The sky was still to open to the colour of time. A blanket of darkness had wrapped the early cold wintry morning and part of the town was still cocooned in the comfort of their beds.
As the seconds hand of the clock ticked down and raised, from block to block the street lights slowly dimmed and the blackness grew paler, embedding itself in a dull shade of morning blue and grey. From within this fade, a pair of headlights emerged on the road, and the bus grew visible as it passed, solitary in its movement and alone at this hour.
It hit the tarmac right across the building, with its ignition still on. The driver leaned out of the door, and then checked his watch. He continued the jittery to and fro movement for a few seconds, before he thrust his palm into the horn at the centre of the steering wheel. She hadn't come down from her flat as yet. After a flash of a minute, he horned again, and then looked straight up towards the balcony from where he was usually signaled to wait or leave.
Another two minutes, he said to himself, and then he would leave. It was not like he wasn't used to this. The young girl always kept him waiting. He had been waiting for her for the last seven years, from when she was all of 5. But he blamed her less, and her parents more, for not being able to ready her for school on time. He couldn't wait for anyone this long, he had another bunch of children to pick up from across the town and drop to school by a sharp 6.30 am, before he started his second round. Yet, he waited, as he horned again. She would come, he knew. At least of all days, today. When she finally emerged from the entrance of her building some five minutes later, he smiled, relieved that it had not taken any longer, and that she had made it today.
Velu loved her, just like he loved his daughter, who was back home in the small village near Calicut in Kerala. She and her were of the same age, born only two days apart. It had been 10 years since he had seen his own daughter; circumstances as a school bus driver here, didn't help any better. The photographs his wife mailed him monthly, which he picked up from the postal office in Muscat, saw his daughter crawl, walk, talk and grow without knowing how her father looked like. He never sent photographs, and only restricted to weekly letters and monthly phone calls. He was afraid that his wife would worry at seeing him grey, wrinkle and thin in the dust of the desert in Oman. Velu wanted her to remember him as the man she had loved, and his daughter to know him as the handsomest father in the village as he had been, when she was born.
Now, as he saw the 12-year-old girl approach his bus, he was reminded of how she compensated for all he had missed. He saw his daughter grow up through her eyes. Not to mention, how strikingly similar they looked. Their faces chubby and round, their skin a shade perfectly lighter than dark chocolate, eyes a deep black and hair pleated in a fashion only common to the two of them.
"Velu uncle...," she mumbled as she entered the bus and sat behind the driver's seat, "I am sorry again. Tomorrow, I will wake up on time. Okay!"
He smiled and started the bus. She was the only girl in the bus who referred to him as uncle, and not "driver" like the others reminded him as being.
"Don't sorry me Jaani. Next time, bus leave if you no come on time," he said, in broken English.
The girl chortled, "Uncle...how many times should I tell you, my name is Jane, not Jaani."
"What to do...I can't say name like that. I so used to Jaani...now can't change."
"Okay," she said, and sat quietly.
All the children were dozing in the bus; to kill the silence, he played his favourite Yesudas track on the cassette player. Before he knew, a couple of them had woken up. "Not this song...please driver," they yelled. The girl was the only one who had the permission to head to the cassette player beside the driver's seat, and change the song with her own Backstreet Boys cassette. All the loneliness, has always been a friend of mine...
The song played, and lulled the children to sleep again. Though he did not understand the words, Velu loved the tune too, and would often deliberately put his native track, to get her to change it with his own. The Baackstreet Baays as he called them, helped him steer better.
"Uncle, you like this song," she asked, in hushed tones.
"Ya...no tell anyone...ha. secret."
From tomorrow, he'd miss all this. He would not be able to speak to her, see her face, see her cry like she used to when she would enter the bus with a wound after having fallen on the playground, or see her smile as she had when she won those elocution competitions or scored full marks in a paper. An Omani driver, who for the last one month had been accompanying Velu on his pick up/drop trips, would take over. Velu had to break this to her, not like he thought she'd care. But she would have to come on time, or else, the Omani driver would leave. Having observed her delay, the local man had already warned Velu.
"Jaani...from tomorrow, sharp 5.55 am down okay."
"Yes uncle, I said I would come on time," she retorted quickly.
"No...I no there from tomorrow. Another uncle...he Omani. He no time for you, he no wait," he said.
"Why? Where are you going?"
"I don't know. May be I go home to Kerala."
"But why?" she asked again, dissatisfied.
"Omani Government ask all driver leave Muscat...so now, I pack up. My job finish."
"That is not right. The government is so unfair," she said, with the maturity of a teenager, though she still wasn't one.
"Ya. What to do?"
The conversation took a break from there, silence blanketing their fear of the unknown. Nobody spoke, not he, nor she. She stared right through the window, ruing as she watched the sun soak the sky, while he looked straight as he saw the school draw closer and closer. When they arrived, she was the last to get down, as if purposely halting her stay.
Before getting up from her seat, she asked, "Will you come to drop us today, or will we have that Omani driver?"
"Call him uncle," Velu said, immediately.
"No, I know only one driver uncle...Velu uncle."
His lips curved into a half-smile, not knowing what to say, as if a lump had stuck in his throat.
"Are you coming to pick us up today?"
"No. I going Kerala today."
"Okay," she said curtly, and walked out of the bus, without another word. Velu watched her leave. Not a bye, not a thank you. He did not expect any of it. But he wished it had never ended, all so abruptly.
Soon he would be with his daughter, and Jaani would be only a memory. Unlike his daughter, she wouldn't write to him or send photographs. This was the last vision he had to hold on to, the last sight of the girl. With these thoughts, running through his mind, he started the ignition to move the bus forward, the vehicle jerked as he veered it to the right, and from Jaani's seat, he heard something fall. He looked down. Below, was his favourite Backstreet Boys audio cassette.
Dedicated to my school bus driver, Velu...A victim, or should I say, one of the handful, who fell prey to Omanisation
What is Omanisation?
What is Omanisation?