There’s a little kindergarten school at a short distance from my house. I hadn’t really given it much attention in the ten years I have lived here. But of late, whenever I go for my morning walks at around 8 AM, I notice their school bus whiz past me every day. It’s a tiny yellow bus, containing very tiny little inhabitants, but it manages to hold to my attention every time I see it. Perhaps more so because the children inside are now familiar with me. They seem to be fascinated with my extra tall frame and wave at me excitedly almost every day. I smile and wave back, laughing at times when I see them scrambling towards the end of the bus just to get a good look me with their excited little faces.
Interacting with these kids on the school bus every morning naturally makes me reflect on my own, very charming, memories of those school bus days. I think every single one of us will most certainly have some special memory or the other of those hours spent while riding to school and then returning home on the school bus. I, too, have a fair share of them as I traveled in it to school from my kindergarten days till the 7th standard. And those ten-odd years gave me enough moments and memories to reflect back on fondly from time to time.
I remember my first school bus quite distinctly. It was a big, navy blue bus with a streamlined front. There were just two rows of seats, parallel to each other on the inside and the name of my school was prominently displayed on both the sides of the bus.
While most of my memories of moments spent inside this bus are quite hazy, one, in particular, stands out. I was in kindergarten, Jr. B to be precise, and had stood first in the final exams. With the report card firmly held in my hand, I was elated and wanted to share my moment of joy with someone. Unfortunately, I hardly had any friends back then and had to contain my simmering excitement. I sat inside the bus and was admiring my report card when Ramakant, our scrawny and strict bus conductor who wore a big black square pair of spectacles and had really short wiry hair, came up to me.
“Is that your report card?” he asked.
I nodded. “I came first,” I said and showed him the card.
He took a look at it and said “Shabbash!” while ruffling my hair. I was extremely pleased as Ramakant was known to be this stern man who hardly ever smiled. Often during the bus rides, he would holler at the children creating a ruckus and even had a famous catchphrase - “Bada behuda baccha hai tu! (You are a really detestable child)”. Appreciation of this kind coming from him, hence, made my day. And through the years, even when Ramakant grew old and markedly subdued, I never quite forgot this gesture of his.
The school buses changed as I grew, having flat fronts and more space with countless rows of seats one after the other. More than its structure, though, the school bus became an important tool during that phase of my school life to exhibit my freedom. During my primary days, we had some very strict teachers and there would be days where we wouldn’t be allowed to speak even during the Tiffin break. The school bus, consequently, provided great refreshment and a chance to bond with my friends properly.
And speaking of friends…It was primarily courtesy of the school bus that I bonded with two boys who went on to become my best friends throughout the course of my early school life. One was a plump guy with a slight penchant for tantrums and the other was a rather canny fellow having wavy hair and an impish smile. Both lived at a little distance from my house and thus, as we would travel back and forth from school, we forged a great friendship.
The distance between our home and school was close to an hour and this gave the three of us enough time to bond over myriad things: sharing Tiffin, discussing cartoons and comics, and bashing the school teachers. We would really hate it when some teacher, too, would get on board the school bus as it would then force us to be silent or converse in hushed tones. Being the tall one, it was always difficult for me to conceal myself from the teacher and I would have to really bend behind the seats to talk to my friends. But the effort was still worth it.
It was bonding at its purest and we even began to hang out at each others’ homes soon. Both of their houses came after mine and when I would board the bus in the morning, I would usually go to the right end corner and reserve a couple of seats for them along with mine near the window. In the late afternoons, after disembarking from the bus on reaching my home, I would go straight towards its end where two hands – both belonging to my best friends – would be waiting for me to slap them as a mark of goodbye. It’s a method we had devised and followed quite proudly. Sometimes, some other fellow, too, would poke his head out from the window and offer his hands to me to slap and I would oblige; albeit a little half-heartedly. For the most passionate ones were always reserved for my two best friends.
There were quite a few other aspects that made life in my school bus quite interesting those days. Foremost among them would be the races we had with the other school buses, even from our own school. While entering Red Road – a long stretch with wide spaces that allowed vehicles an extensive and unhindered run – our school bus would generally come face to face with another one. And thus would begin the race which would last for just about a couple of minutes but would give all the inhabitants of the bus a great adrenaline rush. We would hoot and cheer raucously, egging the driver on to overtake the opposite bus. Children from the opposing bus would do the same and both the drivers would get caught in the moment and do their best to catch up with and possibly overtake each other. We would win most of the times and then mock and boo at the children of the opposite bus that often contained our classmates and friends. It was all great fun.
