The Absence Of Presence

Sometimes, it’s your presence and not your company that matters more to someone! That does not mean they don’t appreciate or need your company, it’s just that your presence means a lot more. I realized this very late in life.

Normally, one thought that if you asked someone to stay: be around, it meant you wanted their company. You wanted to chat or perhaps wanted them to help out with something, unless you had given a specific reason. And if you didn’t engage in chitchat or gossip, didn’t give them a big chunk of your undivided attention, they’d feel redundant, dejected, disappointed and would want to leave. You’d be labeled boring, thoughtless, crazy or any such epithet that really didn’t apply. They couldn’t understand why someone would want them to hang around for nothing.

Through all my childhood years and youth, I never did want anyone’s “presence” to that extent. I was happy if I had a sibling or parent around, not to keep me “company,” but because I was scared to be alone. If I wasn’t afraid, it wouldn’t matter whether they were home or not as long as their absence was brief.

But just wanting to see them or know they were around because their absence created a vacuum; that was never a reason.

After I married, my husband would be out on tours twice or thrice a month, and each trip would be between 3-4 days. So I was by myself a lot. I welcomed the alone time. That might sound strange to some. The thing is I was a bookworm. I loved to bury myself in a book whenever I found the time. TV and the gadgets we engage with these days didn’t exist until the early 1980s in our part of the world. So, with the hubs away, I’d have uninterrupted reading sessions. No guests dropping in. No visits to anyone’s place (he was the more social one)! No need to cook three times a day either!

Then, along came the kids. Schedules changed and I took up a job when the younger started preschool. My day’s agenda was jampacked and I had little or no time to indulge in reading. As the boys grew and would be out for games at school or with their friends, and their father on his tours, I relished their absence!! I felt light and reveled in the sense of ‘freedom’ I had to put my legs up and just be – quiet and still. Listen to the sound of silence and allow it to seep into the pores of my skin. I’d relax as I couldn’t with the presence of the three men. I didn’t feel the weight of their expectations on my shoulders.

Not that they were demanding. Far from that. It was my own expectations from myself for them – does that make sense? I had set the bar way too high for myself as a wife and a mom. I’d be constantly on my toes, except for my scheduled short breaks, doing something or the other so they wouldn’t be bothered by little things.

Even though I had a maid to see to the cleaning, laundry, dishes; the dhobi to see to the washing of linen and thick or heavy garments as well as ironing, and a gardener who came in weekly or bi-weekly, as required, I still had a lot on my hands. I had to do a little of all the hired helps’ work too! That was me. And I kept the cooking – three meals a day – entirely as my domain.

As a teacher, in those days, we had anything from 38-45 kids in a class and there were times when I’ve had a bit more students than that. So, I had a lot of checking work coming home with me: notebooks with homework! Classwork notebooks I’d check during free periods in school. Our system back then was demanding. We had to give HW on a regular basis and check the work in time with corrections and remarks/notes where necessary. There was classwork too. All written work in class had to be checked in time. Both classwork and homework notebooks had to be kept up-to-date with corrections.

Add to that the class tests, quarterly exams, half-yearly exams, and then, the big one – Finals. If you were a language teacher, you’d have a bigger load to check. Two exams so two big bundles of papers to go through: Language and Literature. Each was a separate exam. Now add to that, that I was teaching language & literature to three classes. All at different levels – 8-10. Saying that I had my hands full is an understatement. Add to that the extra work if you were a Class Teacher as well! And I was both. There were the marksheets to be made. Shown to the Principal to decide if any child deserved some ‘grace’ marks to pass. Then the report cards to be filled in. Remarks for each child.

Did I mention that these were all handwritten? We weren’t digital then.

All this to say, I had a lot on my plate jobwise, and I raised the bar of my own performance level at home too because – well, because that’s who I was then. None of my wonderful men at home thrust that on me. So, I never missed anyone’s presence. I enjoyed their absence. But with time, I realized, while I relished the alone, quiet time I got with them gone, the boys found it difficult if I were to go for a meeting or something during a holiday. They missed my presence!

