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Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta is in the IAS and currently on a break. She lives with her husband and two young children in Mumbai. She loves books, movies, music and animals. Her professional interests are in education and development.
Aged four and a half, and three and a half respectively – and at that age, the halves do matter – my children were starting ‘big school’. At the parents’ orientation the previous evening, anxiety levels had decreased palpably across the auditorium when the school head announced that parents could accompany the child in the school bus for the next three days. That is, one parent could go along, on one leg of the journey, either to school or back. From Monday, the children would go on their own. And yes, the school bus was compulsory for all those residing outside the school’s pin code.
My husband was much happier with the notion of the school bus than I was. I thought my babies were still… babies. I worried that they would fall off the seat, bump their heads, stick their arms out of the window. I even considered a move into the pin code – with all those high-rises, right next to the school, maybe? – until my husband pointed out, reasonably enough, that we had just bought a house in the opposite direction – and that it was getting done up for us to move into – and that, therefore, we had no more money to invest in one of South Bombay’s (and India’s, and Asia’s) most expensive real estate neighbourhoods.
My husband ‘s view was that the bus ride would make the boys more independent, that they would have a great time, that the school bus was a part of the school experience, and so on. I had heard all this before and was even ready to believe it in principle, but in practice? The thought of letting go of a three-year old’s little hand, helping him adjust his backpack on his small shoulders and watching him disappear into the interiors of the long yellow school bus seemed so final.
The thought of letting go of a three-year old’s little hand, helping him adjust his backpack on his small shoulders and watching him disappear into the interiors of the long yellow school bus seemed so final.
Our appointed time was 7:57 am outside the gate of the hospital next door, but we reached ten minutes before. An older boy and girl were already seated by the side of the road, dressed in the t-shirt and shorts that were the school uniform for older children. And they were friendly! I have to admit that their presence gave me a reassuring sense of continuity: my children would wear this yellow t-shirt some day, they would advise other parents on where to wait with their children, they would be part of the school.
I climbed into the bus with my two little boys. I had prepared a mental checklist. Window grills – check. Seat grips – check. Doors that close – check. Kind woman attendant – check. Friendly driver and conductor – they were already teasing the older children good-naturedly – check check!
I looked carefully, but couldn’t find anything to object to. With mixed feelings, I settled back. My kids, who adore bus rides, were already loving it. Behind us, there was the comforting noise of children doing what children are best at: MASTI.
It was a forty-five minute journey to the southern tip of the city. Beginning at Breach Candy, the bus proceeded through Kemps Corner and Nana Chowk, past the August Kranti Maidan and into Girgaum. On a less stressed morning I would have told my children about these locations on Bombay’s freedom trail and the independence movement against the British colonisers; now I was merely watchful. Then through the New Marine Lines and past Churchgate, past the bright green stretch that is Oval Maidan (which my children recognised instantly, for we have often taken our dog there for her evening run), acquiring more and more children along the way, and finally reaching the stretch of reclaimed land by the seashore where the school was located – an oasis of green in the midst of tall buildings.
We emerged from the bus into the bright Bombay sunshine, a rare sunny morning in the midst of the monsoon. My boys excitedly shrugged their backpacks into place and set off, one on each side of me. And then, suddenly, we were in the midst of children and balls. There seemed to be as many balls as children everywhere, being bounced and dodged and tossed to each other. Meanwhile, as anxious mothers stepped reluctantly back from the melee, teachers whisked the younger ones into lines, and the bus staff settled down to have their morning chai. There was something so familiar about all this – I had been here before. It felt like a place I knew well.
It felt like….. school.
The next morning, I did the ride once again; the third morning, I travelled out of town on work, almost forgetting about the bus ride until I got a text message from my husband. ‘It’s so great,’ he messaged from Girgaum. ‘The boys want to do this on weekends too.”
So now the bus journey has become the highlight of our mornings. The boys wake up early to the sound of Peter, Paul and Mary singing Puff the Magic Dragon. Getting dressed, breakfast over, they are off to meet their newly-acquired “bus stop friends” – not only the other children who get on to the bus from the same stop, their parents and their Didis (nannies), but also the maintenance staff, the “newspaper uncle” and the “security uncle” .Teachers walking up to the nearby international school smile as they walk past.
And then there are the dogs – oh, the dogs! Breach Candy is full of dogs, and they are all, all being walked at a quarter to eight in the morning. It takes my children entire minutes to pet one dog. Now their bus stop friends include a large golden retriever named Joey who promptly settles down to be worshipped; a handsome husky named Ralph who barks indignantly at his handler when he tries to hurry him; and an excitable beagle pup named Snoopy whose only obsession is to jump up and try to snap off the school ID-cards hanging around my children’s necks. The dog’s handlers have
also become friends – “Aaj chota baba nahin aaya ?” (Hasn’t the little one come today?) one handler will ask if my younger one isn’t with me, while the other handler will cheerfully offer my older son the husky’s leash.
I realise how little time we spend on the road: most times, we get in and out of the car in the driveway itself; at other times, even if we walk to the grocery store down the road, it is a purposeful walk to run an errand.
And so it turns out that we are often fifteen, twenty minutes early for the bus. For me, this time standing on the roadside is a tranquil beginning to the day. I realise how little time we spend on the road: most times, we get in and out of the car in the driveway itself; at other times, even if we walk to the grocery store down the road, it is a purposeful walk to run an errand.
But these few minutes in the morning give us a fresh view of our street. Morning walkers, joggers, milk vans, newspaper boys, coconut-water vendors, dog-walkers, hospital staff, and yes, the other mothers holding juice bottles or practising multiplication tables with their children while waiting to put them into the school bus – for a few minutes, we are all a small morning community. We notice the things that people do outside their usual roles – the security guard reading a newspaper, the dog walker talking on his phone, the traffic policeman bending to pat a dog.
Even the walk up to the bus stop is an adventure. Desh spots a tiny snail making its way across the driveway – and stops to shift it to the lawn before it gets squashed. Megh wants to look at the red worms left over from the rains as they slither across the grooves of the interlocking tiles. Desh wants to know how the pigeons can strut on the tubelight, flapping their feathers, without getting electrocuted. Both the boys stop to check on the beetroot they planted in a pot after gardening class last week.
I still hold my children’s hands while crossing the road. I am watchful when they pat new dogs. On the day of the Book Parade at school, when D is dressed up as Peter Pan and M as Elmer the Patchwork Elephant, and their friend K is dressed up as Krishna the flute-playing – we moms help the children to hold their props in place.
But when the long yellow school bus comes lumbering to a halt in front of us, the conductor jumps down to help the children up, and the smiling woman attendant gets ready to help them to their seats – that’s when I let go of my child’s moist little hand, and let him enter the bus.
Yes, it is final – it is the end of one phase. But it is also the beginning of another phase, for the children who will take the bus for the next twelve years – and for us, the parents who are learning to let go.
Pic credit: Capture Queen (Used under a Creative Commons Attribution license)
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