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The Way to School
by Swapna Dutta

Tinku peered out of the drawing room window and frowned. It had stopped raining at last but the sky still looked as black as an old umbrella - moldy black, faded in streaks. It felt as though it might start pouring again at any moment! Not the kind of steady drip-drip you had in Delhi. Rains which came and went with everything looking more or less the same afterwards. Out here it felt like someone overturning huge buckets in the sky in a nonstop relay race! Ugh! Tinku didn't like rain even in Delhi. It meant horrid puddles in the roads, shoes getting wet, clothes feeling clammy and uncalled for traffic jams. But here, in this out of the way, back-of-nowhere hilly wilderness it was downright unbearable!

Tinku's dad was a professor in Delhi. He was writing a book about some rare plants which grew in these hills. They were of great importance to medical research. Tinku's father had discovered them here at Duliatal during a trekking trip. But it was necessary to live here so that he might be able to study them properly. So he had taken this little house for a whole year. And brought Tinku and her mother along with him. Tinku's mother loved visiting out of the way places.

Duliatal was truly and literally out of the way! For one, it was perched on a part of the Kumaon range which was quite difficult to reach. It hardly had any proper roads and just a few buses passing by. There was a small cluster of cottages and houses around the oval lake from which the place got its name. It had the bare basic facilities, of course. There was a hospital, a post office, two or three schools and several small churches set up by the missionaries when Duliatal had been part of a cantonment, a cinema house, a club house and quite a few shops, among other things. But there had been a kind of 'division' right from the beginning, with the 'Whites' living on one side of the lake and the 'locals' living on the other. The main reason why Duliatal hadn't 'grown' was because other tourist spots nearby were so much easier to go to. And were, therefore, far more popular. Tourists always passed it by in favor of Nainital, Bheemtal, Almora or Ranikhet.

People who had landed up at Duliatal from other parts of the country, mostly trades people and government officers on transfer, were those who had to for some reason. They now stayed in the colony once set up by the British. Of course there were no British people now except for one or two who had chosen to stay behind even after Independence. The Hilltop School, set up by one of them, was said to be good. So Tinku's parents felt that she could very well study there for a year at least, since she was just nine years old. But Tinku, suddenly uprooted from Delhi and her friends, felt very differently! She felt both indignant and miserable. Grown-ups were so unfair! Why couldn't they have asked her if she wanted to come or not? She would have certainly stayed back in Delhi!

'Tinku, aren't you ready yet? It's time for school' said mummy coming into the room. 'Good heavens, you haven't even got your shoes on as yet! Here are your gumboots. Get into your raincoat. Quick!'
'It's not raining now' said Tinku frowning, 'And I hate gumboots. They look so clumsy.'
'Don't be silly, you'll need them if it starts raining again. It's bound to, just look at the sky! Remember, there's no school bus here. You'll have to walk up to your school.'
'I wish I were back at Delhi with all my friends, waiting for our lovely green school bus at the corner of the road.....'
'You'll like it here after a while, dear. See if you don't' said mummy hushing her up, 'It's such a lovely place .... when the sun is shining.'

There was an impatient knock on the door. It was Ram Vilas, the gardener. He was to take Tinku to school which was about half a kilometer away on a higher shelf. There was no real need to do it because a crowd of children went to school by the same path. But mummy had said that Ram Vilas should also go and keep an eye on her, just in case she found the climb difficult at first.

There was a short cut to school by the narrow track along the hill and most of the children took it. It had a wall of solid rocks and boulders on one side and a steep drop to a lower shelf on the other. 'It's lucky I'm not scared of heights' said Tinku as she buttoned up her raincoat, 'But I hate the slush and the puddles. It's so slippery!'
'Mind your steps and be careful' said mummy.

A small crowd of children stood outside the low wicket gate. All of them were in their raincoats and gumboots, carrying waterproof school bags.
'Hurry up' said Ritu, the oldest of the crowd. Her dad was a police officer and lived right at the top of the hill.
'Your raincoat looks quite nifty' said Mona, 'Better pull on your hood, though. The rain comes on quite suddenly sometimes. You wouldn't like to go to school with dripping hair!'
'Got any newspapers?' asked Ricky.
'Newspaper?' asked Tinku amazed, 'What for?'
'You'll see' said Mona looking mysterious.

Everyone burst out laughing. Tinku shrugged. She wasn't interested in their silly secrets. She didn't like them. She didn't like anything about this horrid rainy place. Nothing at all.
'Why do you frown all the time?' asked Ashish, 'Got a tummy-ache?'
'Of course not! Don't be rude' said Tinku, 'I just don't like it raining day in and day out.'
'Why not?' asked Ricky, 'Not made of sugar, are you?'
There was a trill of laughter.
'Tinku is afraid she will melt' cried Mona and Ashish together.
'Oh look!' cried Bablu who had rushed ahead, 'Just look at our stream! It has become a regular water-fall!'

Tinku looked curiously. Just in front of them was a break between the boulders. A thin trickle of water which flew silently along the track at other times was a regular torrent now, falling through the break in the boulders on the slope down below. 'Where's the newspaper?' asked Ritu, 'Give Tinku a sheet'. The others were already making paper boats - single ones and boats with sails. Bablu's and Ricky's had double sails. Everyone put theirs in the stream. The boats rushed along the water, falling down... down.... down! The boats were in line now, moving forward, one after the other. Everyone clapped. Tinku was the only one who didn't know how to make a paper boat.

'Don't you know how to make boats?' asked Ricky surprised. Tinku shook her head. She really wished she did. It was fun floating them in the water and see them rush away.
'Here, take mine' said Ashish giving her one with double sails. Tinku took it and threw it on the gushing stream. Whoosh! It fell down the break in the boulder along with the others. Perhaps some little wood fairy would ride it! Tinku fell a thrill down her spine. Of course there were no fairies these days! .... But what if there were? And if one of them really rode Tinku's boat?

'Hurry up, folks' shouted Ritu, 'The bell will ring in a minute and I don't want to be late.'
'I'll teach you how to make boats' said Mona falling in step beside Tinku, 'We could float them on our way back.'
'I'd like that' said Tinku smiling at her.
'Look behind you' said Bablu, 'There, just where the water's falling down'.
Tinku turned. A streak of sunlight was struggling through the clouds and along the spray of water was a little rainbow.
'How beautiful!' cried Tinku. She had never seen anything like it in Delhi. Nor had she ever floated paper boats before.

They were in front of the school gate now. My new school, thought Tinku, feeling interested despite herself. She looked at the sloping roof made of red tiles with wild roses climbing all over it. The garden rose in a gradual slope round the school building. Tinku also saw the wild riot of color against the velvet green grass. All the flowers seemed to be in bloom. She had never seen such vivid colors before. As she stepped inside the gate with the rest Tinku told herself that the new school might not be quite so bad after all!     

Those who are interested in reading more about Tinku may buy the book "Tinku at Duliatal" directly from www.orientlongman.com

27-Aug-2006
 
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