The creaky old bus rattled on faithfully along the long, winding and often dangerous road alongside the mighty River. This wasn’t the first time the bus had trundled along and it wasn’t quite yet the last. The bus, Savitri, would go on to journey for another seven months before she would break down in the middle of the abandoned highway. The tourists would then complain, scramble outside and the bus driver would try desperately to fix it- his knowledge of the internal workings of the metal giant was almost as scanty as that of the tourists’. But he wouldn’t tell them that, of course. He would open the bonnet (if you could call it that) and bend over, looking at all the identical pipes and wires while the conductor, would walk around trying desperately to calm the prattling and complaining tourists. The bus driver and the bus conductor wouldn’t know then that it had been boys from the local political party who’d tampered with the bus. Luckily for them, the bus had stopped. Not exploded. But they didn’t know that yet. It would only be after they’d take Savitri to the garage that the mechanic would inform them and the bus driver and conductor would look at each other in shocked relief, if you may.
But today, Savitri, her driver and her conductor travel on, all of them enjoying the mountain air that rushes past their faces.
It’s a rather humid day and the bus conductor is glad for his standing-seat near the door. He’s blocking the air from reaching the passengers and he’s very aware of that. They haven’t paid for the breeze, just the seat, He reasons. He’s a man of few principles and quite a lot of words. Words, he exchanges them in plenty with the co passengers (seated), the semi co passengers (standing) and the honorary regular passengers on their specially reserved box seat. Most of the times, he gives the reserved box seat to the regular passenger, a shopkeeper with a receding hairline and big belly. On some days he’ll give it to a pretty, female co passenger who’ll smile at him, flutter her lashes coquettishly and say, “Brother, only one seat. Please adjust it for me. Only today. It’s urgent.” The honorary-regular-passenger-shopkeeper would glare at him when he sees that his seat is taken. But he understands the bus conductor, the inner workings of his mind being similar to his own and so he doesn’t prod further.
Today, the honorary regular passenger’s seat is occupied. But it isn’t the shopkeeper himself or a pretty female human. It’s a salesman with a large bag. With a brown, sunburnt face; a bulging belly that his shirt struggled to contain, he wore a defeated but persistent look that every salesman has mastered. The man is dressed in a pinstriped suit- it could’ve looked smart but alas it was dirty today. The bus conductor, with his oily skin and nose-picking habit wasn’t a very clean man himself but when the salesman had extended his bulky arms to grab the railings as he climbed onto the bus, he’d flinched. The smell had been overpowering for his seasoned nostrils as well.
It had made him reconsider and rethink about his own underarms. Surely they didn’t smell that bad now, did they? He wondered if he ought to give it a little sniff. He wasn’t a man of much principles as it was but would it be too uncouth? Besides, there were lady-foreigners on the bus and he wouldn’t want to give a bad impression now, would he? It wasn’t that he hadn’t done it before but it had been before the locals. Their shared poverty and brotherhood allowed him the freedom to perform the activity.
Sniffing the underarm wasn’t just sniffing, he realised. It was about comfort and trust. Much like a dog. Was it poverty that had made him so akin to an animal? Or was it simply who he was, his financial situation not having anything to do with his animalistic tendencies? He was after all, a man of very few principles. He waited a bit, pondering over all these questions but his forehead started to itch and it was a sign that he needed to stop thinking. The lady-foreigners in the bus had made him patriotic enough to not sniff his underarm so he scratched his forehead instead. But when Savitri leaned towards the left on the sharp curve taking a her passengers with her, the conductor once again got a whiff of the salesman’s underarm. Surely, a little sniff of his own underarm wouldn’t construe as an anti national act now, would it? Besides, the foreigners were in the back seat.
He lowered his head and took a sniff.
Man is after all, a creature of habit.