I’d have done all that I had to do so they wouldn’t have to do anything. Everything would be the same as usual, except, my presence. And that’s what they missed. They wanted to know that I was around in the house. They wanted to see me there even if I was busy with domestic chores or sitting and and drinking my tea in the garden, or just sitting around. And if they had to go out for whatever reason, even to meet a friend in the neighborhood, they wanted to be assured that I’d be at home when they returned. They wanted that reassurance whether they hung around at home or not. They missed my ‘presence’.

I couldn’t understand this, and sometimes, when the hubs would grumble about a teachers’ meeting on a Saturday or, if necessary, on a school holiday, I’d counter with the argument that his tours also kept him away most times during my holidays or offs.

“It’s different,” he’d respond.

“How is it different?”

“You don’t miss us the way we miss you,” he shot back.

“Nice argument! Haha! I’m flattered but not convinced. It stinks of bias and disguised male chauvinism.”

“Whatever. The home is not the same when you’re not in. You are the Queen of this Queendom.”

This word he’d coined, queendom, always made me smile. I’d smile, flattered mightily. But not fully comprehending what they missed.

And then, his time ran out. Was 39 yrs any age to go? The angels came and he travelled on a one-way ticket into the blue.

In the years that followed, I finally learned what it was to ‘miss someone’s presence.’ Not what they did for you. Not how they helped you personally. Not the tangibles and physical help – what I missed was his presence. There was a huge vacuum in my life.

His presence, even when he was on tour, had always remained with me in spirit. It was this physical and spiritual connection that created the presence for me. The connection of two souls. With his physical presence gone, there was an empty space. It was saudade – a permanent absence of physical presence.

I realized that earlier, the temporary absence of one person, for a few days in the month, did not manifest in any kind of longing or the feeling of absence because I knew, at the back of my mind, he was very present in my life: in flesh and blood. But, I needed more space to just be. Quiet. Silent. Be with me. Me needs my exclusive presence too. In fact, the wait, on the day he’d be back, was a delicious anticipation that would reach the heights of joy when I’d see him enter the gate.

It only hit me much later that, for me, his physical presence was huge, but it was also one I took for granted. The support I got from him through his love, actions, strength, and consideration, filled in the vacuum of his physical absence. It remained a spiritual presence… emotional presence… one so strong in thoughts that it didn’t leave an empty space. Besides, the few days would pass off so soon and he would be back well before that sort of longing and missing happened.

The finality of death is awful. Heavy. Painful. Debilitating. Crippling. And for the first time I understood what saudade meant in the true sense.

What missing the “presence” physical, and of the spirit and soul meant: an eternity of absence. Knowing there was no returning ever. I could stare at the gate, waiting for his tour taxi, and the clang of the gate all in vain. That’s when I felt the tremendous weight of loss – in body and spirit.

That’s when I realized that actually, the relief I looked forward to, when I was alone, was my own need to fulfil some of my own desires (of quietude and solitude) and time to pursue my personal hobbies. It overshadowed the absence that I might have felt and helped me keep my equilibrium in an overcrowded daily agenda. And also, in an unobtrusive way, helped me to do things independently without expecting help in domestic chores, and kept me organized, disciplined, and emotionally strong.

Now, I’m living with SAUDADE – the constant feeling of the ABSENCE of PRESENCE. A particular presence in my life. An empty space that nothing and no one can ever fill.

I can be surrounded by family: my dear sons and grandkids or even extended family. I could enjoy their company to the hilt, but it only heightens the longing for that one presence that can never be replaced. I’d wish he were there. Of how much he’d enjoy it.

It is immense love and great grief. Love that cannot be shown or expressed. And grief that has no shoulder to lay its head on. No place to go. No person. No presence.

Grief, I’ve learned is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give but cannot. All of that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.

– Jamie Anderson

It is SAUDADE!

