Bus Stop

by Monideepa Sahu

I see him every morning at this bus stop, the young man who looks like he often skips breakfast. I can't quite put my finger on it, but the way he glances at me and then pretends he hasn't makes me wonder what's on his mind. I've wanted to speak to him for months. Does he, too, miss his family in a distant town, or feel stifled by tall buildings walling him in from all sides? I glance at him hoping he might speak to me some day, that waiting together will make us more than passing strangers.

He and I are usually the only commuters at this time. Today, he peers at his watch through narrow, angular glasses, crinkles his nose, and mutters, "Late again." He's finally broken his silence, yet I can only guess his indistinct murmur. Is he speaking to me? I clear my throat and look up hoping he'll tell me his boss is as draconian as mine. He towers above me like a shadow exaggerated by the setting sun. I can't bring myself to draw his attention in the way those sassy girls at pubs and discos might. I don't flick back my hair or look him directly in the eye. The thin man nods and shifts his lanky legs as though acknowledging me, but says nothing more.

It's a luminous morning after months of drab monsoon weather; the kind of morning when I don't even mind Mrs. Britto's sticky porridge and soft scrambled eggs. I warm my hands in a sliver of sunlight to ward off the morning chill. I should have worn something heavier than a short-sleeved cotton dress. A bus rumbles up to our shelter, its glass and chrome gleaming in the sunshine. It disgorges passengers, swallows fresh commuters, and then leaves, snorting hot exhaust onto my face. When the smoke clears, I see a crumpled white heap by the side of the road.

"Someone's fallen off that bus," I say.

"Must be a school kid." The thin man's reedy voice trails off in a wheeze, as though his throat is rusty from rarely speaking. Maybe he's alone and on his own like me. I've been watching how he stares with amazement at the stream of pedestrians milling around us. He tends to start or stop abruptly in his tracks while crossing the road. Perhaps he, too, is uneasy with big city crowds and traffic. With nobody to care for him, he probably sustains his wispy frame on black coffee. I guess I'm better off with Mrs. Britto and her lumpy porridge, even though she looks like she has swallowed spoiled milk when she serves it.

I wish I could draw this man out of his bashful shell. It would be nice to make a real friend here, someone other than folks in the office or Mrs. Britto. My arthritic old landlady can be decent in her own way, but she is as bleak and forbidding as this city itself. "Never trust strangers here," she advised me on my first day with her. "This isn't a small town like your Durgapur." I've been here in Mumbai for three months, and I still can't understand why people walk past you as though you're invisible. Back home, you're expected to know your neighbors and help each other out.

I continue to wait, hoping the heap will rise and take on human form, brush the dust off his clothes, and walk away unhurt. But he doesn't. People rush past, not noticing anything by the gutter. The baker, who owns the cake shop by the roadside, marches by, heaves open the shutter, and enters his bakery. The heap shakes, and I can hear faint groans. Why doesn't someone do something? Seeing no signs of my bus, I step out of the shelter and approach. The thin man hesitates and then trails behind me like a shadow.

"Look, he's foaming at the mouth. He's sick," I say, now wondering if I should back away.

The thin man steps closer and spreads his arms as though to hold me back. "His clothes look clean; no bloodstains," he says. "He can't be hurt much. Leave him. I bet he's just drunk." He steals surreptitious glances at me as he speaks, only to turn guiltily away as usual when I try to meet his gaze. While waiting for the bus, I've amused myself by making up some dreadful secret he is trying to hide. Maybe there's a simpler explanation; that he's either reticent or just as unfriendly as everyone else in this city. But my secret game lets me create inscrutable mysteries around the salesman or clerk that he probably is.

"Looks like an epileptic fit," says the portly baker, peeking out from behind trays of jam tarts with pink icing inside his storefront display case.

A bus halts at our stop and honks. If I miss it, I'll be late for work. The thin man does not seem to notice the bus. His eyes meet mine, and in that moment, we choose to stay.

"Take off your shoes and make him smell the insides," the baker says from inside the shop. "Works wonders for fainting fits. I know. My cousin gets them too."

Shouldn't we take the sick man to a doctor? Call an ambulance? I glance at the closed shutters and faded red and white signboard of Dr. Khan's Piles and Fistula Clinic, but it is not open yet, unlike most of the establishments that line this street. I look at the man as he bends to take off his shoe. I offer to hold his bag, a patent leather one, which looks far too stylish alongside his ordinary white shirt and khaki trousers. This man carries a different briefcase or portfolio bag to work almost every other day, and they usually clash with his clothes. He obviously does not have a woman around to help him refine his fashion sense. But I kind of like his mismatched accessories. They entice me to unravel his enigmatic story.

I wince when he rudely ignores my offer to help. He clutches his precious bag closer to his chest as though it's a cache of diamonds, and manages to balance himself on one leg while pulling off a shoe. And then, the stench assaults me. This man takes time to buff his shoes to an immaculate gloss in the morning, but he hasn't washed his socks in weeks.

As I step back, the thin man holds the shoe near the sick man's nose. The sick man quiets down, and after a while comes to and pulls himself out of the gutter. The thin man lends his arm and helps him to sit up on the curb under a peepul tree. Sunlight falls down through the leaves to form mottled patterns upon them both. The sick man wipes foam off the corners of his mouth, and his breathing relaxes into a steadier rhythm. A mynah chatters, and the sick man looks up at the branches above. He'll be all right. I feel like exchanging a high five with the thin man, smelly shoes notwithstanding. I still don't know his name, but I hope that we may finally have a chance to get to know each other.

