airport.
Familiar with the way to the airport, and the layout of the functional areas within it, the girl parked her bike at the car park, walked up to the door of the visitor's enclosure purposefully, and slipped inside along with a group of people. The security men assumed that the girl was one of a family that had just made their way in. Entry being free for children below the age of seven, Preeti was not even included in the head count that the security man did, to compare with the count of tickets that he held in his hand.
It was the busy hour of the morning, when many flights landed, and there was a stream of passengers walking in to the disembarkation lounge. The girl made a beeline to the baggage-bay, going past another security man on the boundary beyond which visitors couldn't go, and who was busy checking the baggage-tags of passengers coming out into the general lounge. She pulled up one of the plastic stools scattered around close to the conveyer belt, lodged herself comfortably upon it, and began to watch the spectacle that she enjoyed most.
The rush hour passed. The din of the crowd began to slowly fade away. The conveyor was emptied of its burden in a like manner. In the gradual silence that ensued, the hum of the air-conditioners, and the creak of the rollers that made the belt move, which had been drowned in the swell of thousands of voices, sounded suddenly so very loud.
Preeti was noticed by a security man, just as she attempted to climb on to the bare conveyer for a joy ride.
"Don't!" yelled the man, as he ran to the girl, and held her.
"I ride," said Preeti, looking up at the man, crossly.
"That is not something for children to ride on. Where is your Ma?"
"Where is your Pa?"
"With whom did you come?"
There was no answer.
"Why are you here?"
Though good at writing, Preeti had a problem constructing sentences. She reveled in one-word answers. It was a common trait in children with Down's syndrome.
The security man was exasperated. He looked around to see whether he could spy anyone, who could be construed to be the girl's careless parents. He wanted to give them a bit of his mind.
Finding nobody eligible for the intended honor, the man picked up his communication handset clipped to his belt, and spoke to his superior.
"Sir, there is a lost kid in the baggage-bay. What am I to do?"
His superior, who was always tensed these days due to the heightened security measures in place, didn't pay as much attention to the word "kid," as he did to the words "lost," and "baggage bay".
"Hold your ground, while I organize the drill!" yelled the superior into the microphone, and promptly set into motion a series of actions that had been premeditated for just such an emergency. Unclaimed baggage could mean a bomb.
He ordered the general lounge to be cleared of all visitors and passengers, barred entry into the disembarkation lounge, alerted the police, called the bomb disposal squad, and informed his superior of the possible threat and the steps initiated.
Unfortunately for the officer, a newspaper reporter happened to be at the airport at the time. Seeing strange goings on, the reporter alerted his own superior promising a scoop, and to reserve space for some headline news.
Preeti and the security man soon found themselves to be the centre of attention. Gun totting commandos were peeping at them from all odd places. Three men - who seemed to be from the bomb disposal squad, were approaching them donning heavy gear and masks.
"Aliens!" said Preeti, giggling, and pointing at them. They looked very similar to the characters in her favorite cartoon serial.
"What are you doing there with the child? Get her out of here," commanded one of the three men, who was apparently the person in charge of the whole operation. "And where is the unclaimed baggage?"
"Sir! I reported an unclaimed child, not baggage," stammered the security man.
Anxiety that had pervaded the entire area abruptly vanished. ACP Naik, the police officer who was leading the operation, removed his mask, and started laughing. So did his companions.
"Bring the child to me," he said to the security man, and turning to another officer next to him ordered, "Cancel the alert, and let normal functions begin."
ACP Naik's observant eyes could at once discern the child's state of health. He also noticed the school badge on her shirt that said, "Balaranya Nursery School," and mentioned the area of the city, where the school was located. He sent out a message to the three police stations abutting that general area, and asked them to report to him at the earliest about the school's location.
The newspaper reporter approached ACP Naik, to find out about the cause of the commotion. He too noted the school and the child's name, and on Naik's request, promised to arrange for a "lost child message" to be broadcast on a few television channels.
Naik then asked one of his constables to buy a box of chocolates for the kid. He did not know, how long it would be, before the child was restored to its parents, and she had to be kept in good humor, until then. He took Preeti up to his room, which had a big window that overlooked the runway. Take-off and landing of aircrafts could be clearly observed from there.
"Plane!" exclaimed Preeti, as she spied an aircraft landing.
Naik carried the child, and made her sit on the windowsill.
"You like airplanes?" he asked, by way of conversation.
"Yes," said Preeti.
The ACP took an immediate liking to the child. She wasn't perturbed a bit about the new surroundings, and answered questions promptly; the very qualities that he looked for in his men.
