Arjun picked himself up, dusted off the dry mud from his clothes, wiped his tears, and grabbed his school satchel.
Just walk way, Mom had said. Arjun reminded himself over and over again, as he limped off towards the school bus.
Dhiru, the bus driver, clucked his tongue and shook his head as Arjun boarded the bus.
‘What, Arjun? Always late! You think we have all day to wait for you to finish with your games before we can head home?’ The teacher sitting in the front seat raised an irate eyebrow, again.
‘Sorry, Miss,’ Arjun muttered, ‘I fell down in the ground, so I had to go to the infirmary.’ He ignored the curious stares from every other child in the bus.
The teacher grunted in anger.
‘Won’t happen again, Miss.’ He said as he took the only vacant seat and stared ahead.
The wiry Mrs. Monika Gulati pursed her lips and breathed deep. ‘My ass, it won’t happen again.’ She thought but refrained from saying it loud. She looked at Dhiru and barked, ‘Drive!’
Dhiru revved up the engine and the last standing bus rolled out of the school lane on to the main road. Arjun took in big gulps of the hot dry air and found it surprisingly soothing. He shrugged off his bag and put it on the adjacent seat. While he sat comfortably in the physical space, taking up the entire seat otherwise meant for two, his heart remained constricted.
Today, again, he’d get reprimanded by Mom. Today, again, he’d tell her how he fell in the ground while playing football. Mom would kiss away the pain and make it all better. All he needed was to get home. The hot air whipped across his face as the bus sped up, making him recoil in discomfort. He picked up his water bottle to take a swig and found it was empty. But how? He had filled it from the water cooler right after school. It must have spilled when he fell, he reasoned. Arjun sat back, ignoring the pain in his shins and the dryness in his throat. He just needed to get home and it would all be fine.
The journey was long, though, and by the time the bus rolled down his street, Arjun was the last one left on the bus. Gingerly, he got up and slipped the bag on his shoulders. All through the journey, a frown had been plastered on his face. Arjun wiped it off now, and replacing it a smile, he changed his slouchy shuffling to a more cheerful gait while walking to the front of the bus. Spotting his mother through the large windscreen of the bus, he waved at her, his smile becoming broader.
‘Thank you, Dhiru,’ Maya called out as Arjun jumped off the last step of the footboard.
‘Mention not ji,’ Dhiru waved a hand. Still smiling back at Maya, he said, ‘Arey, how dirty he becomes, ask him what he does to manage this.’ The hidden urge in his words was evident only to the child. He looked at Dhiru in alarm, his wide eyes pleading the man not to say anything.
Maya laughed. ‘He is a naughty one, my son.’ She grabbed Arjun’s bag, and futilely tried dusting him off. ‘Ariel to the rescue.’
Arjun heaved a sigh of relief as the doors of the bus hissed shut, and the bus rolled away.
‘So, what’s the excuse today?’
‘Football!’ He grinned.
Maya sighed and rolled her eyes. ‘What will I do with you?’
The next day Arjun decided not to fill his water bottle. He didn’t get to drink the water anyway. He also wanted to avoid keeping the entire bus waiting – something that was bound to happen as a consequence of his actions if he stopped at the water cooler. He didn’t want Miss to scold him again. While Dhiru was kind enough to not leave without him, he knew others resented the everyday wait.
But Arjun’s short legs couldn’t carry him too quickly. They were already there before him. The tall skinny one slipped a hand around his shoulders and led him away. ‘No, no.. please let me go,’ Arjun pleaded. ‘Miss will get angry.’
‘Awww, Miss will get angry?’ Tall one mocked, dragging him to the isolated part of the ground.
Arjun spotted the others, lurking at the far end of the grounds. Knowing what was to come ahead, he took off his spectacles and put them in his pocket. He sighed, regretting waiting for the school bell to ring. He should have slipped out of class even before the bell. How come no one else saw them or questioned why they were walking in the wrong direction, Arjun wondered and looked around. It was surprising how fast the ground had emptied out.
