By Devki Pande

Riding in a bus is similar to being churned in a stomach. There is secretion of bodily fluids, and everyone keeps touching each other.

So there I stood, ruminating about my life and how I had ended up in this situation. I was wedged tightly between a metal pole and the brightly draped posterior of a lady that extended into even the peripheries of my vision. The ‘gajra’ in her hair was uncanny in context that it was in two places at once; entangled in her oiled hair, and squashed against my nose. On a closer inspection, the  bright pink sari had a gold edging to it; too lurid for the morning. When I turned to look outside the rattling, plastic window, the fleeting glimpse of greenery that blurred into my vision seemed to be unembellished in comparison.

To be philosophical about it, a bus is one of those rare forms of vehicular transport where people of all caste and creed are brought together, and compelled to co-operate – figuratively speaking

The bus conductor was a capricious soul with red mehendi coloured streaks running through his hair, and a dappling of grey on his otherwise jet-black sideburns. He clutched his satchel and disappeared for a few moments – barely fifteen minutes after I had squeezed myself into a corner – trying to blend in with the dull steel and the posters that were constrained within the bounds of decency by a fraction of an inch of skin and sinew. He returned with a plastic bag wrapped around a box rather haphazardly, a lady with burnished copper skin close at his heels. Blended with the brouhaha of rush hour, she was incoherent, but obviously agitated; streams of histrionic Kannada emerging from her Goddess like mouth. The rudraksha beads around her neck were the skulls of her rapacious appetite, the jasmine flowers in her hair trembled with intensity and steam emanated from her skin.

“Is that a rolling pin?” I questioned to no one in particular, but I received answering nods from women all over the bus; those in my vicinity, who had heard me. Some were nodding in acquiescence, self righteous expressions; eyes still on the soap opera that was an impediment to effortless traffic. Meanwhile, the lady in question had kohl rimmed eyes – eyes that seemed to be a physical manifestation of her internal fire being stoked.

The bus conductor was a capricious soul with red mehendi coloured streaks running through his hair, and a dappling of grey on his otherwise jet-black sideburns

“Oh yes.” An old woman spoke; age had created running wrinkles through her face that threatened to converge at a single point – her mouth – giving her a rather unfortunate resemblance to a lemon.

“What did he do?” I asked in a breathless whisper.

“The question, my dear, is what he did not do. It would be a much, much shorter list.” The lady swelled in a feeling of importance as she edged closer to me with visible physical effort.

“But what did he do?”

 The lady cocked an ear and listened intently for a few seconds.

“Didn’t finish his sambhar-rice, I think. I tell you, it’s a wonder that woman sticks with him. If I were her, I would have used that rolling pin as an actual weapon, rather than just brandish it about. One phatak- ” she paused to exhibit a swing with her frail arms; a gesture that would have aroused the admiration of a professional baseball player, as well as George Boleyn’s executioner. She let her sentence trail away into an ominous rattling as she cut an arc through the empty air above my head, and the heads of five others as we looked to gravity for cover.  A second slower and we would all have been strutting around looking like a dog with an ear infection.

A lady in a neon green sari alighted. She was slightly rotund and shone like a traffic light. Even the conductor, who wasn’t interested in anything but the give and take of the tickets, stood stock still in his tracks, riveted by the sight of the green butterfly that had wandered, perhaps mistakenly, into Hell itself.  As we stared at her, she dropped her pallu coyly over her head. In retrospect, it was one of the better examples of biological regression that I have seen; this slight adjustment in garment caused her to resemble a caterpillar about to burst forth from its cocoon, showering all in its luminescent glory. I blinked, and she changed, looking like a brightly lit mummified Frodo.

The bus then proceeded to throw itself into lurches. We were all airborne for brief periods of time: I was flying, though in reality it meant that the bus was teetering dangerously on one wheel. Space, time and physics hung somewhere near the garland of marigold flowers on the windshield- they were rapidly shedding petals and shrivelling into black ash. I saw my life pass in front of my eyes, as well as a distinct feeling of regret that I had not devoured scrumptious Chettinadu chicken yesterday. I could think of better ways to die than with the taste of spices of the subcontinent in my mouth. And as the bus screeched painfully into a sharp turn, I saw my stop in a distance; a blur of red and white dots dancing in my vision.

As hardened survivors, one thing that we all have learnt over time is never, ever, forswear even an inch of space if it is rooted in generosity and isn’t in quid pro quo. Despite attempts to move, the group of people I faced were faceless; they were like dough, like fevicol, and they refused to budge an inch; forming a glutinous mass where entanglement was directly proportional to the energy of the attempt.

“Excuse me.” I said softly. No reply.

I tried again. “Excuse me, can I please…?” I was rewarded by a disdainful look by a man with a handlebar moustache. Do you think, his gaze was saying, do you think that a bus is an area of Victorian manners and genteel personas? Nay, girl, it is the reason humans have a primal side.  He smirked slightly; an upward tilt to his mouth.

Damn you. I threw myself forward, bag in one hand, and the other outstretched- like superman. However, unlike superman, I didn’t fly, but sank disproportionately, as if my body was weighted with unequal iron blocks; and received, as a way of thanks, curses that would make Satan himself shrivel up and tremble in fear. Immediate collapse was avoided because body and soul were thrust forward with an iron will made tangible – I wanted more accomplishments in life before being trampled all the way to Yamalok;  no one ever experienced the joys of heaven by dying an ignoble death of being squashed under feet caked with mud and tar. Just imagine what I would say to St. Peter before the golden gates of Swarga to explain a footprint on my face? Oh no, sir, heh, that’s actually a heroic deed. I had a tendency to be so self-sacrificing that people often mistook me as… uhm… a doormat.

Picture therefore: a pale female with an expression of abject determination, launching herself yet again, over a mass of heads, handbags and leather seats. I was swimming through the English Channel that was the aisle of the bus and hands reached out to clasp my ankles – like gnats; those tiny midges like insects that decorate your skin beautifully with dappling of pinpricks. I was hoisted none too gently; like those yesteryear rockstars, except there was a distinct lack of hero-worship here – and deposited outside the bus as neatly as a sack of flour.  I stumbled to my feet in a flurry of dust and pebbles, and the bus sped off, belching hiccups of foul smoke into all directions. My bag was tossed to me as an afterthought through one of the windows.

I brushed myself off grimly, promising myself that I had learnt my lesson. Next time I would carry a hatchet. Ahimsa could rot in hell where a bus was concerned.

Student at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, intern at Contract Advertising Ltd, has worked for Essel Vision Productions Ltd, developed education oriented content for Laugh Out Loud Ventures, conducted workshops for underprivileged children in rural Uttarakhand. She is currently in Sweden, on an exchange programme, studying Sustainable Design.

Posted by The Indian Economist