The Forgotten: Faded Memories of Benoy and His Rickety Van

I have run out of mints and my regular self-indulgent cigarette-clasped walks on the terrace have now been replaced by frequent stares at my neighbour’s sage-coloured wall, and many conversations with our maid about her home. I have now read at least a dozen of Orwell, Sontag and Woolf, and complained about the banality of modern literature to an absolutely uninterested imaginary audience, and refused my mother’s requests of cutting my hair one too many times.

When I was very young, not more than three or four, my parents had enrolled me in a preparatory school a little far from our house. The craze around urban preparatory schools had not yet set in, and the schools focused more on education than the number of abacus sets. Like any other child, I used to cry my eyes out every morning as my parents tucked my shirt in, tied a tie around my neck (that later fulfilled the purpose of a handkerchief for the tears) and accompanied me to the front door.

I would board a small rickety van that was driven by a man called Benoy. Benoy was about 60, and for what I can recall, he was still very well-built for his age. He would gently pick me up, place me on one of the wooden seats inside his van, bid adieu to my parents with folded arms and then set off for the preparatory school.

My initial fears of this unknown old man had captivated me for weeks, and my artistic imagination peaked when I drew Benoy as a five-headed monster at the back of one of my drawing books. The drawing was soon discovered and everyone in the family had a good laugh, except my mother who was more interested in teaching me the difference between a ‘d’ and a ‘b’.

It only took a few weeks for me, however, to get rid of this fear of my early morning chauffeur, and we developed a moderately chatty relationship. My friends and I had recently discovered the craze around Bollywood and we would scream inaccurate lyrics of popular sings while Benoy drove us to school.

Although we thought he appreciated young kids listening to music at such tender ages, one day he twisted our ear and gave us a light blow on our heads while helping us off the van. He also made us promise that we would never sing loudly on the road again.

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As was the routine, he made us stand in a single line, each child holding the bag of the child standing in front, cross a busy street of suburban Calcutta, and drop us all off at school. When we were discharged, at 12 pm or so, we would find Benoy dutifully standing with a smile on his face at the school gate – at a distance from the rest of the parents from middle-class Bengali families.

We would all then form the line again, and Benoy would pick all of us up individually and plop us down on one of the wooden seats of his van, and we would be off on the road singing tunes again.

My relationship with Benoy lasted only to the boundaries of this transit, and we never bothered to take it any further. Soon, I grew up, and short school half-pants on the ropes of our terrace were replaced with grey long ones, and my parents trusted me to get to school myself.

Cut to June 2019.

I had not met Benoy for years. The wrinkles and smiles on the 60-year-old face of the man lay buried in a deserted corner of my mind, and I had not thought about a five-headed monster in a long while. One day, my father and I were returning from a shopping mall with all the clothes that I would carry to Bangalore for college. Neither of us have been naturally selected to be too strong or tall, we were struggling under the weight of the shopping bags and bric-a-brac too heavy for two average-sized Bengali humans.

That day, we met Benoy standing with his van opposite the shopping mall, and he was kind enough to offer us a lift to our house. Pleasantries were exchanged between him and me, and he passed his hand through my hair and smiled about how tall I had become. The whole experience was over before I knew it, and we were already at our portico. Benoy drank a glass of water that I brought from the kitchen. He folded his hands and bid adieu to me and my mother and refused to take any money for the ride.

Today, Benoy passed away from a chronic pulmonary disease. He was 78. His daughter, who works at an  NGO, phoned my father to tell him about the news at 8 pm. Sitting at my window, as I stared into the sage-coloured wall in front of me, the sounds of the cranking of a metallic bell of a passing cycle reminding me of Benoy and his little rickety van.

Atri Mukherjee is currently an undergraduate journalism student at Christ University, Bangalore.

Featured image credit: Francesco Benvenuto/Unsplash