Going to Pondicherry is always painful… Innumerable buses fly from Chennai to Pondicherry- but never is there a seat in one. Exasperated with myself for calling up every Friday home and asking the car to be sent, I tried the bus.
I stood 2 and a half hours and reached Pondicherry... to sleep the next two days- waking up for breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner to eat and complain of a terrible leg pain and arm pain. 5.2(This is the height that's mentioned in my 'matrimonial' bio-date/profile whatever! And it's a stretched truth!) is not the best height to reach for the hand bar that runs along the length of the bus. It was either stretch a little and hold the bar or fall onto my friend whom I was traveling with.
A few weeks of this and a week of that- and I ventured into enquiring about private travels.
'Universal travels’- it happens near my place and 3 tickets were available for the next Friday. Paid more than twice the price than the normal/regular/everyday buses and booked 3 tickets…
Friday seven thirty in the evening found Deepak, Vardhan and me standing in front of a bakery here-its in front of the bakery that the bus would stop. We talked to each other distractedly for sometime- each of us glancing every now and then onto the road that the bus was to come by…
Eight thirty: I sat down in front of the bakery. I patted on the ground beside me and signed, “Sit down”. Giving me patronizing smiles, Deepak and Vardhan stood on.
Eight forty five (though they would say nine thirty!)- I found Vardhan on one side of me and Deepak on the other.
Nine thirty: Each of us called up our homes and said that we’ll be late.
Ten: we went for the nth time to the dingy office with a yellow and green board which read 'Universal travels'.
“The bus is on the way”- yeah from Timbuktu!
Ten thirty and we were a small but frustrated and mutinied gang of weary travelers- and the journey hadn’t even begun!
Ten forty five and the wretched/blessed bus finally came.
Squinting in the orange and green(?) light in the bus I read our seat numbers- 31,32 and 33!
But perched on 31 and 32 was already a family! Furiously I marched up to them and said- “You’re sitting in our seats” and glared all I could!
Bang- they produced two pink tickets; identical to the ones I was holding in my hand!!! Then started the saga of the events that were to be- calling the conductor, getting exasperated with his perplexed looks, calling up the office where the guy was long gone home, getting exasperated more at an unanswered call, asking for refund… I looked appreciatively at Vardhan- I never knew in all these years that he was actually capable of doing all this…
Ten minutes later found me sitting next to the lady. Deepak, Vardhan and the lady’s husband sat beside the driver and the conductor. I hastily removed my glasses- I didn’t want to see their glares- well; I was the one who booked the tickets! But it was the wretched man-at-the-office’s fault!
It was stifling hot and my thin T shirt was already soaked with sweat! The bus must have moved on for another ten minutes, when the lady beside me-I usually am friendly with my fellow travelers, but not with this one. But that didn’t stop me from observing her. She looked like someone in her late twenties. And she carried a small baby ( the baby was small!), who looked as if it was 3 or 4 months old…
I looked at her and wondered- she was clad in a black synthetic purdah!!! I sure hope she didn’t have anything under that! But no, that was not to be! 6 yards of saree inside! I felt warmer just looking at her… *dab, dab* with my tissue!!!
She caught me looking at her and she smiled at me. I managed to stretch the corners of my mouth. Hmph! Little did she know that I would be subject to jeers, snide remarks and what not from Vardhan and Deepak the next day-for re-booking someone’s ticket! You see, this husband-wife family had booked their tickets a few days before I did! Its no fault of mine but totally that of the “The bus is on its way” man at the office… but I was sure it would be mine by the time they were finished with me…
She asked me, “Where are you going?”
Me (curtly): “Pondicherry”
She asked me again: “When will we reach Pondicherry?”
As if I would know. But I told her anyway: “1 to 1.30”
She went on: “We are going to Nagapattinam.”
“For my sisters’ husbands’ sister’s wedding”
No reply from my side…
I closed my eyes. I was still not back to my normal state of whatever.
“That’s my husband, who’s sitting there”
I didn’t open my eyes…
“Are you married?”
Who me? I opened my eyes. Do I look married?
Man… how are you supposed to answer that question… Because I didn’t want to? Because nobody wanted to me? Because…
“My name is Razia. What’s yours?
This I could answer. I did.
“That’s my husband, who’s sitting there”
“You told me before…”
“Yeah- but you didn’t seem to reply then… Who are those two guys?”
Now-this was getting too personal…
“I got married when I was 15”.
