I hated school. Still remember the day my father first took me through the huge iron gates of the building near our house. Father was in the Indian army and a captain then. Those days we were posted at an army base near Mumbai. School was a ten minute walk from home and from the playground, I could see my house
over the boundary walls. Children in nursery were expected to be in class for two hours and the entire time, I would keep looking in the same direction. Father used to drop me at the school on his way to office. Two hours later I used to run back home. Then there were changes in his office hours which made it difficult for him to do take me to school. It was as a solution to this problem, that Maria Das was brought into our lives.
Maria Das, the name meant a servant or follower of Mary. Maria Das, had worked as a waiter at the Army Officers Mess. He was around sixty when I first met him. Even though he was officially retired, he still helped out at the Mess. The only family he had been a wife, who had died years ago, now he lived alone in a room next to the mess.
During the colonial days, the officers in the Indian Army were all British. While the ‘Gora sahib’s’ or white officers as the British were called, sipped their whisky and munched on cucumber sandwiches or what ever it was that they munched on, the
native soldiers observed and learned. Post Independence, Indians got a chance to rise up the ranks. A number of the British mannerisms and attitudes were carried forward, irrespective of their relevance in the Indian context. Maria Das was a great fan of the British whom he had served with all his heart. When they left India, he had reluctantly agreed to work with the Indian replacements.
Tall, thin, white silvery hair, neatly combed to one side, Maria Das was always dressed in clean white full sleeved shirts and dark trousers. A black bow tie held his collar’s together. In his slightly frayed black leather shoes, which he always kept polished and shining, he would cover the distance up our driveway in a few long strides. His job was to take me to school, and later get me back after two hours.
Initially I used to cry on my way to school. Maria Das never tried to cuddle or coddle me; instead he simply diverted my attention elsewhere. He would tell me stories of butterflies that talked and elephants that flew, and before I realized it we would be at the school gates. Soon I started looking forward to these walks to and from school. Not that school became enjoyable; the journey up to it was no longer a burden.
“Come on, baba,” Maria Das used to call me baba.
“You should always be punctual. The British were always punctual,” he would
gently admonish me.
As I skipped towards him, he would ruffle my hair and then taking my bag and water bottle in one hand, holding me with the other, he would lead me into story land.
One year later, father got transferred and we moved to another corner of India. Maria Das was in tears as he waved us goodbye at the railway station.
Ten years later, after roaming all over the country, we returned to the same post near Mumbai. I still hated school, only I did not cry my heart out now. I had a bicycle on which I roamed the entire town, revisiting old haunts. My old school, the house where we had lived, the playground where I used to go to play in the evening, somehow they looked a bit smaller now, from what I remembered of them.
Father was a colonel now and we had a spacious bungalow. The house had large rooms and included a passage in the back with delicately carved wooden rafters to keep out the rain but let in the light.
That year the rains started early. One day while returning from school, I saw my parents standing near the entrance, waiting for me.
“There is someone here whom you should meet,” my father’s voice sounded a bit soft, which worried me a bit. Hoping that it was not my math’s teacher from school come over to complain about my performance, I followed as father lead the way towards the passage at the back of the house.
Thick rain clouds had blocked out the sun and it was slightly dark in the passage. An old man was sitting on the floor eating.
Father turned around and asked me, “Do you remember who he is?”
I tried to remember but could not place him. The old man looked up; when he saw me he slowly got up, wiped his hands and shuffled over. He came up to me, and peered at me for some time, then slowly reached out and ruffled my hair.
“Baba, has grown so tall, just like a Gora sahib” he said
It was Maria Das. He has somehow found out that we were back and had come over to meet us. He was still dressed in his customary white shirt, bow tie, black trouser ensemble. Only they looked frayed and grey from wear.
“I had brought this for you, “he offered me a small packet of chocolates.
I was feeling a bit awkward standing there, so managed a smile and slowly slid away.
Father gave Maria Das a hundred rupees and some clothes. He insisted that I give him the gifts. Taking them he gave me a half wave – half salute, thanked my parents for the food and then looking at me one last time shuffled towards the
It had started to drizzle outside. Father asked him to wait for the rain to stop, he smiled and replied that it didn’t matter as he was very happy, for he had met the ‘Chota Sahib’ or little master.
A few days later father told us that Maria Das had passed away in his sleep in his room. He was buried in the cemetery near the old British church.