THE MAN ON THE BUS
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.
“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.
“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