4:03 PM. “Lalbagh, Yediyur, Banashankari, Lalbagh, Yediyur, Banashankari….”
The conductor’s monotonous, nasal cry broke Sharanamma’s concentration. She was eyeing the white (now grey with use) imitation leather bag with cheetah prints, draped on the arm of a girl two three persons away from her. She noticed that the bag was bulging and more importantly, the girl’s purse – one of those new fangled contraptions with a clasp (Sigh! It used to be a lot easier)-was peeping with interest at the commotion and bustle around it.
An easy swipe, Sharanamma thought. While she was meditating on the best strategy to get to her goal, the benevolent conductor, ever- accommodative, let the waves of passengers besiege the bus. Sharanamma, assaulted by wave after wave of human flotsam, was sent to the nether regions of the bus, farther and farther away from her prize. After what seemed like ages, the conductor’s shout ‘Riyya’ finally prevailed and the bus creeped forward at a snail’s pace.
Now worried about the growing distance between her and the coveted object, Sharanamma tried to move closer but was welded tightly between two buxom ladies. The bus made a heroic attempt to propel itself but screeched to a halt, as though in protest to the growing weight of humanity.
The conductor jumped out to inspect the tyres and lo and behold! A flat tyre. Sighing and grumbling, the irate passengers stomped out, glancing at their watch with worried faces and demanding that they get their money back.
Luckily, the bus had broken down near the next bus stop and the overcrowded bus eased out its tormentors. Sharanamma pushed the people in front of her with gusto, so as to not lose sight of her prize. There the girl stood, in the milling crowd, her bag the focal point of Sharanamma’s gaze. Huffing and panting, her weight not withstanding Sharanamma managed to secure a spot next to the girl in the bus stop. Almost immediately, a bus came rumbling and the stampede began. All traces of civilized behaviour simply vanished as everybody ruthlessly began to push and tug in whatever little space was available. Sharanamma was no exception. But, she took care not to lose sight of the bag. To her delight she found herself right next to her target, but since a nearby seat emptied Sharanamma, unthinking, with a quick reflex, flounced on it.
Half relieved (she had been standing for so long! her legs were not what they used to be) and half annoyed (what was the hurry? Why couldn’t she have waited till her mission was accomplished?), she felt the need for a drastic change in strategy.
Sharanamma sat, cudgelling her brains to think of something when all of a sudden, the girl bent towards her with a sweet smile and requested Sharanamma to hold the bag because she was finding it difficult to lug it in the overcrowded bus! Talk about luck! Sharanamma couldn’t believe her good fortune. It wasn’t often that she got things this easy. It would be a simple matter of deftly opening the purse, emptying the contents and putting it back – A matter of seconds for an old hand like Sharanamma.
The girl with the sweet face, was looking the other way innocently, unaware of Sharanamma’s intentions. Cautiously, with a sly glance to make sure nobody was looking at her, she nonchalantly put her hand on the clasp. Just as she was about to undo it, A small niggling thought made her hesitant and indecisive. Was she doing the right thing? Her conscience troubled her. This kid, young enough to be her granddaughter had been so trusting with her, was it right on her part to betray that trust?
A big dilemma stared her right in the face. She normally avoided thinking about consequences, precisely because it made her indecisive. And hesitation in her trade would mean sure death! All the same, the girl seemed like a kind person. But what was she to do, she had to feed her crippled husband at home and her five finger discounts were the only means of sustenance. Many a times, in her moments of introspection, her conscience often made her feel ashamed of herself, but like her father before her who had taught her all of his sleight of hand tricks, she prayed for forgiveness and broke a few coconuts at the temple and all would be well.
Sharanamma occasionally followed the Robin Hood principle to make sure she did not steal from the poor. She used this as a thumb rule in testing times like these. She looked at the girl from top to bottom taking in everything from the kind of earrings she was wearing to the colour of her toenails! Lower middle class, probably works in a BPO…..hands must have been beautiful but now roughened with work…..Poor girl has bags under her eyes , maybe she spends sleepless nights worrying……The more she saw, the lesser she liked her predicament.
