The moment they saw him, Swati and Amar had to ask, "Who's he, Ma?"
He had a chunky wrestler's body. A round red face to match. And a smile that split his face in two, made his eyes vanish inside his cheeks.
"Jhusiyal Singh," Ma said. "He's come to work for us. He's going to do all the running around, all the odd jobs."
Amar's large eyes turned even rounder. He muttered under his breath, "Swati, isn't he just like a bear?"
Swati frowned. "Don't be rude," she hissed. But she bit down a giggle, because she couldn't help thinking, Amar's right. Then she jumped Jhusiyal Singh's laugh exploded so loud in her ear. He'd overheard Amar!
"Yes, Bhaiya," he said, thumping his chest. It was an awesome sound, like a huge drum being beaten."But I'm not just 'like a bear'. I'm Mr. Great Grandfather Bear himself!"
Swati and Amar really cracked up then. He proved it, too, the very next minute by hoisting up one of their heavy school trunks as comfortably as if it were a cardboard carton full of feathers.
It was winter and they'd just got home from boarding school for the long vacation. Thirteen year old Swati, tall and leggy with thoughtful, dreamy eyes and curly topped Amar, a restless, inquisitive eleven.
"It's great to be home, isn't it?" Swati asked. She closed her eyes to concentrate on the sound of the pines. It was as soothing as the liquid murmur of a distant stream. Just in front of her, brilliant red poinsettias lifted their heads against the deep blue sky. Inside, Ma was laying out a special tea, she knew. Yes, it was great to be home, to be fussed over and to be free of the strict school routine.
Amar was still watching Jhusiyal Singh. He was bringing in the rest of their stuff. Lifting it up with comic, pantomime gestures and groans of exaggerated effort which set them off on a fresh bout of giggles.
"What a character! Isn't he?" Swati breathed.
"Yes! He seems like a lot of fun," Amar replied, his eyes sparkling.
"He'll be great company!"
"Come on," Swati protested. "He's a great big grown up man."
"So what?" replied Amar. "That doesn't mean he can't be good company."
Swati looked again at Jhusiyal Singh, who had set off at a mincing run and smiled. He did seem to be someone full of fun. Since their home was in the midst of a pine forest, miles from anywhere, they were always a bit hard up for company in the holidays. There were no neighbors so there was no chance to make friends. It was great to be home, to be with their parents. But Amar missed the noise and laughter only a gang of friends could provide. Swati was generally quite content to laze around and read, though there were moments when she too felt a bit marooned. Of course, they loved to spend their time taking long treks into the forest nearby or down to the river bed in the valley. But Swati didn't like being forced to entertain Amar when she would rather read. So, the thought of having someone as jolly as Jhusiyal Singh around to distract him seemed a wonderful start to the holidays.
They began with one of those absolutely perfect winter days, with the brightest blue sky overhead and the cleanest, most golden sunshine toasting them gently. As soon as breakfast was over, Swati and Amar ran out to play cricket on the grassy patch behind the house. Swati had just swung out at the ball, when Jhusiyal Singh passed. He was carrying two canisters of water on a pole balanced over his shoulder. There wasn't any piped water in the forest. It had to be fetched from the nearest spring. This was one of the chores he performed.
As the ball curved through the air, Jhusiyal Singh held out a hand, almost playfully. To their utter surprise, it just flew into his fist.
"WOW!" Amar gasped. He looked awestruck. "Jhusiyal Singh, you'll have to come and play. You'll just have to!" Jhusiyal Singh grinned and nodded vigorously in reply . "Just coming," he said. "In a minute."
And before they knew it, he was back. Though he said he'd never played cricket before, he took to it like a fish to water. Diving, swooping, charging all over the field, cracking ferociously at the ball with the bat he added a new dimension to a game of cricket being played by just three people!
