Flipping through my ‘scrap book’ from a decade ago, I came across a piece of paper with a message that I had glued on to one of the pages. It took me back on one of my bus rides in Delhi when I was a college-going girl. I’m grateful to my 19-year old self for having written about it the next morning. I’m surprised at how I’ve not capitalized the first letters of sentences, maybe there was a reason. I don’t remember it now, but I do remember that afternoon bus ride vividly.
Thursday, April 3, 2008
Co-passenger of the year
the only co-passenger I’ll remember for many years to come is the 85 year old woman whose memories still send a chill down my spine. I had never talked to someone so frighteningly overpowered by age before this. Each and every thing about her told the tale of her struggle with time and nature.
She hobbled towards me and grabbed hold of the seat, possibly scared to lose balance. her fingers were crooked and deformed probably because of rheumatism. I was overwhelmed with a mixture of shock and fear. I stood up and offered her my seat but apparently the girl sitting next to me was equally scared of her as I was and she insisted that I sit and so I did. thus began my most intriguing bus journey.
She sat quietly near the window. now that she sat beside me I realized how tiny she was..bent down with age. I had never seen a face like that before and it made me uneasy. her skin was folded and wrinkled. Her eyes caught my attention more than anything else. they were white and thick with cataracts and were sunken into folds of red skin. I decided i didn’t want to look at her much as it didn’t make me feel very good..also, she might find it awkward. But there was something which kept me glancing at her now and then..which made me curios and suspicious of her identity. who at this age would dare to get into a Blueline bus?
The bus started filling up with its passengers and then came that child beggar who started singing in her robot like voice while clicking two pebbles in perfect rhythm. I stole another glance at the woman beside me and couldn’t make out whether her eyes had got watery or were they full of tears. I had a strong urge to ask her but I stopped. however she began and my doubt was answered …”what is this world made of? what kind of human beings? this girl-she has left all her dignity and self respect behind and is singing here in a bus to earn so that she can feed her family..and how many of us are even looking at her? what are we made of? where is our heart? people say that this old woman is crazy! no i am not mad …i have a heart which still beats and cries for others..” I was taken aback .
All this while she was looking at the floor of the bus while tears trickled down her spotted face.never even once did she look up. she continued speaking like this for the next 20 minutes. and i feared she might make herself sick. but she continued and i tried hard to listen to her tiny but rough voice. i could catch a sentence or two at a time. “why don’t people say sorry and thank you anymore? will it belittle them? no one gets hurt by these words..” she went on and i couldn’t comprehend any more. the other passengers were looking at her suspiciously. they all thought she was a mad woman talking to herself. but i thought she was an old woman talking after a long time ..taking out all those bottled up feelings. “do you know the Urdu language?” she asked me this time. and i almost jumped. i managed a sheepish “no”. she went on-“its a beautiful language the most royal language. you must learn it. the language of the kings who gave us culture and art..” she went on talking and occasionally popped a question for me which i answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
The other passengers were now looking at her rather distastefully. i suddenly wanted to tell them all to mind their own business. “do you have an Urdu professor in your college?” she asked and before i could answer with a ‘no’ , she started off again-” there are many questions in my head which i want to sit and answer with a person who is well read in Urdu….”
As my bus stop neared i felt it necessary to tell her that. she immediately started opening her handbag clumsily with her crooked fingers. she was looking for something. she took out a piece of paper cut out in a rectangular shape with a pointed head. there were small orange flowers drawn on it and a tiny printed paper cutting stuck on the bottom of it. she drew it close to her eyes and read out slowly “if we spread love and peace around us, the almighty will live within us”. She gave it to me and looked at me with those eyes which still make me feel uneasy. i remembered to thank her.
i walked back home looking intently at the piece of paper which i had just been given. it felt like an important document.