Another aspect that I found fascinating whilst traveling on my school bus was observing the other children. There were so many different faces with distinct traits and idiosyncrasies: the silent type, the brooding type, the always crying type, the always smiling for no reason type, the one who would mimic the bus conductor to enrage him regularly, the one who would pick up fights at the drop of a hat, the one who would keep the proceedings in the bus alive with his incessant quips; all of them as a whole made the school bus a menagerie of intriguing creatures that left an indelible mark in my memory. Most of these were people I wouldn’t see or even interact with in school. But the school bus gave me the opportunity to spend some good time with them.
Also, for some reason, I used to find observing the homes of the children in the bus quite fascinating. As each child would get off the bus and run towards their respective house I would peer at them even as the bus would move on, trying to imagine what the insides of their residence would be like. With the little imagination powers I had back then, I would mostly envisage the structure of their dwellings to be much like my own. Sometimes, there would be some parent – mothers mostly – to pick up the child and I would look on at them, to try and find if they had traces of my own mother in them.
Then there were those interactions of mine with the senior students inside the bus. Blessed with a rather tall frame, I would always come to the notice of the seniors. “Lambu” was my nickname and I would often be teased, quite harmlessly, for my extra long legs and pants that would get short ridiculously soon. These seniors were feared by the others in the bus. They would often be the last ones to enter the bus after school and would force anyone out of the seat – primarily near the windows at the back – they wished to plant themselves on. With me, however, they never did so and, in fact, went out of their way to make slight conversations usually bordering on “Ye height mujhe de de, lambu? (Give me this height, lambu.)” or “Padhai kaisa chal raha hai tera, lambu? (How are your studies going on, tally?)”. These were some of the moments that I didn’t actually curse myself for being tall.
There were a particular set of days during the school bus rides that had very distinctive flavors for me: the exam days, the end and beginning of the summer holidays, and Saturday afternoons.
During the exam days, a hush would descend on the entire bus with students mostly doing last minute cramming. The tension would be palpable and one could clearly hear the whirr of the bus engine amidst the tensed silence of the children gearing up to face the battle ahead of them. I wasn’t one of those who preferred last-minute cramming and whilst I would always have the course book in my hand, I would hardly be able to concentrate and would find ways to diffuse my tension by pestering my two friends. I desperately tried to hold on to that hour long ride in the exam mornings, as it kept me safe from the peril I was about to dive into.
Then there was the last day of the holidays, one of my ultimate favourites as the mood would be so light and buoyant. Everyone would be chirpy and giving each other backslaps and hugs while sharing details of what they were likely to do during the holidays. Starkly different from this mood, at least for me, would be the first day post the end of the holidays. I would sulk in gloom and would find a corner window spot where I could quietly wallow in my sorrow. Even as my friends would try and regale me with their tales of the summer, I would hardly find any interest in them and would just gaze outside the window at the streets whizzing past me, trying to find traces of my pleasurable moments from the summer gone by in them.
My most memorable moments of those school bus rides, though, came overwhelmingly from Saturday afternoons. I have some really pleasant memories of bubbling with excitement on the ride back home on Saturdays while leafing through the library book I had picked up that day and discussing how I was going to relish it with my wavy-haired friend. Saturdays, in any case, were my favourite day of the week. And the hour on the bus ride back home would give me enough time to plan and visualize how I would be spending my night reading a book and the Sunday morning watching the cartoon shows I adored. That is the one hour I really wish I could get to relive today.
In fact, just writing about these experiences makes me want to board a school bus, find a corner window seat, and just stare at the world whizzing by, without an ounce of tension in my mind. Sadly, I shall never be able to do so. But the memories I have had of those school bus days will always have a special little place in my heart, a place which I find myself visiting on some occasions when I wish to take a ride down a particular part of my formative years.
And with those memories lovingly tucked in my heart, I will continue looking forward to my morning walks and greeting those children in the tiny yellow school bus. In the hope that someday, perhaps, I shall see two hands hanging out from a window, waiting for me to come slap at them.