BUS #242 by Barnali Ray Shukla

Illustration of a fortune cookie

It is not easy to forgive someone who nearly killed you. Tougher still is to live on, without forgiving.

I remember that June morning in Bombay, thirteen monsoons ago. I had just had a near-miss deadline at work. This toxic employer had screamed in public, mocked my sincerity and called me inept. I had kept my chin up and fingers crossed. The umpteenth draft of the episode, warm now in that folder, would convey that. But with freelance writing, one never knows. I didn’t either.

The next hour was a tougher call. An ageing ma-in-law was to be taken to a clinic for an eye check-up.

I got home first, her lunch hour was non-negotiable. Ma-in-law was speaking at the rate of 243 words a minute. I am not sure if I was responding to her or to the voices in my head. Just when I thought I had deposited her safely at the clinic, my cellphone rang. It was Dad. Today, he chose to whine – so unlike Dad. There was anguish over a pending legal suit which he hadn’t shared with Ma, an allegation which rid itself many monsoons later. For that moment, I was his sole confidante. It was a miracle that I sounded calm, almost comforting. It was just when he asked me how I was that I started weeping.

Heads turned. At any clinic there is enough grief already. I had no business to add to that. I fixed the smudged mascara and my frayed nerves. However, I wish I hadn’t controlled my tears. They would have eventually washed off the mask that all adults wear while dealing with their own selves in public.

Back home I tucked ma-in-law in bed for her afternoon siesta. I felt loved when she smiled at me. The doctor’s visit had helped. It is rare that she would say so, but I sensed gratitude in her fragile expression. I hugged her quickly. I followed up my good daughter-in-law number with a report on phone to her son, my husband, who was at work. I didn’t find the husband but found a recorded voice asking me to talk after a beep. I was almost at home with talking to the machine. I laughed out loud, that nervous short laugh. Obeyed the machine, left a voice message, realised I had skipped lunch. It was becoming the norm. All I would do is cook for my ma-in-law and explain her the menu and leave for work. If the husband was around I paid attention to food. That was pathetic.

By then, I had updated my Facebook status: “No one in the world is supposed to understand the personal battles that raise our hackles. The beauty ‘lies’ in acceptance.”

I then sent an SMS to a teammate, telling her that I would be a little late for the 3pm ideation meeting. She didn’t respond. I got out of home, walked to the ATM, withdrew cash. The first thing I wanted to do was eat. I didn’t want to spend money on transport. Unpublished writers have to choose between coffee, food, and transport. Today I chose food.

I stood at the bus stop, wanted to gorge at a buffet. I could have walked but I saw the bus route 242. Looked up as I smiled about the firmness of my choice. It was almost as if good things were just round the corner. But my smile was short-lived. The bus swerved mercilessly.

I thought the massive bus had been hit, but what was hit was the driver’s ego. A salsa red Audi SUV had overtaken from the wrong side. The driver, in his anger, had barely stopped the bus. He didn’t bother to see that I had got onto the bus or not. I fell on the footboard of the bus and the men around didn’t get up to help. They called out to their Lord Almighty in native tongue. The bus lurched again. The driver still furious, was chasing the Audi. I was still clutching onto the steel rod which had helped me unlike my fellow beings. A soundtrack of a war movie was playing in my head.

I slowly got up, trembling in fright and anger. Slowly moved ahead from the rear entrance, clutching onto anything in sight, as if I might slip and fall at any moment. I don’t know if it was my look or my walk, but a young man magically disappeared when I stood next to the seat ahead of him. I sank into it, numb. I felt dizzy and bruised. I paid for my ticket, almost mechanically. Just as I stretched my feet and then leaned against the backrest, something felt like magic. I smelled wet warm earth.

I blinked, looked out, saw droplets of water on the window pane, turned to my right.

Outside the window, there were silent dots of water droplets on tops of cars. The very first drops of the monsoons. The heat of the metal converted raindrops to vapour. A sight I cannot forget, almost ethereal. It soothed the nerves of an angry city with dignity so quiet that you could almost see them with your naked eyes.

By now, I had started making a call to a traffic helpline, registering a complaint for rash driving.

I paused.

I didn’t know what the rogue driver needed, a helping hand or a month in jail. My stop was approaching. I got the phone away from my ears. The automated voice at the helpline rambled in a discouraging monotone. I knew what it felt like to talk to machines. I stood by the bus exit door, close to the driver.

I brought out a chilled bottle of water that I had carried and dug up cookies from depths of my duffel bag as the bus pulled over.

“All for you…!” I said to him.

My outstretched arm built a bridge, which punishment cannot.

As I alighted for the Chinese meal with myself, I saw the same bus go calmly, driving well and back to the business of service. The music score in my head was now a flute.

The phone too sprung music to my ears. It said that my episode would go to a shooting schedule next week and my cheque was ready.

What I wish to remember is getting wet in the gentle drizzle of forgiveness as I waited to open the fortune cookie that now lay in that same duffel bag, a little wet with memory of June.

Barnali Ray Shukla is an Indian writer, filmmaker and poet. She has featured in anthologies in India, USA, Hong Kong, Singapore and the UK. Her maiden poetry collection is called Apostrophe (RLFPA 2016). In her cine life Barnali has written and directed one full length feature, two documentaries, and two short films. She lives in Mumbai with her plants, books and a husband.

Copyright © 2020 Barnali Ray Shukla.

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