This short story became SPIXer (Most popular story) on 28 Dec 2013 and won INR 500
I was sitting rather helplessly besides her sobbing figure. Her face was hidden in her palms and tears were seeping through the crevices between her fingers, trickling down to wet the thin strands of red and yellow on her wrist and rolling on past her gold watch to make a dark spot on her light blue jeans. She was sitting like this for half an hour now and I had a class soon.
The problem was she wouldn’t even tell me why she was crying. Was it on my account or due to a grumbling mother, a silly friend or perhaps crackpot professor? (While dealing with a crying girlfriend it’s necessary to know the details). Finally she glanced at me from behind her wet palms, her kohl lined tear stained eyes met mine and I went to a sudden and momentous flashback…. a brutally filled bus, the beautiful girl sitting on the reserved seat, her pink rabbit ear mobile, the fifteen rupee ticket. Memories upon memories came tumbling as I remembered the day I first met and fell in love with her; there were tears (yeah, then too) and shouts and blaring horns, the ticket checkers had a role to play too; and yes, who can forget the traffic havildar. All had fit in, like a heavenly jigsaw-piece by piece, and perfectly aligned…..
The Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) bus I was supposed to take to my college had a reputation of being extremely crowded in the morning. Tales of stolen mobiles, wallets, watches and lunchboxes (…?) flowed freely among the uncles travelling in bus number 764. And yet, crowded buses or overtly skilled pick pockets were the last thing that I would have cared for that day. It was after all my first day to college, and my mind was rather pre-occupied. Monstrous seniors, pretty girls and spectacled clueless nerds (yes, I’d been admitted to an engineering college) were scattered all across my eager and excited brain. The niches left out were occupied by weird, wire-cropped grandmen for professors.
But as I was waiting on that morning, surrounded by all kinds of people, for bus number 764, I realized that the bus was proving to be a consideration too. About an hour had passed since the latter of the two buses (both of which had people hanging out of their gates) had left leaving a trail of dust in its wake. Since I did not want to get late on my first day to college I’d already resolved to board the next bus even if I had to travel on the roof. I didn’t know it then but another girl standing seven stops apart had apparently decided to do the same (sans the roof part that is).
The third bus came promptly and it was reasonably empty (reasonably empty in context of DTC bus means you can stand in the bus without getting strangled). I stepped in and the crowd besides me shoved me in the front of the bus, where a non-women, non-elderly and non-physically disabled person cannot hope to find a seat because they all have a reserved tag painted above them. The bus moved on and my thoughts reverted back to seniors, girls and nerds, which I expected my college to be full of (I was a little doubtful about the girls though). Past the broken roads and dysfunctional signals and tea stalls the bus came to a halt on a functional but red traffic signal. It was then that the elderly aunty occupying the “mahilayein” seat besides me got up and squeezed herself to move towards the door. I usually avoided taking the reserved seats but since two non women passengers (an elderly uncle in front and a school boy at the back) were already occupying the seats in front of me and behind, I decided to take the seat (though it wouldn’t be long before I would have to give it away). The red signal turned green and the bus moved on towards the stop where, looking eagerly in its direction was a beautiful girl. Ironical though it may seem, but at that exact time I was hoping not to find any girl on the next stop as I peeked out of the window.
She emerged into my life very slowly. First the pink of her top emerged from behind the speeding car then her rippling hair slowly came into view, I suddenly forgot that she was a potential danger to my seat (women!) and desperately longed to see her face. It was still eluded by a tall moron who was in a hurry to get onto the bus. The tall guy shifted to the back door and my eyes fell on her. She was more beautiful than Id expected. My eyes followed her weaving her way through the crowd towards the conductor at the back leaving the scent of her perfume to linger behind.
“A fifteen rupee ticket” I heard her say, she took the ticket passed the boy sitting behind, ignored the uncle sitting in front, and chose to stand mute gazing at the sign “RESERVED FOR WOMEN” painted in blue above my seat. I stood up saying a feeble sorry (her beauty somewhat declined at this point) and she occupied the seat still holding the fifteen rupee ticket in her hand. All the gents and boys sitting or standing in the vicinity checked her out as she took out a phone which had a pink cover with small rabbit ears at the top (how can anybody buy that?) and popped the earphone hanging out from the top into her ears. I couldn’t imagine then that this beautiful girl sitting beside me listening to some melody out of a phone with a pink rabbit ear cover would one day be my girlfriend (and crying mate). It seemed more likely that I would never see her again, that she was most probably one of those many pretty DTC girls who come and vanish forever leaving beautiful memories in our hearts. But this girl was here to stay and stay forever. And five elderly men waiting at the next stop ensured that it happened.
There was sort of traffic jam at the signal leading to Palam Mor. The bus was still bursting with people and I had long lost hope of finding any seat, reserved or unreserved. The beautiful girl who had stripped me of my seat was still busy listening to songs from her phone (little did she know that the next few moments of her life would prove to be one of the more unmelodious ones). Five elderly men with graying hair and stubble boarded the bus on the next stop. They were the dreaded DTC ticket checkers, and lately they had begun to hunt in herds (this step was preceded by increasing incidents of manhandling of a single checker by young ticket defaulters). Three of the five attacked from the rear (to prevent any defaulter from escaping) and two came from the front.
