Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Lord of Love

We used to often say in India that a person tends to be very different from what his name suggests. I remember a comic poem by Kaka Hatharasi that was on that theme of mismatched names. However, just as there must always be one, Premnath, literally 'the lord of love', our company bus driver was an exception to that rule.

Before I write more about Premnath, I have to write about other buses. I suddenly remembered the buses that preceded the ones BHEL started providing, for the children from the township to attend school in the city, 14 kms away. 

When we arrived in BHEL (those days it used to be called HE(I)L – BHEL came much later) in 1959, there was not much of a township. There obviously were not many children who needed to go to school, particularly all the way to St.Joseph’s Convent on Idgah hill. (Think about it the irony of it all – mostly Hindu children being bused to a Christian school on Idgah hill. That perhaps was what was so beautiful about the Bhopal experience). Back to buses now. So since there were not many children, and there was no regular city-run bus service that I remember, we had a privately operated one – 'Thawani bus service'. It was the memory of those buses that made me digress. 

These buses had spouts in front where the engines were,  which of course you rarely see now. One of them had a red spout and the other was black. The children appropriately named them the ‘red-faced monkey’ and the ‘black-faced monkey’. That was how we knew which bus we were supposed to take. The windows had no panes – all you had were tarp covers which you could roll up and hold up with a band. If you let them down, they flapped in the wind, and when it rained they were a nightmare. Ah,  I might have not remembered them had it not been for Premnath – The lord of love who is the protagonist of this post.

Premnath, drove the company-owned buses, mostly meant to drive children to and from school. If there was a star in our lives in those days before TV, outside of the world of Bollywood films, it was Premnath. Perhaps he was the personification of those stars. He did dress like them - at least not like the other drivers did.  He regaled us with stories, sometimes from the films, and often sang songs from them. I cannot seem to recall if he sang well. All I remember is that he lived Big.

Now, however politically incorrect it might sound, and however much the India of the 60’s had started on its path of social reform, being a driver was not yet then, neither is it  today, a position of much status. So, it was amazing, how much he had endeared himself to us, and how important he was in our daily life. The day would end badly if he was not there to pick us up, and we would consider ourselves lucky if he showed up when we were not expecting him. For that would be one joy ride for sure. When later there were several more buses, we would be jealous of the kids who got to ride on his route.

Your own status depended on how close you were to him. If you were his 'friend', you earned the privilege to sit on the engine bonnet on a cold day, right next to him, listening to his banter and jokes, while he raced the other buses, egged on by the cheers of the children, and kept up with film gossip when he was not. 

It must have taken some growing up for us to become sensitive to and aware of his lordship over the domain of love. As the girls started becoming real in our lives, we realized how poorly we fared in competition with him. When one realized that it was not only the girl you were interested in, but the whole lot of them, it most certainly caused a serious crisis of confidence among all us young boys. The budding sociologists among us would struggle to fathom the mystery of this phenomenon, and while we all had our eplanations, we had to live with it with mixed emotions.

Then, one day, Premnath disappeared. For several days we speculated – maybe he went back to farming, maybe he took another job and so on. While on the one hand we should have been happy, we were mostly heartbroken… we felt he would have told us if this was planned. 

Then, the rumors began – and then the truth came out - he had eloped with one of the high-school girls. Now, that was an absolute shocker. The whole township murmured and protested - surprised, horrified and now in much anguish. The parents all knew of him of course, after all which kid did not come home and tell them of the reasons for their elation or gloom, so there was a reason for the widespread emotions. But, for all the goodness this man had brought to their children's lives, here was a boundary they would not permit crossing.

The gloom that spread among the children was compounded with more mothers showing up at the bus stops. Perhaps there even was stricter oversight from the company. Perhaps from now no driver who had any remote possibility of being a charmer would ever be hired. There would be no singing, no jokes and no stories of the latest films. There would be no more racing the other buses. The ride to the school would now have to be occupied with memories and other poorer substitutes.

Several years passed. The  girl that had eloped did come back, shortly after the incident. Premnath did not. We had moved to another schools with its own buses, and later grown into college. The girls had outgrown him. Atleast now that he was not there, they had reason to notice what else the world had to offer.  And the 'men' could now talk about those days, fondly, without any pangs of jealousy to spoil the memories.

Then, one day, just as suddenly as he had left, out of the blue, he was back. The company had reinstated him. Perhaps all was forgotten. We never learned about what transpired. 

He, however, was the same – boisterous, flamboyant and ever so charming. The days would be just that much brighter when he showed up with the bus.

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