She never even wanted answers to her questions!!!
I looked distastefully at her. Married at 15 and proud of that!
“I am 17 now”
What the fuck? 17-married and with a baby! Yeah- better than not married and with a baby- but still….
Her incessant talk woke up the baby. And her baby woke up the other passengers who’d managed to fall asleep despite the heat…
For a full five minutes we were subject to loud and indignant wails!
I looked at the baby. Totally wrapped up in woolen clothing from head to toe- a cap that covered the ears, to woolen socks!
She tried her level best to quieten the wailing child. Crooning noises... Soothing talk… she even showed the child some random lights out of the window- 3 months old and as if it cares!
“Remove the (damn) cap”, I said.
“Oh- he’ll feel cold”
“He’s feeling way too hot most probably…”
She pulled out his socks. The cap stayed on. The wails too…
She pulled out the cap… the sobs reduced too…
I smiled triumphantly! Aha!
I heard sighs of relief from people who sat behind me. I settled down comfortably on my seat and closed my eyes again…
“He doesn’t usually cry…”
“My sister’s children are spoilt brats”.
“My mother in law wanted a baby boy. Allah’s blessing and it’s a boy I had!”
“Had it been a girl?”
“My mother in law would have married my husband to another girl…”
I sat there too sick to say anything…
“My husband loves me a lot though… even if he marries again-I’ll always be his favorite...”
Favorite child, yes I’ve heard. Favorite student- many a times… Favorite wife? Sigh- yeah, I’ve heard that too now…
Islam has always been perplexing to me. What is it with that religion that it propagates the wrong message universally? Ask any Muslim and they say: Islam does not talk about violence, fanaticism, several marriages and what not… then why do innumerable Muslims get the wrong message?
I am not even going into higher issues like terrorism.
I remember years after I passed out from school, I was standing beside my mother when she was arguing vociferously with the vegetable vendor, when someone caught hold of my hand and hugged me… It could have been Fida or Falila or Sherin or Nissa or Hafsa or…. Moving aside the wretched cloth from her face- I was subject to a beaming Husna.
The bus droned on and I could hear the gentle snores from the lady behind me… Razia was talking on- unmindful of the fact that I was not listening… I heard random bits of the monologue… I sunk into a gentle and conscious sleep- I was not asleep but I was not awake either- there are states like that you know…
“Waahh…. Waah…”. I jumped out of the seat. Well, the youngest member of the now-three-but-soon-maybe-more family had woken up yet again and was letting everybody know about that!
10 minutes later, the wailing hadn’t stopped but had only grown louder. Exasperated clicks from exasperated passengers were heard at regular intervals of time. Nothing seemed to work this time…
“It must be hungry”, wise old me said.
“He doesn’t drink from the bottle yet…”, otherwise said.
“Ok. So… feed him.”
“Here? In the bus? In front of so many people?”
I didn’t bother to help again. A few minutes passed by… by now everybody in the bus was awake. Deepak walked over to me, I hastily closed my eyes.
Jerking my shoulders, he asked, “how can you sleep in this ruckus?’
Seeing my look, he fled.
“Yeah here. The baby’s hungry. No one’s looking”
She gave me an of-course-not-and-I-think-you-are-shameless-and-insane look, while she kept moving the baby clumsily from one hand to another.
I looked at the weeping child. It was ‘whatever’ and it chose the only means it knew to express this ‘whatever’. It was one of those unfortunate ‘mummy can understand, but cant help’ situations…
I thought of my sister in law who never failed to (much to my acute embarrassment) feed her baby whenever and wherever! And I looked at Razia. And I looked at the baby. Hell, it could as well have been my brother’s child…!!!
Bending down at the now hysterical baby- I talked to it-in a language I knew. Talked to it as I have innumerable times talked to my brother’s child... In Malayalam… in a language that I knew how to croon to a child… in a language that the child would never understand few years down… but does today… because it stopped crying. It could be due to a new/unfamiliar voice… it could have been because it suddenly understood the emotions that transferred so porously from me to it… it could be because it suddenly understood what I did too- that I could love a baby, whosever it maybe…He heard my song without the words…
“What’s his name?”
“Mohammed Kaif. His father loves cricket…”
I continued whispering total nonsense to the now wide awake but silent child. Razia sank back in complete relief. So did everyone around me…
In the dark night, in a sweaty Chennai bus, amidst the not so gentle snores from his ‘favorite’ mother, clutching my finger; Mohamed Kaif slept.