The Original Blueprint – Part -1

Canada had never been on my list-of-places-to-visit! Though, I did advice a lot of youngsters, including my son, to move to Canada. But I never ever felt inclined to visit here, and living here was not even a possible thought.

Yet, here I am!

Destiny? God’s plan for my life? I guess it’s both. It’s the result of the original blueprint for my life. One that I altered in some places, and the others altered without my consent at some juncture.

I often wonder about my sojourns to two countries that never figured in my travel-hungry dreams and desires. Surprisingly, apart from Canada, USA also didn’t make it to my list! While my friends in college went on about the States I dreamed about countries in Europe. I didn’t realize my Europe dream and, of course, never went to the States. But I came close to it when I ‘lived’ in Chile! A place that wasn’t even on the periphery of my travel thoughts. Though, I must add here, I loved it. The city I lived in and the memories of my stay there are embedded in my heart.

But as I’ve learned, God’s plan for my life will go according to plan despite the detours I make from the path. I will, eventually, do, go, function according to the original plan – sooner or later.

Take my journey at this point in life – I’m in Canada! If I had not rejected an offer to travel to Ireland when I was nine years old; if my mother had not put her foot down (which encouraged me) on the offer of two wonderful Irish missionaries to adopt me, I would have been here decades ago!

The story that convinces me that it is God’s original plan starts in the latter half of the year 1963, in New Delhi.

My parents were members of an evangelical church. The congregation called themselves the ‘Brethren’. The church was in Connaught Place and was called Gospel Hall. It wasn’t a conventional church building. It was in a commercial area and was one of the shops/offices that had been rented for worship.

In those days, Christian missionaries abounded all over India, and we had a fair share of them in Delhi, and in our Gospel Hall as well. Among the ones at Gospel Hall was an Irish couple – John and Lily Walker. They had two sons, Johnston and Earnest.

My parents and the Walkers took to each other and they became friendly outside the fellowship-worshippers church circle. We’d have them over for lunch sometimes and they’d invite us over for a meal sometimes. I enjoyed the company of this missionary family, which I confess was not normal because, even at that young age, I didn’t care much for the many others whom my father had befriended when we were posted in Kerala, South India. They’d come over often and have lunch and tea with us. I recall a picnic or two. One at a beach and one on a house boat! I was younger then but I had a mind of my own. I liked and disliked my parents’ company according to my own judgments for what they were worth!

There were the Phoenixes, the Bones, the Taylors, the McGregors, to name a few.

But the Walkers were different. I played with their younger son, Earnest, who was a year and half older than me, I think. Johnston, the elder one was nice too. He would talk to me and joined his brother and I briefly sometimes.

Lily and John were jovial and easy-going and not the typical uptight Christian missionaries who judged everything we said or did and found it inappropriate according to their thinking. I usually made myself scarce when any of those kinds visited us. They didn’t understand our sense of humor, our cultural dos and don’ts, and they thought they had the God-given right to admonish me!

Well, I was the youngest kid in the family then, a bit spoiled by Daddy, and I couldn’t take that. So rather than ‘talk back’ I avoided them.

Anyway, to come back to the main part of the story. Lily and John had taken to me too. We, of course, were unaware of the extent to which they had fallen in love with me. They had already decided (before even consulting with my parents) that they wanted to adopt me! That was the reason why they began to spend more time with us. Even at Sunday School or at church, Lily would talk to me, sometimes sit beside me at church, and generally, give me a lot of attention. I loved it because it was free of judgement, criticism, and full of love, caring, and acceptance of my little personality as it was.

None of them, including the boys, ever tried to change or mold my natural self to suit them. I was accepted as I was. I was loved as I was.

We were brought up in an Indo-western environment with the western more pronounced than the Indian. Our etiquette, behavior, and environment at home was more western. So there wasn’t much that was different for me in their home, and I guess they didn’t find much to change in my behavior.

Well, finally their term in India was drawing to its end and they had to make their intention known to my parents. And they did. I was totally in the dark about how my fate was being decided between them.

