Dated : 20 Jan 2017
Sometimes all it takes is a strangers smile………..to start a journey of a 1000 miles
By the rule of no choice I have to travel to Pune to visit family in a Volvo bus.
My personal chauffer usually doped on excess tobacco, hired drivers appearing in radiant smells, taxi services costing almost as much as airfare and train tickets requiring a much-advanced booking, buses pose none of the above problems and this comes closest to my voyage tick marks.
Still, it’s not the most pleasant of experiences not cause am a travel snob but it’s just something that starts building up slowly which almost guarantees that by the time you reach your destination you will definitely be few hair short.
And each time I say never again, I promptly get sucked into travelling by the same mode, the next month or the other.
Deciding to take the Shivneri Volvo at their Maithre Park bus stop at Chembur for sheer convenience of location, being the second stop en route after its start point at Dadar, I try to look out for some kind of ticket booth.
Two tickets I say with confidence in my broken Marathi. Two because I have the bright idea of booking a seat next to mine for my luggage. Besides, it will give me the freedom to stretch my legs and avoid any kind of human skin contact.
He informs me that I need to buy one in the bus as soon as it reaches the stop, which I am informed is another half hour away.
Tugging on my two heavies I squint for any early sign of it as I wait alongside few others whom I guess are going to be my travel companions.
One looks at me as if I may have come from a very foreign land and in painfully accented English he asks, ‘So we are going same place ha?’
I look away. This scene is not new to me. Middle aged, pot-bellied Uncle types always seem more interested in my life than they should be. Then whether it is an air plane, a movie theatre or a plain old bus stop, it hardly mattered.
Not one to be dissuaded he tries again, ‘Oh Madam, we go to Pune huh?’
We go to Pune! The mere ring of that line is enough to enrage me.
I drag my heavy lugs slightly further away, next to the lady in a shiny blue sari.
I avoid looking in his direction so as to avoid eye contact at any rate.
The lady smiles, ‘Pune bus!’
‘No Timbuktu,’ I am tempted to cry out but common sense says that I might need an ally on the bus in case belly bawdy Baldy decides to make my life miserable with space intrusions.
I nod at her and give her a half smile.
‘You are married?’ she asks me. What was this? A conspiracy?
I shake my head.
‘Oh I have nice nephew,’ she reveals, trying her best at the English language to impress me.
‘He is in Pune. If we get down same place then you meet him; he will be there at station to pick up me.’
I look around panic. Praying now that there is an extra seat waiting in the bus for me; for the last thing I wanted was to be caught between she-match Maker devil and male leery deep sea.
Fortunately, the bus arrives and without looking at either, I rush to get in first, hoping to convince the driver for a double sitting.
He spits some orange out of his window as he replies rudely, showing me his smeared teeth, ‘Not allowed!’
‘And why not?’ I start arguing, ‘I am paying for it isn’t it?’
‘In fact, I will buy the whole bus you tobacco sucking monster;’ I feel like adding but decide to not piss him off in case he directed me to the rear end of the vehicle just to have the sadistic pleasure of watching me throw up.
I quietly pay him and take the fourth seat on the right, next to a younger girl who may have boarded from Dadar. Better her than the rest of the crazy.
She looked like a college student, we would have nothing much in common and that was alright. It would help me catch up on my wats app group messages.
As the bus moves along, I discreetly glance over my shoulder at a shiny blue object floating in my side vision periphery. She waves.
‘Good Goooood’ she starts, ‘I have already informed nephew about your coming.’
I look zapped. It seemed like she had a welcome committee ready for me.
I turn away quickly, wondering how the hell I would get out of that one.
Should I inform her that I was a millionaire posing as a commoner?
No that would be mean and untrue or maybe it would excite her further.
Should I fib about an impending albeit fake fiancé?
No, that would start more conversation for she looked thirsty for any kind of acknowledgement.
Though she seems harmless, I was in no mood to make small talk -I seldom was.
I pretend to get some shut eye as the bus touched the expressway, yeah just a couple of hours to go….
And then as if the plot is just waiting to thicken, I feel a kick on the behind of my seat.
I ignore it; it’s probably a foot stretch error of some Daddy long legs; then comes along another and another.
Is it an annoying child?
Once again my seat shakes, I have had enough.
I turn around, my eyes blazing, ‘Will you please stop?’
A skinny moustached man snarls back, ‘Certainly not.’
He speaks perfect English which is good, it would make it easier for him to understand what was about to come….
‘Look,’ I say with the last ounce of patience I had left, ‘Be reasonable. I’m not able to relax as my seat is constantly wobbling with your oversized legs.’
‘Should I cut my legs because Madam is inconvenienced?’ he looks menacingly at me.
I cannot believe his high road tone. He has already gathered a few nosy parkers who are straining their ears to know what is transpiring.
‘If you don’t like your seat, take the one left at the rear end….you spoilt brat,’ he goes on rudely.
‘ Talking about rear ends… why don’t you shove that idea right up …..’ my temper is now scorching.
I have to exercise immense self control to not say the above line aloud.
Now had I been on different grounds I would have done so but not wanting to be thrown out of the vehicle at any point in the middle of nowhere , I keep my trap shut and instead softly request the sweet girl next to me to swap seats.
She smirks: certainly not!
Impossible! What was wrong with the world?
My horoscope had said, ‘Conflict!’
I just thought it was singular.
And then came a thud behind me and a loud voice.
Potbelly bald aka Mr Inquisitive has yanked my seat nemesis from his perch and is about to punch him straight in the face.
‘What you said? What you told her?’ His saliva is dripping from the corner of his mouth and it is not a pleasant site.
Most of the passengers stand up, more so in excitement with this welcome interruption of their otherwise thoroughly boring journey.
The moustache man is now quivering. ‘Sorry s se orry, Sir.’
I look away. Now I am indebted to Potbelly for the rest of my hours and would be forced to make some kind of gratitude speech.
I thank him kindly much to his joy and I hope against hope, he would not follow me home, with his beady eyes and his yellow teeth.
I look at blue sari whom I fondly address Auntyji ( all of a sudden.)
‘I can’t wait to meet your nephew’ I say and she beams.
There, I have smartly created a diversion and no one can infringe my space from then on.
Aunty and I become inseparable for the next two hours. We hold each other’s handbags at public toilets and I buy her a cup of Masala tea, we share a few jokes about baldy and leggy over steamy wada pavs.
I tell her about my upcoming first book, the editorial complexities and the struggle with the idea of starting my own blog.
She hears me with great enthusiasm, as I try explaining it all in Hindi which is her comfort zone.
Then I sheepishly confess to her that I was using her as a decoy from the bus delinquents and she laughs….
‘Don’t worry, I was using you too,’ she replies in jest.
I look at her in disbelief; doubtful that these kind of strange men posed any trouble for her.
‘You see beta, I Iost my young daughter a few years ago and only wanted to remember the feeling of being overbearing and caring….’
Half hugging her, I write my number on a piece of paper.
‘Call me anytime you feel like doing that again,’ assuring her my presence from then on. At least over the phone.
She takes it from me readily and gratefully, keeping it safely tucked in her purse.
As we got off at the last juncture together, she digs into her handbag and hands over a white handkerchief.
‘It’s unused and white, just like a blank paper.’ She states.
Then patting my arm at my confused expression, she tells me in Hindi, ‘Beta, Aap jo bhi likhoge, acha hi likhoge. Khud per bharosa karna sikho.’ (Whatever you will write, you will write well only, learn to have faith in yourself)
And as one voyage ended on a stranger’s confident claim, another one began with my blog- ‘ Chai with Kai.’