"Shall I tell you a story about planes, Preeti?" asked Naik, remembering a nursery rhyme that he had recited to his children, not so many years ago.
"Yes, story," said the girl, her eyes lighting up.
The ACP cleared his throat, and began the recitation with appropriate gestures.
An airplane takes off, another lands;
The watching children clap their hands;
It brings people from foreign lands.
We welcome them and shake their hands.
Through the clouds, the airplanes fly.
The birds can never reach so high.
A few brave ones do, however, try,
Only to fall back with a sad sigh.
Sitting on a plane, there is so much joy.
The earth far below, looks like a toy.
The stars all seem so bright and clear.
You can even pluck one, if one were near.
Hear the airplane engine roar.
It is like the squeal of a big boar.
But when the captain closes the door,
The painful noise is heard no more.
An airplane takes off, another lands;
The watching children clap their hands;
It brings people from foreign lands.
We welcome them and shake their hands.
Having concluded his recitation, the ACP smiled down at the girl and asked, "How did you like it, Preeti?"
Even before he asked her, he had been convinced that it was a great performance.
"Again!" said the girl, returning the smile.
A shift in Preeti's focus, as she looked beyond, after having answered him, was not lost on the ever-wary police officer's alertness. He spun around on his heels to ascertain what had caused it, only to find a group of bewildered constables at the door, watching their boss in an incarnation they could never imagine.
Before they could bat an eyelid, the ACP had transformed to his usual grim self, and bellowed, "To your posts!" that caused the host at the door to vanish.
It was Preeti's turn to be impressed with the ACP. She liked people who put others in their place. At home, she loved her mother for it.
Preeti's mother, who had been next door, when the little girl had returned home from school that morning, had been told by the neighbor that many schools were closed for the day, due to the incessant rain. She called the school from her cell only to find that there was no answer, which meant that Balaranya Nursery School too was closed. She immediately called the mother's of the other two children to know whether they had returned home. When told that both of them were back, Preeti's mother panicked, assuming that the girl was lost.
She called her husband at his office, and asked him to come home immediately. Then she obtained the principal's cell number from another parent, and spoke to Suhasini. Though her manner of speech was not overtly hostile, her choice of words left the principal in no doubt that she held the school responsible for this calamity.
The two conversations that Preeti's mother had - one with her husband, and the other with the school principal, set in motion a chain of other happenings. The father called up his close friends, requesting them to congregate at his residence to take stock of the situation, and initiate investigative action. Suhasini called her teachers with a similar appeal, the point of assembly being the school premises.
It had begun to pour heavily again to add to the gloom and the mess.
It was decided at both gatherings that it would be better to go to the police, after having exhausted possible avenues that could be attempted on their own. Accordingly, search parties were organized to go to every apartment block in the vicinity, to enquire about Preeti's whereabouts. The searchers were wet with slush, even before they completed their first foray. Umbrellas and raincoats were of little use - they in fact, proved to be a hindrance.
The security guard's account of Preeti having returned, and then gone missing had alerted the parent's gathering about the happening. The school party was unaware of this - with the parents not having informed them.
It was well past three in the afternoon, when the police were able to trace the cell number of the school principal, and inform her that one of the students of the school was with them. Not being listed in the directory, they had to send an officer to search for the place, or contact someone known to the principal, to get the number. What should ordinarily have been an hour's job, took three in the downpour, and the resultant deluge. The police noted the home address of the child from the principal, and asked Suhasini to be present there in half an hour.
A motley crowd of teachers, parents, police officers, and general public - many of them completely wet, terribly famished, and totally exhausted, gathered at Preeti's apartment block around four in the afternoon of that dismal day. The mood, however, was one of relief. The missing girl had been found, and was in their midst - happy and smiling, in the arms of ACP Naik.
A reconstruction of the day's events proved that nobody was really at fault. Destiny conspired to make their lives miserable, and succeeded awfully well in its machinations.
When the gathering decided to disperse for a deserving rest for all concerned, Preeti tugged at ACP Naik's trouser, and said "Plane story. Again."
Naik picked her up, planted a kiss on her cheek, and said, "I will write it down for your parents and teachers, and they will recite it to you."
He asked for a sheet of paper, and wrote down the story of the airplane. The parents not being too keen about reciting stories, gladly handed over it to Suhasini. It soon became one of the favorites with both the children and the teachers, for quite different reasons. It was set to a lilting tune, and became part of the large collection of story rhymes that Balaranya Nursery School had amassed, and prided over.
