Sanjana got inside and asked the driver to start the car. It was going to be a long journey so she adjusted the small cushion behind her back, closed her eyes and tried to relax. The sound of the car engine made her feel drowsy.
Her mind started to recall the incidences of the past week. It had been very hectic and although she had been planning to go on this trip earlier she just could not move out because of the heavy load of work. But then it was the weekend today- with no one at the office and lesser number of visitors; she had decided that it was the best day to go and had made plans accordingly. The car had come early in the morning and she was on her way, she reflected with satisfaction.
A few weeks back she was slightly surprised when she had got her posting orders as the district collector here. Happy, she was going to be closer to the small village where she had spent a better part of her childhood.
Not many people had heard of Ambekot as bit was a small village far into the hills with no railway station and a bus service that was as good as not being there. But to her, there was no place more beautiful than that. Her childhood memories of that remained throughout her later life at the college and the various places she had served in the administrative services thereafter.
The car took the detour at the base of the hills and started a bumpy ride along the narrow road winding up the unrealistic slopes. Nothing seems to have changed, she reflected. A fleeting thought occurred to her that she would get something done about the road at least; but then she dismissed it immediately. Maybe, remaining slightly inaccessible was a good thing in the long run to preserve its natural charm.
Fifteen years is a long time.
She wondered if the school was still the same or had it changed? Most of its students were the children of local farmers from the nearby areas, except for a few like her who was there since her father had volunteered to work as the only resident doctor at the local hospital for almost five years. Maybe I would come across some of the class mates she thought, rather skeptically though, as she had come unannounced, not wanting to make people “prepare” for the DCs visit. To her, it was more of a homecoming and a personal visit to catch up with her past.
Her mind went back to her colleagues at the school. How many would have ventured out of the village, she wondered. Not many, as most would be working on the ancestral fields, cultivating flowers, which was the traditional vocation here much before horticulture started to gain prominence as a lucrative option.
One face that sprung to her mind was that of Paresh, that impish, intelligent and playful son of the local grocer; so very different from rest of them. He always had a twinkle in his eyes, as if he was plotting some fun. What set him apart from the others was his sincerity of purpose in everything that he did, and the fact that in those days when everyone was studying to be a doctor or an engineer, Paresh was very clear that he would be a teacher; and in the same school! There was no reason not to believe him.
What set him apart from others was also the fact that at the tender age of 14 he pronounced his undying love for Sanjana. It was hilarious when he did that, and was generally taken as a big joke initially, but soon everyone realized that like everything else, he meant it.
When her dad decided to leave the village, Paresh was one of the few people from the village who came to see them off at the railway station which was almost twenty kilometers away. He was the only kid amongst those present and was unusually quiet throughout as if debating in his mind about something.
The train halted for just two minutes. He got in along with the others and as the last goodbyes were being said, he surprised everyone by thrusting a small gift wrapped packet in her hands, wished her the best; and then, as the train was rolling out, pulling himself closer, he gave a fleeting kiss on her cheek and said, “I will wait for you forever.” Before she could realize or say anything, he was out of the train just as it started picking up speed.
He was serious about life, yet funny and impish in his own way. Often he would go to the village pond and spend hours alone feeding the pigeons or the fish – or would just sit silently watching the tiny wave patterns.
Her thoughts were broken by the vehicle coming to a halt, waiting for a herd of cows to pass. She recognized the ancient banyan tree nearby that signaled the start of the village. It was said to be centuries old. Around it not much had changed; though there were a few cement and concrete as well as double storied houses. She looked around as the car started to move, trying to place the landmarks from her childhood.
The clump of trees near the clearing ahead marked the village pond and she spotted the stairway that led to the water. Asking the driver to halt the car, she stepped out and started making way towards it. Reaching the bank, she observed the flock of ducks swimming lazily in the pond, their leader right ahead, knowing where exactly should they be going. Away from the crowded city, the noise and the pollution, she realized how beautiful and serene this place was.
She sat down on a stone platform under a large tree and as she looked around, she realized she was not alone. There was a figure lying down in the coir hammock hanging between two trees not very far off. The person in the hammock too seemingly got aware of the company and looked up – and with a smile, pushing his both legs on the side, got out of the hammock. A wave of recognition swept over her as she saw the familiar features, and instantly recognized him as Paresh. Despite the amount of salt and pepper hair on his head he looked almost the same. Those intense eyes too beamed with the trademark twinkling as he too placed her.
