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By the time I arrived home I was a tearful wreck. I finally told my sister. She could understand. Should we tell Bhau, our brother? No, she said. “What if he comes with you and gets into a fight with that man?”
Some places just stick in ones head just as some faces do. One such place was Hotel ‘No Name’.
First of all, this was no hotel. But in India we refer to restaurants as hotels. Second of all this was not even a restaurant. Labourers from construction sites, assorted workmen, peons from nearby offices, bus drivers, conductors, unemployed vagrants, occasional beggars, drunks in various stages of inebriation and hangover and so on, frequented the place. It was a desi equivalent of a pub where men gather to drown their sorrows, except that this was unmistakably a male bastion and no alcohol was served. Instead, it also doubled as an ‘Amrutatulya’. Piping hot, milky sweet Chaha was churned out of huge containers and poured into glasses on white, shiny tiled worktops and served to men in need of refreshment and a break from their monotonous lives.
Then there was the food-The overpowering strong smell of jilbees, batata wadas and kanda bhaji fried in stale oil wafted to the nearby Pulgate bus stand, carrying with it the stench of the nearby communal toilets. Outside, muddy families of pigs munched on the oil-stained newspapers on which the fried food was served. Buses arrived and departed round the clock from various destinations- Mundhwa Budruk, Wadgaon Sheri, Pimpri Sandas.
There was a continuous hustle and bustle as people alighted and boarded, lost and found, ran and caught or missed buses. Students, folk from faraway villages, city slickers travelling to and from work, housewives running shopping errands at the nearby Pulgate vegetable Mandi were the usual passengers. Yellow clouds of dust and thousands of white ticket stubs thrown by people and conductors circulated in rising whorls until a bus broke their merry dance and forced them to settle on the ground.
Through one such dusty afternoon haze as I stood waiting for a bus, having missed two, I saw him staring at me. He stood at least fifty metres away at the white-tiled entrance of hotel ‘No name’ with a glass of tea in hand, his beady eyes transfixed on me. I adjusted my dupatta and averted my gaze.
This was a common situation, I was a grown woman, I could look after myself and this happened every day, every place. Yet, there was something about the stare that bore through my being as if he had X-ray vision. I ignored him and boarded my bus to Pune railway station as if nothing was amiss.
I usually caught the bus at 3:40 pm after I finished my duty at the municipal school nearby where I worked as a teacher for little children. After I finished I would grab some green pale bhaji from a vegetable vendor outside the school and make my way to Pulgate bus stand.
I had a long journey- first bus, then the local train to Malavali, where I lived. I had to reach in time to cook dinner for the family. As I rushed along the next day and passed the hotel, longing for a bite of the hot spider like bhajis, I saw him again. This time he was reading a newspaper. After walking a few feet, I had a sense that someone was following me. I tugged at my cloth bag, some of my methi leaves spilling out and continued without looking back.
I reached my bus stop, saw my bus approaching. The dysfunctional queue broke up as the bus rolled into the bus stop. Although it would get empty, people still rushed at the bus out of habit and created a mini stampede in the process. Luckily, I caught the bus as I did every day. I stood on the steps of the crowded bus, freeing the end of my dupatta from under someone’s foot and happened to look sideways.
I saw his blank face focussing on me. I expected him to whistle, jeer, wink, hoot, catcall, But he did none of that. He just looked as if he knew something and wanted something. In a few seconds, the bus moved ahead and I could not see him, but the image stayed with me as I boarded my train and even the next day as I drew on the blackboard for my students.
Then after a few days, I saw him again, this time at my bus stop. He did not do anything- just stared as if he had a hidden agenda. I waited patiently for the bus, looking over my shoulder from time to time but he stood there making me nervous- of his motives. I boarded my bus.
I decided to wear a scarf- not so much for the sun but to camouflage myself. I wasn’t pretty but didn’t want to attract undue attention. But the horrifying thought that maybe he carried a bottle of acid he wanted to throw at me, compelled me to wear a hideous, old colourless scarf. The scarf folded into a triangle that was tied at my chin. I stopped wearing my daily jasmine gajra– anything to appear plain and inconspicuous.
I tried to take a different route, bypassing the hotel. It took longer and was part kaccha road and part broken pavement occupied by street stalls, but if I hurried I could still get my bus.
Nothing worked. He continued to follow me with his eyes- boring, penetrating, as greasy as the bhaji stains on the newspapers. But he kept a distance at the bus stop- at least a few feet away. Yet, in that crowded place I felt alone as if an attack of some sort was imminent. There was a determination on his face as if he was going to do something. The eyes and that small scar running along the side of his mouth, the blank expression made my heart stop cold the moment I accidentally dared to look at him. But once I boarded the bus, I would turn back to see he had not followed me, and all the anxiety would vanish until it was time to return to that wretched bus stop the next day.
I starting dreading coming to work – working was not an option, but a necessity. I thought of taking a rickshaw to Pune station, but could not afford it- that would be my family’s vegetable budget for a few days. So, I continued going to the bus stop. Until I hit the idea of walking to the previous bus stop on East street. It would be a detour and the bus would be crowded. So, I did exactly that. I would leave school slightly early and rush to the next bus stop. I had to forgo the trip to the Mandi market. Anyway, I was scared of going anywhere other than rush home after school. At the other bus stop, sometimes I would miss a bus or two, but eventually something would come along.
