It had been nearly thirty years since I’d embarked on that ever so familiar bus journey- the journey from my home in Idukki through Gavi, Pathanamthitta. Today, I was returning from Madurai, after meeting an old college mate. I had taken a train to the nearest railway station, Kadayanallur, and the bus would take me the rest of the way. Back when I had joined as a deputy clerk in the registrar’s office of Gavi, this had been a regular routine as the bus journey was the only way to commute to any point from the hilly terrain of Gavi. As I began traversing through the unforgettable mountainous landscape, my mind began a journey of its own, transcending time and space, taking me back to those days.
It was in the year 1975 that I had joined the office of the sub registrar, having qualified with a reputable distinction in B.Com. I was disappointed by the distance between my home and place of work, but out of desperation to pay off the looming threats from the ever-increasing number of creditors my family owed money to, I had to accept it. The job was simple and pay was satisfactory, but travel was a headache. It was during the initial periods of this monotonous routine that I met her- Gayatri. She too was a deputy clerk, from a similar background of poverty and suffering. The hours of travelling and working together allowed us to get closer to each other, to such an extent that soon, we could not part. Life in those days passed by blissfully quickly and I’m dismayed at my failing memory which only allows me to recollect so few of those precious moments spent in her company.
“Let’s GO!” The loud voice of the man awoke me from my nap, and dragged me back from my wonderful reminiscence. He was seated next to me, and he looked like one of the typical middle aged men found in abundance in most parts of Kerala: stern looking, clean shaven and wearing the quintessential frown on his face. His kind of people always found something or the other to complain about. I looked up to see the cause of his annoyance. The bus had halted at one of the tea stalls so that the passengers could get some refreshments. He was expressing his impatience at what he felt was an unnecessary delay. The group of passengers gave him an annoyed glance, as did the conductor and driver, before everyone slowly trudged back on to the bus. Once again, we began moving at the slow pace that the bus had been used to for all those many years. We passed by several small buildings, shops, a school, until finally we came before the building that brought a fresh set of memories flooding back- the registrar office.
She and I had become so close that the very thought of us parting had been unbearable. We decided, as was customary in those days to approach our parents and present the idea of marriage before them. It was just when we decided to do so that I received my transfer order. I was to shift to Thodupuzha which was a lot closer to home, but much further from her. Heartbreak and tears followed but the parting was inevitable. I promised her that I would return as soon as possible and she assured me that she would wait no matter how long it took. Amid my fading recollections is an indelible, slowly fading image of my beloved’s tear-streamed face as the bus gradually began to increase the distance between us…
“Ticket, please!” The conductor had been the one to wake me this time. My co-passenger took some change out of his pocket and muttered his destination. The bus had meanwhile begun to come to a halt before another small hotel from where the travelers could get refreshments, or use the washroom. My companion stayed still, mumbling under his breath about more time being wasted while at the same time glancing repeatedly at his watch. I wondered what the cause of his anxiety was, and was about to ask him, when suddenly he shouted again: “That’s enough. Let’s go now! Why do you irresponsible people not follow any schedule?! The bus is already more than an hour late.” The conductor glared angrily at him, but the driver ignored him as did the other passengers. They walked back at their own slow pace, shooting challenging glances at the man, continuing to heighten his irritation. A bunch of teenagers boarded the bus at this point, and a boy and a girl from the group came and sat in the seat in front of us and began talking animatedly in hushed voices. The cool breeze, the gentle whispers and the incessant muttering of my neighbor once again allowed me to stroll down memory lane.
Within six months of my transfer, I returned to my old office in Gavi. I was filled with a heightened sense of anticipation at the thought of seeing my sweetheart again. I ran up the steps leading to the office and I saw her sitting at her desk, approached her and smiled at her. She did not return the smile. Instead, she formally asked me how my new place of work was. Her cold attitude shocked me, but I attributed it to some possible work related stress she was suffering from, and asked her to meet me after office hours so we could discuss about our future.We met at the bus stop in front of the office, and she continued her cold and aloof behavior. I tried ignoring it at first, but when I could take it no longer I asked her the reason. She replied that she was a woman and that she required a man who could be there for her, and not some long-distance stranger. She said that she had found someone who cared about her, tended to her, and she was in love with him. I was too numb to react. Was this indeed the woman I had fallen in love with, and wished to spend the rest of my life with? Without so much as another word, she stepped on to the next bus that had approached, never looking back, and never even saying goodbye. As the bus slowly left from the stop, I felt as though a part of me that could never be replaced, had been forcefully snatched away…
As the bus screeched to a halt, I was once again forced awake. To this day, thinking of that moment fills my heart with pain, and envelopes me with a sense of overwhelming grief. As I looked outside my eyes began filling with water, like the layer of dew that starting to form on the leaves. I lifted my tear-laden eyes slowly to look at the reason for the abrupt halt, and saw the youngsters alight from the bus near a very scenic and picturesque waterfall. They were naturally excited at viewing the beauty of the fall for the first time, and although the sight was a familiar one for me, I could not help but smile at their excitement. Everyone in the bus seemed to revel in the excitement exuded by them; all except one person that is. My enraged neighbor continued complaining and gradually began shouting, saying things like “If you wanted to go sightseeing, you should have taken a taxi, not a public bus. This is a nuisance to everyone else.”
They took their own sweet time once again, in returning to the bus. Once inside, they began to chatter excitedly over the quality of the pictures they’d taken and how they could have clicked several more. Then, they started singing popular numbers and most of the passengers started humming along. One of the students was standing next to our seat, and when the bus made a rather sharp turn, he bumped into my brooding co-passenger. He was roughly pushed off, before my companion went off to find another seat a little further ahead. His unreasonably harsh behavior evoked even more irritated reactions from the remainder of the travelers.
“Conductor, please stop a little ahead, near that curve.” It was the first time anything had been spoken by him in a tone that wasn’t an angry command.
“Weren’t you the one who was behaving like the Transport Minister til now? There’s no stop til two kilometres further ahead. So, sit down and wait” the conductor replied sarcastically.
“STOP IT MAN!”
There was a finality, an almost threatening one about that statement which led to the bus being brought to a halt. The man rushed out of the bus, and towards a house on the opposite side of the road. I moved towards a window on the other side of the bus to see what all the commotion was about.
He was making his way to a small house. The ground in front of that house was littered with a swarm of quietly whispering people, and loudly wailing women. There was also an ambulance parked nearby. As I watched, they brought out the body of a woman on a stretcher. I only had to take one look to feel as though the life had been sucked out of me, the earth pulled away from beneath me, all over again. It had been thirty years, but no amount of time or even lifetimes would ever let me forget that face- Gayatri.