I remember the driver of the bus I used to take to work when we had first moved to Kerala. Those were days when I was going through the worst phase of my life- loneliness, lovelessness, exhaustion and fear. Whenever I travelled, I desperately wanted to protect my anonymity, and so, my earphones were my defence from nosey strangers who seemed to be all over the place, and did not mind intruding, inquiring. Every day, I would board the bus, sit at the same place, plug in my earphones, and look out through the window. I completely ignored the stares of the passengers and hardened the expression on my face, if I perceived the slightest threat of intrusion. However, the evening trips were different. A bunch of school kids would board the bus, and the bus would be lit up with their din. I was particularly surprised by the way the driver interacted with the kids, becoming one with them.
He was a young chap, in his twenties perhaps, and he was brilliant with the kids. He knew each one of them by their names. He poked them, taunted them, played pranks on them, made them laugh, and they in turn, responded to him in the same language. I found myself smitten by the magic of these moments- this picture of oneness that I saw, unfolding in the spell of those moments. The bus would transform into an abode of happiness. Though I pretended to be detached and distant, the truth was that I was soaking it all, and revelling in these moments of uncorrupted happiness- the only happiness in the darkness of my life at that point in time. But I never dared to be open about it. For one, I was not sure if they would accept me as one of them- I was so different, both in appearance, and in my ways. And secondly, I wasn’t sure what people would make of such involvement, especially since I was a woman. So I sat quietly, secretly enjoying every moment.
One day, the driver was not to be seen. In his place was another person who demonstrated no affinity for the kids, no affinity towards this journey. When the children boarded, the feeling was not the same. They sat scattered, and though they talked and laughed amongst themselves, the oneness was profoundly absent. It was then that I realized that the driver had been the soul of the bus. He had brought each one of us under one umbrella of emotion- he had awakened the inner child in each one of us, and that was the power of his spirit. I was saddened by his absence. That day, I did not plug in my earphones. Instead, I just looked out of the window gloomily.
“Are you not listening to music today?” a voice asked me.
I turned to see a plump, wide-eyed girl peering at me through innocent eyes. I remembered her as the primary target of all the pranks played in the bus when the driver was around.
“No. Today, I don’t feel like it”, I replied to her with a smile.
My reply helped her find the courage to ask me more questions. She wanted to know everything about me. Who was I? Where did I live? Where did I come from? Where did I work? The questions were endless. By then, all the other kids had surrounded us. They were holding on to every word I said. I was amused and I patiently answered, realizing children were so much more accepting of differences, as opposed to adults.
Finally, the wide-eyed girl asked me,”Can I touch your earrings?”
“Sure”, I said.
I could see they had accepted me. The wide-eyed girl’s name was Akshita. Her rival was a lean, outspoken boy called Mithun, who never missed an opportunity to take a dig at her. Suddenly, they were all talking to me at once. They told me their names, gave me a description of their homes and families, and also let me into their little secrets.
“So where is your driver- the regular one?” I asked them.
“He is down with flu”, they replied.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“He lives in our neighbourhood”, they replied.
“So you know him for a long time now?”
“Yes. From as far back as we can remember!”
“Hmm. What is his name?”
“His real name or his nickname?” Mithun asked, his eyes twinkling mischievously.
“Both”, I said.
“His real name is Vinu”, Mithun said aloud. Then he drew me close to him and whispered something into my ear. I couldn’t make out what he said, but I guessed it was the nickname they had given him.
“Don’t tell him we told you”, he said.
“Of course not”, I promised.
By the time Vinu got back, the character of the bus had changed. I had become one with the children. I still wasn’t sure how I ought to react to him though, especially because society is so conservative in these places. So I avoided talking to him directly. He took the cue and did the same. I could see he was amused by this unexpected change in my behaviour, and also perplexed by what had triggered this change in his absence, but he just flowed with the change. So the bus was once again alive with taunts, pranks and laughter, just that this time, I too was a part of it all. Remarks we made were sometimes meant for each other, but we never had the courage to address each other directly. We always addressed it to the children. We also avoided looking at each other directly. Though it felt awkward at the time, in retrospect, those were the most beautiful moments from that phase of my life. In that silence between us was something so pure, so beautiful, so sacred.
I was profoundly attracted to aspects of his personality-the inherent happiness of his nature, the freedom of his spirit, the inner child in him that dominated his personality. I wondered how it was possible for him to be so happy. I desired to know everything about his life. But we never spoke to each other. It was an unvoiced rule we had made for ourselves.
