Thursday, February 20, 2014

That Sunday Afternoon

Around one - thirty, Sunday afternoon: The sun was bright and hot, but the cool breeze flowing in from the ocean seemed to be apologising on his behalf. I walked into the bus terminal, pulling along a much heavier bag than I had pulled out of the same bus terminal the morning before. The bag, which just had a pair of clothes and some other essentials until then was now full of some fine pottery and other knickknack that I had picked up from some of my most favourite stores, it was perhaps the most potent reason for my being in Pondicherry, at a whim.

 I had expected the bus to be as empty this afternoon as I had found it yesterday, in fact the emptiness of the bus last morning had salvaged me from the shock of discovering its condition: Here I was walking into the bus stop dreaming of a plush two by two bus and I find an old, dilapidated and dirty vehicle beckoning me with great √©lan. Looking at its condition I had half a mind to take another one but it would have been foolish to expect another one available at six thirty in the morning that too at such a godforsaken bus terminal. It had taken me almost an hour and four hundred rupees to get there -- almost twice the amount of what I had paid as the fare to Pondicherry. So I went along. I was dead tired and slept in no time, and had woken only fifteen minutes from Pondicherry. 

I have this strange habit -- a quirk of sorts: However hard I try I cannot sleep beyond five in the morning whenever I travel, the positive side of this is that I get plenty of time to myself -- to read, write, take pictures and just be, the negative, that I am almost always under rested, but rest is usually the last thing on my mind when I travel. This morning had been no different. I had been up since four -thirty and out since five, I had spent almost three hours sitting by the sea and walking along the boulevard, and after a scrumptious breakfast of idlis, vadas and two cups of coffee at a roadside stall and a lunch of vanilla ice cream at a quaint cafe, I was ready to crash in the bus. I had expected it to be as empty as it was the day before, but when you want something desperately, you never get it, and here I was boarding a bus that was already full, half an hour before its departure time. 

A little disappointed, I looked for my seat and discovered it had already been occupied by a young man, next to whom sat a petite young woman. I politely informed him that the seat 9B belonged to me. He smiled and expectantly asked me if I could take his seat instead and reasoned that the girl next to him had a problem travelling on seats that face the opposite direction of the motion. One look at them and my heart melted: problem or no problem, they clearly wanted to sit together. Although I too feel nauseated if I have to travel in the opposite direction for long, but I did not have the heart to separate them, for I was sure this journey was special to them -- it was written on their faces. I agreed.

My new seat was on the other side of the aisle and facing me sat an elderly couple, about the same age as my parents, they had quite a few bags and even with all the adjustments, there was hardly any space left for my legs, I inadvertently kept kicking the lady's feet and kept apologising each time. The backrest of the seat was way too reclined for my comfort and while trying to adjust it, I discovered that the lever was broken. Next to me was a young girl, equally distressed with her seat and her feet, struggling with her backpack that lay in her lap for want of any space below the seat. The sun burnt the left side of my face and the strong, incessant gush of cold air from the a/c duct right above my head, chilled the other half of my face. Out went my desire to sleep.

Now, there is something that not many people know, and those who do, don't believe: As harsh and rude I appear and as arrogant as I seem to be, I am actually an emotional fool. And therefore with all this discomfort that I had inherited along with the young man's seat, I was adamant not to disturb them, for they were in a world of their own: Smiling coyly to each other, exchanging glances, talking in hushed voices. I wanted to let them be, only if I could just be, myself. 

The bus was almost out of the city now and the people around had started to snooze, the gliding of the bus, the warm sun, the cool air and the sight of all about me sleeping had intensified my desire to catch a nap, but with my feet lost somewhere in between the floor of the bus and the bags of the elderly couple and my back totally destroyed by the backrest, sleep was a far fetched dream. I looked out of the window to find peace but failed -- the road was all too familiar and boring, moreover to find peace you need to be in peace yourself, which I clearly wasn't. 

I looked at the young couple again: The man would have been around twenty-five, he was tall and big built and had a cute boyish charm about him, especially when he smiled to reveal a slight dimple. The girl looked younger and by her facial features you could tell she was from the east. Both were simply dressed, the man wore a tailored shirt with contrasting trousers and a pair of floaters -- a sure shot sign of a South Indian man, though he did not look like one, while the girl wore a white kurta with a grey churidaar, a grey stole and floaters, both had a backpack each. They made an unlikely couple -- but were they a couple at all?

In times when people find pride in displaying their affection and fondness for each other in public, these two were unusually reticent. Although their eyes spoke, so did their faces but the caution with which they conducted themselves made it hard for me to guess if they were in love already or in the process of falling in love, the later seemed more probable. 

My back had started to trouble me by now. The lack of sleep in the last three nights and the travelling through the last three days had taken its toll. I had to sit properly, if not sleep. After much deliberation, I finally told the young man that I was very uncomfortable in his seat and would like to sit at my original place. After a little confusion and a whole lot of adjustment that followed, I found myself sitting in front of them while both of them now faced the opposite side of the motion, the discomfort of the young woman notwithstanding (although all through the three hours that I spent looking at her, I had found no sign of discomfort whatsoever).

The joy of travelling alone and being reluctant to strike a conversation is in observing the co-passengers -- their habits, obsessions, behavior -- one can find numerous characters and string several stories sitting in a bus or a train. I tried too, to imagine their story: Were they colleagues or class mates or maybe just lovers? Did both of them study in Pondicherry and were travelling to Chennai? Or did they live in Chennai and had come down for a weekend? Were they in a relationship already? Or were they just beginning to discover their fondness for each other? It was hard to tell. But they sure shared something special which reminded me of simpler times. 