"What a guy!" Amar exclaimed, as they went in for lunch. "He's too much." His face glowed as if he'd made a marvelous discovery. After that, Jhusiyal became a regular playmate. He played cricket, gulli danda, hide and seek and any other game they could think of. God knows how he managed it there was plenty for him to do. Not only water to be fetched from the spring but groceries from the town nearby and numerous little jobs around the house. But Jhusiya, as they called him now, managed to finish all his work and still find time for a game. Sometimes Swati felt that he was just a great big grown up child he was so eager to join all their games.
Soon Amar began to tag after him wherever he went. On his trips to the spring, to the market, even to the water mill by the river, where wheat was ground into flour.
"Jhusiya's little lamb," Swati teased him. She was really surprised when Amar didn't retaliate with a rude comment he couldn't stand being teasing at all.
"Thank God," Ma said the next day, as they sat on the verandah gazing at Amar and Jhusiya's retreating backs. They were happily trotting off to the spring to fetch water together. "Amar isn't complaining of boredom this time."
"I know," Swati said promptly. "He really used to get on my nerves at times." She paused then said," You really should thank Jhusiya. He's quite a find, isn't he? We've never had anyone like him before."
"No, never," Ma agreed.
When they returned half an hour later, Amar was flushed and breathless. He burst out excitedly at once, "Did you know," he said, his voice husky. "Jhusiya once killed a man eating leopard with an axe. Just with an axe, nothing else."
"A leopard with an axe?" Ma asked. "Well, I'm not surprised. The men from his village are known for such feats."
"Wow!" Swati exclaimed. "But you're right, Ma. He looks as if he could tackle a leopard."
Actually, by now Swati and Amar had begun to think that Jhusiya was some kind of a superman, able to achieve anything.
"You know what he said," Amar went on breathlessly." He'd gone to the forest to chop wood. All of a sudden the leopard darted out of a a bush, snarling .' It was just about to charge at me, when I struck out with my axe,' he said. 'There was no time to be afraid.' Can you beat that?"
Swati made Jhusiya repeat that story when they sat around the fire that evening. That had become part of their routine too the evening story sessions. The winter days were golden, but the evenings were cold bone chilling, teeth chattering cold. Not only cold but long. The dark came early, shutting them in with a dense black wall that seemed to stretch on forever, at times.
But Jhusiya's stories were the perfect evening entertainment. Full of thrills, unbelievable at times but always gripping and entertaining. Best of all, he seemed to have an unlimited fund of them. And the way he told them--that was half the fun rolling his eyes, bringing his voice to a whisper or letting it boom out suddenly.
"Shall I tell you about the old woman who married her daughter to a tiger?" he'd ask.
"A tiger!" Amar would laugh, but he'd be intrigued and curious. And even Swati, who considered herself too grown up for such kiddish stuff, would feel a spark of interest flare up inspite of herself. This particular story was a folk tale, a funny one which soon had them in splits. But for sheer spine chilling, shiveryness there was nothing to beat his ghost stories and of course, his accounts of his encounters with wild animals.
"Jhusiya, you're better than a story book," Amar would say. "No, bhaiya," he'd reply. "I'm a stupid fellow, I've never been to school, I can't read books like you all."
"You know more than anyone of us ," Amar would insist. "If I could trick a bear like you did! Wow! Wouldn't I be the talk of the whole school!"
So, the holidays sped on merrily. Then one day, Swati got a great idea.
"Ma," she said. "I've noticed that the chowkidar's kids don't go to school."
"Well, there isn't any close by," Ma said. "And they're too young to walk all the way to town." She paused and stared hard at Swati." Were you "
"Yes!" Swati burst in excitedly. "Why don't I teach them? Remember how I played school school with these kids when I was younger? But I'll be serious this time."
"I think it's a wonderful idea," Ma said. "We'll go to town tomorrow and get all the stuff you need blackboard, slates, chalk whatever."
The school turned out to be a huge success and soon the trickle of kids from the village nearby became a downpour. Swati got so involved that she barely noticed Jhusiya walking past, swinging his canisters.
(Her classes were held out in the open). So she didn't realize how often he stopped to watch and listen. So when he said, one evening, "Didi, can I join your school?" she was taken by surprise.
Amar burst out laughing." Join the school! Come on, Jhusiya. You're too big. Grown ups don't go to school."