Far behind in the back seat, sits a young woman of two and twenty. She’s the woman who the conductor had assigned the plural term ladies-foreigner to. She’s huddled in the far left corner, her thin frame almost squished against the window seat. Next to her, her bulkier species members sit occupying half of her seat as well.
She’s staring far out, the breeze slapping her against the face and making her hair run wild. She will fret about it afterwards when she reaches her hotel room. and the tangled mess will cause the comb to break. But for now, she stares out her eyes captivated by the mountain road.
She isn’t a local here and she’s captivated by the amount of beauty that the picturesque hills seem to carry. She wants to yank her camera out and snap with all her might but she’s in a rather uncomfortable position. Besides, she ought to best enjoy it right now than click pictures to simply show off, ought she not?
The wind is hard and against her face but she doesn’t mind, not yet. She looks towards the other window, a bit jealous as she sees the mighty River flowing on the other side. She would sit on the other side the next time she got a chance, she vowed. She returns to her own window, wondering about the calm indifference of the local sitting on the other side. Did the man not see the beauty of the River? He seemed to be more interesting in punching words in his phone. She’d once seen a quote that said, “The poetry of the earth is never dead.” And as she sat in the bus, drinking in the scenery, she almost felt like she were, herself poetry in motion.
Oh, how flimsy and shallow her petty little life seemed! Nature is everything, she told herself. Look how much I’ve gown, she thinks smiling to herself. I’m thinking poetry and beauty. She would now only read fancy Old Literature and Philosophical Novels. She smiled in glee as she thought of what her friends would say. “Look how mature, she’s become! So cultured, so refined!” And because that imaginary compliment she received in her head, she blushed prettily. She was now more determined to enjoy the beauty. Perhaps, she thought, I’ll become a great philosopher when I become older.
She leaned her head against the window, greedily taking in every detail her eye managed to latch upon. She felt mature now; this was her first visit outside the country. That too alone! She smiled to herself as she thought of how she’d brag about it with her friends. Oh, wouldn’t they think she was such a cosmopolitan? She would show them pictures and lord over them! Wouldn’t it be wonderful? She looks at the trees appreciating them and wonders which angle would be best for a photograph. She really ought to click a picture even if it had to be with her cell phone now. She really couldn’t afford to miss the opportunity to collect Instagram likes now, could she? What was that John Keats quote, again? Or was it the other Persian guy who said it? She takes her cell phone out with much difficulty and snaps a couple of pictures. Then, having thought of the perfect caption, she begins punching in the words in her phone.
She was after all, a creature of habit.
A little ahead and right next to the bulky (not honorary) salesman on the box seat is a rather lanky looking boy standing alongside his younger brother. The little lad, barely above five years was staring at the conductor, his round eyes curious and judging. Of course, the conductor didn’t know for sure that the little lad was judging him.
The little boy on the other hand was actually not staring at the conductor’s face. He wasn’t very interested in the large nose that sat unflatteringly in the middle of his face, his double chin or his old eyes with crinkles on either side. The little boy, paused for a bit while staring at his wrinkles- now that was something a tad bit interesting. The lines on his face traversed his face much like a river and it’s distributaries. But the boy with his short attention span returned back to his object of interest: the bald head. It was round, it was shiny and the sunlight reflected off it. Sweat beads were forming around what-used-to-be-his-hairline a few straggly hairs stood their ground on his now empty scalp. The little boy, who had been blessed with a head full of jet black hair, was endlessly fascinated. His tiny hands clung onto his brother’s over sized jeans.
The boy had recently watched snippets of the movie his brother had managed to download in his cell phone. In his below five year old brain, he had understood that it was about a big, fat purple man. A purple man who looked a bit dusty like he needed a bath. Later when he’d badgered his brother, he’d found out his name was Thanos. A silly name, he’d thought, but it suited purple men who did not bathe.
