“You lying turd, you were out with Rita and told me that your grandmothers not well” she hissed. They were standing beside me on the bus stop and the volume wasn’t too gentle either. From the corner of my eye I could see a young well dressed pair on their way to work. But that boy’s day was off to a rocky start. He had been found out. Squirming he tried to explain, Lavina, do you believe this? Who told you? Never mind, who told me, Rakesh, I had been warned about you. It was only me being dumb and blind that I didn’t listen, you two timing scumbag. The girl was on a roll and I was finding it hard to control my mirth. Rakesh tried turning on the charm, Darling Lavina, you believe everything that’s told to you, am sure it must be that sneak Lalitha. She doesn’t like me and will do everything to malign my good name. “Good name” now she almost screamed, who do you think you are, Shahrukh Khan? My laugh clamped by the lips rolled into my tummy, it rumbled inside and the spare tyre around the waist jiggled.This was going to be tough for him thought I.
My morning certainly had begun well. The hour’s journey to office was monotonous at the best. Same old bored faces waiting for the 8.30 bus that was still five minutes away. There is this Sardarji, who I prayed for should never get to sit beside me. His quirk; every fifteen minutes something tickles the inside of his nose. This then is very industriously probed with the little fingers of either hand. The offending particle is brought out, peered at , rolled into a smooth ball and flicked. It can land anywhere and on anyone.I was literally a snake on that one unlucky day he was sitting next to me. Wriggling about like one, to avoid the trajectory of the nasal missile. My acrobatics worked though and it flew before my eyes out of the window. Then there is the Sindhi lady who invariably reaches the stop late. She boards the bus from the front door by waving to the driver. Huffing and puffing while effusively thanking the driver- now used to her timing, she elbows her way in. She is a kindly soul, ample in size and always polite when she steps on a foot or knocks somebody about. This too has a certain regularity. One day it had been my foot and even with thick leather shoes, felt that my toes would certainly break off. Then she gave her sweet smile and that wiped away my truly painful grimace. She was just clumsy or should we call it physically dis-co-ordinated? Its the sign of the times where it is not polite to call a blind man blind..do you get the point? BEST has separate seats for women now but I remember sharing a seat with her. Imagine sitting on the floor and have a bean bag dumped upon you.The rolls just accommodate themselves around your shape blocking all air circulation to the pores. Thats the way it is with her. Her Body Mass Index was a cause of serious concern for her seat sharing partner. But for her smile,some people are natural charmers.
Lavina was still at it, bristling with anger. Could picture her as a cat: A rather plump tabby with her fur rubbed the wrong way. Tail fat and straight up in the air, muscles all bunched up, hissing and spitting. I even almost heard a “yowll” as Rakesh tried to hold her hand. He yelped, she had scratched him. Now I sputtered. This guy sure didn’t know it and had tangled with the wrong girl this time. Hurt, he now looked straight ahead, maintaining a safe distance barely holding his dented pride together. This seemed to infuriate her even further but before she went completely ballistic the bus arrived and all of us filed in. This being the first stop , climbing in, located a window seat at the centre and occupied it. The one beside me remained empty and thankfully the Sardarji was ahead of me occupying the window on the opposite side. No missiles today, I was relieved. Lavina and Rakesh were immediately in front. Gosh, this was my lucky day; my entertainment channel was still on and had not been changed by the divine being who held the remote. He does have a tendency to flip channels at will, surprising all those who take him for granted. Just an idle thought as it flitted across my mind. The small battle was on, there was a six inches gap between the warring couple and no truce had been declared yet. Rakesh was manfully hanging on. Lavina was fixedly staring out of the window though the bus was still at the stop.
The conductor pulled on the stringed bell and the bus rolled to a start and stopped as the Sindhi lady ambled on huffing puffing and smiling. The only empty seat being next to me she settled in. I was crushed back against the window. At least my ride over the potholes was to be cushioned. It was much better than playing a moving target to nasal missiles. Thanking the one above, I resigned to the journey. The conductor clicked his punch for the tickets and Rakesh fishing out his wallet said “Two VT”. The conductor punched the tickets and returned the change. As he turned Lavina called him back and said "Ek VT". The battle had been stepped up to the next level. After his pride, it was the turn of his wallet to be hurt. Pointedly she folded the ticket exactly in the middle with sharpened nails and elaborately kept it in her purse to again look outside. For a moment he thought about asking her, then shrugging, he too fixedly stared straight ahead.