The next morning, the local newspaper pronounced the negligence of the authorities of Balaranya Nursery School, as the cause of a bomb scare at the airport that caused air traffic to be disrupted for many hours. It was the handiwork of the reporter in search of the exclusive scoop.
The principal was devastated. She knew that technically she was not at fault. The child had gone missing from its home. That didn’t make a good headline story. Painting one black and another white, made for a telling contrast, and sold more copies. Keeping things grey did not. The reporter had his compulsions. Yet, she felt that deciding to close the school for the day, started the chain of events.
This in turn made the teachers squirm in their attires. They felt that it was their conspiratorial scheming, which made the principal declare a holiday. That ACP Naik issued a rejoinder the following day, absolving the school of all culpability, and providing the actual sequence of events, made no difference to anyone’s feeling of guilt.
It was Abida’s elementary logic that finally set the house in order.
“What caused the teachers to ask for a holiday?” she demanded.
“The rain, of course; but you can’t blame the rain,” replied Suhasini.
“Who caused the rain?” persisted Abida.
“Rain isn’t caused. It happens,” said the principal, dismissively.
“No, it is caused; caused by God. He is responsible for what happened, as He is for everything. He is responsible for the child to go missing, as well as for the child to return home safely. Stop blaming yourselves, when you have not intended harm. This habit is a disease.”
There was silence for a while, as the teachers and the principal, pondered over Abida’s words.
The lot of them slept well that night, which was a sure indication that they found the aaya’s logic reasonably acceptable and found solace in it, albeit in a different context, though they did not say it in so many words.
A meeting was called by Suhasini at the school on the following Monday, to discuss ways to further strengthen steps that could help avoid situations, such as the one that happened the previous week. Apart from the teachers, a few well meaning parents too were invited.
When the accusatory article, and then the rejoinder by ACP Naik, had appeared in the newspapers on consecutive days, it generated a groundswell of support and sympathy among the people of the area for the school and its staff. They had been witness to the teachers going from house to house in pouring rain, searching for the missing child. It was generally felt that the school had been unnecessarily blamed, and had become a victim to the mindless sensationalism of the media. A few parents had come forward to present letters of appreciation to the school, lauding the way it looked after its children. As a gesture of reciprocal goodwill, Suhasini had invited those parents too to the meeting.
Managing children is an onerous task. Suhasini had realized this the hard way. Measures devised to perform this task evolved over time. The environment also dictated amendments periodically. When they had started the school, the population of the locality was about a tenth of what it was today. Everyone knew everyone else, and a missing child could be easily traced within the locality and its trail known, if it had sneaked outside it.
Today, people hardly knew each other, even within an apartment block, and those who were familiar hardly had time for each other. "To hurry," was the verb that defined every action. To trace a lost child in such an environment required different measures, means, and skills.
The worth of a precautionary measure is understood, only when a hurtful incident has occurred, without having taken it. Having badges with the school's name sewn on the uniforms was brought into practice by the school twenty years ago, after one such incident. By this time, two other pre-schools had come up in the locality to cater to the increased population. Manually pedaled rickshaws were the main means of transport those days, to ferry children to, and from school.
A non-verbal boy from the Nursery class, slipped out of the rickshaw on the way home, leaving behind his schoolbag, when the rickshaw puller went into the house of another child. Seeing the boy wandering about aimlessly, a Good Samaritan took him to the school that he knew about in the area, which was not Balaranya Nursery School. The authorities of that school in their turn deposited the child at the nearest police station, which was not in the same locality, as Balaranya Nursery School was. The case had become more complex at each step, and the child could be restored to its parents only very late in the night.
Every negative incident demands a scapegoat. The rickshaw-puller was found to be the most suitable candidate here with the police, parents, and the school management, threatening the poor man with dire consequences, if the apparent mistake was ever repeated.
The school badges on uniforms, and an identification card inside the schoolbag with the name, address, and telephone numbers of the parents, became standard practices, since then.
With increasing number of women going to work, such of them who had very young children, would often request mothers of other children in the same class, if they happened to be friends or neighbors, to mind their children, until they returned from work. An adult being accompanied by more than one child became a regular affair for a while. Some enterprising children would slip away after the home-bell, in this guise. It then became necessary to employ an additional hand to operate the gates at dispersal time, ask every adult being accompanied by more than one child to confirm that they were indeed taking responsibility for them, and make a note of it in a register.
Suhasini recounted all this at the meeting, as she initiated a discussion. "Considering last week's happening, would you suggest any additional measures?" she asked those gathered.
