I quickly shut my eyes and took a deep breath. The open door of the bus allowed for two minutes of real fresh air as a woman slowly descended the fraying steps, her purple sari rising just enough to display her edemic ankles and puffy little feet. The conductor tugged on the rope and drew the door shut. I couldn’t help but lean forward and watch the woman waddle back into the darkness between the dusty-white buildings.
My sweaty hands were a constant irritation. One tightly clutched the iron bar above my head while the other was bound to a plastic shopping bag. I alternated hands, carefully wiping the sweat off onto my cream-colored churidar top. There were three layers of people squished behind me. I could smell the coconut oil from the hair of the lady closest to me. I shut my eyes and composed myself. I’ll make it through.
When the conductor walked through, he must have felt like Moses splitting the Red Sea, except younger and less.. holy. I half-expected the stereotypical sexual harasser, walking across a million and a half silver screens, with excessive touches and superfluous words. But no, all I found was a tired, wrinkled face with a hint of annoyance and frustration. Sweat rolled down his face as though each cell in his body couldn’t help but cry out loud. “Maari nilkku! Maari nilkku!” Move away! Move away! He shoved bodies aside as he moved from person to person. The younger women cringed and leaped away; the older ones barely budged; the middle-aged ones moved with no change in expression. It was always interesting to see an age-based societal response. I thought of cross-tabulation techniques in my head. It was my turn. He didn’t ask. His right eyebrow did: down, up, stay up, back down. And with my silence came an immediate change in disposition. “Hmmmpf?” the moolal– the annoyed, impatient hum- always made me laugh. Before I could come up with something witty to say, he was on to the next person. Time was to the utmost essence. The lady next to me said, “Puvar.” When he returned, that’s what I said too.
It seemed like a nice place to say.
At each stop, the bus would reshuffle itself. One or two people would leave and a few people would get on. Regardless, the people on the ends will shuffle back to the middle layers and some will shuffle out. Back here, where it’s all women, you’d accidentally be scraped by a few young nails, a few old bangles and the sides of those idiotically not KSRTC-friendly handbags. It was the next stop and I was mentally prepared to give up my coveted position on the side. I barely thought before I was swept up by the wave. I am so glad I’m not claustrophobic. With people of all four sides, that would have made survival a bit hard. But, I’ll make it through.
“Entha molde peru?” What’s (your) name? I found myself facing the Puvar lady. I hesitated. What do I tell her? What would she believe? I’m not here to make friends. But she had addressed me with mol, with daughter – I can’t ignore that.
“Nalla peru. Engada povunne?” The usual. I was used to this place, to every stranger wanting to know every detail of your life, hear every story, every gossip, every achievement and more importantly, every failure. Where was I going? Why was I going? I didn’t know how to answer that.
“I’m getting off at the next stop,” I replied with haste as the bus screeched to a stop. The metal door was pushed open; it swung past my face. I got off and walked backwards, leaving a confused lady inside a human sandwich.
The bus said “Kovalam” on it. I smiled at the sight. I loved the ocean, or the sea rather. Well, beach regardless. I’d go to Kovalam. I placed my shopping bag in the trashcan I had seen on the side of the road. Placed and not threw, and on should really be used instead of in; the trash stood about two feet taller than the actual can, overflowing into the sides of the road. I grabbed the edge of churidar shawl and wrapped it around my head. Just for kicks.
This bus wasn’t as full. I relaxed a bit. There were only two people standing. The other boy looked like he was around eighteen or nineteen. If he had a basic sense of style, he’d actually be kind of cute, I thought to myself. His jeans fell short and had weird fading patterns, and his shirt was an enlarged version of a toddler’s. I laughed and looked away. The conductor was young, fast and loud. His voice echoed as he moved from person to person and that too, at the speed of light times three. I kept the money ready in my hand, not wanting to ruin the rhythm of his movement.
