In this sensitive story, an eight-year old girl’s first bus journey into
the world outside her village is also her induction into the mystery
of life and death. She sees the gap between our knowing that there
is death, and our understanding of it.
THERE was a girl named Valliammai who was called
Valli for short. She was eight years old and very
curious about things. Her favourite pastime was
standing in the front doorway of her house,
watching what was happening in the street outside.
There were no playmates of her own age on her
street, and this was about all she had to do.
But for Valli, standing at the front door was every
bit as enjoyable as any of the elaborate games other
children played. Watching the street gave her many
new unusual experiences.
The most fascinating thing of all was the bus
that travelled between her village and the nearest
town. It passed through her street each hour, once
going to the town and once coming back. The sight
of the bus, filled each time with a new set of
passengers, was a source of unending joy for Valli.
Day after day she watched the bus, and
gradually a tiny wish crept into her head and
grew there: she wanted to ride on that bus, even
if just once. This wish became stronger and
stronger, until it was an overwhelming desire.
Valli would stare wistfully at the people who got
on or off the bus when it stopped at the street
corner. Their faces would kindle in her longings,
dreams, and hopes. If one of her friends happened
to ride the bus and tried to describe the sights of
the town to her, Valli would be too jealous to listen
and would shout, in English: “Proud! proud!”
Neither she nor her friends really understood the
meaning of the word, but they used it often as a
slang expression of disapproval.
Over many days and months Valli listened
carefully to conversations between her neighbours
and people who regularly used the bus, and she also
asked a few discreet questions here and there. This
way she picked up various small details about the
bus journey. The town was six miles from her village.
The fare was thirty paise one way — “which is almost
nothing at all,” she heard one well-dressed man say,
but to Valli, who scarcely saw that much money
from one month to the next, it seemed a fortune. The
trip to the town took forty-five minutes. On reaching
town, if she stayed in her seat and paid another
thirty paise, she could return home on the same
bus. This meant that she could take the one-o’clock
afternoon bus, reach the town at one forty-five, and
be back home by about two forty-five...
On and on went her thoughts as she calculated
and recalculated, planned and replanned.
Well, one fine spring day the afternoon bus was
just on the point of leaving the village and turning
into the main highway when a small voice was heard
shouting: “Stop the bus! Stop the bus!” And a tiny
hand was raised commandingly.
The bus slowed down to a crawl, and the
conductor, sticking his head out the door, said,
“Hurry then! Tell whoever it is to come quickly.”
“It’s me,” shouted Valli. “I’m the one who has to
By now the bus had come to a stop, and the
conductor said, “Oh, really! You don’t say so!”
“Yes, I simply have to go to town,” said Valli,
still standing outside the bus, “and here’s my
money.” She showed him some coins.
“Okay, okay, but first you must get on the bus,”
said the conductor, and he stretched out a hand to
help her up.
“Never mind,” she said, “I can get on by myself.
You don’t have to help me.”
The conductor was a jolly sort, fond of joking. “Oh,
please don’t be angry with me, my fine madam,” he
said. “Here, have a seat right up there in front.
Everybody move aside please — make way for madam.”
It was the slack time of day, and there were
only six or seven passengers on the bus. They were
all looking at Valli and laughing with the conductor.
Valli was overcome with shyness. Avoiding
everyone’s eyes, she walked quickly to an empty
seat and sat down.
“May we start now, madam?” the conductor
asked, smiling. Then he blew his whistle twice, and
the bus moved forward with a roar.
It was a new bus, its outside painted a gleaming
white with some green stripes along the sides.
Inside, the overhead bars shone like silver. Directly
in front of Valli, above the windshield, there was a
beautiful clock. The seats were soft and luxurious.
Valli devoured everything with her eyes. But
when she started to look outside, she found her
view cut off by a canvas blind that covered the lower
part of her window. So she stood up on the seat
and peered over the blind.
The bus was now going along the bank of a canal.
The road was very narrow. On one side there was
the canal and, beyond it, palm trees, grassland,
distant mountains, and the blue, blue sky. On the
other side was a deep ditch and then acres and
acres of green fields — green, green, green, as far
as the eye could see.
Oh, it was all so wonderful!
Suddenly she was startled by a voice. “Listen,
child,” said the voice, “you shouldn’t stand like that.
Sitting down, she looked to see who had spoken.
It was an elderly man who had honestly been
concerned for her, but she was annoyed by
“There’s nobody here who’s a child,” she said
haughtily. “I’ve paid my thirty paise like everyone
The conductor chimed in. “Oh, sir, but this is a
very grown-up madam. Do you think a mere girl
could pay her own fare and travel to the city
Valli shot an angry glance at the conductor and
said, “I am not a madam. Please remember that.
And you’ve not yet given me my ticket.”
“I’ll remember,” the conductor said, mimicking
her tone. Everyone laughed, and gradually Valli too
joined in the laughter.