“Take your tickets out everybody, quick” they grunted in unison.
Seat after seat the checkers moved towards the girl who still had her eyes closed lost in her song (which song was she listening to?).
“Show me your ticket” the more menacing of the five held his hairy hand in front of the girl, who promptly opened her eyes and propped her earphone off.
“Ticket?” the checker repeated. He clearly hated being kept waiting.
The girl looked at her hands; they only clutched her earphone and no ticket. She moved towards her bag and searched it-pocket by pocket (her bag seemed to have an incredible number of pockets and needless to say the checker did not appreciate this). She wrenched her hand out of the last pocket, still clutching just the earphone.
“Did you buy the ticket or not” the checker asked rudely. His voice seemed to panic the girl, she looked around to search for her ticket. As far as I could guess she had most probably dropped her ticket while taking her seat (and if that was true…..she was in trouble)
“No uncle I bought the ticket” she said with watery eyes “fifteen rupees ticket”.
The checker wasn’t impressed by the details as he called his nearest colleague.
“See these days even girls don’t buy the ticket” the other nodded in agreement
“No Uncle I….” a drop of tear rolled down her cheek as she stood up to check her jeans pocket.
“Come out and pay the fine” the other one cut in.
“But uncle…” words failed her and instead she looked around in search of sympathetic faces. Her kohl lined tears stained eyes met mine, the most persuasive pair of eyes I’d ever seen. I looked from her to the elderly ticket checker (looking no less mean than a hardcore Bollywood villain). Ah women! They make guys do foolish things. I scavenged my jeans pocket and extended my ticket to the checker.
“That’s hers” I said without looking at the crying girl staring at me in surprise. The checker looked at the ticket slightly ruffled.
“And where’s yours?” he asked glaring at me.
“I forgot to buy” I replied and felt like a sudden hero (in front of the hardcore villains) as I said this. Now that the girl was saved the people grumbled loudly that they were getting late. The five checkers smugly cornered me and forced me out of the bus and I saw the beautiful black eyes see me fading away as the green bus sped past.
The July sun was already high up in the sky and beating vehemently upon the six heads which had just stepped out of a green bus. One of those heads (the black one) belonged to me and It was wondering why it was here with other grey heads. I had foolishly given my ticket away for a girl I didn’t know and whom I’d never see again (how was I supposed to know that we would bump into each other while escaping seniors this afternoon in college). The five men took me under the shed of the Palam Mor stop and surrounded me.
“Chori ne to bacha liya tanne chal do so rupe nikaal” (now that you’ve saved the girl pay the 200 rupee fine) they demanded in Haryanvi.
I visualized my wallet and counted how much was stacked in its various obscure places. Perhaps, slightly more than 200.
“I don’t have” I replied. The checker negotiating with me looked at his other colleagues.
“Where were you going” they asked me. I wondered the significance of this question ( does the fine depend upon the distance travelled).
“Dwarka sector-13” I said “to my college” (perhaps they charge less fine from a student).
“Why did you give your ticket to the girl? Did you know her?” another one asked. Perhaps I should just pay the 200 and leave, all this interrogation was getting to my nerves. Still I decided to try my luck slightly. maybe they would leave me without the fine.
“Yes she was a friend” I said and believed it for the moment (I had also considered calling her a sister or a girlfriend, but the first was unacceptable to me and the second might have been unacceptable to them).
Amidst all this, a traffic cop came strolling towards the stop. He was young for a traffic havildar, had sun glasses on and was whistling a popular tune (he wasn’t the one being interrogated by five useless ticket checkers after all)
“So uncle, another defaulter” he beamed to one of the checkers. The checker seemed to know him.
Checker ‘uncle’ reported my story to him. The havildar found it rather amusing and grinned at me and for the next few minutes the six people (five checkers and a traffic havildar) discussed the sorry state of the country’s youth and left me alone to stare at them talking. The oldest of the checkers told the party how righteous and hardworking he was in his youth ( yes, hardworking people often end up harassing young boys and girls as ticket checkers). Others also joined in with their untold and unheard tales and I could do nothing but listen them. I considered telling them I was getting late but decided against it for the fear of offending them (old men are cranky anyways).
Finally the talk ended with the traffic havildar attributing my actions to javani ka josh (youthful energy – but it loses its essence in translation). The talk seemed to have taken the sternness out of their faces, perhaps they’ll allow me to leave now. A DTC bus was waiting at the red signal, I decided to make a move.
“Uncle I’m getting late please let me go, I’ll never do it again” all the checkers looked at me making me nervous.
“Jaane bhi do uncle bachca hai” (let him go uncle, he’s just a kid) the havildar cut in my defense.
After much more pestering and defense arguments the checkers agreed and reluctantly let me go, although with double ticket punching as a fine. So I stepped in my new bus putting an end to this eventful morning and clearing my brain to face my first day to college. But the eyes remained, like a small itch, nudging the back of my mind. However hard I tried to steer them out, they would still remain staring at me. I smiled at myself as one of the many DTC stops faded away and wondered if I’d ever see those eyes again.