While all this was going on, a severe case of jaundice laid me down. It was pretty bad because my parents hadn’t realized that it was more than an “ache in the side of my tummy” as I continued playing with the pain. No one noticed that the whites of my eyes had turned yellow until one day, Mummy did. The doctor was worried and hoped that it wasn’t worse than what he had diagnosed.

The result was that the Walkers postponed their return and extended their stay by three months. It took over two months for me to get better, but I was very weak and I had to be under medical supervision for a month more.

My father had put in his papers for an early retirement and wanted to go back to his hometown and get started on building our house. But as I couldn’t travel then, he asked for an extension on our accommodation for another month. So we were in Delhi while he went on ahead to get work started on the house.

Now, the Walkers who were apprised of the developments on our side, came home before Daddy left. As I lay in bed, I could hear them talk, but not clearly enough to get the whole conversation. I gathered bits and pieces and knew that it was something about me. I heard my name mentioned a lot. I heard the word travel. I heard the words “extend our stay.” I tried to put two and two together but couldn’t understand what was the big deal if I couldn’t travel. I presumed they were going to leave me back here with the Walkers and my mother and brother would go with my father to Punjab. I would be staying with these people and join them later when I could travel.

However, I soon learned who was planning to ‘extend’ their stay and why. It all came down to one person’s decision – Mine!

I heard footsteps coming towards my room and I perked up a bit. John and Lily came in and Lily sat on the bed and held my hand. They asked how I was and made some small conversation. Then they asked me if I liked their sons. Did I like their home and was I comfortable whenever I spent the day there. My answer was a big YES and a broad smile to all of these questions. Then came the last one.

“Would you like to come live with us?”

“Okay,” I quipped happily thinking I was right about what I had picked up from their conversation earlier. Then I added, “How long will I stay? The doctor said it could be longer than a month before I can travel.”

They realized I was not on the same page as them. And that my parents hadn’t broached the subject with me.

Gently, both of them told me how much they loved me and how Lily had fallen in love with me from the first day she saw me. How she wanted a daughter and she saw that daughter in me. How her sons also accepted me as a sister if I agreed to be a part of their family.

It was a bomb exploding in my head. I was just a little nine year old going on ten, by then! This was in the beginning of 1965. And I wasn’t strong enough mentally and physically and emotionally to deal with such a big question about the future of my life.

They realized it immediately after they had said what they had to say. To their credit, they very softly and lovingly told me I didn’t have to make my decision immediately. They could wait. But if I could give them some hope, even a 50-50 one about their chances of becoming my foster parents, they could extend their stay by even six months, if need be.

I loved my family. I couldn’t imagine loving someone else as my parents no matter how nice they were or how much I loved them too. No one could replace my Mummy and Daddy! Not even the very nice and loving Lily and John Walker.

“Will you take me with you to Ireland?”

‘Of course. You’ll be my daughter. Wouldn’t you like that?”

“Yes. But when will I see my parents?”

“You can write to them, talk to them over the phone. And you can come back to see them whenever you want. And they can come to see you too. We won’t keep you away from your family in India.”

“Have you spoken to my mummy and daddy? What did they say? Did my Daddy say yes? Did my Mummy say yes?”

The questions came pouring out. I still remember the dread I felt and the slight tremor of excitement at what this meant for me. I was scared to leave all that was familiar and that I loved behind and go with people I barely knew beyond a social relationship. Nevertheless, there was a bit of adventure and excitement at the thought of going on a long journey to another country and living a new life. One I could only imagine from movies and stories I had heard.

The thought that was troubling me was that if both of my parents had agreed to this, I would have to go. I thought I’d have no right to refuse if my parents had agreed. I wouldn’t see them for years maybe and neither my sisters and brother. It made my heart sink. And I was scared too. So far away from my parents whom I trusted and relied on. I had no notion of how I’d be able to bear that. Somewhere, was a flicker of hope that one of them had refused. Somewhere at the back of my mind, subconsciously, I was keeping that as my escape hatch.

I was waiting for their answer. My heart was pounding.

Lily looked at John.