There were some propositions that were merely a variation of the existing ones. A very technology-intensive suggestion was made by a parent who wanted every child to be provided with an armband, which could enable its movements to be tracked using the Global Positioning System.
"Though technically feasible, it is quite impractical in our situation. It will entail a comparatively high cost. Considering the fact that some parents make a fuss about the quantum of tuition fee, and are always after us to reduce it, do you think we can introduce something like this?" asked the principal.
"I think we should insist on all those adults who bring children to school on such exceptional days, to report to us, when they leave. We note down the name of the children being sent back, and then call every parent to inform that their child has been sent back," suggested Hema. The urge to atone, still lingered in some corner of her conscience.
"What if the parent is unreachable? You would be in the same situation, as you were last week," interposed someone from the gathering.
"At least, we would have tried," persisted Hema.
"Or one of the three-wheeler drivers may forget the routine, and depart without informing you," persisted the person, who had raised the earlier objection.
"Then we would not be to blame. Our conscience will be clear," declared Hema.
"Is that the reason that we are gathered here - to find ways to absolve someone of responsibility? I thought it was to find a foolproof system of ensuring safety of children," admonished a parent. "I feel you have reasonable measures already in place. If anything happens beyond this, it should be accepted as the work of providence - something that is inevitable."
"There is nothing like fate, destiny, or providence," retorted another parent jumping into the fray. "These words only reflect our negative approach to life. With a positive outlook we make our own destiny."
Suhasini realized that the discussion was digressing very sharply from the subject that was to be in focus, and immediately triggered damage-control measures.
She got to her feet, and said, "I think we have had many interesting suggestion from all of you today. We will ruminate over them, and see whether any of them could be implemented from the school's perspective. We will conclude the meeting now, and I request everyone to have some snacks and tea, before leaving. Thank you!"
As if on cue, Abida walked in, carrying a large tray with cups brimming with hot tea, and a bowlful of salty biscuits.
The two confrontationist parents continued to glare at each other over teacups, silently cursing their opponent to experience everlasting hell. When they left the school premises, they made certain that they were as far apart as possible, detesting even the air that the other traversed.
A few days afterwards, Dayanidhi Ramadas had come visiting. Suhasini narrated to him the tumultuous happenings, concluding with a description of what transpired at the meeting that she had called at the school.
"I agree with the first part of the parent's argument," said the old man, after a short pause.
"You mean the one who suggested that we were gathered there to find ways to absolve ourselves of responsibility?"
"Come on! You are being unreasonably mean," said Suhasini, truly annoyed.
"Tell me, weren't you very depressed, when the newspaper reports said that you were responsible for the child going missing?" asked Dayanidhi.
"Of course, I was. Anyone in my place would have been. How would you have felt?"
"Then what is wrong with it?"
"I didn't say there was anything wrong."
Suhasini felt the proverbial rug being pulled from under her feet. She wondered, as to what they were arguing about in the first place.
"More than one child goes missing every day somewhere in this world. Do you feel so perturbed for all of them?"
"No. Because I never get to hear about them."
"Very true," agreed the old man, nodding. "Some of the incidents are reported in the newspapers. Are you perturbed, as much as you were, when your student went missing, when you read them?"
"No. I am not. I do feel bad for the child. But then I know that I can't do anything about it."
"Exactly. What is that attribute that makes you feel that you need to do something, when you can?"
Suhasini thought for a while, and said, "Responsibility."
"Yes. Now please understand that I am not trying to belittle you or anyone. I am only attempting to see a larger picture. All of us do have compassion in us. But it is subservient to the primary need of the preservation of ego. Whenever there is a clash between the two, it is ego that always triumphs. That is the way of the world. The weapon that it uses to overpower compassion is 'responsibility.'"
"When we heard that the girl was missing, every one of us at the school - the staff I mean, went around in blinding rain looking for her, disregarding our health. Anyone, even you, will agree that it was selfless service."
"I agree that it was service," said Dayanidhi.
"What do you have against the word 'selfless'? Why do you want to deny people accolades that they truly deserve?"
Suhasini's annoyance, which had been doused by the old man's deft maneuvering, resurfaced with full force.
"When you began your search, were you aware that the child had reached home, and then went missing from there?"
"No. But how does that make a difference to the importance of what we undertook?"
"Tell me, honestly. Would you have undertaken what you did wholeheartedly, had you known this fact?" questioned the old man.
Suhasini was silent.
