This short story became SPIXer (Most popular story) on 01 Mar 2014 and won INR 500
This story is selected as Editor’s Choice
Prakash honked repeatedly, looking at the small gate with a slight sense of urgency and unease.
‘She is never this late!’ he thought in his mind, as he heard some passengers grumbling about being late.
Prakash was an APSRTC bus driver, who always frequented on the route of ‘Ligampally’ to ‘Koti’ in Hyderabad. Although, picking random passengers was his order of the day, yet off late, he had taken fancy to this young college going girl, who never spoke, yet he felt a strange inquisitiveness towards her quiet and amicable demeanor.
“Hey you! Why are you wasting time?” somebody shouted from the rear of the bus.
Prakash knew that the wait was causing a lot of distress and was brewing a commotion. Heaving a sigh, he started the engine. As the engine roared to life, he looked again at the small gate in anticipation and then changed the gears. Suddenly, he heard the familiar voice.
“Ruko! Stop Stop!”
He turned around and looked. It was her. Dressed in pale purple and red floral printed salwar kameez, she looked radiant. She was running breathlessly and simultaneously adjusting her heavy sling bag, which was literally bursting with books. As she grabbed the poles of the bus entrance, Prakash felt that she radiated all the more. Prakash looked at her face, which was all flushed red in perspiration. She was breathing heavily. The conductor looked at her and pulled her up and signaled to start. Prakash looked at her and she smiled back. He knew it was the smile of gratitude. He too beamed at her and drove on.
Unlike her routine days, when she took the seat right across him in the front, she had to keep standing. The bus was jam packed and there was hardly any space for the girl to even keep her bag. Reluctantly, Prakash saw her keeping the bag on his bunk, behind his seat. She looked at him through the mirror and smiled reluctantly, as if asking for permission. He just blinked his approval as she went a tinge of crimson red. Through his mirror, he could see her popping in her headphones out and turning it on. This was what amused him every day. She loved to wind her half an hour journey to college to ‘Mehdipatnam’ with this little musical gadget. He loved the way her silent eyes danced to the songs of her walkman, oblivion to the hustle and bustle of the day traffic or the crowd inside the bus. Sometimes, she looked out to see if any familiar faces got on the bus, or else she would go back to her day dreaming, smiling calmly in her own world.
The moment the bus crossed ‘Necklace Road’, she would start wrapping her mini-musical gadget in her bag. However, that day, it was slightly different. She approached Prakash, who dexterously handed over her bag from his rear, smiling at her. Prakash never knew who she was or what her name was or which college she went to. He just knew that she resided somewhere near her pick up point and he addressed her as ‘the small gate’ girl in his mind.
“So, why was she late?” asked Ram, the conductor. He loved to tease him with her.
Prakash, always known as the rough and tough and thoroughly arrogant rogue, blushed at the comment.
“How would I know?” he said in his usual gruff tone.
“Really?” Ram said with a naughty twinkle in his eyes. He loved this part of their conversation every day, when he asked him about her and he rudely ignored the question. He could not hide it from Ram, who knew that he liked her a lot.
“Why don’t you go and deposit the collected corpus for the morning shift!” Prakash spoke, wiping Ram’s smile and diluting all his fun.
Ram grumbled as he took his leather pouch for his day’s earning and walked to the depot office!
Prakash stayed back in the bus. His mind probed into Ram’s statement. Why was she actually late? By evening, his mind was working on figuring out a conversation with her, but he didn’t know how. In a bus full of people, how can he, a driver, ask a girl her name? What would people think? In fact, what would she think? His mind was getting tensed with every passing moment. He had to know somehow, yet the idea of a direct question seemed too rude to him.
“Maybe after some days!” he thought and smiled.
The next day, she was sharp on time, just like the other days. In her red and blue salwar kameez, she radiated all the more and it was getting difficult for Prakash to keep his eyes off. The conductor jibed good naturedly, as he grabbed her bag, to keep it behind the seat of Prakash.
“Aaj aap bahut ache lag rahe ho? Today you’re looking very nice!” he looked at Prakash for his approval for his comment, who looked away slightly embarrassed and annoyed.