She did not know what to say or how to react. He too, apparently was caught by surprise.
“Oh, Hello,” finally she could say, “Paresh, isn’t it?” she smiled.
“Yes, and I know it is you, Sanjana,” he laughed as he came closer. “I knew you would be coming.” He said.
“Yes, I had to come,” she said, “one does not forget the days of childhood.”
“I know. I was expecting you ever since I heard you were coming as the DC.”
“What? You knew??” she was surprised. “But how could you? I joined just last week.”
“Oh, I do keep track of the world around me.” He said. Then with a straight face, simply added, “And you have been my world since those school days.”
They both laughed.
“So nice to see you, the first person from my past on coming to Ambekot.”
“Its always nice to come back, Sanjana”
“Yes, I know,” she said. Then asked, “How have you been Paresh? Still here?”
“Of course! Where will I go?” he said, “I always knew I wanted to be nowhere else.”
“I know. You were always sure of what you were doing.”
“And you were not?” he asked.
“Well, not many people were as sure as you were, in the school days.”
There was a pause as they caught themselves gazing into each other’s eyes.
“So you stuck on to be a teacher here in the school?” she asked.
“Hmm.. well, yes initially, then I became the headmaster.” He smiled.
“Oh, great! I am glad.”
Then asked, “What about the family?”
“Oh, no family.” He shook his hands dismissively.
“I am alone now – always a loner.”
She smiled back. “What about others, your dad’s business?”
“It’s all over.” Then added, “They left long back.I would have too, but I had promised, I would wait for you.” A Mischievous grin.
She looked around. He could spot slight discomfort on her face.
As if to make the atmosphere lighter, he said, “Time for a peck on the cheek, Sanjana?”
They both broke into laughter.
“I am going to see the school, you mind showing me around?” She asked.
“Well, you carry on; I cannot accompany you at the moment,” he was groping for some excuse, “but shall join you soon. Till then you can meet the others.”
“Okay then, will catch up with you later,” saying so, she shook his outstretched hand, reluctantly turned and made her way to the car.
The school was not very far from there and she reached in a few minutes. On the way mused upon that chance encounter at the pond. Something was out of place. It was nice meeting Paresh, but then why did he hesitate coming to the school with her? She could not fathom this.
As the car halted within the school premises, there appeared to be no one around. Not surprising, since it was an off day. Maybe there would be a caretaker who could show her around till Paresh came. She asked the driver to look around as she herself ventured out to the classrooms and playgrounds that were so close to her heart. Nothing had changed, except maybe a basketball court had been made on wooden flooring, and some classrooms seem to be having new steel furniture.
She saw the driver coming with someone. It was Parvati, the school maid, who used to ring the bells marking starting and ending of the classes and recess. She had grown older too.
She introduced herself.
Parvati was overjoyed to see one of the students come back to the school. Simple as she was, she soon started to cry. Sanjana hugged her and asked to be taken to the headmaster’s office.
“The headmasters room is locked.” Then added, “I will get you some Tea, till then you can stay here in staff room Madam” Parvati said.
She waited, wondering when Paresh will show up.
Soon Parvati appeared with a cup of tea and a plate of biscuits. Sanjana asked her to sit down and tell her about the school. Was there any problem that needed sorting out? Parvati was non committal; generally over-awed by the ex student, now a DC. A big post as far as the simpler village folks were concerned.
She could barely speak.
“When will the headmaster come?” finally she asked Parvati.
“Madam, the headmaster won’t come.”
“No, I was told he will be coming shortly”
“Who said so, Madam?” Parvati asked. “There is no head master”
“No headmaster? But….”
Surprisingly, Parvati cut her short.
“There has been no headmaster for past one month”
“But what about Paresh? Is he not coming to office these days?”
“Paresh Sir?” repeated Parvati. “How can he come, madam. He will never come now.”
“Oh, and why so?” intrigued, she asked.
“Because madam, Paresh Sir died a month ago. His body was found near the pond that he used to love to be at, between the two trees where only his hammock remains now.”