April 06, 2011

Like a bird that contemplates a limitless flight

YOU WANT TO LEAVE the city for a smaller town in the hills, to walk in cooler temperatures and climb roads that meander into valleys. You want to buy a glass of steaming milk from the man who sells his dairy in giant pots that rests on a kerosene stove. You want to sip the sweetened milk and watch late summer tourists take horse rides around the central area of town. You want to be alone in crowded market areas where families seek small town pleasures before heading back to their polluted cities. You want to buy trinkets from shops selling cheap ornaments and overpriced sweaters. You want to take your booklet and your favorite pen and write a few lines. You want to write alone, in a town where no one knows you, observing things in seclusion, in indulgent isolation.

And so you decide to go. Take the night bus alone unlike the other passengers who are accompanied by their families; families consisting of cranky children, bored husbands and housewives in colorful clothes. There will be single men who take the bus too, plenty of them, and only one of you.

The ticket master looks at you funny when you ask for a single ticket. He looks at your worn jeans and your black shirt. You have worn a shawl over your chest, to discourage inevitable stares. He still looks, as if trying to judge your breasts, their size and their firmness. You shove the money in his direction and take your ticket. It’s raining outside. The buses, these metal carriages, they wait for passengers to board. In the meantime, men with polythene bags on their heads knock incessantly on the side of the bus, forcing their wares to passengers who have already settled in. They tempt them with magazines, betelnut packets and cut pineapple sprinkled with chili powder.

The tangy prick of pineapple teases your tongue. You want a slice before you get in the bus. Or perhaps you are just stalling for time, you still could go home. You wave your hand to one of the pineapple men. He comes rushing toward you; some of the raindrops have slid past his makeshift rain hat and onto the pineapple, staining the fruit like red water paint.

The pineapple man looks at you from a distance as you enjoy the fruit. But his stare is not intrusive. He walks up to you again and asks if you are alone. You don’t feel threatened, you say yes. He smiles gently and hands you another piece of fruit free of charge. And just like that he has disappeared. You cannot help smiling. You eat your slice and as the juice drips on the newspaper square you have been served on, you think that you must get on that bus. So you step on the bus. At first people don’t stare, they expect a protective brother to be behind you, or perhaps your coddling parents, at the very least a boyfriend of sorts.

It becomes clear to everyone that you are alone when you take a seat by the window and put on headphones. The bus conductor is as thin as a reed; his khaki colored uniform is faded. “Ticket,” he says in a clipped tone. You offer your ragged piece of paper to him. You clear your throat and ask for a seat next to woman. You are traveling alone, you explain, even though it is more than evident. The conductor sneers.

“No other single women on the bus, only families. You don’t have a choice. Why are you by yourself? Next time travel with someone, girls shouldn’t be alone, especially not on long distance bus.” He lectures in Tamil.

You take a deep breath and put your headphones back on. The conductor now seems annoyed with you, as if  your very presence has disrupted everything. Curious women who sit by their sleepy husbands look at you, their eyes squinting in concentration. One is nice enough, wearing a green sari. She is probably not much older than you. She sits on the aisle seat next to her husband. She asks why you are alone. You tell her that you are alone because you want to be alone. She changes the subject, what college do you go to? You answer her with politeness, secretly taking comfort that another woman is talking to you and may be your protector on this bus. But she is soon distracted by the infant in her arms and her husband who pesters her for a snack.

Finally, your mysterious seat partner arrives. He wears cotton pants and a faded t-shirt. He stares at you, at your shawl, but says nothing. He sits next to you and lets out a loud burp. He yawns and shuffles about before finding a comfortable angle to let his body slip into. The lady in the green sari shoots you a worried look but then turns to her baby.

You tell yourself it will be fine, just stay awake all night, listen to the music; soon enough in the wee hours of dawn, you will reach the hills. So you listen to your music and think about random things. You forget you are on a bus and you think of the things you might write when you are there. The bus engines roar to life, they rattle the entire bus, babies’ shriek, consolatory hushes by mothers are whispered, vendors scream their wares out again, louder and with more energy. The conductor whistles with surprising vociferation to back the bus out without running over the throngs of people lurking in every corner of open space. The people like ants and the bus a giant foot about to be unleashed on a cluster of them. People scatter; vendors accept defeat and back away with their unsold snacks and magazines. The bus starts to leave the chaos of the city. Soon the cacophony of the bus station fades. The engine is pleasant now, like a lullaby to the passengers, and its rhythm assures everyone that it will take them to a beautiful place. You shut off your music and enjoy the hum of the engine. You can hear only whispers of wives to their husbands, and the occasional shriek of an infant.

