THE MAN ON THE BUS

Storizen Magazine - - Cover Story - By Mad­hu­lika Ra Chauhan

It was the start of my favourite sea­son as the nip gripped the air. The in­fec­tious smell of naph­tha­lene balls and cosy warmth of woolens, the adrak wali chai, the fog in our breadth mak­ing us smoke imag­i­nary cig­a­rettes. Umm, it was all back, with only one change this year – I was in a dif­fer­ent city. I had started my col­lege in Delhi. The long up­com­ing Di­wali hol­i­day meant I could pack my silly wor­ries away like – cook­ing for my­self, which was usu­ally a gen­er­ous dose of bread but­ter and maggi or a ruddy omel­lette. I was fi­nally off to home cooked food and mouth-wa­ter­ing good­ies. Jalebi for breakfast and idli for lunch and makhane-ki-keer Yummy!.

My mind was so filled with the thought of food that I had for­got­ten to keep pace with the watch. I hur­riedly glanced at the watch, it was al­ready 2 pm. I had only two hours to reach the Old Delhi rail­way sta­tion. I pan­icked. Pick­ing up all the packed bags rushed out the room in fuzz. Ide­ally, I should have left an hour ago, Delhi traf­fic was chaotic dur­ing the Di­wali days I had been told. Af­ter a much hur­ried walk to­wards the bus stop jug­gling my luggage pre­car­i­ously, I stepped in a rel­a­tively full city bus which was go­ing to pu­rani dilli. I huffed and puffed and looked at un­per­turbed bus-rid­ers in vain to give me some space to keep my luggage. That’s when a saw him, a man, in navy blue cor­duroy shirt smil­ing be­nignly at me. He must have been in his mid- fifties, his pep­per salt hair tugged back care­fully with gen­er­ous amount of hair oil.

He mo­tioned me to take his seat.

“It’s ok,” I man­aged to say breath­ing in gen­er­ous amount of bad pol­luted air.

“No please I in­sist,” he stressed again. “You have a lot of luggage,” He rea­soned pru­dently.

“Thank you so much,” I moved in, much to other pas­sen­ger’s vis­i­ble an­guish.

The other pas­sen­gers looked on sur­prised as I moved in as if it was a work of an alien and not a reg­u­lar true blue trav­eler.

In a way it was. I smiled back kindly at him as I set­tled onto the seat. I men­tally re­counted if I had packed it all —the new beige net cur­tains for mom, and new plas­tic flow­ers she had so fondly looked at the last time she vis­ited, the lat­est bombs for chotu- my younger brother. Cham-cham from the sweet shop and yes lots of scented diya’s and can­dles

from Aurobino mar­ket. Yes! That was pretty much ev­ery­thing I had bought. “Go­ing back to you home­town,” the man asked cut­ting my chain of thoughts as the co-pas­sen­ger left the seat and he sat back next to me.

“Yes,” I replied with­out the smile. I did not want to chat with him, just giv­ing me his seat was a po­lite ges­ture and I cer­tainly was not go­ing to give him that to use it as an ex­cuse to talk to me.

“So you study here?”

“Yes,” I an­swered monotonously. This was turn­ing out to be an awk­ward con­ver­sa­tion.

I took out a book and pre­tended to read it, to keep him from ask­ing further ques­tions.

“What time is your train?” “Ex­cuse Me?” I asked look­ing star­tled. “I’m sorry if I seem nosy, but I was just ask­ing so I could let you know the bus which would take the least time to the sta­tion,” he looked at me apolo­get­i­cally.

I smiled back a lit­tle ashamed at my rude­ness. I mean the guy had only been nice to me till now and hon­estly, what could he re­ally do in an over­crowded bus like this.

“It’s ok. I have enough time,” I said with­out delv­ing any­thing further.

“So what do you study?”

This was ac­tu­ally harm­less. “I’m do­ing my his­tory hon­ors” “That’s won­der­ful,” he an­swered sound­ing awed.

“So which era in­trigues you best?”

“You were a his­tory stu­dent as well?” I asked sound­ing a lit­tle as­ton­ished.

“No, my daugh­ter was and I ended up read­ing her books,” he smiled rather faintly. Some­how hear­ing the word ‘daugh­ter’ out of his mouth had a more re­lax­ing ef­fect on my nerves. I could fi­nally rule out the se­rial-killer, or a kid­nap­per out of my head. Not that some­one could kid­nap me in broad day light but still. The city was in­fa­mous and I was sup­posed to re­main cau­tious.

“I guess the Mughal era,” I replied with­out much de­lib­er­a­tion.

“That’s in­ter­est­ing”

“So what in­trigues you in the era?”

“Umm.. I guess I’m in­trigued by the way the coun­try was an­nexed and ruled for so long by Mughals with­out be­ing chal­lenged,” I shot back a lit­tle red.

“So I guess I’ve stum­bled upon a pa­triot,” he smiled back kindly at me.

“Where do you stay?” I asked out of turn. It was my turn now to shoot the ques­tions rather than be­ing fired at awk­wardly. “I stay in South Delhi, Panchsheel park,” he said with­out bat­ting an eyelid.

“You have come here for work?” I in­quired further. I was kind of lik­ing the ques­tion­ing rather than be­ing ques­tioned. “No,” he smiled.

“So which era you like?”

“I liked the Golden ages – you know the Gupta pe­riod, when In­dia was truly flour­ish­ing as his­tory puts it,” he ar­tic­u­lated. “Where are you go­ing?” I asked next hop­ing to put him in a spot and also just to know how long I was to go on chat­ting with him.

He smiled.

“To the last stop and then back home” I looked back quizzi­cally at him. No one would just go to the last stop and back at the rush hour.

“Ac­tu­ally, I travel around dur­ing Di­wali time to see peo­ple in the mar­ket and see the mar­ket bustling with en­ergy and lights,” he said as his glassy gaze got fixed at some­thing dis­tant out­side the win­dow.

“The smell of sweets from the hal­wai shop and the col­or­ful stall on the road side make me happy. They make me for­get the lone­li­ness of my house”

“But why,” I started to in­ter­rupt when he con­tin­ued un­abated. “You see my house was full of cheer­ful laugh­ter es­pe­cially around Di­wali. My wife would cook de­li­cious food and me and my daugh­ter would dec­o­rate the house with marigolds and ran­goli and scented can­dles. I hated the smell of the can­dles then but

now I kind of miss them.” He paused think­ing some­thing. “I lost both of them to a fate­ful ac­ci­dent two years ago and since then Di­wali sea­son be­came heavy for me to stay at home. I don’t like the neigh­bors com­ing and look­ing at me with pity. So I roam around look­ing at strangers and en­joy look­ing at them en­joy­ing and buy­ing and bar­gain­ing in the mar­ket. There is a thrill in be­ing un­known here on the bus or in the mar­ket. It helps me keep away the bur­den I carry when peo­ple who know me look at me.”

I looked at him stunned un­able to ask the next ques­tion. The ease with which he had spo­ken about his life so openly to me had robbed me of all the words I had in my mind.

“Your stop has come,” he said smil­ingly judg­ing my awk­ward si­lence. I slowly got up and picked up my bags count­ing them. Stand­ing at the gate I looked one last time at him as his bur­dened eyes looked out­side the win­dow. Some­thing stuck me. I quickly un­zipped my bag and took out the packet of scented diya I had bought for my mom.

“Happy Di­wali Un­cle,” I said plac­ing the scented diya in his hands, hop­ing this year he would light them.

Mad­hu­lika Ra Chauhan

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