Father John came out of the board meeting with a heavy heart. The meeting had proceeded as per expectations which meant they only had two months time to shift to the new premises. As he handed over the signed documents to the new director of the board Rishabh Kundra, John felt utterly helpless.
“Father, this is the best we can do. Two months should give you and the school committee members sufficient time to get the new premises ready.”
John made one more feeble attempt, “But Sir, this building was allotted for this school by your late mother Savitri Devi. While undertaking of philanthropic work through her NGO, she had realized that very few schools in the city were welcoming towards the kids of the downtrodden and lower middle class. She wanted her charity work to continue through the education of these young minds. In the last fifteen years, we have had so many bright minds passing out from here.”
Rishabh had recently returned to the country from U.S. after completing his management course. He glared at the fifty-six year old Principal of Savitri Devi Memorial School (SDMS) with annoyance.
“Listen Father, I am neither interested nor do I have any intention to carry forward my late mother’s charity. She lacked business acumen and was incapable of leading Kundra group of companies. I am a businessman whose sole interest is maximizing profits and expansion of business. Your school looks like a good proposition to me on paper. That’s because it takes care of the Kundra group’s corporate social responsibility. Precisely the reason why I am not shutting it down by withdrawing all forms of support. However it is a loss making proposition. So I have decided to tighten the finances allocated to running this school. Besides why do you want those lowly kids to enjoy so many facilities when they can’t even pay a single penny for them? It would rather do you good to accept that SDMS has to move to the old factory site that is to be designated as the new school building henceforth. I intend to turn this well spaced-out structure into a leading B-school. And that would be the end to any further discussion on this subject.” Rishabh gave a final nod as John left dejected.
The meeting room which also served as the conference hall was situated at the top floor of the five storey building. The Principal’s office was also on the same floor while the staff room was located on the third floor. As he looked at the stairs, a wave of nostalgia hit him. The first time that Savitri Devi had met him here in her office was immediately after he received the National award from the President of India for his outstanding contribution in academics. John had been the head-teacher of her NGO run primary school. As he entered this building for the first time, he was mesmerized by its unique structure. What specially caught his eyes was the creativity in the pattern of the staircase. There were two stairs on either side of the door on the ground floor that took a semi-circle trajectory upwards. The left ones ended at first and third floor while the right ones exited at second and fourth floor. There was a small grilled gate that connected the S-shaped stairs of consecutive floors at two opposite corners. The gate was the only way to move between two consecutive floors in the building.
The building had been designed by an eccentric Italian architect whose love for mystery reflected in its pattern. The late Shobit Kundra – Savitri’s husband and Rishabh’s father had started operating his family run business from this building. After his death, Savitri continued his legacy but as the Kundra group kept expanding, the management had to consider shifting to a modern, high-rise commercial complex. Savitri decided to convert this place into a secondary school.
As John took over as the principal, one of his primary tasks was to ensure that the gates on the steps were in working condition. The rule was to keep them locked. One set of keys had been handed over to the security guard while the other stayed in the staff-room. The gates were kept open only during class hours for the teachers to move freely between floors.
John thought of the students enjoying their summer vacation now. In a months time, they would return only to find themselves ousted from their favourite place. John collected his bag and started walking down the stairs. He looked at the statue of Savitri Devi located at the centre in the ground floor. He mumbled, “Sorry Ma’am, I failed to protect your dream” as he walked past it towards the main door, trying to control his emotional turbulence.
Rishabh had finished signing the last few documents. He was in a great hurry to occupy this building. The grand plan was to convert this in to a mall and multiplex. He had received an offer from a promoter worth crores for this project. But the Principal had turned out to be unusually firm in character. Not only John loved the school and his students but also refused to compromise on his principles. Rishabh had to come up with an alternate plan. He decided to assign the obsolete factory premises for the school though his final aim was to shut it down permanently. He thought of inviting promoter Bajoria to visit the property the very next day.
As Rishabh locked the door of the board room, he took a long look at the stairs. He had always found his father’s taste in off-beat patterns ridiculous. He intended to talk to Bajoria about getting a lift installed here on priority. He had been lost in thoughts when he suddenly lost balance and started rolling down the stairs. In a moment his fall was stopped abruptly. When the security guard Manohar rushed upstairs to attend to him, he found Rishabh shivering with eyes closed and hands folded. Rishabh had been repeatedly saying, “Maaf kardo (forgive me)” though no one else was visible to Manohar. He immediately took Rishabh to the hospital.
John got a call in the evening from Rishabh’s wife Sonika to meet him at the hospital. As John entered the hospital cabin, Sonika handed over the school related papers to him. Surprised, John turned towards Rishabh. All he could hear was the extremely terrified voice of their director who said, “This school was my mother’s dream and I have no right to play with it.”
As John reached his home, he thought hard about the incident. How could a hostile situation possibly turn into his favor so soon? Since he was aware that Rishabh was hardly the kind of man who valued relationships or emotions, he couldn’t think of any logical justification to the unexpected turn of events. Suddenly he recollected a strange incident that had occurred in the school three years back. A little boy had slipped from the steps of the second floor. Onlookers said that he was saved miraculously. When the boy was asked about it, he mentioned a smiling lady in pink saree saving him by breaking his fall. They had attributed the answer to a child’s imagination then. Today he was sure that it was the same angel who had guarded the steps to save this school and its students. All he could do was secretly thank her.
In that moment, the smiling statue of Savitri Devi seemed to be glowing in the dark. If only the light near the statue was placed in the correct direction, any passerby would have noticed the right color of her saree. It was her favorite light pink and not the assumed peach color.
This post is the fifth entry to the Write Tribe festival of words (24-30 Jun 2018) #write bravely. You can read the first four posts here.