The man next to you has his eyes shut. His head rests back on the seat but his hand is precariously close to your arm. Every time the bus jerks he dramatizes the effect by grazing your arm. You squeeze your body inwards and slide toward the window. You try to make your body disappear, squeeze the legs in, the shawl wrapped closer to you. The window is open and the cooler night air blows through your hair. The roads are only occupied by other buses and long distance trucks. They overtake your bus with dangerous swerves. You see a dead stray dog, mashed on  the tar of the oncoming side of the road. The vision is swift but potent. It disturbs you to see it there, knowing it will get run over again, many times until it becomes one with that tar; until the corpse looks nothing like anything that had once lived.

Hours pass. Your eyes are heavy with sleep. The man next to you has a sweater on his lap. His hands are beneath the sweater. It is getting colder and you wrap you shawl tighter around you. But then you see movement. Obvious movement. His breathing is heavy. The bus is silent, everyone asleep.

The conductor is up in front cracking jokes with the driver. You can’t say anything. What would you say? You should not have been on this bus. Your parents were right; they were doing this for your own protection. The man opens his eyes. He looks at you directly. You turn your head, unable to face him. He grunts but it’s almost like a laugh. He is mocking you. His hands go back to their movement. The sweater is bouncing up and down, with rhythm, like the sound of the engine. You want to scream.

In the end you have no courage. You should have listened to them: mother, father even the bloody conductor. You could have been safe at home in your room. Your mother would have brought you a cup of hot chai in the morning before you went for class. You would meet your friends, eat lunch together and discuss your latest crushes. You did not have to be in the situation, and now look what you have done. You’re such a stupid girl. What are you going to do alone in the hills anyway? You will probably get bored, or worse, robbed and raped.

The sweater bounces in a frenzy now. You can see it from the corner of your eye. So this is what it feels like to be paralyzed, you think. To live in a moment but not really feel it. The man looks at you again. This time he smiles. He has got what he wants.

The rays of the sun are peaking through now. The hills are being climbed, long and laborious. The bus wheezes uphill like a heavy smoker running. Everyone is still asleep, except for you and the man. The bus halts at a small town, a stop before the main one. You clasp your hands in prayer; please let him get out at this stop. It is unlikely; almost no one gets off here. But to your surprise, he straightens his back. He raises his hands still clutching the sweater. He has only a small plastic bag with him. He jumps up abruptly and then looks you right in the face. Before he runs out of the bus, he takes his hand and grazes your shoulder. He is gone

before you can react or even know what he has done. He is a mere spot disappearing in the small town even before you see it: sticky white cum, his sticky white cum on your shoulder, a medallion, a trophy of his hideous victory.

Tears dance on the surface of your eyes. Your nails dig into your palms. You want to kick the seat in front of you down. You want to beat up everyone in the bus in rage. You want to scream, at him, at the driver, at the lady in the green sari and at your mother and your father. You want to scream because all you wanted were the hills and some paper and a godamn fucking pen. Instead you are washed over by silence. This time it is meditative. This time it is powerful. This time the silence teaches you something.

So this might happen again you think. And you will still want to go alone and write in a small town that you choose to travel to. You might find him in many other places but it can’t stop you now. Next time you will be sure of yourself. Next time you will slap him. You will scream, shout and demand your right. Your right to see the hills, your right to drink a glass of hot milk alone on a bench, your right to talk to strangers and your right to walk upon the meandering roads alone and uninterrupted. You look down at your shawl, that cloth that was supposed to protect you. You face that white blob of semen. You unwrap the shawl and fling it off the bus. It flies away, past the winding road toward the forests that the bus is passing. It floats in the wind for some time. His victory is lost to a beautiful spot, somewhere safe, isolated in the care of ancient trees.

The bus is almost there. People are walking the streets. Outside, vendors make hot breakfasts for tourists. Names of small guest houses and bigger motels come into view. The sun is not harsh. The air is fresh, new and purifying. The people are smiling and you realize that you too are smiling. Suddenly you are like a bird that contemplates a limitless flight. The bus stops, you put your backpack on and as you walk though the aisle, you stare down the conductor with your eyes. Your eyes tell him that you are not ashamed of being the only girl on the bus. You step out of the bus, your backpack heavy, and your head brimming with things to do.

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