Since five years of age I was put in a crèche because mom and dad were both working and could not possibly leave me home. Grandparents were all away in other cities and the only logical option was to seek refuge in this divine haven of temporarily abandoned children. I used to go to this place which was run by a lady in her own house. She would keep us there till evening when at last our parents would come after work and pick us up. The family had no apparent trouble because her children would be away to school or work and her husband too, would return only in the evening. So, it was some twenty of us with an old lady and her house.
Everything was well planned for the day. I would be dropped by the school auto rickshaw to this place along with three other friends. She would help us change our clothes and then would hurry us all to the kitchen. The next activity was lunch. All had to line up with their Tiffin boxes and sit down to eat. You had to finish with everybody else and not litter the place. It was almost a sin to be faster or slower. Prayers were compulsory before lunch. Post lunch, all would wash hands and hurry to the next room to do their homework. After one hour of doing school homework (or at least pretending to), we would take our bed sheets from a stack in the corner and lay them. Indeed, it was time for a nap. You want it or not, small children have to have such naps. They speak of how well our lady Leela (that was the hag’s name) took care of us. Routines are always a good sign. Even parents quite liked this idea of a boring, mundane, strictly safe and predictable place. But, we weren’t really the obedient kinds, at least, not me. So, the moment others would try and sleep on their sheets, I would drape it on my face and from one corner, I would observe Lady Leela. Gradually when noises calmed down, she would switch on the television in the same room. Much of my Hindi film viewing comes from such hidden niches of feigned noon siestas.
If this was not it, the schedule continued till around seven o’clock in the evening. She would wake us from the “nap” at around five and get us all to grab some fresh air by pushing us to her balcony. Crammed, twenty of us would chatter away to glory. Gradually, during my years there, I discovered that many more people used to take “naps” like me. After inhaling some air and looking down at the people on the road, we would all sit down in a line for tea, the ritual where we drank milk. Leela aunty had a much prized flirty son and four daughters. While the son loafed away with a purported occupation of a compounder, the daughters did all humble jobs to contribute to a happy middle class family living. The son had a special affection for me and another friend and would get us chocolates to eat. I hated him, the way her looked and smiled and teased us. He was not harmful but he was annoying to the core.
The worst part of such crèche days was afternoon. Sometimes when mommy was free in her lunch breaks, she would drive to the crèche and feed me lunch with her hands. I would be elated to see other kids eat alone while my mum sitting there with me. Somewhere deep down, I was glad not to be left alone at home. This was less depressing. But, she would soon have to go away and that was when big tears welled up in my eyes. I would cry and moan and sulk till the day end when she reappeared. I wonder where my father was all this time. I honestly wonder if he ever knew how every afternoon, with my face pressed to the balcony grill I would wait for mum to come, sometimes she would and then go away, and I would be so sad and helpless. I doubt she discussed it with him. It was just not in this family to discuss such stuff; it was almost natural for all to suffer like this. That is how perhaps kids grew to become adults.
Then, in the evening, mum would rush again to pick me up. This was Leela auntie’s favorite hour. She would complain and grudge and pour all her woes out to the parents about their kids. Luckily, I was a low profile brat so she never bothered. But, sometimes before this last task of the hour, if the day was sunny enough, she would get us all to go down to the open space nearby. There was a big Gulmohar tree there. Leela aunty had a friend, Jasu aunty. Jasu aunty had a big iron rod. We would meet up with her and pluck the choicest of flowers and savor them. Oh, it was good fun! Suddenly the day wouldn’t seem so gloomy. I would smile once in a while. I had a friend Deepa who had Down’s syndrome. Though she was moderately affected, it was pretty visible through her behavior. Mummy had told me that we should talk nicely to such people, that they are not bad people. So, when other friends laughed at her and refused to share their toys, I would give her my red Mickey Mouse compass box because she liked banging it. I didn’t mind it because she shared her cream roll with me!
Talking of toys, the point of biggest contention, were the toys of Hardi, a school friend. When things like Barbies were still unknown to me, she had them along with tiny wooden tables and chairs and other such things. I was always lured by the wooden cupboard. Its drawers could be opened and you could put Barbie’s clothes in it. I dared not ask my mum or dad for it, for no obvious reason at all. But Hardi only shared her toys with a selected five or six girls including me. Of course, there would be hapless days when we would fight and this joy was taken away. But I guess that was just the expected consequence of calling her names.
This is how I would crash through an entire day in that crèche till the age of eleven. Then I was isolated and put away alone at home which was a new territory altogether. I never missed the crèche and was only too glad to come off home but, somewhere I still vividly remember it and keep asking mum what happened to Leela aunty and family. She says they vacated the house and now no one knows. The last picture that comes to mind is of a fading train filled with Leela and family, all their belonging, many children like me, eating cream rolls and sitting in a line, all saying good bye for the day to family.