Jhusiya's face shrank. "Shut up, Amar," Swati said quickly. She didn't like the way he had laughed. It seemed to belittle Jhusiya.
"I'll teach you, but in the evening. Separately." Somehow she couldn't see his bulky frame looming up among those little kids.
Jhusiya brightened at once. "That's right, Didi," he said. "Evening will be the best time. I'm busy with my work in the morning."
Swati prepared an exercise book for Jhusiya. Full of wonderful intentions, she wrote his name in neat letters on top 'Jhusiyal Singh.' She felt great doing it. He'd made their holidays so enjoyable. She could do something for him now. She felt a little silly in the beginning, making him parrot the alphabets after her, like the little kids. And writing them in big letters across the page for him to copy.
But Jhusiya attacked this matter of learning to read and write with the same zest that he brought to every task he performed. "Soon I'll be able to sign my name," he said enthusiastically, bending over the exercise book. Swati wanted to smile, the pencil looked like a match stick, clutched in his huge paw.
"Yes, Jhusiya," she said."And read too." But when she looked at the squiggles he'd produced, she frowned. "Only "she said gently, she didn't want to hurt his feelings, "You'll have to try a little harder. "
"I am, Didi, I am," he looked up, perplexed. "I don't know why it doesn't come out all right." And his huge fist moved across the page slowly, laboriously.
But as the days went by, Jhusiya didn't improve. No matter how hard he tried and no matter how earnestly Swati tried to teach him. It was as though the letters of the alphabet were a cipher he couldn't break. A task more formidable than dealing with a ferocious leopard. It was the same with his reading. Whatever he picked up the first day, seemed to vanish the very next.
Then the day came when Swati lost patience. "Why can't you learn, Jhusiya?"she cried out frustrated. "Why can't you remember?" She just couldn't understand why he couldn't pick up something even the smallest child managed to, with all the amazing abilities he possessed.
"Because I'm stupid," he said calmly. "But you're going to make me clever. Aren't you?"
Swati just didn't know what to say then. His faith was so touching, yet such a burden. Because by now she was convinced that it was impossible to teach Jhusiya . But he had to learn to sign his name at least. She couldn't abandon him before she had accomplished that.
So when Amar muttered later, "You might as well give up. I don't think he's ever going to learn anything," she felt furious.
"No," she replied stubbornly. "He will wait and see. He'll learn to sign his name." He has to, she thought. Amar resents the story sessions being cut short. That's why he's saying all this. She had to believe it, because she was beginning to feel that she'd failed as a teacher. Worse, Jhusiya's superman image was slipping away from her. That was even more unnerving.
The next evening, she picked up his exercise book again. It'll be better today, she promised herself. We'll make progress. But as she flipped through the smudged, dog eared pages, full of those unreadable scrawls, she got a shock. They'd reached the last page and Jhusiya showed no signs of improvement.
Something hit her hard then. "Oh give it up, Jhusiya! " she cried out in despair. "It's no use."
His face sagged. "Really, didi," he asked softly. "Will I never learn to read? Not even to sign my name?" His expression held so much hope still, that Swati had to look away. Perhaps it was her lack of success that made her cry out like that. Or did she really believe that Jhusiya couldn't do it? Whatever it was, it still had her in its grip. Because she said brusquely, "Haven't I been trying to teach you all these days? Have you managed to learn anything, anything at all?"
Jhusiya's tall frame seemed to shrivel. He didn't say a word. He just got up and went away. Swati stood staring after him, she wanted to say something to make him feel better. But the words wouldn't come out. Finally, she just flung down the copy book and stomped off to gaze out of the window, even though there was nothing to look at but the foggy dark. Not even the slightest glimmer of light. Even the stars were blotted out by the clouds.
The next evening Jhusiya stayed away. He did come in, but just to throw a couple of logs onto the fire. He didn't joke and clown as he used to, just did his work with mechanical efficiency. It was as though he felt that he was not really a fit companion for them any more.
