Welcome to the Stories of Good series. These are stories submitted by readers and writers about finding the good in a myriad of ways, within the context of travel and place.
This story is by Indian writer Anubhuti Krishna, who writes a story about letting go of her own discomfort and habits and she witnesses the good found in the love of others. It's an honor for me to have this very talented writer on my website, and I thank the brilliant Indian novelist Bishwanath Ghosh for bringing us together--for we found each other through our mutual admiration of his work. But now, for some good, which according to Anubhuti, shows up when you aren't looking for it.
Around one-thirty in the afternoon, the sun was bright and hot; the balmy sea breeze however was apologizing on his behalf. I walked into the bus terminal pulling along a much heavier bag than I had pulled out of the same terminal the morning before. The bag, which just had a pair of clothes and some other essentials until then, was now full of pottery and some other knickknack that I had bought last evening. The evening at Mission Street – and shopping at some of my favorite stores – was perhaps the most potent reason for my being in Pondicherry at a whim (besides spending some quality time with myself in the quiet French colony).
I had expected the bus to be as empty this afternoon as I had found it the day before. The emptiness of the bus, in fact, 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 coach waiting to ferry me across the beautiful East Coast Road, what I found instead was an old, dilapidated, and dirty bus beckoning me with great élan. The first reaction was to withdraw, to look for another bus, but it would have been foolish to expect another one available at six in the morning that too at such a desolate bus terminal in the middle of nowhere.
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 (being alone without the girls helped too). I was exhausted and had slept in no time waking up only fifteen minutes from Pondicherry. The drive that I had been so looking forward to had been sacrificed at the altar of sleep.
I have a strange habit: when I travel, I cannot sleep for long hours as much as I might try. The positive of this is that I get plenty of time to myself – I read, write, take pictures and just be; the negative is that I am almost always under rested. This morning had been no different. I had been up since four-thirty and out since five; I had spent almost three hours sitting by the sea soaking in the rays of the rising sun, the blue of the ocean and the moisture of the breeze. Then I had walked along the boulevard rubbing shoulders with the locals and tourists alike.
After the walk, and the two rounds of breakfast – one of idlis, vadas and endless cups of coffee at a roadside stall; another of fried egg, toast and coffee at the guesthouse – and a lunch of vanilla ice cream at a quaint café in the French quarter, I was ready to crash in the bus: I was expecting it to be as empty as it was the day before. But when you desperately want something you seldom get it, so 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. When I politely informed him that the seat belonged to me, he smiled and expectantly asked me if I could take his seat instead. He reasoned that the girl with 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. I was certain this journey was special to them. I agreed.
My new seat was on the other side of the aisle. Facing me sat an elderly couple, about the same age as my parents. They had quite a few bags and even after all the adjustment, there was hardly any space left to rest my feet. As a result I inadvertently kept knocking the lady's feet; apologizing each time. The backrest of the seat was strangely aligned, and its lever 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 around us.
The harsh sun had already started to scald the right side of my face while the strong, incessant gush of cold air from the a/c duct right above my head, chilled the other half. Out went my desire to sleep.
There is something that not many people know about me, and those who do, don't believe: I am an emotional fool, especially when it comes to matters of the heart. And therefore with all the discomfort that I had inherited along with the young man's seat, I was adamant not to disturb them. They were clearly in a world of their own: Smiling coyly at each other, exchanging glances, talking softly, sharing the headphone – and the water bottle. I wanted to let them be.
The bus was almost out of the city now and the people around had started to doze. The gliding 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 devastated by the backrest, sleep was a far fetched dream. I looked out of the window to find some relief but failed – the road was 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 much younger. Both were simply dressed – the man in a tailored shirt with contrasting trousers and a pair of floaters and the girl in a white and grey salwar suit and floaters. Both had a backpack each. They made an unlikely couple. But were they a couple at all?
At a time when people take pride in publically displaying their affection and fondness for each other, these two were unusually reticent. Although their eyes spoke – as did the 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.
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 needed to sit properly if not sleep. After much deliberation, I hesitantly 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 the two of them. Both of them now faced the opposite side of the motion, the discomfort of the young woman notwithstanding (although I 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 behavior, their body language, their conversations. One can find numerous characters and string several stories sitting in a bus or a train just by observing the people around. I tried to imagine their story: They could be colleagues or classmates. Or maybe they were lovers. They could also just be friends. Did they 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 definitely shared something special, something that reminded me of simpler, more innocent 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. Not even when her head almost fell off his shoulder and she woke up with a start. I was disappointed. The girl did not seem to mind though and they went back to their music and banter, exchanging an occasional, meaningful glance – and a coy smile.
All this while, The Bay of Bengal had been running along the road with nothing but trees and marshes between us, but now a stream of ugly buildings started to make their presence felt. Soon the trickle became a steady stream of gaudy, garish buildings. Realizing we in were in Chennai now, I turned to the man sitting next to me. I wanted to find out which bus stop would be closest to my place of stay.
But I soon found myself answering his questions instead: 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? 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. He had, nevertheless, taken it upon himself to help me – a woman in distress. He soon 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 failed. I now turned to the young couple. When the man told me that I could get off with them, my neighbor seemed satisfied – I finally had someone to look after me.
In the next 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, when we finally reached our destination, the young man helped me pull my heavy bag down. The woman smiled at me. As I stood at the bus stop, waiting for an auto to take me home, I saw them hold hands and beam. I smiled too.
Anubhuti Krishna lives in Delhi, India, where she divides her time between writing, mothering, photography, and blogging. Her work is focused on the personal essay and the literary travelogue, and can be found in various literary magazines and periodicals, including The Hindu. Someday soon, she'll publish a gorgeous novel, but until then you can read more of her work on her blog, Isight-Anubhuti Krishna.
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