The usual journey by bus at the end of every day brings me to the busiest part of the great city. Sights and sounds are quite familiar now that I have been travelling daily for the past one year. I dreaded journeys by bus to distant destinations for work. I was full of apprehensions about being able to travel and work. To travel everyday for five days a week by the public conveyance system in a third world country like mine is not at all easy or something to look forward to. One has to give up all sense of comfort in the first place, and expect the worst at all times. People just do not care for the privacy or space of others. They throng the places leaning against you, knocking you, hitting you, practically anything anytime. Some are adept at tormenting others especially those who do not travel on a daily basis. The latter know best not to irritate or inconvenience others. Under these circumstances I travel almost successfully everyday for five days a week to a distant place changing buses four times one way as there are no buses plying my route from home to work. Tedious schedule, doubtlessly.
I never sleep while travelling. The latest buses offer some comforts like little bumping, and jumping. So it is more or less comparable to train journeys. One can read, provided one gets a convenient seat. I prefer the seats in the front of all vehicles. I enjoy watching the road view without any obstruction. I listen to music using ear phones and I read too. The tedium of the journey is hardly ever felt this way.
The summer is harsh in my part of the country and travelling becomes more difficult in this unfriendly weather. I doze off in the evenings quite unknowingly. One day, I was woken up when a colleague who was in the same bus called out to me. On waking up I realized that the bus had reached the city’s heart where I was supposed to get down. For once it was the turn of my colleagues to wake me up at the end of the journey. It is usually my job to wake them up. Sleepily getting down I stopped when my friends stopped to have a drink. The pavement is full of all kinds of vendors selling fruits, pots, eggs, vegetables, fish, cutlery, clothes, and what not. Standing under the huge banyan tree at the old fortress’ entrance, I happened to notice a woman struggling with an old dilapidated umbrella. It was tied to one of the metal spikes of a low railing surrounding an enclosure just outside the gate of the fortress. The wind was playing havoc with it and the evening sun was squarely on her face. She carefully removed the umbrella fighting hard against the wind which was keen on claiming it. The condition of the umbrella was pathetic but the care with which she folded it up, talking to it as though it was a live thing, caught my attention.
She was quite unfamiliar to me. When I looked at her she began to direct her monologue which had till then been to the umbrella, to me. She complained that the umbrella was behaving like a truant child refusing to obey her. She criticised the umbrella quite vehemently but with a tenderness one could easily detect. All the while she was lavishing all her attention on smoothing down the folds of the umbrella which still posed a problem as the cloth was almost hanging loose, detached from the frame at all places. It was faded and obviously very old.
The woman looked very elegant though her clothes were pretty old too.She was short, grey haired and thin. Clad in a pink coloured, cheap synthetic sari, she looked graceful. She wore sindoor on her forehead. She had a sack made of cloth placed in front of her on the pavement where she was sitting. There were two steel containers, half in and half out of the sack. Both the containers were closed tightly. On top of the lids lay small plastic packets, one each on one lid. One packet contained one snack item. I asked her how much she charged them and was taken aback by the low price she quoted. In the meanwhile women returning from work like me came to her and bought her stuff. They did so with such knowing countenance that I immediately developed the idea that she was known to folks there.
She kept talking to me all the while. She expressed her anxiety about the summer vacations coming. She asked me who would buy her stuff once the schools close. I told her that my place does not close practically as there would be special classes during the summer months. She looked happy as though it guaranteed sale for her. We both felt as though we knew each other for a long, long time. She smiled a smile of great relief. I bought one of the packets for a very meagre sum though it was not my practice to buy from the road side, especially processed food, for fear of contamination. I liked the way she kept her vessels closed and kept only one packet each atop the lids for display. She sold very fast. By the time my friends finished their drinks she had sold everything.
I got one packet of a country snack, four in number and a packet of homemade chutney powder, for a paltry sum. The way she tendered change, cautioning me not to mistake the one rupee for a fifty paisa coin, tenderly chiding the authorities for making all coins look alike causing such confusion and trouble, sounded exactly like the way she chided and criticised her umbrella. The tone was not of grudge or offense. It was not intolerance or irritation. It was a mild protest, a modest complaint at the unequal ways of the world.
The umbrella remained folded at her side, the sun’s rays were on her radiant, old face, the wind still blew offering little relief from the heat and sweat but silently pronouncing that if any attempt is made to spread out the umbrella again, the consequences would be disastrous.