The conductor punched a ticket and handed it
to her. “Just sit back and make yourself comfortable.
Why should you stand when you’ve paid for a seat?”
“Because I want to,” she answered, standing
“But if you stand on the seat, you may fall and
hurt yourself when the bus makes a sharp turn
or hits a bump. That’s why we want you to sit
“I’m not a child, I tell you,” she said irritably.
“I’m eight years old.”
“Of course, of course. How stupid of me! Eight
years — my!”
The bus stopped, some new passengers got on,
and the conductor got busy for a time. Afraid of
losing her seat, Valli finally sat down.
An elderly woman came and sat beside her. “Are
you all alone, dear?” she asked Valli as the bus
Valli found the woman absolutely repulsive —
such big holes she had in her ear lobes, and such
ugly earrings in them! And she could smell the betel
nut the woman was chewing and see the betel juice
that was threatening to spill over her lips at any
moment. Ugh! — who could be sociable with such
“Yes, I’m travelling alone,” she answered curtly.
“And I’ve got a ticket too.”
“Yes, she’s on her way to town,” said the
conductor. “With a thirty-paise ticket.”
“Oh, why don’t you mind your own business,”
said Valli. But she laughed all the same, and the
conductor laughed too.
But the old woman went on with her drivel. “Is
it proper for such a young person to travel alone?
Do you know exactly where you’re going in town?
What’s the street? What’s the house number?”
“You needn’t bother about me. I can take care of
myself,” Valli said, turning her face towards the
window and staring out.
Her first journey — what careful, painstaking,
elaborate plans she had had to make for it! She had
thriftily saved whatever stray coins came her way,
resisting every temptation to buy peppermints, toys,
balloons, and the like, and finally she had saved a
total of sixty paise. How difficult it had been,
particularly that day at the village fair, but she had
resolutely stifled a strong desire to ride the merrygo-
round, even though she had the money.
After she had enough money saved, her next
problem was how to slip out of the house without
her mother’s knowledge. But she managed this
without too much difficulty. Every day after lunch
her mother would nap from about one to four or so.
Valli always used these hours for her ‘excursions’
as she stood looking from the doorway of her house
or sometimes even ventured out into the village;
today, these same hours could be used for her first
excursion outside the village.
The bus rolled on now cutting across a bare
landscape, now rushing through a tiny hamlet or
past an odd wayside shop. Sometimes the bus
seemed on the point of gobbling up another vehicle
that was coming towards them or a pedestrian
crossing the road. But lo! somehow it passed on
smoothly, leaving all obstacles safely behind. Trees
came running towards them but then stopped as
the bus reached them and simply stood there
helpless for a moment by the side of the road before
rushing away in the other direction.
Suddenly Valli clapped her hands with glee. A
young cow, tail high in the air, was running very
fast, right in the middle of the road, right in front
of the bus. The bus slowed to a crawl, and the driver
sounded his horn loudly again and again. But the
more he honked, the more frightened the animal
became and the faster it galloped — always right in
front of the bus.
Somehow this was very funny to Valli. She laughed
and laughed until there were tears in her eyes.
“Hey, lady, haven’t you laughed enough?” called,
the conductor. “Better save some for tomorrow.”
At last the cow moved off the road. And soon the
bus came to a railroad crossing. A speck of a train
could be seen in the distance, growing bigger and
bigger as it drew near. Then it rushed past the
crossing gate with a tremendous roar and rattle,
shaking the bus. Then the bus went on and passed
the train station. From there it traversed a busy,
well-laid-out shopping street and, turning, entered
a wider thoroughfare. Such big, bright-looking
shops! What glittering displays of clothes and other
merchandise! Such big crowds!
Struck dumb with wonder, Valli gaped at everything.
Then the bus stopped and everyone got off
“Hey, lady,” said the conductor, “aren’t you ready
to get off? This is as far as your thirty paise
“No,” Valli said, “I’m going back on this same
bus.” She took another thirty paise from her pocket
and handed the coins to the conductor.
“Why, is something the matter?”
“No, nothing’s the matter. I just felt like having
a bus ride, that’s all.”
“Don’t you want to have a look at the sights,
now that you’re here?”
“All by myself? Oh, I’d be much too afraid.”
Greatly amused by the girl’s way of speaking,
the conductor said, “But you weren’t afraid to come
in the bus.”
“Nothing to be afraid of about that,” she
“Well, then, why not go to that stall over there
and have something to drink? Nothing to be afraid
of about that either."
“Oh, no, I couldn’t do that.”
“Well, then, let me bring you a cold drink.”
“No, I don’t have enough money. Just give me
my ticket, that’s all.”
“It’ll be my treat and not cost you anything.”
“No, no,” she said firmly, “please, no.”
The conductor shrugged, and they waited until
it was time for the bus to begin the return journey.
Again there weren’t many passengers.
“Won’t your mother be looking for you?” the
conductor asked when he gave the girl her ticket.
“No, no one will be looking for me,” she said.
