A bus full of boisterous schoolchildren went past my house as I stood in the roadside facing balcony of my flat chatting with my dad, a retired professor, during a peak morning hour. From the yellow coloured bus, we could hear one group of children shouting “pla-ne” and a second group complementing it with “atrium”. The refrain continued and faded. We guessed that the children were on the way to a planetarium as part of a study tour.
“How nice to have a school bus!” my father said looking at the sky and suddenly his eyes turned moist. I was puzzled. My father went into flashback mode.
“I worked in St. Michael’s High School, Coimbatore, as a mathematics teacher for six years. The year was 1958 or 59. We needed a bus to take our students on educational tours. With our limited funds, we couldn’t afford to buy a bus. The management, keen on providing quality education, called a meeting of teachers to find a way out for a school bus.”
“You could have collected money from students” was my instant response at which my dad laughed and said, “No way.” He went on, “A team of teachers from the school decided to approach industrialists for help. G D Naidu, an engineer, inventor and Coimbatore-based industrialist who operated a fleet of buses, was our first choice. Ours was a boys’ high school and we knew he had donated a bus to a girls’ institution. He received us warmly, listened intently to our request and said, ‘You all know the difficulties our girl children face. Somehow I feel that boys can slug it out and I’d rather be happy to support a girls’ school.’ Here was a man who was so much concerned about the plight of girl children, at a period when the odds were heavily loaded against them. Acknowledging his principled stand, we came out without pressuring him further.
“Our next stop was a Gandhian, industrialist and philanthropist Pollachi N Mahalingam who died recently in Chennai at 91 and who was then a member of the Tamil Nadu Legislative Assembly. Rev. Fr. Chinnayan, our headmaster, also accompanied us to his house. Mahalingam patiently heard us and at once replied, ‘I shall make a bus ready and hand it over in three months. Meanwhile, you can hire a good driver who can take the children out safely.’ As promised, he donated us a bus fitted with petrol engine. How can I describe the way we rejoiced on seeing the bus on our premises?”
“What a magnanimous gesture!” I exclaimed but my father interrupted me, “The story does not end there. We pressed the bus into service on a few trips but couldn’t afford the cost of petrol. So, once again, we went back to the great man with trepidation and expressed our difficulty. Without the slightest frown, he offered to fix our problem. He took back the bus and replaced the petrol engine with a diesel engine. The bus served our school a long time since.”
“Pla-ne-tarium”… The sound once again rent the air. Was it action replay or just an illusion? A second bus from the same school passed by carrying yet another batch of bouncy children.