At the next stop, I found a place to sit. And at the next, I sat next to the window. The metal rods that split my view were cool to the touch. What would my name be? Ayesha. My childhood friend’s. And what would my story be? I’m going to meet friends in Kovalam. I skipped classes today. A couple in my group of friends got married. This is the celebration for that. Oh, that’s cool. Inter-caste? Inter-religion? Elopement? Yeah, pakka cine-style! Muslim boy, Irfan. Hindu girl, Midhuna. Mangalyam thantu naanena mamma jeevan hetuna.. And you? Yea, he’ll be there too. Vishal. Hm. Nice name. Why, thank you. You know, I picked him just for the name. Funny, funny. Gosh, can’t a girl compliment in peace? Yea, yea. Shut up.
No one asked. I got off two stops later.
“Amme! Let’s take this bus!” the little boy at the bus stop screamed at the sight of any bus that crossed our path, tugging onto his poor mother’s sari. Our thoughts match, da, I wanted to pick him up and tell him. My shawl lay in circles around my neck. Mythili. I was hoping someone would ask.
She did. The mother. Her name was Tessy and her son was Jules. I asked her whether she meant the author of “Twenty-Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”. She smiled and asked for mine. Mythili. My mother named me, for Sita of course. Ramayana was her favourite in childhood. Oh, Mythili means Sita? Yea, another name meaning princess of Mithila. Oh, that’s a city, right? Right. I always loved Hindu mythology. So enchanting. I smiled. I like Christian mythology too. She gave a sheepish smile. I mean no communal statement but notice how it’s always Hindu mythology? Christian mythology or Muslim mythology sound so awkward to say. She was taken aback at first but quickly burst into a smile. Yes, you’re right. There, my bus is here. It was nice meeting you. I nodded. Maybe she wasn’t running away; maybe this was her real bus. Maybe not.
I got on the next one.
As crowded as the first. I perhaps have a knack for picking out the most crowded among them. I don’t mind. Three-four layer sandwiches have the most stories to tell. They have the most rhythm, the most life; with each stop saying a tale of its own. I’m a listener, an ancient story-teller, a collector of beads. I have no name but I have million stories to share and another million to take. The school girl next to me with books held close to her chest- her name is Devi. It’s not yet time for her schoolday to end but she left early. Today, her father is returning home. He runs a small business in Tamil Nadu. She stays with her mother and her aged aunt. Today is bitter-sweet. She’ll get her gifts but she’ll have to explain her grades. Poor Devi with the fear in her face. The grandmother sitting near me wishes she had a granddaughter like her. She has no living children, only deep lines through her face and thick callouses on her hands. When she smiles, there’s a hole in her teeth where her heart used to be.
I was pushed toward the front. A boy sat next to an old man. He looked at me sympathetically. “Vaikkeno?” he pointed to my handbag and the empty space near his foot. I shook my head by default. I smiled and looked away. Two minutes later, the boy rose for an older man. Chivalrous. I wanted to applaud the twelve-year old but no one else seemed to notice. Everyone had their stories, their own beads to color.
It wasn’t my stop. But I felt like leaving anyway. I could feel eyes on my back as I walked away, disappearing into the darkness as the penguin-lady had done. Maybe there was another story-teller peering through the window. Maybe there was someone watching me all day, confused on what I was trying to do.
Nothing, I wanted to tell them, absolutely nothing.
Only to lose a sense of loss.
“Dude, why do you always write stories in four’s?”
“You’ve only read two stories!”
“Yea, and they’ve both been divided into four.”
“I don’t know. I feel like going past three and stopping when it gets to four. I don’t plan things out.”
“Oh.. weird. Do you know it’s an unlucky number?”
“For the Chinese.”
“And the Vietnamese and the Koreans and Japanese. It’s a homonym for death.”
“In Hinduism, there are four stages of life and four aims of it too. In Christianity, there are four gospels. In Judaism, four matriarchs, four species and four sons on Passover. In Islam, four arch angels, four months and four Rashidun.
I think I win.”
“Woah, do you actually think of all this?”
“No, but if you’re writing an essay on symbolism, you can use those.”
“Cool, dude. Thanks.”
“And one more thing..”
“Dude, you REALLY need to stop talking to yourself.”
“…. fine. Bye.”