And then one day, as I admired a new hoarding that had come up high on a building, I felt a movement a couple of feet away. This was not usually a crowded bus stop so I turned to see what it was. The same face, same eyes but with a glint of victory. I could feel goose-bumps coming up on my arms. I thought I was going to die. But suddenly another teacher from school came up to me and started talking. She was at the bus stop waiting for a six-seater rickshaw to come along. Chatting animatedly while I was panicking inwardly, she asked me why I did not take that instead. I mumbled something about it being too crowded, but something made me get into her six-seater with her. She said it was going to Hadapsar in the opposite direction- I did not care. I just got in and travelled all the way to Hadapsar and then back by bus to Pune station.
By the time I arrived home I was a tearful wreck. I finally told my sister. She could understand. Should we tell Bhau, our brother? No, she said. “what if he comes with you and gets into a fight with that man?”
“How can that man do anything to you in crowded places?” she reasoned…..True. I calmed down. Yes, maybe I was getting worked up for nothing. It was probably a coincidence that he was everywhere I went. Maybe I was imagining it. Maybe he was following someone else. No cannot be.
I tried to muster courage but in vain. I thought of what else I could do. I had old spectacle frames that had belonged to my grandmother. I decided to wear these too- to look as plain and unrecognisable as possible. that would stop the acid from getting into my eyes…..
The next day, I did not see anyone. In fact, for a long time there was no one. Maybe he had given up. So, slowly over the next few weeks, I got bolder. I started going to Pulgate to catch the bus. At first hesitantly, and then a bit more confidently. I resumed my indulgent Mandi vegetable shopping.
One day was particularly lucky. I had got cheap bananas from a handcart vendor. They were almost brown but at a bargain. I had managed to buy palak and bhendi too. I boarded the bus and to my surprise got a window seat. But to my luck, there was a broken down rickshaw obstructing the road traffic out of Pulgate. The bus stopped just near Hotel ‘No Name’. Who cared when one had a window seat. I looked out peacefully and actually enjoyed the smell of bhajis being fried and dropped onto the newspaper. The sight of the frothy tea cascading from high above into the glasses held my attention.
Suddenly in that dark dingy place, behind the thick stream of hot tea, I saw those eyes staring at me. Something sharp and cold pierced my heart and my stomach sank low. The face emerged out of the shadows and the rest of him. I willed the bus to start, but it wouldn’t. To my horror, I could see him run towards the bus and jump on. I kept my handbag on the seat next to me. Should I tell the conductor? No. Nothing has happened. Out of the corner of my eyes just behind my shoulder I could see him grab a seat on the other side of aisle, two seats behind and buy a ticket. I could get off the bus- but he could too.
Sweat poured down my neck and tears formed in my eyes. I bit my lip. I would have to carry on. I wished he would get off at some stop. But he continued to sit and stare as if he meant to do something. Was the acid bottle with him? I prepared to scream. I could not breathe and struggled to swallow through my dry mouth. Camp, Aurora Towers, Lal Deval, Sassoon. Pune station would be here soon. Before the bus stopped, I prepared to alight and run. But he was faster. He now stood just a foot behind me with another person in between.
I jumped off the bus while it was still in motion. The toe of my chappal broke, but I dragged on. Thankfully, the lady behind me was slow and remained at the door, so the people behind could not alight. I bolted to the station without looking back. Dodging red-uniformed hamaals carrying heavy suitcases on their heads cursing under their breaths, mongrels, beggars and irritated passengers, I ran up and then down the overhead bridge despite my chappal.
Some bhendi fell out of my bag and the bananas crushed. I could feel their stickiness seep through the bag against my leg. My scarf came undone, my face was wet underneath. The askew dupatta on one shoulder was sweeping the floor. I reached the platform and waited for the train. It was not due for 3 minutes. I stood at the spot for the ladies compartment.
My eyes searched around in fear, but couldn’t spot him. A grubby beggar boy appeared out of nowhere and clawed at me incessantly for money. Usually, I would shoo him away but that day I gave him two darkening bananas to lighten my bag more than anything else. He ate them gratefully with his buddy and threw the skins on the platform.
The train pulled into the platform and just as I was about to walk to the door, I saw the eyes rushing down the platform stairs. It was unmistakably him. No, this was not happening. I rushed forward to the train door, trying to push past the other women who cursed me and pushed me back. The chappal slipped off my foot and got lost in the melee. He was now almost on the platform, rushing towards my compartment. I managed to get a foot into the door and the train started.
He would still get onto another compartment, I noted with horror. I willed the train to pick up speed but he ran along with the train as it picked up speed. I craned my neck to see his hair flying, eyes darting wildly. I breathed rapidly watching with evil fascination and glee as he slowly slipped from view under the train. Those banana skins work every time.
Image source: a still from the film Ranjhaana
I love writing about anything that makes me laugh, cry, salivate, roll my eyes or pull my hair out.
I've just written a book called 'A-Z of being an NRI' . I can't read more...
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