The girl simply mumbled a ‘thank you’ and went to take her seat, which was today vacant. Prakash was thrilled. She was sitting right across his seat and he had no difficulties throughout the journey to steal glances at her, while she remained oblivion to his occasional stares. Prakash enjoyed the sight when the wind gently blew her hair across her face, which she delicately pinned back to the nape of her ear. The wind was getting quite forceful every second and soon her dupatta was getting away, despite her attempts to keep it still. She looked flustered, slightly embarrassed as her eyes met Prakash’s. The latter quickly looked away and did not look back at her. He was too busy in trying to control that little flutter that was causing a lot of queasiness in his stomach. He finally looked at her through his rear window mirror, when she finally had got down and was crossing the road to get to her college.
He could see the wind was still roaring in full force, making it difficult for her to adjust herself.
“Aaj tu chala!” Prakash told Ram to drive the bus and he casually threw the keys at him. “I will take the tickets!” he further added.
“Why not!” Ram replied with his lopsided smile as he got behind the wheels.
Prakash slung the leather pouch, which clinked loudly with metal coins and stood by the stairs. He quickly checked himself into the mirror and smiled a nervous smile.
“You are looking nice!” said Ram mischievously.
Prakash ignored and looked out of the bus as passengers started pouring in at the first stop.
As his bus stopped at the small gate, there was no sign of her. Prakash quickly got down from the bus and looked around, but there was still no sign of hers.
“Damn,” he muttered under his breath. He was cursing his luck more and more, but Ram couldn’t help it as he got angry glares from the rest of the passengers.
“She won’t come!” somebody shouted from the back.
Prakash turned to face a middle aged woman. He recognized her. She too got down at the same stop in ‘Mehdipatnam’ as the ‘small gate’ girl did.
“How do you know?” Prakash asked, trying to sound as casual as possible.
“She is not well!” the female replied eyeing him suspiciously.
Prakash tried to hide his disturbed expression, but Ram smiled cheerily at him.
Finally, on the seventh day, she arrived. The bus was once again packed and the girl had to stand on the stairs, next to him.
Prakash’s mind whizzed with a feeling of euphoria unknown, as he smelled her light floral perfume. He looked at her slowly.
She turned a little shade of red as she noticed him gazing and quickly looked around. Today, she was also unable to take her walkman out, amidst the heavy crowd. Unfortunately, she simply hung onto the only rod that she could find to support herself.
Suddenly, the bus hit the brakes and the girl lost control. She was about to fall off the bus when Prakash acted in an impulse. He quickly grabbed her hand and pulled her.
The crowded bus was all chaotic by then as nobody understood the cause of the sudden brakes. People had fallen all over. Some fell on others, while others whined in pain as they had hit the floor or had banged on the rods.
Everybody looked out to gauge in the reason, to only find a bunch of goats suddenly on the road. While some cursed the goats, the others cursed Ram, who was shouting at the herd and at some of the passengers for not being able to hold onto well.
Only Prakash remained aloof to his surroundings around him. The ‘small gate girl’ was so close to him that he could feel her breath. She couldn’t even move back as the crowd had left no space for her to adjust herself.
It was only moments later that Prakash realized that his one hand was around her waist and another one on her hand, which was resting on his chest. She too realized the oddity of the situation, but simply looked away shyly.
Prakash quickly pushed the man, who was leaning behind her and helped her stand. As she tried to, her dupatta came away, tucking hard on his button. She undid it and quickly got herself covered as Prakash looked away, feeling hot in the face.
The commotion finally subdued and Ram had got the road clear to start off.
Although, things were better, the girl tried to get away from Prakash, trying to get hold onto the rod with both the hands. She quickly got down, without looking back at him.
“Did I do something to annoy her?” Prakash thought out aloud. He went through the scene again and again and did not know how to rectify it. Secretly he wished, he could unwind the situation, but remained helpless.
“Can’t you drive a little slowly?” he asked irritatingly as he thought about it.
“Arre! What could I have done? That stupid fellow suddenly left his herd of gots on the main road,” Ram explained. He too was quite upset with Prakash’s accusation, still he ignored his comment and started counting the money.
But Prakash was restless. He once again delved back into the situation with a strange feeling of annoyance and tension. He had wiped out a good opportunity to find about her.
Days passed and Prakash had returned to the driver’s seat. Even the ‘small gate’ girl was avoiding him by standing in the rear, despite the front seat lying vacant. Prakash knew that he had annoyed her, maybe even angered her. He felt guilty and decided to keep up to himself, until one day he encountered her sudden disappearance.