The tall one wacked him on the head, sending him reeling to the ground. The fat one grabbed his bag and threw the books out. ‘Did you save your lunch for us?’ He asked, fishing out the tiffin box.
‘Yes, yes, just take it and let me go. Else, Miss gets very angry.’
‘Miss gets very angry,’ the tall one mimicked again, eliciting loud laughter from them all. ‘Okay, we’ll let you go today,’ he said and stepped aside. Although surprised at the sudden change of heart, Arjun was grateful at being let off easily today. He didn’t even know the tall one’s name so he simply muttered, ‘Thank you, bhaiyya,’ and grabbed his books, shoving them inside the bag as hurriedly as he could. As he tried walking away, the tall one stuck his foot out and sent him crashing to the ground. Arjun tasted dirt and immediately sputtered. They laughed.
The short one imitated Arjun’s fall. With flailing arms and a pretend catwalk, he sent them into peals of laughter again. Tears rolled down their cheeks, only Arjun’s weren’t from laughing too hard.
Believing the worst was over, Arjun wiped away his tears. He tried picking up his bag and water bottle but the fat one kicked it farther away. Mom had said not to retaliate. Just walk away, that’s all you need to do. You’re fine. Just walk away.
Despite the resolve, fresh tears rolled down the cheeks. They laughed harder and teased him more.
Such a wimp! Cry baby! Insult to the name of manhood, they jeered, and shoved him around. ‘We’ll teach you how to man up,’ they guffawed. That’s when Arjun realized the worst was yet to come.
When Arjun finally reached the bus, his collar was torn and his spectacles were broken. Miss was standing next to the bus, with her hands on her hips and a frown on her forehead. As soon as he spotted Arjun, her frown deepened. Arjun scrunched his shoulders and ran faster. ‘What is wrong with you? Every day, you delay us like this. You think we have nothing else to do than wait for you all day.’ She yelled at the top of her voice as he came closer to the bus. ‘Everyone has left, can you see around?’ She grabbed his arm and shook him hard. ‘Next time, we’ll leave you here, you understand? Bloody idiot! Always making mischief!’ She shoved him ahead of her to board the bus.
‘Sorry, miss,’ Arjun said. He slipped off his bag, took his usual seat, and put the bag next to him. That’s when it hit him. The water bottle!
‘Wait?’ He cried, just as Dhiru started the ignition.
‘Now what?’ Monika hissed.
‘I… I … forgot my water bottle.’
Monika’s eyes blazed with fury. ‘Take it tomorrow.’ The words came out at deliberately slowed rate. Arjun knew better than to argue or plead. He nodded and looked away. She sat back in the seat and barked. ‘Dhiru, drive!’
With his droopy shoulders and his head bowed, Arjun shrank back into his seat. Dhiru looked at Arjun and sighed. Shaking his head, he eased of his foot from the brake and clutch, and drove the bus onto its usual route. Through the one-hour journey, he desperately tried to not think about Arjun and instead keep his attention on the road. Every time the bus stopped at a red-light or at the bus-stop, his mind returned to the mousy-faced Arjun on the front seat.
As they approached the last stop on the route, Dhiru looked at Arjun through the large rear-view mirror. ‘Why don’t you complain? Do you need me to talk to them? Do you need me to tell the principal?’
Arjun remain silent, picked up his bag, and walked forward, ready to alight when the bus halted at his bus-stop.
As they rounded the last corner and turned in to Arjun’s street, Dhiru looked at him with raised brows. He was still waiting for an answer.
Arjun shook his head. ‘Just walk away, Ma said.’
‘What?’ Dhiru was incredulous. ‘She already knows about this?’
‘No.’ Arjun shook his head. ‘I mean, she always says it – “Avoid the situation. Walk away.” He recalled all the times when he found her sitting on the kitchen floor, long after his father had retired to bed – tears and ice droplets streaming down on her blackish-bluish face. ‘Wisdom is in keeping silent about such things,’ he said to Dhiru, repeating his mother’s words from the previous night when he had found her in the kitchen again, after a particularly noisy hour of his father’s incessant yelling and his mother’s constant pleading.