In times when people find pride in displaying their affection and fondness for each other in public, these two were unusually reticent. Although their eyes spoke, so did their faces but the caution with which they conducted themselves made it hard for me to guess if they were in love already or in the process of falling in love, the later seemed more probable.
Around 1:3o on a Sunday afternoon the sun was bright and hot, but the cool breeze flowing in from the ocean seemed to be apologising on his behalf even as I walked into the bus terminal, pulling along a much heavier bag than I had pulled out of the same bus terminal the morning before. The bag, which just had a pair of clothes and some other essentials until then was now full of some fine pottery and other knick-knack that I had picked up from some of my most favourite stores, it was perhaps the most potent reason for my being in Pondicherry, at a whim.
I had expected the bus to be as empty this afternoon as I had found it yesterday, in fact the emptiness of the bus last morning had salvaged me from the shock of discovering its condition: Here I was walking into the bus stop dreaming of a plush two by two bus and I find an old, dilapidated and dirty vehicle beckoning me with great élan. Looking at its condition I had half a mind to take another one but it would have been foolish to expect another one available at six thirty in the morning that too at such a godforsaken bus terminal. It had taken me almost an hour and four hundred rupees to get there — almost twice the amount of what I had paid as the fare to Pondicherry. So I went along. I was dead tired and slept in no time, and had woken only fifteen minutes from Pondicherry.
I have this strange habit — a quirk of sorts: However hard I try I cannot sleep beyond five in the morning whenever I travel, the positive side of this is that I get plenty of time to myself — to read, write, take pictures and just be, the negative, that I am almost always under rested, but rest is usually the last thing on my mind when I travel. This morning had been no different. I had been up since four-thirty in the morning, and out since five, I had spent almost three hours sitting by the sea and walking along the boulevard, and after a overeating at breakfast of idlis, vadas and two cups of coffee at a roadside stall and a lunch of vanilla ice cream at a quaint cafe, I was ready to crash in the bus. I had expected it to be as empty as it was the day before, but when you want something desperately, you never get it, and here I was boarding a bus that was already full, half an hour before its departure time.
A little disappointed, I looked for my seat and discovered it had already been occupied by a young man, next to whom sat a petite young woman. I politely informed him that the seat 9B belonged to me. He smiled and expectantly asked me if I could take his seat instead and reasoned that the girl next to him had a problem travelling on seats that face the opposite direction of the motion. One look at them and my heart melted: problem or no problem, they clearly wanted to sit together. Although I too feel nauseated if I have to travel in the opposite direction for long, but I did not have the heart to separate them, for I was sure this journey was special to them — it was written on their faces. I agreed.
My new seat was on the other side of the aisle and facing me sat an elderly couple, about the same age as my parents, they had quite a few bags and even with all the adjustments, there was hardly any space left for my legs, I inadvertently kept kicking the lady’s feet and kept apologising each time. The backrest of the seat was way too reclined for my comfort and while trying to adjust it, I discovered that the lever was broken. Next to me was a young girl, equally distressed with her seat and her feet, struggling with her backpack that lay in her lap for want of any space below the seat. The sun burnt the left side of my face and the strong, incessant gush of cold air from the a/c duct right above my head, chilled the other half of my face. Out went my desire to sleep.
Now, there is something that not many people know, and those who do, don’t believe: As harsh and rude I appear and as arrogant as I seem to be, I am actually an emotional fool. And therefore with all this discomfort that I had inherited along with the young man’s seat, I was adamant not to disturb them, for they were in a world of their own: Smiling coyly to each other, exchanging glances, talking in hushed voices. I wanted to let them be, only if I could just be, myself.
The bus was almost out of the city now and the people around had started to snooze, the gliding of the bus, the warm sun, the cool air and the sight of all about me sleeping had intensified my desire to catch a nap, but with my feet lost somewhere in between the floor of the bus and the bags of the elderly couple and my back totally destroyed by the backrest, sleep was a far fetched dream. I looked out of the window to find peace but failed — the road was all too familiar and boring, moreover to find peace you need to be in peace yourself, which I clearly wasn’t.
I looked at the young couple again: The man would have been around twenty-five, he was tall and big built and had a cute boyish charm about him, especially when he smiled to reveal a slight dimple. The girl looked younger and by her facial features you could tell she was from the east. Both were simply dressed, the man wore a tailored shirt with contrasting trousers and a pair of floaters — a sure shot sign of a South Indian man, though he did not look like one, while the girl wore a white kurta with a grey churidaar, a grey stole and floaters, both had a backpack each. They made an unlikely couple — but were they a couple at all?
My back had started to trouble me by now. The lack of sleep in the last three nights and the travelling through the last three days had taken its toll. I had to sit properly, if not sleep. After much deliberation, I finally told the young man that I was very uncomfortable in his seat and would like to sit at my original place. After a little confusion and a whole lot of adjustment that followed, I found myself sitting in front of them while both of them now faced the opposite side of the motion, the discomfort of the young woman notwithstanding (although all through the three hours that I spent looking at her, I had found no sign of discomfort whatsoever).
The joy of travelling alone and being reluctant to strike a conversation is in observing the co-passengers — their habits, obsessions, behaviour — one can find numerous characters and string several stories sitting in a bus or a train. I tried too, to imagine their story: Were they colleagues or class mates or maybe just lovers? Did both of them study in Pondicherry and were travelling to Chennai? Or did they live in Chennai and had come down for a weekend? Were they in a relationship already? Or were they just beginning to discover their fondness for each other? It was hard to tell. But they sure shared something special which reminded me of simpler times.
The young woman had now dozed off, hesitantly resting her read on the man’s shoulder, the man although awake, glanced into nothingness. The romantic in me hoped and prayed that he put his arm around her but he did not, even when her head almost fell off his shoulder and she woke up with a start. I was disappointed, had a man done this to me, I would have kicked his backside. The girl did not seem to mind though and they got back to their music and banter and exchanged an occasional, meaningful glance.
All this while, The Bay of Bengal had been running along the road with just an occasional building here or there, but as the stream of ugly buildings started to make their presence felt, I realised we were close to the city. I turned to the man sitting next to me to find out which bus stop would be closest to my place of stay only to find myself answering his questions: Where did I live? Was I in Chennai for work? Did I have family in Chennai or Pondicherry? If not family, did I at least have friends? His questions did not seem to end. He found it difficult to imagine that a woman could be travelling alone, two thousand kilometers away from home, just for the sake of travelling. In the process, I found out that he was new to Chennai too and was unsure of where to get off himself. But he had taken it upon himself to help me — a woman in distress. He took out his newly acquired smart phone, complete with google maps and GPS and struggled with it for almost half an hour to find me an answer, but could not. Only after he gave up did I ask the young man, who told me that I could get off at the same place as them. My neighbour was now satisfied — I had someone to look after me. I went back to explaining the purpose, or the lack of it, for my trip to him. Thankfully, he got off soon.
In the next one hour that followed, the sights and sounds of Chennai and its traffic kept me distracted. Also, by now, I had lost all hope of getting to know anything else about them. Crawling though a sea of cars and buses, we finally reached our destination, the young man helped me pull my heavy bag down and the woman smiled at me. As I stood at the bus stop, waiting for an auto, I saw them hold hands and beam. I smiled too.