It was raining hard that Sunday evening as I got on to the bus to Villupuram from Pondicherry. I had screwed up. Yet again. Dad had warned me that not booking the ticket to Coimbatore early would land me in a terrible soup. And, as my Dad is right almost all the time, it did. I did not get any direct bus to Coimbatore and had to resort to route buses to get to university on time. Also, the route, that is, Pondicherry-Villupuram-Salem-Coimbatore was so crowded, that I barely had space to stand, let alone sit. But, duty beckoned! I would not be absent on the first day of semester, I had decided.
I had just boarded the bus to Villupuram as this fellow shouted at me for stamping his leg . I apologised profusely, for as my Weinbrenners are quite heavy themselves, and my 72 kilo frame doesn’t make them any lighter. He was furious and voiced his displeasure at me and the pouring rain outside in a flurry of Tamil expletives. I tried smiling but it only made him angrier. He was heavily built, with long hair, and looked as though he hadn’t shaved for a decade and a half. The blasted conductor, oblivious of my predicament, kept pushing people into the bus such that I was face to face with my friend, who looked ready to kill me with his bare hands. His phone rang. He spoke into it briefly and his whole demeanour changed. I had gathered that his wife had just given birth to a child. I asked him whether it was a boy or a girl. He proudly said “Mahalakshmi Porandhiruka Thambi”(Goddess Lakshmi has come to my house as my daughter). I learnt he was a labourer and that he was rushing to meet his wife who was at the Government Hospital in Villupuram. He had met his wife at a relative’s house warming ceremony and that they had fallen in love. Her parents had opposed him at first, but seeing that nothing could be done as the girl refused to marry anyone but him, they relented. All this time he kept bending down to touch his knees. At long last, he got a place to sit, and I looked at his knees for the first time. I was horrified. They were bloody and red, with the blood wet and fresh. I asked him what had happened. He smiled at my expression of shock. He had walked to the Vinayaka temple on Pondicherry beach from his house, on his knees, praying that his wife should suffer no pain. He told me “Vali thaanga maata thambi” (She can’t bear pain, brother).
Love, Strike one.
The next bus to Salem was equally full of people. I stood up against the closed back door of the bus and looked up at the night sky. The moon looked beautiful. The air had the smell of rain and I loved it. I was sleepy soon and I found myself walking into the bus. No place to sit, but at least I wouldn’t fall overboard. A water bottle dropped from the seat nearest to me. I took it and looked at the elderly couple sitting there. He was trying to give her an injection and the bus’s movement was making it difficult. I went to the driver and asked him to stop for a second as her insulin injection couldn’t be delayed. I went back to my place at the door. They started talking. I couldn’t help but overhear. My iPod was out of charge. She was asking him to sleep but the old timer wasn’t in any mood to listen. Their conversation shifted from the present to the past. They talked of the wars he had fought and how she had waited for him each day, alone and frightened. They talked of how they’d brought their children up in a changing country, the earthquakes they’d seen, the houses they’d lived in, the places they’d visited. They talked about the time when Gold Spot was the Zing Thing and Amitabh was the angry young man. They took me on a journey of a lifetime as I listened to incidents of times bygone. She slept after a point of time. He took the small pillow he had and kept it at the other side of her head. All that time, he had held her hand. I looked up at the night sky and smiled, again.
Love, Strike two.
Midnight . Salem Bus Stand. I looked around in despair for a Pepsi and got it at last. A bus to Coimbatore as well. I found a seat at last and gave some relief to my exhausted legs. The whole city slept as the bus drove on in the silent night. The conductor gave me my ticket and asked “College a??” I said “Aama” Yes. He finished his round of the bus and sat next to me. He asked me which college I studied in. He told me his daughter was in 12th and that he wanted to give her a college education. He took out a paper and jotted down everything I told him about colleges and the options his daughter had. When at last he was satisfied, he put his paper away, which I saw was already filled with lots of stuff. I saw he had circled VIT as an option. I told him it was very costly even though it was supposed to be very good. He didn’t say anything. He took out a photo from his brown conductor’s bag and gave it to me. It was of a much younger him, his wife and their baby daughter. His wife had died of cancer five years ago and he had promised her on her death bed that he would give their daughter the best education possible, however hard he had to work to pay for it. He got up to go and said “Ava sollita. Naan senji thane aaganum”. She asked me to do it. I have to.
Love, Strike three.
It was 7 in the morning. I had reached university.