"Why are you roaming about alone like this?" I ask the sick man

"I...I came from my village looking for a job," the sick man says. "Been searching these past two months. Yesterday, my cousin said he couldn't support me here any longer. I've been wandering on the streets since. I don't have money for the fare, so I've been getting around by hanging onto the footboards of buses."

"How could your cousin be so cruel?" the thin man asks.

"No," says the sick man, his voice a hoarse whisper. "My cousin is a poor mason. He did his best, but he can't support me forever."

He answers our questions with the patience of someone who has little left to lose. With no money or job, he has no definite plans. Yes, he is an epileptic, he says and pulls out a strip of tablets from his shirt pocket. Having eaten nothing since yesterday, he has skipped the medicine too, afraid to take it on an empty stomach.

"In your village, do you have a family, any property?" I ask.

"There's my wife and my old, blind mother." The sick man strokes the rough granite blocks lining the curb. On the lamppost behind him, tattered posters advertising guaranteed placements to all who train at Bharat Tutorial College flutter in the morning breeze. The man squirms and winces as though in pain, and I wonder whether this pain is restricted to his stocky body. "I have two children, a son and daughter aged nine and eleven, and a house, yes." The words stumble out with obvious effort. "We have two acres of land. Water from the canal doesn't reach us, and the rain has failed these last two years. The crops dry up."

I reach for my purse, but the thin man puts up his hand signaling me to wait. "He might have made up that sob story to get sympathy," he tells me in a lowered voice. "Could be a con man. You can't trust strangers."

The sick man sits on the curb and stares down at his worn-out rubber sandals. His trousers are frayed at the bottom. I can see that he's poor and needs all the help he can get. Opening my purse, I set aside just enough cash for the day's expenses and press the rest of the money into his palm. "Keep this," I say. "Go home to your village and buy yourself a meal on the way. You'll starve if you continue to wander alone like this."

A tear rolls from the sick man's eyes, marking a streak down his dirt-encrusted cheek. His faint sigh blends with a gust of wind ruffling the leaves of the peepul tree above, and he gazes beyond us in despondent silence.

I feel fortunate that I at least have a job and people to turn to in this impersonal city. Three colleagues share the cubicle with me at the office. And there's Mrs. Britto, who provides me a home of sorts, even though ours is a strictly businesslike relationship. With her, it's just keeping her posted of my comings and goings. She also keeps my letters, which she offers with claw-like hands and then waddles off to the kitchen before I can finish saying thanks. Mrs. Britto's may not be the grandest boarding house in town, but it's near the railway station and markets and not too far from my office. And best of all, her rates are cheap.

I wonder where the sick man will go, and how far my spare cash will take him.

The thin man pulls out his wallet. One by one, the few bystanders gathered around us reach into their pockets and offer alms, small change. The baker emerges from his shop with a fresh-smelling cherry-topped bun and a cup of steaming tea. "Eat this," he says, "and then take your medicine."

The sick man obediently eats. Then he wipes his bleary, bloodshot eyes, thanks us, and trudges away, his shoulders slumped under an invisible burden.

I look at my watch and gasp. It's nine-thirty already! If I don't reach my office in fifteen minutes, that busybody of a head clerk will mark me late again.

"If you're going towards Nariman Point, perhaps we can share a taxi?" The thin man looks at me. I wonder if that slight twitching at the corners of his mouth is the beginning of a smile.

"That's fine." I eagerly take up the offer to share the ride. The full taxi fare would have cut into the money I am saving to visit my parents, and the five thousand rupees for the microscope I want to buy for my kid brother.

As we settle into the cab, I count out my half of the taxi fare and offer it. He demurs for a moment and then pockets the money. Our hands touch briefly as he takes my money. My fingertips tingle with an electrifying charge. I draw back my hand and try to look composed.

I've woven many stories about his true identity. But now that we are alone together, I cannot think of a single appealing thing to say. Several traffic signals later I come up with, "Where do you work?" and the banality of my question makes me want to evaporate. He turns to stare at me until my cheeks and ears burn. And then his cell phone chimes, cutting into my attempt at conversation.

"I'm on my way now," he speaks into his phone. "Got held up. I'll be delivering the consignment in a few minutes." He returns the phone to his pocket and turns away from me to look out of the window. I realize I still don't know his name. But I can't think of anything impressive to say. We sit in the taxi in silence for the rest of the trip, watching tall buildings pass, their glass and aluminum glinting in the sunshine.

As we approach my office, I only have three minutes to reach my desk. Without a backward glance, I bolt out of the taxi and make a dash for my building. But still, I can't help notice that the thin man exits from the taxi as well, and sprints diagonally across the street. Though we take the same bus every morning, I've never seen him alight here before. Could he be following me? From inside our lobby, I wait to see which office building he enters. Instead, he slinks off into the shadows of a narrow lane and returns empty-handed almost immediately, no longer carrying the expensive-looking bag. Divested of his receptacle of secrets, he appears shorter, as though he has deflated into an undistinguished member of the rush hour crowd. He turns back to steal furtive glances, but I do not wish to meet his eyes just then.

I run inside before he can see me watching him, and then race up the stairs leaping two steps at a time. There! I'm in with an entire minute to spare. I plunk into my swivel seat and beam at the head clerk.

I think back on my unusual morning. Today I will have a story to tell my cubicle mates over coffee. Perhaps I'll even coax Mrs. Britto out of her habitual grim-as-an-undertaker mood with the tale of the sick man. Maybe...

I wonder if the thin man will say anything when we meet tomorrow. Perhaps we'll stand apart in silence after he mumbles a curt greeting, clutches his new bag tighter, and averts his wavering gaze.