By Savitri Narayanan
“So much walking just for a pack of butter!” thought Ms D’Souza as she crossed the park. The day was getting rather hot and she hadn’t carried her umbrella. Friends were coming in the evening. Bonnie butter cake was their all-time favourite and Ms D’Souza enjoyed baking it too. So, after breakfast, she had cleared the kitchen and started to bake. It was when she measured out the flour and milk that she realised she was short of butter. “If only I had checked last evening!” thought Ms D’Souza hastening her steps, “Could have picked it up on the way back home from the park.”
“Good afternoon madamji!” the little girl on the park bench stood up in respect. Retired teacher Ms D’Souza was a known figure in the village. Over the decades, most people in the neighbourhood had passed through her classrooms, so people of all ages felt connected with her.
“Why are you here in the park? At this time?” she was surprised to see the little girl sitting alone on the bench.
“I am reading madamji,” said the girl, “Like you!”
“Like me? What do you mean?”
“In the evenings you sit here and read like this, madamji….”
The little girl on the park-bench was forgotten as Ms D’Souza baked the cake and spent the evening in the company of friends recounting old tales.
“I am off to Hiraganj for a week,” said Miranda, “To sign some land papers; come along, let’s have a holiday!”
That’s how out of the blue an unplanned holiday happened. At the Hiraganj bungalow, Gajanand and his wife stayed in their room in the backyard and did the routine tasks like cleaning and watering the plants. Once in a while, Miranda dropped in, often with friends, to spend a few days.
Ms D’Souza enjoyed the lazy week in Hiraganj but was equally pleased to be home and slip back into the routine.
The park was a good place to spend the evenings. From her bench under the jamun tree, Ms D’Souza enjoyed watching the world go by. Children played and fought while the parents got busy with their cellphones or friends. Old and young seemed to create their own spaces and do their own things. There was life around and a sense of peace too. With no corrections and preparations demanding her time, Ms D’Souza often found herself there with a book.
But today there was someone else on her favourite bench. The same little girl in two plaits was there with a book.
“What are you reading?” asked Ms D’Souza, sitting down beside her.
“Good evening madamji,” greeted the little girl hurriedly vacating the bench. She stood there, apologetic, ready to be reprimanded, yet excited to be noticed.
“You can sit too,” said Ms D’Souza tapping the bench, “What are you reading? May I see?”
It was an old hardbound collection of folktales. An old book but in good condition it was. ‘Must have changed hands many times, over families and generations,’ thought Ms. D’Souza as she turned the pages.
“Read me your favourite story!”
“I can’t read,” said the girl.
“What do you mean? You look old enough to read and write; how old are you?”
“I am ten years old and I am in Class IV,” she paused hesitantly, took courage and added, “I want to be like you; sit here and read a book!”
“Let me see,” said Ms. D’Souza extending her book, “Look here, this is the story of Cinderella; read this page!”
The girl happily took the book and made an attempt to read. She screwed her eyes, pursed her lips, put her point finger to the words, but just couldn’t read!
“Repeat after me,” said Ms. D’Souza, “Cinderella lived in a palace but…”
That’s how the friendship started. Alphabet, phonics, numerals, rhymes, stories – lots of learning happened there on the park bench in the evenings. The little girl’s sincerity and eagerness were tangible. The seasoned teacher in Ms D’Souza put in a lot of thought into her sessions and Kaamini made steady progress.
The park was a meeting point and people of all ages headed there especially in the evenings. Old men with their walking sticks, grandmothers and mothers caring for little children and the health-conscious evening-walkers – the park time was indispensable! It was also a good time to catch up with friends and on the latest happenings in the village.
Over the week people started noticing something else.
“Look at Madam! Taught in school for forty years and is still teaching!”
“She is very kind at heart!”
“Who else will find time to teach a girl – that too for no money!”
“She genuinely cares for the village children!”
Someone or other would stop by to chat with Ms D’Souza.
“Come, let’s walk around a little!”
“Some exercise will be good for you, come along!”
Usually, Ms D’Souza politely declined such invitations. But, one evening, when some old friends approached, she changed her mind.
“Kaamini, now you play for a while and practice at home,” she told the girl, “Let me chat with my friends!”
“Tell me the truth, why do you spend so much time with that girl?” asked Sumita, “I see you here every evening!”
“Aren’t you fed up? I mean after teaching for so many years, don’t you want a break? To do something else?”
“Isn’t it boring to teach on a park bench, with not even a blackboard?”
“That too, just for nothing! But why?”
Ms D’Souza laughed aloud. “Do we need a reason to help a girl read and write? Can’t you see how this small help will change her life? This girl will grow up into an educated mother – the kind who’ll give guidance, emotional support and courage to her children! Empowered mothers bring up children who’ll change the world!”