“Your father said he had no objections if we let you keep in touch and allowed you to visit. But he said it all depended on your answer and not his. We could adopt you only if you agreed.” My heart leapt with joy. Daddy had given me the final decision. I wasn’t so scared now.

“And what did Mummy say?”

“She doesn’t want you to come with us. She flatly refused to let us adopt you.”

This made it easier for me to make my decision. Her flat refusal took the burden off me. Deciding to take such a big step, one that I couldn’t fully comprehend. To me it was just like an adventure. Like the ones I’d imagine and dream to come true. This gave me the escape route I was looking for and I made up my mind.

“No. I can’t go with you forever. I can come for a holiday but I want my Mummy and Daddy. My sisters and brother.”

“But your parents will still be your parents. Your sisters and brother will still be your siblings. Think about it. You’ll have bigger opportunities if you come with us. take your time to decide. Though not too long. We cannot extend our stay only to find you won’t be coming back with us. We have to get your travel arrangements done too.”

“Ok. Then please don’t extend your stay. I don’t think I can stay away from my family like this.”

They looked so sad. I felt bad and wondered if I should say yes. My mind was for it. But my heart wasn’t in it at all.

“I’m sure.” I said. “I can’t leave my family.”

Long story short. The Walkers left. Mummy and Lily kept in touch for two or three years via snail mail. We learned that they had migrated to Canada a year or so after they returned to Ireland. And that’s where the Canada connection comes in, in this story. If I had agreed to make them my foster parents, I would have been in Canada decades ago!

So, in the original blueprint, I was destined to come here. I never thought about it. I never hoped for it. It wasn’t an inviting place to even include in my dream list of holidays. But that was then.

This is a beautiful country. And one worth visiting and settling in, if that’s what you want.

But…

I had to go on a circuitous route, before I finally came here. I’ve lost so much in the detours I’ve made. Apart from the material things, I lost peace of mind, a sense of belonging, the company of age-old friends. It isn’t easy to adjust to new environs when you’re older. It isn’t easy to make new friends. It isn’t easy to leave the familiarity of social, cultural, and traditional aspects of one’s life. That being said… This senior isn’t doing too bad all things considered. Not quite there, yet, but getting there!

So how did Canada, the eventual destination, come about?

More about that in the next part.

To Be Continued….

And I Call Them My Angels in Disguise-Part I

Questions I hear from kids these day:

“The Bible has a lot of angels appearing to people in the ‘Biblical’ times. Where are those angels?”

“They haven’t appeared to anyone for ages. Doesn’t God need to send us messages too?”

“Why doesn’t he send us warnings or reassurance through angels anymore?”

I hear the echo of my own queries, that were somewhat similar to these, when I was going through Sunday School and even, as a teenager, during our youth Bible studies. Now, it makes me smile because I realize I’ve been telling people about how God has sent me angels in times when I was lost and helpless, and at a time when I was in dire danger. And none of them had wings!

What makes it hard to believe that angels exist is our ‘fiction fed’ imagination. We grow up seeing angels portrayed with big wings, wearing long flowing white robes, and they have an aura of light around their heads! They are celestial beings and not ordinary like us humans sans wings. So they couldn’t be real. Right? Not necessarily! Nowhere, other than the artist’s illustration of angels, do we read about such an appearance (physical) of the angels who appeared to people in the Bible. In fact, we read about how Jacob wrestled with an angel who is referred to as the “man.”

And we read about Lot inviting two angels to his home for a meal. To him they looked like just two men!

GENESIS 32:2228 (NIV)

JACOB WRESTLES WITH GOD

22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”

But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

27 The man asked him, “What is your name?

“Jacob,” he answered.

28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.”

In the account of Lot entertaining ‘strangers’ in his house, not knowing they were ‘angels’, again we find that they appeared as normal human beings.

GENESIS 19:1-3, 12:17 (NIV)

LOT ENTERTAINS TWO ANGELS

The two angels arrived at Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gateway of the city. When he saw them, he got up to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. “My lords,” he said, “please turn aside to your servant’s house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and then go on your way early in the morning.”