Worse, Amar stopped tagging after him. He had managed to make up a cricket team from among the village boys. Swati was busy with her school. It seemed that they did not need Jhusiya any longer. But in the evening, when they sat by the fire they felt something missing. Even though, for some reason Swati felt let down. Perhaps Amar did too. It was as if Jhusiya had deceived them, led them to think that he was a superman. When in fact he was dumber than a nursery school kid. But something else gnawed at Swati. The frustration of a task left half complete, perhaps. I tried hard enough, she tried to tell herself. It's not my fault that he couldn't learn. But the emptiness remained. She could sense it in Amar too a dry dissatisfaction, an incompleteness. Jhusiya had become so much a part of their lives that his absence left a definite gap . He was not really absent, of course, but the distance that had formed between them gaped so wide that it seemed impossible to bridge.
The holidays slipped by. It was almost time to return to school. With a kind of relief Swati began to think of the orderly routine, the measured doling out of time that school meant. Each hour, each minute packed with some preplanned activity. No vacant spaces to fill.
It was a day in the month of March. There was only a week left for the holidays to end. The sky which had been overcast for several days, opened up to admit dazzling sunlight. The mimosa trees, sprinkled with the bright yellow flowers of spring were a lovely sight.
As Swati came out of the house, buttoning up her cardigan, something caught her eye. Something on the stone seat below the deodar tree. For a moment she stood still dumbfounded. Was it possible?
Then she yelled, as loud as she could, "Amar! Amar! Come quick!"
Amar came out running. "Look!" Swati pointed. Her hands shook and her eyes shone.
Someone had scribbled, with a piece of charcoal, in huge clumsy letters in Hindi "JHUSIYAL SINGH!"
And "Look!" Amar cried. He pointed, too.
She saw it again. On the stone slabs that paved the walk in front of the house the same black charcoal, the same big writing, the same ' Jhusiyal Singh'!
Doubling up with delighted laughter, they ran off on a treasure hunt.
On the door of the coal store, on the cowdung plastered kitchen wall, on the silvery trunk of the jacaranda tree everywhere the same signature. Huge, larger than life, just like Jhusiya! Everywhere evidence of his victory.
"He's done it!" Swati yelled. "He's actually learnt to sign his name!"
And Amar and she hugged each other and laughed like lunatics. It was as if they'd achieved something great. I wonder what it took him, Swati thought, to achieve it . What kind of a struggle, what effort.
Then Amar cried out, "He's here! Jhusiya's here."
Swati turned. His face was a tomato, red, bursting with delight. His eyes had crinkled up, vanished inside his cheeks. "Jhusiya, you did it!" she cried. Her eyes welled over.
"Yes, didi, yes," he chortled like a gleeful child.
Amar grabbed his hand. "Congratulations!" he cried and shook it so hard that it looked as if his own would come off, get left behind in that bear's paw!
"But how?" Swati asked softly, feeling a little awkward now.
Jhusiya's face grew serious. "First...I gave up. For a few days I thought it was useless, I would never learn." He paused to clear his throat. "Then one day in the town, I was drinking water from the tap and I realized it was like a ' '. I got quite excited then and went home and tried to write it in my copy book and was able to, remembering the tap. Then I tried to think of other objects which were like letters to help me to remember. But there I got stuck because I didn't know which were which. So I asked those little children you teach; it became a game for us, finding objects that looked like letters. And I learned that ' ' was like a man standing with his hands on his hips. ' ' like the hooks on the verandah from which the flower pots hang. The ' ' ki matra was like my chutia ' ' like a monkey's tail!"
"Wow!" Amar exclaimed. "Jhusiya, you're a genius, you taught yourself." Jhusiya broke into a wide grin, shook his head. "And when I was able to remember a few letters, by magic it all became easier ... After that I practiced and practiced, because the letters still didn't look too nice and clear ..." He sighed, as if recalling the struggle, then beamed again. "So now I can write, thanks to you, Didi."
"No, Jhusiya! Thanks to yourself! I lost patience, I gave up but you didn't!"
And suddenly, Swati's eyes felt wet. Because Jhusiya had grown much, much taller than he ever was before!