The Dharwad bus arrived a full hour behind schedule. It was crowded even as it entered the bus-stop. I pulled my bag over my shoulder and prepared for the struggle.
It was a cold, dark, wet night. For most commuters it was the end of a long day at work. The persistent rain had dampened everyone's spirits. The Goa bus which was due two hours ago had never turned up. There had been some talk of a puncture or breakdown.
The Dharwad bus had probably been delayed because of the rain in the Ghats. Which meant all subsequent buses were going to be delayed as well. Though my stop was just an hour's distance away, there was no telling when the next bus going there would come.
I managed to squeeze into the bus and prepared for a slow, rain hampered, standing-journey through the ghats. The good thing was that this was an express bus, and there were to be no more halts till my stop.
Ten minutes later the bus started. Packed to the last square inch. No one was going to miss this bus. As it is, they had waited more than two hours. Many of them were daily up-downers who worked in towns away from home and made the daily journey to and from office.
The movement of the bus brought some breeze and reduced some of the stuffiness, but it was still pretty uncomfortable. The man behind me was breathing on my neck. There was a smell of alcohol coming from someone close by. Then a baby started to cry.
A baby crying is the last straw in an overcrowded bus. And this baby was sitting in its mother's lap two seats away from me and bawling its heart out. The harassed mother was trying without success to quiet it.
She was from the city. Gold chains and gold bangles and earrings and makeup. Probably from Bangalore. Her husband was standing next to her. I had seen them on the Bhatkal busstop before, waiting for the bus with me. How had she managed to get a seat? Probably someone had taken pity on her condition - she looked tired and weak, and had a baby to console.
At that time, the Konkan railway hadn't been built, and there were no hordes of private bus operators as there are today. The only way to get to Karnataka's coastal towns was by KSTRC bus. This couple had made a long and uncomfortable journey and they looked tired and harassed.
The baby meanwhile kept bawling intermittently and soon the husband and wife started having words. The wife said it was all his fault for not getting a reservation on a proper bus, and the husband said that he was tired of family life. All this was in Kannada, the local language. But all the other passengers pretended not to hear. Not that the people were too tired to bother about other people's business, but that there are some tacit protocols of non-interference on bus journeys which everyone follows. Everyone has his moments of weakness on a bus journey. This is understood, and all is forgiven. Except for a few suggestions on how to quiet the baby no one said anything.
The real trouble began when the conductor came asking for tickets and the man from the city discovered that his pocket had been picked. He spent a full fifteen minutes checking his three pockets again and again and still found no purse. The conductor meanwhile was calmly issuing tickets to people. Conductors learn not to pay too much attention to passengers. The man from the city, perhaps expecting someone to ask him, in a kind tone, if anything was the matter, only became more agitated when no one did.
The man from the city finally asked his wife to check in her purse for money. There were some more exchanges in Kannada before the wife told him that she had none.
The man from the city broke out into copious sweat. The situation was clearly strange to him. he had probably spent the last five years going about in a car in Bangalore. He got quite red about the ears.
I sympathized with him. A man with a wife and small kid, in a stuffed bus on a wet night with no money. What could be worse fate?
In a hoarse voice he asked his wife to check her purse again. The wife stared at him for some time, muttered something, and made a pretence of checking her bag again.
Just then the conductore tapped the man on the shoulder. 'Tickets'. The man from the city turned red and lost control of his voice. He shouted at his wife, in a voice full of agony, to check the purse again
. It was probably the loudest he had ever spoken to his wife in his life. The result was unpleasant. The wife started too. And then the baby, which had been resting for some time, joined in. Some of the the simple folk who had watched silently for so long, started smiling and saying tut tut.
At the start of the day, Bus Conductors are generally jovial and friendly chaps, but at ten in the night, one can't blame them for being a little gruff, and perhaps a bit sadistic. I was hoping our particular conductor would show some mercy and say something to bring solace to the man from the city, but he did not. He stood there, looking at the man from the city, waiting for the money, looking like a money-lender's hired goon.
I was clearing my throat to speak to the conductor. But before I could speak something else happened.
A girl of about 14 had pushed her way through the crowd. In one hand she carried a nylon-basket of flowers, in the other hand she carried a rich purse. She tapped the man from the city on his arm. 'This yours?' she asked in Kannada. 'It was fallen under the seat over there.' she pointed towards the rear of the bus.
It was his. A beautiful, fat, leather purse. It must have carried a lot of money. The surge of relief on the face of the man was obvious. The will to live came back to him. With a trembling hand he took out a few ten ruppee notes and gave them to the girl. The girl seemed reasonably pleased. She pushed again through the crowd, to the back of the bus, where, perhaps, her friends or relations were.
I had seen the girl back at the bus stop too, trying to sell her flowers. What was she doing on the bus now? Did flower girls travel to sell their ware?
In some time, my stop arrived. As the bus pulled in to the bus stop, I took a final look at the man from the city. His face bore a stunned expression - he had come back from the dead. I couldn't wait to get home and tell the story.
The rain had stopped and air outside was cool and clean. I was stretching myself, when I saw that the flower girl had gotten off before me. She was walking ahead of me but did not head out of the bus-stop. Instead she was walking back towards the platform for buses going back towards Bhatkal. I was curious; I followed her. A bus was starting for Mangalore, towards Bhatkal. She hurried and got in. I watched the bus slowly leave the stop.
I was dumbstruck. She was going back again?
Then the sudden spark of realization came. The audacity of it all brought goose bumps on my flesh. I swore my favourite swear word.
By the time I got home I was smiling broadly. I had forgiven the flower girl. In fact, I even hoped she had
taken some money out, before she returned the purse that she had stolen.