“No,” they answered, “we will spend the night in the square.”

But he insisted so strongly that they did go with him and entered his house. He prepared a meal for them, baking bread without yeast, and they ate…..

12 The two men said to Lot, “Do you have anyone else here—sons-in-law, sons or daughters, or anyone else in the city who belongs to you? Get them out of here, 13 because we are going to destroy this place. The outcry to the Lord against its people is so great that he has sent us to destroy it.”

14 So Lot went out and spoke to his sons-in-law, who were pledged to marry his daughters. He said, “Hurry and get out of this place, because the Lord is about to destroy the city!” But his sons-in-law thought he was joking.

15 With the coming of dawn, the angels urged Lot, saying, “Hurry! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or you will be swept away when the city is punished.”

16 When he hesitated, the men grasped his hand and the hands of his wife and of his two daughters and led them safely out of the city, for the Lord was merciful to them. 17 As soon as they had brought them out, one of them said, “Flee for your lives! Don’t look back, and don’t stop anywhere in the plain! Flee to the mountains or you will be swept away!”

So we see that, in the Bible, the angels appeared as ordinary men. Well, I’m not contesting the fact that they weren’t human beings, I believe, as it is written in the Bible, that God created angels to do His bidding. What I also believe is that He does use people, as angels, to come to our aid. When this happens it’s obvious that these people have been God-led. Whether through promptings of the spirit in their heart, their soul or any other way.

I have two stories to share though I have been helped by human god-sent angels more than twice. But I am sharing the stories of these angels because nothing could be more convincing than their appearance when I least expected it. Neither could I have even imagined them coming to help. They were my God-led people who were my angels. That’s how I discovered that God uses people as angels too!

My angel, in the first story that I share here was a bus driver whom I didn’t know beyond recognizing his face because he was the bus driver, almost daily, when I traveled to school. It wasn’t a school bus but a public transport that carried me half-way to school. I’d get off at a place called Mullanpur. Here, I’d wait to catch another bus to Halwara, an Air Force base, where there was an English Medium school!

So, here’s the first one. It happened on my way back from school. I was sixteen and in the 11th grade. Often, on my way back in the afternoon, unlike on my way to school in the early morning, I’d have to wait for my bus ride back home. Most buses, at that time would be overcrowded and wouldn’t stop at Mullanpur. Or if there was a passenger or two, it would stop a few seconds, not really coming to a complete STOP, to allow any passenger to hop off. Or I’d get pushed aside by some burly fellow as I tried to push my way up the steps and the bus, already full and stuffed would move on.

The other thing that made it difficult for me to get buses back home was my Bus Pass! It was for a particular transport company and I couldn’t use my pass for any other transport company bus. I’d have to pay for a ticket, and I never carried money with me most days.

While the bus I took in the morning, at 5.45 a.m., would have the same driver, a tall Sikh, almost everyday, on the way back I’d get his bus on rare occasions. Somehow, even though I didn’t know who he was, or even his name, I felt safe when he was at the wheel.

Well, it was providence that on that particular day, when I had already missed three buses and it was getting late, up came his bus to the bus stop and I got in with a big sigh of relief. It was nearing winter and the days were getting shorter, so in that rural area, at that hour, there weren’t many women or girls on the bus. Mainly men. And as usual, the women folk would usually be ones who would get off at Sidhwanbet or Sidhwan Khurd which was midway to our town. And most of the men would have got off too by then.

On this fateful day, the bus emptied out completely. There were only three people in the bus… the driver, the conductor, a young Sikh, and I. I settled in my seat, grateful for the open space, peace, and quiet. But that peace didn’t last even ten minutes!

Suddenly, I felt the bus slowing down and a low but commanding voice saying in Punjabi, “Kudiye, ithe aaja, samne.” (trans. Girl, come here, in front.). I looked up to see the driver pinning me with his eyes in the rearview mirror up front.

