"Bahenchod!" the sound is raucous, the meaning and the manner sure is, but that is not what you hear. You revel in the spirit and the pace high in the air and flowing through his limbs, efficient, lissome, and almost feminine in its grace as he bellows, "Hey, you taxiwallah. Why can't you move your ass?"
He bangs on the flanks of the bus and the sound explodes on your nerves and vibrates on your joints and makes you jittery. And he reverts to peace and stability for the moment, who gives a damn if it isn't your idea of peace, wiping the raindrop-spangled screen in wide, spanning motions with what seems like a big, messy blob of cotton, looming before your eyes like a giant spider glued to the glass.
A surprise, an outrage, was the last thing youčd been expecting today, at this hour. And the mood over the hour, mind you, for once the mind was ensconced in all that was tangible and perceptible, wasn't any warmer to the vast sense of insecurity, of the shocking violation of the snug cocoon you'd kind of built around yourself. Deliberately you'd been clinging to the cold and clammy memory of waiting forever under the tumbledown shade of some weird shop at the Minto Park bus stop, half-hugging your drenched body with your chilled arms, waiting for a bus to appear like godsend to salvage you from the rain and the wind and the desolation. All that you had on your body, your mind, your entire being was the feel of your shoes squelching with bilgewater in their bowels and the thin cotton shirt clinging to your poor, poor skin over the hair plastered on it, sleepy and shiny and strangely erotic. You'd been reveling in the open, bare speed and not minding the chilly air streaming in, as it had been more than compensated by the delicious picture of a home close before, maybe a warm cup of tea and dry, smooth cleanliness all over your skin and limbs, a whiff of healthy-smelling talcum powder around the smooth, loveable dilemma between memory and oblivion, sensuality and numbness, from which it seems you could never escape. But you know who'd win, you know what you love. You know the furrows and contours of your mind all right. The still warm feeling of frustration-turned-anger, the bare, empty polish on the thoroughfare black and shiny with the thick whiz of rain falling at a steep slant; the sight of the bizarre bonfire in the park across the road, the bafflement over its survival in the rain and the wind, the sight of snakelike, hissing flames through the mild thicket of trees and the mullions fringing the park, the violent spirit of madness in the wisps of smoke born out of the burning of half-damp withered leaves and paper-scraps all, all of it bore witness to it.
And then it became real in the minibus swooshing up before your very nose, seemingly out of nowhere the sigh of relief in your breast, the frantic scramble along the mucky steps of the bus as bilgewater rose to a mad squelch in your shoes. And it was empty but for a few drenched, cowered buffoons like you huddled up in distant corners giving even the claustrophobic interior a look of vastness, and you add as an afterthought, desolation. The force was overpowering, no doubt.
Inside the near empty bus, you look around and dither for a while before occupying a snug window seat with the sash carefully drawn. Little pinpricking raindrops are scudding in through the opening beside the seat in front of you where, you can only conjecture, there was a sash similar to the one beside you some time in the past. But you don't mind. You better not let your expectations skyrocket so fast, and probably they provide the icing of irony on the cake the gibberish about memory which, you check yourself with a jolt, is still half-reality around you.
But you're over the worst, and what matters, you know that. You nestle your sordid, waterlogged shoes in a nook under the seat they squelch no more, or perhaps the sloppy, mucky noise is drowned by the sound of the engine. The thoroughfare stretching before is empty, a sight which never fails to soothe the eyes of a Calcuttan, and the places whiz past you the shops with shutters pulled down, the neon-lit billboards alive like solitary sentries in front, the puddles and cesspools the wheels splash through, a stray dog with a dripping tail behind hindlimbs. You feel you'd never seen yourself in a better light.
And then you see the giant spider in front of you glued to the screen. You almost rub your eyes in disbelief, and you see that it's the helper to the bus-conductor who'd pulled on the bell-rope to lower the speed of the bus and had swung himself into a violent counter-motion against the speed of the bus to make room at the door to let your messy and thankful self in. And who'd been thumping on the flanks of the bus all along with something of the fire and passion of a rock-group drummer. The fellow, you couldn't even say what he looked like, was clinging to something out there, you couldn't see what, perhaps with his feet wedged in between the clefts of the engine. You're so staggered that for a moment you are muddled in the head about what in heaven's name he's doing up there, though you can see very well that he's wiping the glass, misty and thickly rain-spangled, with some kind of a rag, a messy blob of cotton and water and petrol and tobacco stains and God knows what. Not that you get a chance to look at it closely, but then you don't need one it can't be otherwise. You look at the silhouetted figure, now that it is dark with the bus thundering along the open stretch between Victoria Memorial and Rabindra Sadan, and in a froth of wonder and happiness celebrate the mindboggling idea of a human turning into a machine.
But there are instincts stronger than the love of mindboggling ideas. You soon realize that the bus is thundering along the OPEN STRETCH BETWEEN VICTORIA MEMORIAL GARDENS AND RABINDRA SADAN. And more important, it is THUNDERING ALONG the open stretch between Victoria Memorial Gardens and Rabindra Sadan. And the guy is cool. The rain is falling with a gusto greater than ever, or probably it is an illusion created by the emptiness of the road and the pace of the bus racing along the stretch. But probably it isn't, as you can see the windscreen getting spangled with larger blobs of water with a frequency which was never there before. And so is the action of the silhouetted figure, lit up for a moment now in a flash of light from the chandeliers around the fountain at Rabindra Sadan and then from St. Paul's Cathedral. He is careful not to block the driver's vision, and yet with the grace of a ballet dancer manages to reach out with his hand to wipe the droplets from the glass before him like a giant spidery leg moving clockwise and anticlockwise in rapid succession. You stare at him and decide that he isn't really careful. He doesn't need to. You can't see where he has posted himself, probably still in the muddle of jutting scraps and ledges around the engine you can't make out any head or tail of, but you know that it's a stiff test of balance and accuracy and all that stuff, but nonetheless to him it is like having his morning tea or letting out the stream of slangy abuse at the slow drivers and jaywalkers and sometimes, the thin air.