The bus started, and again there were the same
Valli wasn’t bored in the slightest and greeted
everything with the same excitement she’d felt the
first time. But suddenly she saw a young cow lying
dead by the roadside, just where it had been struck
by some fast-moving vehicle.
“Isn’t that the same cow that ran in front of the
bus on our trip to town?” she asked the conductor.
The conductor nodded, and she was overcome
with sadness. What had been a lovable, beautiful
creature just a little while ago had now suddenly
lost its charm and its life and looked so horrible, so
frightening as it lay there, legs spreadeagled, a fixed
stare in its lifeless eyes, blood all over...
The bus moved on. The memory of the dead cow
haunted her, dampening her enthusiasm. She no
longer wanted to look out the window.
She sat thus, glued to her seat, until the bus
reached her village at three forty. She stood up and
stretched herself. Then she turned to the conductor
and said, “Well, sir, 1 hope to see you again.”
Okay, madam,” he answered her, smiling.
Whenever you feel like a bus ride, come and join
us. And don’t forget to bring your fare.”
She laughed and jumped down from the bus.
Then away she went, running straight for home.
When she entered her house she found her
mother awake and talking to one of Valli’s aunts,
the one from South Street. This aunt was a real
chatterbox, never closing her mouth once she
And where have you been?” said her aunt when
Valli came in. She spoke very casually, not expecting
a reply. So Valli just smiled, and her mother and
aunt went on with their conversation.
Yes, you’re right,” her mother said. So many
things in our midst and in the world outside. How
can we possibly know about everything? And even
when we do know about something, we often can’t
understand it completely, can we?”
Oh, yes!” breathed Valli.
What?” asked her mother. What’s that you say?”
Oh, said Valli, I was just agreeing with what
you said about things happening without our
Just a chit of a girl, she is,” said her aunt, and
yet look how she pokes her nose into our conversation,
just as though she were a grown lady.
Valli smiled to herself. She didn’t want them to
understand her smile. But, then, there wasn’t much
chance of that, was there?
This poem is written in the style of a ballad — a song
or poem that tells a story. You must be familiar with ballads that
narrate tales of courage or heroism. This poem is a humorous
ballad close to a parody.
Read it aloud, paying attention to the rhythm.
Belinda lived in a little white house,
With a little black kitten and a little grey mouse,
And a little yellow dog and a little red wagon,
And a realio, trulio, little pet dragon.
Now the name of the little black kitten was Ink,
And the little grey mouse, she called him Blink,
And the little yellow dog was sharp as Mustard,
But the dragon was a coward, and she called him Custard.
Custard the dragon had big sharp teeth,
And spikes on top of him and scales underneath,
Mouth like a fireplace, chimney for a nose,
And realio, trulio daggers on his toes.
Belinda was as brave as a barrel full of bears,
And Ink and Blink chased lions down the stairs,
Mustard was as brave as a tiger in a rag
But Custard cried for a nice safe cage.
Belinda tickled him, she tickled him unmerciful,
Ink, Blink and Mustard, they rudely called him Percival,
They all sat laughing in the little red wagon
At the realio, trulio, cowardly dragon.
Belinda giggled till she shook the house,
And Blink said Weeck! which is giggling for a mouse,
Ink and Mustard rudely asked his age,
When Custard cried for a nice safe cage.
Suddenly, suddenly they heard a nasty sound,
And Mustard growled, and they all looked around.
Meowch! cried Ink, and ooh! cried Belinda,
For there was a pirate, climbing in the winda.
Pistol in his left hand, pistol in his right,
And he held in his teeth a cutlass bright,
His beard was black, one leg was wood;
It was clear that the pirate meant no good.
Belinda paled, and she cried Help! Help!
But Mustard fled with a terrified yelp,
Ink trickled down to the bottom of the household,
And little mouse Blink strategically mouseholed.
But up jumped Custard, snorting like an engine,
Clashed his tail like irons in a dungeon,
With a clatter and a clank and a jangling squirm,
He went at the pirate like a robin at a worm.
The pirate gaped at Belinda’s dragon,
And gulped some grog from his pocket flagon,
He fired two bullets, but they didn’t hit,
And Custard gobbled him, every bit.
Belinda embraced him, Mustard licked him,
No one mourned for his pirate victim.
Ink and Blink in glee did gyrate
Around the dragon that ate the pirate.
But presently up spoke little dog Mustard,
I’d have been twice as brave if I hadn’t been flustered.
And up spoke Ink and up spoke Blink,
We’d have been three times as brave, we think,
And Custard said, I quite agree
That everybody is braver than me.
Belinda still lives in her little white house,
With her little black kitten and her little grey mouse,
And her little yellow dog and her little red wagon,
And her realio, trulio little pet dragon.
Belinda is as brave as a barrel full of bears,
And Ink and Blink chase lions down the stairs,
Mustard is as brave as a tiger in a rage,
But Custard keeps crying for a nice safe cage.