The young woman had now dozed off, hesitantly resting her read on the man's shoulder, the man although awake, glanced into nothingness. The romantic in me hoped and prayed that he put his arm around her but he did not, even when her head almost fell off his shoulder and she woke up with a start. I was disappointed, had a man done this to me, I would have kicked his backside. The girl did not seem to mind though and they got back to their music and banter and exchanged an occasional, meaningful glance.

All this while, The Bay of Bengal had been running along the road with just an occasional building here or there, but as the stream of ugly buildings started to make their presence felt, I realised we were close to the city. I turned to the man sitting next to me to find out which bus stop would be closest to my place of stay only to find myself answering his questions: Where did I live? Was I in Chennai for work? Did I have family in Chennai or Pondicherry? If not family, did I at least have friends? His questions did not seem to end. He found it difficult to imagine that a woman could be travelling alone, two thousand kilometers away from home, just for the sake of travelling. In the process, I found out that he was new to Chennai too and was unsure of where to get off himself. But he had taken it upon himself to help me -- a woman in distress. He took out his newly acquired smart phone, complete with google maps and GPS and struggled with it for almost half an hour to find me an answer, but could not. Only after he gave up did I ask the young man, who told me that I could get off at the same place as them. My neighbour was now satisfied -- I had someone to look after me. I went back to explaining the purpose, or the lack of it, for my trip to him. Thankfully, he got off soon.

In the next one hour that followed, the sights and sounds of Chennai and its traffic kept me distracted. Also, by now, I had lost all hope of getting to know anything else about them. Crawling though a sea of cars and buses, we finally reached our destination, the young man helped me pull my heavy bag down and the woman smiled at me. As I stood at the bus stop, waiting for an auto, I saw them hold hands and beam. I smiled too.



Sunday, February 9, 2014

Amitabh

Nature has its ways of balancing things. It balances day with night, scarcity with abundance, joy with grief, success with failure, like with dislike, love with hate, and of course life with death. Like each of our lives, mine too has not been untouched by this law of nature. While in the first twenty-two years of my life, I was fortunate of not having witnessed a loss, in the twenty third year it was balanced by loosing one of the most precious person in my life.

That night will always be etched in my mind: I had returned from work at around midninght and had found everyone awake. This was something unusual since both my brother and sister were in school then and were almost always asleep by the time I returned, mother was an early sleeper too. The only person I sometimes found up was father. Tonight not only was everyone awake, but also the house was engulfed in an eerie silence: my father's radio which otherwise plays non-stop was silent, so was brother's TV and sister's banter. Something was not right.

I remember walking into my parents bedroom to find my mother in tears and my father sitting  silently. This again was unusual, my mother is not known to be emotionally weak and I can count the number of times I have seen her weep. Mama was serious and was in the hospital, my father finally disclosed. We had to go to see him early next morning. 

I could say nothing, there was nothing to say. I went to bed, waiting for the morning and thinking of him. He was, and perhaps still is, one of the most important person in my life. To say that I had not known life without him would not be an exaggeration. He had alwats been there: picking us up from the station, taking us out, treating us to all forbidden food every now and then, buying the most extravagant stuff and giving us lessons in life. He is perhaps the only person I have ever idolised and will always do, just that he was nice to a fault, but that was him -- Amitabh, a true reflection of his name in every way.

He had been unwell for two years now. Exactly two years before he had had an accident in Calcutta. On his way to work one morning he had fainted in the bus when some people had taken him to the nearest hospital and informed his office. By the time we had received the news, in Lucknow, he was already in the ICU. The next few days had passed in a jiffy: the family had rushed to Calcutta where underwent a heart surgery to get a pacemaker -- he apparently had a weak heart. But he was soon up and about although with many restrictions. Anyone else in his place would have been disturbed and depressed by the bondage, but the man that he was, he didn't even wince. Two years had passed and he was now in Noida, trying his best to get back to a normal life (failing miserably though). On the face of it he was all right, but in reality he was dying -- slowly yet steadily (something I discovered much later, or maybe I never wanted to see it before).

Having lived around him all my life, it was more of a ritual for me to see him every second week, I spent almost almost all my weekends hanging out at his place and almost always cooking for him. It was quite an irony actually: a man who loved food so much had a wife who could hardly cook, not only that, he now had a system that forbade him from eating anything that he liked. My presence therefore was usually an excuse for him to indulge but all he could manage were a few bites. 

In the last few weeks though, I had not gone to see him. With a new set of friends, and with long hours at work my priorities had changed, and in any case I could have met him any day, what was the rush? He seemed to be in a rush however. The next morning when we reached Noida, we realised he was gone.

The easiest way to tackle a difficult situation is to dismiss it, as if it never happened and that is what I did that day, I pretended as if nothing had happened. Being the older and the responsible daughter of the family, I quickly took it upon myself to take care of everyone -- cousins, grandparents, parents, guests all needed to be looked after -- for me it was the easiest way to keep my mind away from the truth, although the sobbing, wailing and crying around me was making it hard to keep my mind off him. And then came the moment of truth.

He had been brought home and after the customary bathing was now ready to see the guests who had gathered to bid him farewell. All this while I had managed to stay away, on the top floor of the house, but now there was no escaping. I refused to go down, I could not see him dead, I had never seen anyone dead before, but I was emotionally blackmailed into coming down: how could I, his favourite neice, not see him, they said. I went down hoping and praying that this turns out to be a bad dream, or a joke. But it wasn't. He lay still on the cold floor, wrapped in my mother's yellow shawl, looking more radiant and alive in death than he had in the last two years of his life, his face as peaceful as always, his trademark half smile intact.

My favourite man was indeed dead.

It has been twelve years since, but even today I expect him to call out to Nupur -- that is what he called me -- and order her to make sabudana cutlets for him, health be damned.