Sanjana asked the driver to start as she got inside the car and closed her eyes to relax as it was going to be a long journey.
Soon she started feeling drowsy, and the images from the past week started coming into her mind.
It had been very hectic lately, which had made her postpone the trip repeatedly. She decided not to delay it any further. The car had come early in the morning, and she was on her way, she reflected with satisfaction.
She was slightly surprised when she had got her posting orders, as the district collector here a few weeks back. 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.
It was a small village far into the hills with no railway station and a bus service that was as good as not being there. In her mind, there was no other place more beautiful than that. She had carried memories from her childhood memories right through her later life.
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 see to it that something is done about the road at least; but then she dropped the thought. 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 whose father was the resident doctor at the local hospital.
Maybe I would meet some of the classmates she thought, although she had come unannounced, not wanting to make people “prepare” for the DCs visit.
She looked at it as 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 naughty and playful son of the local grocer; so very different from the rest of them. He always had a twinkle in his eyes. What set him apart from the others was his sincerity of purpose in everything that he did. While everyone was studying to be a doctor or an engineer, Paresh was very explicit 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 quite hilarious when he said so initially, but soon everyone realized that he had meant it.
When her dad decided to leave the village, Paresh was one of the few people who came to see them off at the railway station 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 as the last goodbyes were being said and surprised everyone by thrusting a small gift-wrapped packet in her hands, wishing her the best.
And then, as the train was rolling out, he pulled himself closer and gave a fleeting kiss on her cheek.
“I will be waiting for you forever.”
Before she could realize or say anything, he was out of the train just as it started picking up speed.
In his way, he was funny and yet was serious about life.
He could spend hours alone, feeding the pigeons or the fish at the village pond.
As they came close to the village, there appeared herds of cows along the road, bringing the car to a halt, interrupting her thoughts.
She recognized the ancient banyan tree nearby that signaled the start of the village. It was said to be centuries old. Not much had changed around it. 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. 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.
As she sat down on a stone platform under a large tree and looked around, she realized she was not alone.
Someone was lying down in the coir hammock hanging between two trees not very far off.
The person in the hammock too apparently became aware of her presence and looked up. 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 and seemed to recognize her.
She did not know what to say or how to react.
He was caught by surprise too.
“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 come back someday.” He added.
“Yes, I had to come,” she said, “One does not forget the days of childhood.”
“I know. I have been expecting you and waiting for 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, 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.”
“It is 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? Anyone else still around?”
“They left long back. I would have too, but I had promised, I would be waiting for you.”
As she glanced around casually, 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.
“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 the chance encounter at the pond. Something was out of place.
It was nice meeting Paresh, but then why did he hesitate to come to the school with her? She could not fathom this.
There appeared to be no one around as the car halted within the school premises.
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 ventured out to the classrooms and playgrounds.
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 end of the classes and recess. She had grown older too.
Parvati was thrilled to see one of the students come back to the school and started to cry. Sanjana hugged her lovingly and asked her way to the headmaster’s office.
“That office is closed,” Parvati said. “I will get you some tea, till then you can stay here in the staff room. ”
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. Parvati could barely nod her head and smile.
After all, DC is a big post as far as the simple village folks are concerned.
“When will the headmaster come?” Sanjana eventually asked.
“Madam, the headmaster won’t come.”
“But I am told he will be coming shortly.”
“Who said so, Madam?” Parvati asked. “There is no headmaster.”
“No, for the past few months now, there has been no headmaster,” Parvati informed her.
“But what about Paresh? Is he not coming to the office these days?” asked Sanjana.
“Paresh Sir? 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 where only his hammock remains now.”