So as he stared at the conductor’s bald head (now reddening with heat), he decided in a heartbeat. This was Thanos, no, not the real one but a local Thanos. He’d heard his elder brother call some man Local Hitler and Local Genghis Khan. Unbeknownst to the little lad, those men were both part of the same political party (unlike the historical figures they’d been named after who weren’t even in the same timeline). The men had caused quite a bit of ruckus in their little village causing the little lad’s lanky elder brother to christen them so.
So later when the Savitri trundled to a halt, her old tyres creaking as they did so, the little lad took it upon himself to let the conductor know of his new name. “Thanos!” He yelled, his eyes now shining.
“Thanos!” He shrieked, this time pointing his finger at the bald headed conductor. “Local Thanos!” He yelled once more before his brother hauled him on his shoulder, his tiny body hanging upside down. Unluckily enough, the political leader who’d been christened Hitler happened to be at the bus stand. The little fellow delighted to have spotted him, thrust his pointer finger and shrieked, “Local Hitler, see!”
The man in question had heard it and seen it, though he pretended not to. The passer-bys laughed with delighted little secret grins, happy to have watched the local goon get humiliated. Then didn’t utter much, for they were a bit afraid but gleefully watched the man turn redder and redder and his nose seem rounder and rounder. Newly christened Thanos too turned around his bulging paan stained tooth making way for an obvious grin. The two couples in the bus were for a minute distracted and waited to see if there would be any reaction from Hitler; of any kind. But there wasn’t any and after a while, the hustle and bustle of the busy bus stand continued almost as though the little boy’s yell had never even happened.
People wonder if a tree in an absolutely isolated island falls down; would it make a noise? It seems like an obvious question at start but if there is absolutely nobody to listen to it, would it constitute as noise? For aren’t things validated because they are heard, seen or felt? The tiny shriek of a lesser than five year old would perhaps be forgotten by the majority but the leader had this memory seared into his head. The boy’s yell had been a testament of his growing unpopularity and the restlessness among the people under his cruel subjugation. It would take perhaps years before he would be overthrown, but discontentment had begun simmering and the boy’s cry was only a confirmation that his years in politics were numbered.
Would he take any course of action regarding the petty insult flung at him? Would he consider it beneath himself to retaliate? He definitely knew better than to make a public spectacle of himself but deep down there, way beneath the bulging vein on his forehead he dearly wished to slap that child.
That boy, with the big, round eyes and skinny frame hanging upside down. For the first time in his political career, the man sat down and thought. He pondered deep and long as he sat in his car and his driver drove him to another town about the cause of the people’s discontentment. Perhaps, it had been for the first time that he’d thought about the people. In a country that was of the people, for the people and by the people his selfishness had blinded him. It had always been at the back of his mind, the guilt of corruption always floating there but he hadn’t given it a greater thought. “I worked hard in the last campaign.”
He told himself, every time he pocketed a few lakhs from the public fund. But now inch by inch the guilt was resurfacing like a huge iceberg that his sanity now threatened to crash against. Was his corruption the reason why people hated him? Or was it his race that made him so despised? He did belong to a different race from the populace he looked after. Was that what had led to his corruption? Had his desperation of fitting in only led him to become a bully? What had led to another? So much time had passed now that his memory seemed a bit blurry, a bit hazy and a bit edited to suit his own likening. Was it right? Was it wrong? Were the people who passed judgement on him as morally sound as they pretended to be? What was there to be done?
He couldn’t change now, could he? Surely his money laundering wasn’t that bad. There had to be people who stole money in crores. He was a noble man, simply stealing in lakhs! He smiled a bit now. ‘I’m a noble man! Not that bad! Everybody has their flaws!’ He concluded.
Local Hitler then sighed as he stared out of the window. What was it that the boy had yelled before? Thanos, wasn’t it? He’d heard about the new movie a couple of times now. Maybe, he thinks to himself, I’ll go and watch the movie tonight. Besides that theatre owner owes me a huge favour for helping him acquire that illegal land.
Man, a creature of habit.