And then, he disappeared again.
“He has gone to Sree Chitra with his sister. She has a heart valve problem”, the children said to me.
That night, after all the chaos at home had settled, and I was all by myself, I sketched him. I had never sketched anybody from imagination; I had only imitated. But at that moment, there was something of his spirit that came floating into my mind, and I tried sketching his side-profile, so that the features didn’t have to be clear. I tried projecting the attitude instead- him, sitting by the wheel, his chin up, the eyes looking straight ahead, and the self-confident manner in which he sat (quite unlike the self-conscious me). I was surprised at the outcome; there was a strong resemblance.
Next day, I hesitantly took out the sketch and showed it to the children. They instantly recognized him. They were thrilled and before I could protest, Mithun had snatched it from my hands and tucked it into his bag. He refused to give it back to me.
Next day, Vinu was back at the wheel. But he was unusually silent. I was anxious. Had the children given him the sketch and was that the reason for his silence? Or was it something to do with his sister’s ailment? I looked at his face and tried to find a clue. He suddenly turned around to look at me. I flushed.
To avoid further embarrassment, I asked him, “So did you take your sister to Sree Chitra?”
“Yes, she needs an operation”, he replied.
This was the first time that we had directly spoken to each other.
Subsequently, when the bus had stopped, Mithun took out the sketch and gave it to him.
“She drew you”, Mithun said, pointing at me.
I was distinctly uncomfortable. What would he make of it? What would he think of me? Why did I do this? At that moment, I wanted the earth to swallow me. I saw him studying the sketch, smile, and then fold it and put it in his pocket, never once looking at me. Nor did he say anything. He just drove on, as if nothing had happened. I wondered what he would do with that sketch. Preserve it or throw it?
But after that day, there was a change in his attitude to me. A care, a concern that he demonstrated rather subtly, but I could sense it. Little things like making sure I had crossed the road safely after I had alighted, or waiting until I had seated myself. Little things like that which he had never bothered with before. He had mellowed down, and the kids took advantage of it. They roped me in and played all kinds of pranks on him, with me as their leader. He would smile and laugh, but he stopped reverting back aggressively. He liked to lose. I could sense he didn’t want to ‘defeat’ me, even though these were mere games.
One day, the kids invited me home. Vinu was surprised when he saw me get off the bus with them. The kids were excited; they wanted to show me off to their families. They made me a celebrity and I had to visit every house. The whole village seemed to know that I would be visiting and at every house, people had gathered to see me. Old grandmothers held my hand affectionately and fed me unniappams. People had endless questions to ask me, and the children would finally come to my rescue. I had no more space for unniappams, but I didn’t want to disregard their sentiments, so with Mithun’s help, I stuffed them into a paper bag. They were simple village folk, and they reminded me of the people from my childhood- warm, affectionate, and soulful. The children took me to the pastures and showed me places where turmeric grew, where water lilies blossomed and where the goats grazed, bleating occasionally. I felt like Heidi, sitting with Peter on the top of a mountain, delighted at the wild flowers, the wild berries, and the splendour of the sun rays that bathed these mountains. They also took me to Vinu’s house. His house was full of people- parents, grandparents, cousins. I spoke to his sister about her ailment. Suddenly, we heard some noise up in the trees. We looked up to see a pack of monkeys. “Your brother’s friends”, I remarked. She laughed.
When I returned home that evening, I thought back to the day. They had treated me as if I was a celebrity- a star in the sky. But they did not know that they had everything that I could only dream of. They did not know the horrors of my world- its loneliness, its emptiness, its darkness, its numbness. They did not know that there were things that money could not buy. They did not know how empty life was in the absence of human connection. I was so grateful to them. For that one day of warmth, togetherness and affection. For helping me feel the joy of life flooding through my veins again.
The next day, I was quiet. I was still reeling from the contrast of our worlds.
“I am not very responsible, am I?” Vinu abruptly broke into my reverie.
I looked at him with a question mark on my face.
“I know I am a monkey”, he said.
I couldn’t stop laughing.
“Please don’t stop being one”, I said to him.
We lived many more beautiful moments in that bus. But all along, I was aware it was all coming to a close. I knew the end was inevitable. But I had no complaints. People had started to interpret our association, and I wanted to withdraw before people could colour the sanctity of what we shared with the ugliness of their minds. So we slowly faded away from each others’ lives.
“Don’t ever change”, he said to me….