Baba listens intently. As he listens, you can actually see the cogs of the wheels inside his brain whirling at an inordinately high speed, regurgitating and assimilating information. This information transforms itself into delightful anecdotes during morning hours at the breakfast table, usually over a cup of very strong coffee.
Baba is sitting in the staffroom in Chongwe, quietly marking maths papers. Chongwe is a remote city, around 50 kilometers south-west of Lusaka as the crow flies. In another corner, some of his Zambian colleagues are laughing and chatting about the day’s events.
In walks Mr. Whomweshallnotmention, an Indian compatriot whom Baba is not too fond of. Short, stout, full of himself.
“Did you know that Lal Bahadur Shastri has…..” his voice trails off as no one responds to his presence.
One of the Zambian teachers looks askance and finally asks, “…And who exactly is Lala Bahadur Shastri Mr. Whomweshallnotmention?”
According to Baba (and we should reserve judgment here, as Baba often exaggerates just to make the story more palatable), Mr. Whomblahblah’s eyes widen with horror while his jaws drop several inches into his neck.
“Don’t you know who this man is!!!” he exclaims in horror. “Are you serious?!!!!” This man, I’ll have you know, is the Prime Minister of India!! Do you know that he used to walk 20 miles a day to go to school??!!!”
At which point Baba’s phlegmatic countenance finally relents. A grin softens the furrow between his eyes, while a sardonic smile hovers at the corners of his lips.
Who is Mr. W talking to? he thinks. His mind trails back to a journey he had made with a Zambian colleague a year back. Mission? To fetch a cow from a remote village. Down the winding road, the truck chugs along slowly, its wheels grating against the red craggy gravel. The brown, dry countryside reluctantly shimmers under the bland yellow stare of the sun. After almost half a day later, they arrive at a little school. The woods have been hastily cleared to make way for a small building. He looks around. The place is quiet. The students had left a few days ago.
They continue their journey. On the way, Baba sees s a tiny figure in the distance. As they approach, a boy not more than 12 years of age, sports a huge suitcase atop his head. He turns to raise an arm in a cheerful greeting.
“Yeah…they all walk for over 25 miles just to come to this school,” Baba’s companion mutters, as he steps on the brake.