Sharanamma had been so intent on her problem, that she hadn’t noticed the wave of alertness and fear that had crept into the (rather stale and foul-smelling) atmosphere of the bus. She saw that it was caused by the loud mouthed ticket checking officials who had entered the bus. The suave conductor stood simpering, afraid because if a passenger had failed to take a ticket from him, he would also be fined.
Sharanamma had not taken a ticket. But she wasn’t unduly bothered since she could say that she had taken the ticket in the other bus (which she hadn’t!) It was then that she noticed, with a feeling of catastrophe that the conductor of the previous bus was also there, with his trip sheet neat and immaculate in his hand. One of the inspectors took it from him and began to check the passengers’ tickets, with grim relish.
He seemed familiar. Sharanamma scrutinised his face with interest. Horror of horrors, this was the same fellow who had almost nabbed her on one of her escapades! What was worse, he seemed to be looking at her intently, trying to place her face. Uh-oh, he was looming closer and closer …….She remembered that day, it had been a close shave. She had plunged her hand in a lady’s bag, but before she could get down in the next stop, the lady had raised a hue and cry and spotted her near the exit gates…..She had recognized her as the woman who kept falling on her and had correctly identified her as the thief. Before the conductor and the bemused passengers could get at her, she had run away, almost jumping from the bus before it had stopped. She ran and ran until she had reached a small street, her heart palpitating at the thought of getting arrested.
Now, he was right before her, demanding her ticket. There was a light of recognition in his eyes, but uncertainty as well. Heartened by this, Sharanamma made a great show of searching for her ticket in the small pouch she kept close to her heart, under her blouse, while the inspector grumbled at her for not keeping it ready. Her histrionic abilities took her nowhere. Though she put on a very convincing act of getting distressed, the inspector seemed unimpressed. Sharanamma was beginning to be afraid of the steely glint in his eyes, as though he suddenly recognized her. He began to rant: “You need to pay the fine for not taking a ticket…. It’s Rs.500…….That will teach you for travelling without a ticket ….Cough up, or else we’ll take you to the station”
Sharanamma, hemming and hawing – “But sir, I took the ticket in the last bus, maybe it got lost in the crowd. Please, believe me, sir……You can ask the conductor if you want”
The conductor of the previous bus who had been watching this spectacle with interest, piped in, “No, I don’t remember her taking the ticket……I have a good memory for faces, I do.” The last bit said with pride.
Sharanamma, vexed, started cursing him in a rage. She used all the colourful expletives that she knew and called him a donkey for not remembering that she had taken a ticket.
The inspector: “I don’t believe you! Pay the fine or we’ll lock you up in the jail.”
Sharanamma tried a different tactic. She opened her pouch, so that her audience could see the contents and howled pitifully. “I only have hundred rupees, sir. From where shall I get the money to pay the fine? Five children to feed at home, and a crippled husband……Please let me go, sir…. I will take one more ticket if you want….”
The inspector was unrelenting. He called a lady inspector to come and drag her out by force. Sharanamma raised such an amazing ruckus that all the passengers stared at her, unsure of what to do. The girl with the sweet face, troubled by all this, opened her purse and gave the fine amount hesitantly to the inspector.
“ Here, take this and leave her alone…….I know that she is innocent….I saw her taking the ticket in the other bus…you are hounding a poor old woman who has lost her ticket….you should be ashamed of yourself!”
The inspector stood there shamefaced, stunned into silence. He stepped back, as if affronted. “There’s no need for you to give the money.”He said gruffly…..”If you had seen her take the ticket, you should have said so, instead of all this drama.” He went off on his rounds in a huff.
Sharanamma couldn’t believe it! She looked at the girl with tears of gratitude in her eyes and thanked her. The girl with the sweet face smiled. Did she wink or did Sharanamma imagine it?