It was Sunday. The day when ‘parents’ came visiting.
Anyone from home, even babes in arms, were ‘parents’ in the Sainik School lingo. ‘Parents’ was both singular and plural. Though it never mattered as to which ‘ward’ the ‘parents’ belonged to, the food they brought along, mattered.
There was no shortage of food or hunger in our school!
Since morning, all eyes had been fixed on the far end of the vast parade ground. At last a tall figure in white appeared in the distance. His almost imperceptible stoop could be made out even through the fine layer of red dust that hung above the parade ground. But we still needed confirmation.
As he got near, the familiar swept back hair, white dhoti, coarse khadi shirt and the gladdest sight of all, the bulging brown gunnysack slung across the back banished any lingering doubt. Cheers went up. Yes, it was him.
By the time the tall figure arrived at the entrance to our dormitory, dozens of cadets were bunched up at a respectful distance, trying to catch the smell of the sack’s contents.
The man in white swung the gunnysack off his back, and placed it on a table. He was panting a little.
The two kilometre walk in sultry conditions, from the nearest bus stop to our school located atop a hill, that too carrying a gunnysack, was not easy. Sweat made his clothes stick onto him. With one hand he wiped his head and face using a simple white towel he had on his shoulder. His other hand was on his gunnysack. His grip still tight, as if he feared theft. But his gentle eyes oozed affection as he surveyed his audience.
The joyous throng allowed his son to step awkwardly forward and be petted. His gaze too remained on the gunnysack. The crowd withdrew to a respectful distance to provide privacy to the father and son.
The ‘parents’ soon left and anticipation mounted. It was time to open the gunnysack.
‘Parents’ and the food they brought came in various hues.
One rich family would noisily arrive in a car once every year, bearing garish plastic bags full of expensive cakes, aluva (halwa) and biscuits. The elders in this group were very friendly with all the cadets hanging around, forcing Pavlov’s reflex to work overtime. But soon they would open all the packets on their ward’s bed, perch on the adjacent beds and eat the whole lot, leaving only shattered hopes.
There was a loving father-mother duo, who brought bananas and home foods like appams and vadas for their ‘ward’. After a little picnic under a tree, the ‘ward’ would generously distribute the leftovers.
One NRI ‘parents’ came once every year, bearing an unbelievably tasty magical food called ‘Cadbury chocolate’ in glittering dark crimson packing. Their son would carefully distribute this chocolate to all for the next couple of months, in very little pieces meticulously measured with a scale and cut with a shaving blade.
There was the secretive guy who never let out what his parents brought. We had to guess his goodies from the muffled crunching sounds and sundry smells that came from his bed after ‘lights out’ at night.
Most ‘parents’ brought gems of the countryside, like achappam, unniyappam, sukhiyan, ethakka appam and boli in little packets, which left behind more crumbled paper, than happy memories.
The most endearing of all, was the humble gunnysack from Kundara, which the generous man in white brought regularly. That he worked for the State Road Transport Corporation in a supervisory capacity helped.
The gunnysack had neither glamour nor style. Captivating smells or enticing pictures it did not have. But it came into our lives quite regularly, bearing unforgettable joy and about five kilos of humble brown Rusk.
Even the sense of timing was great. The man in white would somehow land up just when we were desperate for a bite. His gentle son, being as selfless as his ‘parents’, had an eat-as-much-as-you-like-while-it-lasts attitude.
To this day, I buy Rusk whenever I see it in the countryside. Humbler the packing, better the feel. While they were growing up, my kids used to deride the purchase. Their eyes were on unhealthy rubbish in attractive packing, peddled with the help of enticing advertisements full of falsehoods. Not anymore. With age, they too have learnt to love the simple things of life.
Life is (and should only be) a string of happy memories.
One such memory for me, is the love that lingers for the humble gunnysack full of joy that came from regularly from Kundara.
It poured life into our life, once upon a time.
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