“She has left!” the same middle aged female replied to Ram, who stopped the bus near her pick up point routinely.
Prakash felt a hollow stone drop in his stomach. He looked at the female and immediately jumped with a question.
The teacher once again looked suspiciously at him, yet she kept a straight face.
“Her course was over and she had to leave college” she explained to a horrified Prakash.
“Course over?” he kept reminding himself again and again.
“It was not possible. How could she?” he kept asking in his mind.
That day even Ram remained saddened by his friend’s state of despair. He had seen him and his growing fondness for the girl for the past three years and this sudden turn of events was paining him.
“Chod yaar!” he consoled him, keeping a hand on his shoulder. “As it is, she was a passenger and …”
Prakash angrily brushed him away, but he could not brush Ram’s thoughts.
‘Yes, she was just a passenger after all. What did you think?’ his thought bubble told him.
‘It wasn’t like she would have gone on and on the same route forever!’ Prakash tried to reason out with his perturbed spirit.
Prakash got down the bus, leaving his mate on bus. He knew Ram was right, yet there was something bothering his heart.
‘I just hope she isn’t angry on me about that last incident!’ he thought. ‘Will she think of me as a noble soul ever?’
Suddenly the idea of her disappearing away did not pain away Prakash as much as the idea of her despising him did!
‘Oh, if only I could meet her again and explain!’ he thought every time he went by that stop. Although, he looked longingly for her slender frame to appear, yet she remained invisible.
Three years passed to that incident. Prakash had opted another route post that incident, to make peace with himself.
He was once again his happy rude self en-route. His tendency of picking fights and being arrogant to his mates was no news to people, who knew him well, yet there was a strange feeling of camaraderie in his voice. People loved to be around him, to feel a little protected, yet his feelings never aroused ever for anybody.
It was a routine Saturday evening, when he was on his last trip.
He had reached ‘Himayat Nagar’ stop, when a passenger got in. He was driving happily back, when a strange, faintly familiar smell made his eyebrows arch. It was the same floral perfume. He looked around, but could not see the source.
He shook his head, smiled and got back to wheeling, when the smell hit him with full force. Through his back mirror, he suddenly caught the glimpse of his past. It was the ‘small gate’ girl again.
She was the same, except that now she looked more beautiful than ever. She caught him stealing a glance at her. She looked at him and smiled, giving that sign of recognition.
Prakash’s heart skipped a beat.
His mind was racing with innumerable questions and their answers.
“Was she the same girl or was he hallucinating?” he thought as his mind got gripped with the first question. He kept looking at her and was sure that it was her.
“Has she forgiven me?” his thought bubble started bothering him with his age old question. “Should I ask where had she gone?”
He knew that these questions held little meaning in his life, especially when the person concerned was just another passenger.
“I’ll find out tomorrow for sure.” His thought bubble told him again.
Although, he felt slightly at ease and elated on seeing her, yet he could not muster a ‘namaste’ or some other form of wish to her, when she reached for a seat right across him.
Soon she got up and made way as the ‘Mehdipatnam’ stop neared. He looked back at her and this time she looked back and waved at him.
Prakash noticed her same old flustered smile as she waved. He too smiled and nodded cordially.
He looked at her from her rear window as she once again mingled in the crowd, under the fazing sun.
He was smiling into himself, surprisingly content with the feeling that was overpowering him now.
“Mil hi gayi tujhe wo!” Ram said smiling. “She also recognized and smiled.”
Prakash nodded and smiled in agreement.
“So now what? Will I see you this time on bus tomorrow?” Ram asked him, anticipating a reply, that would say ‘yes’.
Although, Prakash’s mind was racing with past memories and there was the sudden urge to once again follow her, yet something inside him held him back.
“Of course not!” he said surprising Ram. “I’m going to my village tomorrow. My sister is getting married bhai. How can I not attend it?” he replied as he drove into the Bus depot.
“But what about….”
Ram was abruptly cut in-between.
“I’m not going to ruin a happy memory this time. I am just happy to know that she recognizes me.”
“And what about that incident?” Ram asked looking puzzled. He knew how much his friend had remained in pain for the all these years in search of that answer. “How do you know that she has forgiven you?” he added further.
“I know she has”, Prakash replied as he remembered her smile.
“I have already got my answer!” Prakash said before he cycled out from the depot looking strangely happy and satisfied.