I was sitting midway, a little more to the back. All the seats were unoccupied. I couldn’t understand why he was calling me to come in front and stared at him. I was a bit nervous. Yet, because for some reason I had felt safe in his bus right from the start, I wasn’t scared. Just nonplussed.

His eyes took on a more commanding look and the tone in his voice was urgent as he repeated what he had said earlier. And then, he turned to look out the front and shouted to me, “Chheti kar! Ithe aaja samne.” (Trans: “Hurry up! Come here to the front.”).

I jumped up totally alarmed by the urgency and something else I heard and saw in his voice and eyes. I got up and walked down the aisle about two seats forward but before I could get in and sit, he commanded me to get on the first seat directly behind him. I did as I was told. By now I was a bit scared.

Then he directed me to cover my head with my dupatta. The dupatta is a chiffon/georgette/fine cotton stole worn across the shoulders with a salwar-kameez (Punjabi dress). I didn’t bother to think about it or protest. I quickly did as he said. By now the bus was coming to a halt. He barked at the conductor who was sitting right next to him on the seat to the left window, “Darwaza band karo te kholi na jado tak main na dasan.” (“Lock the front door, and don’t open it unless I tell you.”). Next, he growled at me in a low voice to slouch in the seat so I wouldn’t be too visible. Now I was scared. What on earth was happening?

The bus slowed down to a crawl but never stopped. Through the front screen he gestured to some passengers at the bus stop to get in from the back door. That’s when I felt a bit uncomfortable. A group of 4-5 young Sikh men, rowdy and in ‘high spirits’, boarded and thankfully settled in and spread out on the last seat behind. This seat spans the width of the bus and they settled in and continued where they had stopped…drinking! Yes, they were in High Spirits literally and figuratively too!

I peeked at the driver, in fear. He had his eyes glued to the mirror moving them for fractions of seconds to watch the road.

And then the most frightening thing happened.

One of the men noticed that someone was sitting in the front seat. He shouted gleefully, “Oye! kuddi hai.” (trans: “Oye! There’s a girl.”)

My blood ran cold. The driver’s face and eyes took on a ready-for-battle look. He hissed at the conductor to get up and stand in the aisle in the middle of the bus. The young guy looked scared. The men behind were older and bigger than he was and they were tipsy too. The driver spoke again, threateningly this time. The young conductor jumped up and made his way down the aisle and not too soon either.

“Hillo na! khada rah!” instructed the driver. (trans: Don’t move. Keep standing.)

While action was being taken in front, activity and attention behind had also got charged.

“Dekhi, kaun hai!” (trans: Take a look. Who is it?) said one.

“Oye, rehnde, bujurg hai,” (trans: Oye, let it go, she’s an oldie) said another.

“Ja ke vekh, ja cheti ja!” (trans: Go and see. Hurry up) piped another.

One of the young men got up. By then the conductor was already in the middle. Scared, but by now more scared of the driver and what would happen to him if he cowered. The driver was a commanding figure.

Before the tipsy man could take even two steps, the driver roared, “Piche ja!” (Get back!)

The youngster wasn’t in the mood to go back but not so sure he wanted to go ahead either. The driver’s eyes had pinned him to the spot.

“Mada ja vekhan tan de,” (Let me have a peek at least) he countered. Then he looked at the conductor blocking his path.

As a warning, the driver said, “Khada rah. aan na de.” (trans: Keep standing. Don’t let him pass.) The conductor nodded his head and took a firmer position and straightened himself. His fear seemed to have gone now that he realized why he was told to block the way.

The driver knew it was a matter of prestige now for the tipsy men. And they definitely outnumbered these two men. However brave they were they wouldn’t be able to tackle these men. And, getting them angry would not augur well for me.

So he did a wise thing.

He had already slowed down the bus. The road was free of traffic, not many vehicles plied this way at this time in the evening.

Keeping his eyes fiercely on them he said, “Eh sadde Masterji di poti hai. Eh sadde pind di thi hai. Tussi ja ke bai jao piche. Koi zaroorat nahin hai aage aan di.” (trans: She is our School Teacher’s granddaughter. She is a daughter of our village. Go and sit down behind. There is no need for you to come in front.)

