India · Letters

Calm before the storm

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It was a calm Monday evening and I saw an empty bus. My organisation informed us to work from home from the next day. It had been a while since I’ve travelled by bus and I got inside when I saw that most of the seats were empty. I don’t know why I felt it was more hygienic to travel in a non-ac bus than a cab. I felt that I was living in some sort of a strange land for quite sometime where people jumped at the sound of a sneeze.  Frankly I was tired of being afraid and wanted to be a bit normal.

As I sat on my seat lazily, a couple sat in front of me and an old man sat beside me. Two women sat behind me.

 ‘So much for an empty bus,’ I thought grumpily, and I was bit alarmed bit as there were so many people were around me. The virus had infected my brain without even getting inside me. I could hear the girl and the boy talking animatedly. Curiously, I leaned forward, and I realised that they were arguing.

“I cannot believe you support our present government?”

“Well, who would you support? There is no one else. At least he has a vision for the country. Sure, it is flawed but…”

“Flawed,” snarled the girl and did not allow the boy to complete his sentence. “They are outright wrong and fanatics. You don’t see it? It is just not Hindus and Muslims. They are doing it between communities, caste, class, everyone. When they are done dividing us, they will come for us, the women. They are the same kind who despise women who are modern and who have a voice. They are the same ones who believe that we should be proper and be the martyr.”

“I think a lot of this is in your head. I think you are overthinking this. You will be fine. Even I am undecided about certain policies which our present government is implementing but I don’t think they are so bad either,” said the boy

“All I know that the present government is not right for us. If you don’t see through all this, I don’t understand why we should even be together. Why am I dating you?” said the girl flustered.

There was a radio silence between them. I could even hear the silence between me and the old man.

“Look, I know you are passionate, and I know you feel strongly about politics and the present government, but I don’t agree with you on this one thing. If there comes a time when you are right about this and I am compromising on what you believe, we can talk. And if you ever decide to join a protest and do a march, I will support what you think is right. Does that make you want to date me?”

I could not see them, but I could tell the girl was smiling by now.

“If you just agreed it would be so much better,” said the girl softly.

“I know. I feel the same.”

The bus halted and the girl and boy got up. The boy put his arm around her shoulders as they got down from the bus.

I wondered if they would last with such conflicting opinions. I wondered if the girl was right or as the boy said, ‘It was all in her head.’ But my mind trailed off to another conversation. The conversation which was happening behind my seat. I could hear the girl crying.

“I cannot believe he asked for dowry.”

“I know! He said it is just a car. He tried justifying saying that Papa is asking for it as an investment for us! Can you believe it?”

“No, I can’t. He was such a level-headed guy. I cannot believe he turned out to be like this.”

“Anyways, I have to break it off? Isn’t it?” asked the girl crying.

“Well it is up to you honest, but if you are asking my opinion then yes. You guys have been dating for two years and after knowing you he had the nerve to normalise something like dowry then I worry about your future.”

“I know. My mother said the same thing. But you know what is surprising me?”

“What?”

“The moment he said – babe it is for us. I don’t see the big deal, I stopped loving him that very moment. I tried to wait it out for two days to check if I had lost my senses, but I realised, it is all gone and now my feelings for him is empty. It was like nothing had ever happened between us. It is so strange”

“Don’t worry. When are you calling it off?”

“Tomorrow,”

“Then come home. Let’s watch a movie together. I had a bloody hard week in office,”

“Yes! I want to just relax,” said the crying girl who was now composed.

Suddenly I realised the old man behind me had a disparaging expression and I knew that I was not the only person listening to the conversations around me. I got a bit irritated after seeing his disapproving nod.

“It’s a hard life isn’t it?” he said. He had a thick Tamil accent, but he spoke clearly. He had bald head and had dark piercing eyes. He wore white plain shirt and white trousers. He had small white hair peeking from his ears.  He wore a simple silver watch. His face was old but not weary. He did not stoop but sat straight .

“Excuse me?” I asked.

“Well it is a hard life for your generation isn’t it?” said the old man.

I didn’t understand if he was being sarcastic or if he was being honest. I couldn’t read his expression.

“The war you guys fight is not straight. It has nuances which are more grey than black. You must live a life with mistakes done by my generation and weight carry on with the best decisions for the future. But I can see it clearly that is not an easy life and yet I am amazed to see these young people around me to go through so much and yet keep moving forward.”

I was tongue tied and I didn’t know what I should say.

“It is a curse I guess,” finding my voice. “We do not associate our race with something good. When you think of humans, we think of war, climate change, greed etc. We are egotistic but we hate ourselves. A very toxic relationship we have with ourselves,”

“Well yes. I think it is. And now you must go through this another wave of an unknown problem which I don’t think anyone knows on how to come out of. It will have a deep bearing on a lot of things on days to come. But don’t be disheartened my dear.”

“I am not disheartened. Just confused. Most of the times I don’t know my purpose.” I said honestly.

The old man laughed. “Let me tell you a secret. I am eighty-four years old and I was twelve when India got independent. Even during the struggle most of us – the common man didn’t know our purpose. We are not some great men of bygone era. We were just men who were as confused as you and we too didn’t know when it will all end.”

“Are you not concerned? You should not be travelling with your age and a potential infection which might be deadly for you” I said.

“My son has asked me to stay with him. He is being paranoid. He is not unhappy with me because I am taking the bus but he had to give in. I said if you want me to stay with you for next one month, I want to travel by bus.”

“You are being plain stubborn and illogical,” I laughed. The old man laughed with me too.

“It may get worse,” I said worried. I was feeling bleak. I wanted to get up tomorrow and see that the weather was perfect, the wars were over, the protests had stopped, the planet was safe. But I knew I would not live to see any of this. I wanted to wake up to world free from this unknown virus which was collapsing everything.  But I knew I had to wait to see the world disintegrating into a place I wouldn’t recognise.

“You know you are sweet. You let me sit beside the window. I had a terrible headache today, but I feel better talking to you,” said the old man. I blushed hard.

“See that’s the thing. It will get worse, but I happened to be on same bus as you and now we had a great discussion.  Even if the virus goes away, you will be left with poverty, dowry as you heard from the poor girl sitting behind us, cities ravaged by the burning climate and other battles within yourself. You simply have to find beauty even in the most difficult of times,” said the old man,”

The old man’s stop came and he got up to leave. He turned towards me before taking his last step from the bus and nodded. I nodded back. The bus zoomed by the old man through the empty streets and I looked at the world in front of me waiting patiently for the mundane to be mundane again. On the empty streets I saw the local construction workers who were without jobs sitting in circle, nodding their heads and singing some folk song. Beauty even in the most difficult times.

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