It was another day at the airport, but the same familiar circumstances; aircrafts queued up on the ground every three hundred meters on the approach strip to the runway, waiting to take off; aircrafts circling in the air, waiting for their turn to land; a horde of passengers embarking through one set of aerobridges, and another horde disembarking; visitors thronging the lounges to see off, or receive, passengers; security personnel keeping a close watch on the goings-on; announcements of all manner over the public address systems; a range of employees busy with a range of occupations.
It was a matter of routine for most, but a subject of undiminished fascination for Preeti.
She was at the airport with her father, to watch the conveyor belt at the baggage-bay. It had been quite a while, since she was here last, on that adventurous day, her mother having forbidden such sojourns for sometime. It had taken repeated entreaties and submissions on the part of Preeti and her father, to make her relent, and dilute her strictures.
As her eyes followed the conveyor belt on its endless journey, they spied another object, which - though not seen so often to be termed familiar - was etched deeply in her consciousness. It was the profile of ACP Naik standing in one corner, and talking to one of his junior officers.
The ACP felt a tug to his trouser, and looked down to see Preeti beside him.
"Ah! If that isn't my little friend, Preeti," said Naik, picking her up, and cradling her in his muscular arms.
The girl looked into his eyes, and said, "Story."
Naik laughed aloud. The junior officer's countenance resonated with a smile - an unthinkable feat in normal times, when it managed to (and was also allowed to) sport only an expression of awe and dread.
Preeti's father who was busy reading a newspaper, had by this time realized that his daughter had slipped away from her perch, and on looking around noticed her with ACP Naik. He quickly walked over to them.
"I am sorry, if she is bothering you," he said, in alarm.
"Not at all," said Naik, "Just a little banter between friends. She wants me to tell her a story."
"Airplane story," prompted Preeti.
"Don't bother the officer, Preeti. Can't you see he is busy? Come let us go, and watch the planes," said the father, eager to get away from Naik's presence. The police officer, and his overbearing manner, reminded him too much of his domineering wife.
"No! Story." Preeti was adamant.
"Alright," agreed Naik, and turning to the father, said, "I have been transferred to another city, and will be leaving this weekend. Let this story be a parting gift to my little friend. Why don't you two come up to my cabin above?"
Without waiting for an answer, the ACP led the way. He did not expect, nor would he allow, his decrees to be disobeyed.
After having ordered the junior officer who tagged along to get a cup of tea for Preeti's father and a chocolate bar for the girl, Naik sat at his desk, and began to scribble on his pad. It took him a few minutes to recollect yet another story-rhyme that he had regularly recited to his now-grown-up children, and jot it down.
Once it had been resurrected completely from the depths of his memory, Naik said, "Ready, Preeti? Come let us sit on the windowsill, as before, while I tell you the story. It is not going to be about planes this time. It is about a sailor and his boat."
With the girl munching chocolate, and her father sipping tea, Naik began his story of the sailor and his boat.
A sailor in his little sailboat,
Set out to sea from Mumbai port.
He only wore a long white coat,
For company, he had a pet goat.
After ten days, he reached Mangalore.
His legs felt cramped, his hands were sore.
To buy bales of grass was his wish.
His pet goat would just not eat fish.
In ten more days, he landed in Cochin,
To buy for his goat a bed and a bin;
The goat, now fat; wouldn't sleep on the floor.
Its food now needed a bin to store.
In ten days more, he reached Nagapattinam,
And went ashore to buy a water drum.
A happy tune his heart did hum,
Their journey's end had almost come.
In ten days more, they were set to reach,
And berth their boat on the Chennai beach.
But, alas! The little boat couldn't keep afloat.
It sank into the sea with the sailor and his goat.
“Did you like the story, Preeti?” asked Naik, his hands frozen in a gesture that he believed showed a boat sinking into the sea.
Preeti’s father watching from across the table, felt that Naik’s actions were more like an ape jumping about in a rage, after having been stung on the backside by a rampaging swarm of bees. The girl, however, had a more favorable opinion. She was in fact, bowled over.
“Again,” she entreated.
“Not this time,” said Naik. “I have much work to do. Run along now, and if we were to meet again, I will tell you another.”
He gave the scribbled story-rhyme to the father, saying, “You can take over from me now.”
Preeti’s father understood it to be the command for dismissal. He picked up a reluctant Preeti, and walked out of the office, while the ACP blew her a kiss standing at the door.
Next day, the scrap of paper with the story of the sailor and his boat, reached the ever-eager hands of the teachers of Balaranya Nursery School.