The loading and unloading of human passengers continued till the bus was packed with hardly any standing room now. The atmosphere though had a cheer brought about by the cackle and giggles of four school girls in uniforms on their way to school. Each one booked her half-ticket separately while chattering continuously. Neither did they pause for breath nor did they run out of a topic for discussion. From, Ruma Teachers petticoat which was tied higher than her sari at the back, to the latest in the life of Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor, to how ones neighbors didn’t go and vote but marked their fingers with store-bought indelible markers, to the surprise history test given by Charulata madam. Their chirping would be incessant till they got down. Two mechanics got on board with their tool kits in large slung bags. Almost immediately they got into an argument with the conductor. He wanted them to buy separate tickets for their luggage. They refused, pointing towards the various laptops carried by executives not being charged. “Gareeb ko hi looto (fleece us poor guys)” was their refrain. If their tools of the trade are not charged, then why should our tools be charged separately? They had a point and they prevailed, with the conductor giving up.
The bus approached Dadar TT. With roughly half of the journey completed a section of the bus had emptied out and new passengers climbed on. Some air started circulating again. Deena Lalwani is it really you? A shrill voice was heard close by my seat. Before I could realize, the lady next to me had turned squashing me, till I almost was a part of the bus frame. I gasped for air, and she loudly said "Hi Pheroza how are you, must be how many now, 17 years? A bespectacled thin lady wearing a top and a skirt with an old frame perched on her nose had inched forward. Rather than suffer the squeeze, I got up and offered Pheroza the seat next to Deena. I started breathing again and the crease on my Van Heusen shirt sprang back to smoothness again. Thank you Sir, said Pheroza as she slid in next to Deena who managed to shuffle all of six and a half inches inside. Obviously for the spindly friend this was enough space and their chatter began. Back to being a standee, I stretched my legs and slung my bag back on to my shoulder. Equally suddenly I found myself falling forward. Sesame oil flavored hair was right up my nose from the head of the man standing ahead. The bus had screeched to a sudden stop. The driver having slammed on the brakes. Swearing in fluent Hindustani, he invoked the mother of the offending interloper. The one who had cut across the bus. I gathered myself and wiped traces of the oil from my nose. Yikes…he seemed to have used almost half a bottle for his hair. Compounded with not having a bath for a minimum three days. My nose keeps good time, sometimes better than my watch. The smell had a curious inflection of being hybridized because of age, sweat and dandruff. My life spared from the squeeze of Deena Lalwani’s bulk, was again perilously close to being lost ; this time to noxious vapors. I could even trace his roots to Uttar Pradesh from the odor to almost mapping his district. It can read maps too!!! An additional feature of my nose that I had stumbled on to, right then. I stepped a few paces back and safely inserted another gentleman between us. Luckily sesame-oil-head got down at the next stop. The air was split with the din of a wedding band as we passed Lalbaug a textile residential area. A group of boys was practicing its beats. The Indian version of “Come September, a pernnial favorite, was being clanged & rehearsed with a passion. Could be that there was an evening wedding event performance in store for the band boys. With nowhere to practice given their choc-o-block full locality, the road was being put to good use.
We were near Mohammed Ali road now and the bakery shops were sending out their wonderful baking smells. I could see out of the window the neatly paper wrapped Nankhatai’s and Khari biscuits on display, being purchased. My mouth watered but the moving wheels and the ticking clock would not allow me the luxury of getting down. Like every day, I wistfully watched them go past. A seat got empty and I sat down again. This time diagonally opposite to a man who had a business paper open in front of him. He may have had the noble intention of reading it when he boarded. Now he was fast asleep behind it. His head on his neighbors shoulder the pages fluttering in the open window. A voice spoke in my ear "This country I tell you is going to the dogs". The words came from the old gentleman sitting beside me. He was looking out from the window. We could see the potholed roads, the perennial construction , many make-shift shops being operated, and some street urchins peeing on the road. It certainly was a sad sight and being so near the oldest business district too, could relate to the pathos in his voice. The change he may have seen his beloved Bombay go through was seemingly painful. I felt the same most days. Being used to this now, it had ceased bothering me as much.
Within a few minutes another turn was taken and the bus passed a fish market opposite a neo gothic structure of what is the famous Crawford market. The market building was not visible and the bus turned on towards the business district of VT. The magnificent VT station and opposite it the “White Lady of Bori Bunder" that housed "The Times of India-Group of Newspapers", and the Bombay Municipal Corporation building, classic structures all, flashed across.
One by one people were getting up to alight. Some faces resigned, some gearing up for the day, the smiling Deena and the twiggy Pheroza, the missile man Sardarji , I and the warring couple of Lavina & Rakesh. Two gentlemen were still sleeping. One actually with his mouth open and snoring. The conductor nudged them awake.
The bus halted and all of us filed out. This happened just as a tidal wave of humanity swept out of VT station. A few trains may have docked in simultaneously. Our trickle from the bus almost seemed like a tiny tributary, to the ocean of this mass. The ocean swallowed the tributary seamlessly. The unique identities of the bus passengers quickly merged into the mass. They would regain it again tomorrow morning at the bus stop.
The general pattern of the undending cycle in the day of the commuting employed never varied; Breaking only at the retirement of an individual or a visit from the grim reaper. The cycle of a metropolis in motion. I walked on ahead to my office through the churning ocean, a tiny drop...