They left me, during this time, with a very nice man with a very large head of red hair and a very small shiny hat upon it, who had got a cross-barred shirt or waistcoat on, with ‘Skylark’ in capital letters across the chest. I thought it was his name; and that as he lived on board ship and hadn’t a street door to put his name on, he put it there instead; but when I called him Mr. Skylark, he said it meant the vessel – David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
Savita kneels in the dust of the lane, watching the black ants on their two-way road, hooting the slow ones out of the way as they travel up and down the juicy stalk of a sunflower.
Every large cockroach her mother smacks dead with a broom is a crashed lorry belly-up, its skin tarpaulin, its innards sacks of onions or dal spilling all over the road. When Savita eats lunch, the morsels of rice mixed with sambar fall into her mouth like gravel and melted asphalt going into a churning mixer, and the evening chappati on her plate is always a flatbed truck transporting tightly-coiled strands of cabbage cable.
Everything smells and tastes of smoke and diesel, the sky is a dirty blank, and the roar of heavy vehicles has drowned out a good part of everyone’s world except Savita’s. She leaves the ants to their morning traffic jam and walks across to the highway. She is listening for the sound of her father. A million trucks could have gone down State Highway 17 since she was born but Savita will never mistake that one horn. She knows it better than she knows her father’s voice.
She waits but he doesn’t come, driving up in the yellow and red truck, his arm waving to her through the open window long before she can see his face. She is anxious that if she turns her back, her desertion of her post will be the cause of his not coming. Nevertheless, she must go back to her unsmiling mother who whacks her with the ladle with which she is about to stir the ragi gruel and then pulls her hair into pigtails so tight that Savita’s head, as she starts out for school, feels torn in two halves.
In school, it is a Tuesday. Only in school do days take on names and implications. Wednesdays are a favourite because the new art teacher is cowed by the children into telling a story instead of getting them to do art—which would mean copying down yet again sceneries featuring hills green as neon and rivers blue as plastic, or pretty, sloping-roofed houses enclosed in pointy white fences. Fridays are welcome because they are Fridays. On Tuesdays, Savita suffers because of the recently-instituted weekly science test.
‘Nanna priya makkalu,’ says their science teacher, Nanaiah, as he searches among his dog-eared books for his wooden ruler. Savita waits for him to turn to the blackboard and start putting down questions about horrible things like the meaning of chlorophyll and the function of oxygen. Nanaiah Sir only talks in science. Other than that there is the ruler for the palms of the scientifically illiterate like Savita. So why is he wasting time on preliminaries today?
‘My dear children,’ he repeats. ‘Next week is…’
‘Republic Day!’ scream the children. Nanaiah holds up his ruler to silence them.
‘Correct. Our school will present…’
‘Tricolour umbrella dance!’ they scream again. They have been rehearsing since the middle of December.
‘Correct. This is the first time our school has been chosen for this honour. Afterwards, you will receive sweets and certificates straight from the hands of our MLA.’
The class is awed into silence. This is news to them.
‘Correct,’ says Nanaiah, anyway. ‘So stand up one by one and tell me your fathers’ names. Your certificate will say: so and so, daughter or son of so and so, is presented with this certificate for so and so. And the date. You understand, you asses?’
They begin with the first row. ‘Gopala Reddy. . .Srikrishna Gowda. . .Saleem Iqbal. . .’
Savita rapidly chews the end of one pigtail, sweat breaking out under her arms. She cannot remember her father’s name. In fact, she doesn’t know. She has never asked him, he has never told her. How is it that her classmates are so sure? She prays to him to come roaring down the highway and flatten Nanaiah.
Suddenly, seeing that beloved truck in her mind’s eye, she knows.
‘Ashok Leyland,’ she says loud and clear when her turn comes.
‘What?’ asks Nanaiah, his mouth hanging open.
‘Ashok Leyland,’ she repeats without any loss of confidence.
‘Miss Savita,’ says Nanaiah, ‘are you telling me your father is a truck?’
The class goes berserk. Some fall from their benches and roll in their aisles while the laughter of others degenerates into animal hooting and barking.
Nanaiah has to hit his ruler repeatedly on his desk to silence them. He calls Savita up, gives her five angry raps on her small palm and then says,
‘Now tell me your father’s name.’
‘Ashok Leyland,’ whispers Savita through her sobs. She is sent back to her bench after being told she has the brains of a sparrow and that there is absolutely no question of a certificate being presented to her.
After school Savita ignores the calls of her friend Dipali and runs ahead, tearing at her pigtails. She flings her schoolbag at the closed door of her two-room house, then runs barefoot over the permanent puddles of black grease from the garage opposite and goes around the piss-smelling rear of Sagar Samrat where cars draw up all day to spill out cramped and scowling men, women and children always badly in need of tea and toilets.
Her eyes are on the traffic that causes roadside dust to swoop up joyously to greet her—nestle into her nostrils and line her lungs. Her curly hair flies loose, her face is still stained with tears and she stands there like a block of stone, waiting to hear the melody of her father’s horn.
A battered Maruti van comes perilously close to her, the driver leering as he throws the words of some film song at her. ‘O sanam o sanam. . . ’ She spits after him but steps back from the road anyway.
She could stand there till the grey of dusk dissolved the grey of the highway and only the headlights in her eyes and the smell of vadas from Sagar Samrat remained. She could wait all night. But however long she waits, there is no escaping homework, and the screeching of her mother’s sewing machine, and her grandmother’s cold chapattis. She is hungry.
Approaching home with her ribbons in her hand she sees someone standing beside the door, near the small mud patch where the sunflowers grow, smoking a beedi with his back to her. She starts running and throws herself at him; he drops his beedi and lifts her high off the ground.
‘I’ve been waiting for you all afternoon,’ he says.
Savita looks over his shoulder at the open grounds where the weekly market is held. There it is, her father’s truck, “National” and “Permit” written high on each front window and, painted in white letters below the vent, the beautiful words “Ashok Leyland”.
Trying hard to hold back her tears, Savita hides her face in her father’s neck and whispers, ‘I thought it was your name.’
Anjum Hasan is the author of the novels Neti, Neti and Lunatic in my Head and the book of poems Street on the Hill. Her collection of stories, Difficult Pleasures will appear from Penguin Viking in April. She is books editor at The Caravan.