But coming home to that is an entirely different ball game altogether, and you are no good at it. The bus moves along the rain-wetted road lit up by the reassuring glare of its headlights, and you feel the speed through the rush of cold air on your frosted body and a mild, pleasing excitement around your heart and down your bowels and everywhere else. And you wonder what the fellow's clinging to, if to anything at all. For once you fail to find the speed and the air refreshing and feel weak at the cruel thought but it is such an abstraction, so much like a mildly diffused headache that you don't know what to rail at or weep about. But there he is, seemingly untouched and intangible, so maddeningly casual as if he'd make you oblivious of the possibility of ever losing a grip and falling flat on the speeding ground to let the wheels crush over his body.
The bus slows down as it comes to Theatre Road, but doesn't stop as buses do here. It snakes its way among a maze of buses and cars and cabs and the fellow responds to the change, you think, like a weather-cock. You almost shiver and gnash your teeth as the bus passes within inches of the other vehicles with the figure, suddenly waking up from a cowed, plastered state to thumping the flanks of buses, of his own as well of those close by and shouting to his driver and to those in the others. You watch the serpentine motion of the bus against the backdrop of the ruckus kicked up by him and realize how much he is like the conductor of an orchestra. A crude one, but an orchestra all the same. But poor soul, youčre human before you're connoisseural, and have to close your eyes as his drenched shirt or a skinny outstretched arm passes within a hair's breath of a truck, perhaps scraping against it for a moment which he doesn't feel but which strikes your nerves like a lump of lead.
A lump of lead which bobs up and down and so does your heart as the bus steers clear of the knot and flies into the open, about to gather speed once again while he hangs like a wet pennant flapping from a mast, one arm clutching on to the bus and the rest of his body afloat as if he was taking in the fresh air gushing against his body. But the rains haven't taken a break and there he is, back to his place like the skinny, oversize spider he started as, wiping the windscreen with the shapeless blob of grey.
You really don't know whether you can believe in him. The thick white stream of light from the face of the bus stretches along, streamlined by the silhouetted figure dangling before and you can't make out the ups and downs and creases and furrows along his hackneyed bones and the crummy shirt, drenched into a sticky glob he is just an oblique shadow which won't even let you know the nature of life within it, it is so distant, and somewhat spinechilling, perhaps. He has melted into the ambience so easily, much more than what would be possible had he remained a skin and bone figure under those tatty clothes and the unshaven, dirt-inlaid mouth, like yourself, real and stagnant and trite and in your squelching in your shoes and desire for a warm cup of tea or the chunks of flesh around, sweaty, hairy, wet flesh in all those who scrambled up the bus at Theatre Road and now sigh with relief, relief which reeks of flesh again. But the speed doesn't. It concentrates on the white light and the mad, spindly figure against the glass and the eerie silence along the roads and the desolation, all of which flows back to him up there like rivers flow into the ocean. You cannot deny the story of concord between the goose-pimples on your skin at the chilly pinpricks of raindrops and the figure you are no more afraid or concerned about. He is far beyond the smirks of your fear and concern. Motion robs away trivialities and the streaming rain and the cold wind makes you forget that they ever were, that there may be a bundle of bidis in his pocket which won't light up now that they are so damp, that the shouts and the honking had tried to pull him down once they are too far away now.
You sip your tea in your warm living room, listen to the sound of rain outside, and snigger at yourself. But of course the whole thing had lasted a mere couple of minutes. You fiddle with your TV remote and switch channels for no particular reason; you are smooth and comfortable in freshly laundered clothes; the flavour of warm tea form s a pleasant cloud in your mouth. The rain and the wind are shut out, banished from you.
"But of course," you murmur pleasantly, "the whole thing had lasted a mere couple of minutes." But a thorn pricks you still.
A couple of minutes. And then he'd come down from the spidery position and, inside the bus, had used the same cotton rag to wipe his wet hair. You could see him then, in the pale yellow light of the bus, and your senses had meekly followed your instinct, their act of conjecture. A scrawny figure and tatty clothes and an unshaven, dirt-inlaid mouth and tousled hair. But you'd needed time to come back.
He'd slouched down on the empty seat beside you. Droplets of water had splashed you like a small cloudburst and the stench had hit your nostrils it had been the triumph of instinct all right burnt petrol and sweat and tobacco and dirt and what not. But it had happened still.
His bare arms had been folded on his lap, scrawny and wet, the hairs plastered to the skin. You could see the protruding wristbones, the now colourless thread tied to one wrist, and the scrabous skin. But you still had been vulnerable.
You had reached out and touched his arm. The feel had the first step towards homecoming the moist skin and the plastered hair and the rough bones. He'd looked up, had grinned widely so as to expose his tobacco-stained teeth, and had said, "Been sweating."
The moist skin and the plastered hair and the rough bones. Wan, sickly light. Small and weak and right there.
You'd whispered under your breath "Big deal, scum."
From Happy Birthday To You, a collection of short stories by Saikat Majumber (Writers' Workshop, India, 1996).