The authority and warning worked. And now, he had made it a matter of honor. I was not only the Senior teacher’s granddaughter, I was also a daughter of their village. And they understood this. It meant he would defend me no matter what.

One of the group, called for the young fellow to come back. He was reluctant to go back, his pride was offended. But the others also joined in calling him back and telling him it was not right. I was their daughter. Well, thankfully, there were some in that group who knew where to draw the line. And thankfully, my familiar ‘safe’ bus driver was in that bus that day.

It didn’t end here. The driver told the conductor to sit on the seat near the front door. This way he was to my left across the aisle. I was seated on the seat to the right of him across the aisle and directly behind the driver.

Then he spoke to me. He told me to keep my stuff – books etc., ready. He would stop the bus for me to get off closer to my home. I usually got off at the Bus Depot which was also the main bus stop. There were no scheduled stops between our house and the main stop. He explained that it wasn’t safe for me to walk alone back home. These men could follow me. I nodded my head. I was so scared I was trembling.

Then he instructed the conductor to open the door as soon as he slowed down.

He cleverly slowed down at a place where there were shops along the road and it was usually a busy place with the shopkeepers sitting out and drinking tea and chatting outside their shops near closing time in the evening. He slowed the bus to the minimum he could without stopping or making it difficult for me to get off. And he chose a place between the railway crossing gate and the shops. This way the men behind wouldn’t have a clue. Buses often had to stop if the railway crossing gate was closed for a passing train. The main depot/stop was on the other side of the railway track.

He signaled when I had to get up from my seat and move fast down the three-four steps and jump down. The moment I landed on the ground safely and was clear of the door, he sped up and drove away.

I still remember how he emphasized his last warning: “Cheti, cheti duad ja gar nu.” (trans: Run fast back to your home.)

When I turned into the gate of the Christian Compound, I slowed down and breathed deep. I was breathless. I looked back cautiously to see if anyone had followed me. I peeked around the thick gate post, but there was no one following.

That Sikh gentleman bus driver, a familiar face but a stranger and that young conductor, were my angels that day.

Back home I wondered how he knew Grandpa and that I was his granddaughter. I wondered how he knew where I lived.

Grandpa said that since he had been a senior teacher in the Govt. School and then later had taught in a Christian Mission school, and he had retired as an Inspector of Mission Schools, there would be quite a few who would know him.

“But how did he know I am your granddaughter?”

“Well, I don’t know. Maybe, it’s because you don’t look like the locals? Besides, many know that my sons joined the Navy and moved out from here. And you don’t know Hindi or Punjabi very well. You speak Hindi with an accent and some grammatical errors,” he laughed.

“How did he know where I live?”

“That’s a strange thing. Have you ever stopped the bus at the Church gate?

“No”.

Well, then, that’s a mystery. He must have surmised that since you weren’t a Sikh, and perhaps he didn’t see you as Hindu, so that leaves Christian, yes?”

“I could be Muslim, you know?”

“No, no Muslim girl would be allowed to travel alone so far to study in an English medium school!”

True. This was in 1971 and in a small town.

Well, I call that Sikh gentleman Bus Driver my Angel for that day.

To understand why I call them angels and what possible fate I faced that day and why I consider the bus driver and the conductor my helpers put there on that day by God, you’ll have to read this news report from 2012. It was horrendous news and I remember while I read it, the memory of this day, years earlier, came back with its jitters. I imagined how things could have got out of hand. I became evermore grateful that there were two people there that day, so many years ago, to keep me safe. God uses people as angels.

Here’s a link to the news about what happened to a young girl and her friend in a moving bus. Warning: it’s horrendous and makes your stomach churn and gives you goose bumps. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/what-is-nirbhaya-case/articleshow/72868430.cms

THE SECOND STORY, PART 2, OF AND I CALL THEM MY ANGELS WILL FOLLOW IN THE NEXT POST.