Her brows were not folded like the others’ waiting at the semi-crowded bus stop. Unlike any of them Arundhoti was not tired of waiting. She was never tired of anything. She could pass her time seeing and hearing things nobody would bother paying any attention to.
Today she was all the more relaxed as she had more than enough time in hand. The meeting was due at 7 and it was only 5.30 by her watch. It would take at the most 45 minutes to reach Kalpana’s residence at New Alipore.
The two men beside her had just broken into another argument over Nandigram. Arundhoti was amused.
“Just another way of passing time” she thought.
The elderly woman clad in an off-white silk saree turned to look at the men with a bored expression. Indeed they were prating away nothing different from what the news papers and channels had been drilling into everybody’s system over the last six weeks.
The child accompanying the young couple that was standing behind Arundhoti was getting increasingly impatient. Neither of the parents had an answer to his persistent, “when will the bus come?” He demanded some of the fried stuff a young lad was selling right beside the bus stop.
“Price for waiting…….so typically childish”, Arundhoti thought.
His parents’ refusal to relent on grounds of the food being dirty and unhygienic was equally typical, she felt.
Just then a commotion from right across the street drew her attention. But this time all the pairs of eyes turned to look at the same direction.
No it was nothing extra-ordinary, a common scene on a city street.
The commotion centered round a young girl, no way beyond twenty-five, Arundhoti thought. She was standing in front of a road side tea-stall. Barely clad and most of it in patched up rags, with coarse, dirty and tousled hair, her very movements and appearance made it evident beyond doubts that she was mentally challenged, in a commoner’s lingo, stark mad.
Arundhoti was too sensitive to remain unaffected by the happenings in front of her eyes. The few customers at the stall, mostly belonging to the labour class delighted themselves in ridiculing the girl, calling her names and making indecent gestures most of which the poor girl didn’t even seem to understand.
She kept asking for some food, wriggled around a lamp post in front of the stall and sometimes made faces at the ruthless teasers, only adding to their merciless mirth. A few passers by had stopped to see the fun. The girl however did not show any sign of moving away.
Arundhoti tried to follow her gaze which seemed to rest on a slightly built woman sitting inside the stall, busy shouting orders to a young boy who carried tea and snacks to the customers. She was evidently the owner of the stall. Her eyes never met those that were resting on her. She seemed too busy scribbling down the accounts of her business.
“Does the woman know that girl? Is she aware of her presence?” Arundhoti couldn’t help wondering. But the kind of commotion that was going on right in front of her eyes it was impossible that she hadn’t noticed.
“It’s not important enough to bother her, perhaps a regular scene for her”, thought Arundhoti.
It was amazing how she could carry on business unperturbed without even stealing a glance ahead while everyone in that shack was busy poking fun at the mad girl.
Suddenly the situation became a little violent when a middle aged, stout looking man rushed out from somewhere behind the stall and charged at the girl, hurling filthy abuses at her. He carried a stainless steel plate in his hands, threatening to throw it at the girl if she didn’t leave the spot immediately.
“What is the poor creature’s fault? What has she done to deserve all this?” Arundhoti’s heart wrung.
The girl now looked really scared. Probably the fear of being physically hurt, melted down her hitherto defiance. She turned to leave.
And just then it happened.
It rendered everyone present there, speechless for a while.
It was a voice, a female voice, loud and firm that came from inside the stall.
It cried, “Stop, don’t go anywhere”.
Arundhoti was amazed to find that it was the voice of that stall owning woman. The firmness of her voice beguiled her slight build.
On finding the girl still scared and preparing to move away, she shouted a little louder this time as though to make herself heard by everyone around, “ You will not go away before you have finished eating your food.”
So saying she came out of the shack, herself carrying a plate full of some food. Arundhoti could not make out from the distance what exactly she was offering but heard her voice once more telling the girl this time however a little tenderly, “You will go only after you have eaten to the full”.
There was an authority in her voice which fascinated Arundhoti.
She noticed how the man, in all probability that woman’s husband, who had charged at the girl, did not utter a word and quietly went behind the stall again.
The girl in the meantime had seated herself on the footpath and was hogging on the contents of the plate happily. The crowd had started to slink away and the men inside the stall busied themselves in sipping their tea and talking. The stall owning lady was back to her own work also, once again indifferent to the proceedings around her.
The loud honking of the horn made Arundhoti turn. The bus was about to leave. Most of the people waiting so long had already boarded it. She was the last one to hurry up the steps, her mind still lingering on the rapid sequence of events that she had just witnessed.
The seat beside the elderly lady who was there at the bus stop with her was vacant. Arundhoti seated herself trying to let the impact of those few moments sink in.
“What a statement she made, what a spirit of protest from an uneducated woman, what a gesture of humanity!”
The more she thought, the bigger the lump in her throat became.
Arundhoti allowed her eyes to rest on the buildings, vehicles and trees rushing past…..soon it all blurred into a misty vision as bus number S-35 sped down the road.