In my memory the thick stone walls rise to the level of four floors. The walls are covered with ivy and punctuated neatly with brown-colored windows. A sprawling stage backs to about a third of the back wall of the school. A little distance away is another imposing building, one that houses the convent of the Sisters of Charity. Still beyond that, a massive playground with a basketball court and another concrete stage.
A large open space behind the building is filled with girls in light-blue pinafores, white shirts, blue ties, white socks and black Mary Jane shoes. Girls with long hair have braids neatly folded in half and kept in place with blue ribbons. They are chatting in groups, headed somewhere in groups, eating lunch out of their lunch boxes in groups. Loners are few and far between. There is lots of chatter, shrieking, laughter.
From Sankey Road, a busy thoroughfare at somewhat of a higher elevation than the school (you looked down at the school from the road), it looks positively idyllic, straight out of my rendering of Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys and so different from any other school I've seen so far. This is where I want to go to high school, I tell my parents.
Our home is at least two bus rides away and then a long walk from the last bus stop to the school. In terms of time, that's at least an hour door to door with a heavy back pack on my shoulders. In India, there is no school districting. You pick whatever school you want to go to, but you figure out how you're going to get there. Some private schools provide buses, but it's not always an option. We have no car. All we have is a scooter that my father rides to work in the opposite direction from the school. There is no one else that goes to the same school from my neighborhood.
There is no dissuading me, however. So off to Stella Maris High School I go. On all my note books and text books, I write my name, my grade and the name of my school - Stella Maris High. Note the missing 'School.' That's because Nancy Drew went to Riverdale High and Joe and Frank to Bayport High.
One day after school, I walk the 20-minute walk from the school to the bus terminus (many bus routes begin and end at this one bus stop) at 18th Cross in Malleswaram. Most of you will know how crowded the buses get in India. Bangalore is no exception. Riders will make the extra effort to trek to a terminus because there is at least half a chance that they might get to sit, rather than stand in the aisles (perfectly normal in India) or even on the steps leading into the bus (yours truly has ridden many times on the steps of a bus).
Once you get on the bus, you must purchase a ticket from the conductor (unlike in the US, the conductor is not the driver of the bus - this caused a whole lot of confusion when I first arrived in the US, I tell you). When every passenger purchases a ticket, the conductor blows a whistle strung around his neck and signals the driver to start driving.
This particular day, the bus is so crowded there is absolutely no space. The conductor is trying to finish up selling the tickets as fast as he can, but people are still arriving and trying to squeeze in. The exasperated conductor and driver hold a mini-conference. The situation is untenable, they concur, and agree they should execute a plan they've come up with for conditions such as this. They decide to start driving and stop about half a mile away but before the next scheduled bus stop on their route. That way the passengers already on the bus can finish buying the tickets but the driver and conductor wouldn't have to deal with new passengers constantly trying to get in.
A few seconds later, the driver hears the whistle and we're off! The bus stops at the agreed-upon place and we all wait for the conductor to make his rounds. It is stifling, to say the least, in the confines of the bus. The press of people, the still air and an immobile bus are not helping. Soon people start craning their necks to see how far the conductor has to go before the bus can move again. The people in the front crane their necks toward the back and the people in the back look toward the front of the bus.
The conductor is nowhere in sight.
Now the driver is impatient too. He has a schedule to keep if he wants to be home on time. He hollers, "ಎಲ್ಲಪ್ಪ ಇದ್ದೀಯ ನೀನು?" (where are you man?).
Silence. Then groans and clicking of the tongues.
Just as it dawns on everyone that we've managed to leave the conductor behind, an autorickshaw whizzes past and comes to a screeching halt in front of the bus. Out comes the conductor, shaking his fist at the driver in mock anger, unable to control his laughter at the turn of events.
Then a routine that would put the Three Stooges to shame: "I heard the whistle." "But I didn't blow the whistle." "But I heard the whistle. I thought you blew the whistle." "I'm telling you I didn't blow the whistle."
At every stop that day, the driver and the conductor proceed to enact an elaborate skit to make sure the conductor is safely on the bus before it starts to move again.