Artwork by Ira Joel Haber
Patwari drained his glass of sweet masala tea and lit a bidi. He squinted as he inhaled. The new autumn sun shone like polished brass. The Durga Puja festival was still a couple of weeks away, but already the town had started to behave like the holidays had begun. Patwari felt happy, perhaps because it was still early in the morning. He enjoyed his mornings and was in no hurry to get started. The bustle would start at 6:30 when Sardarji arrived.
Sardarji's real name was Gurdweep Singh, but to all at the bus depot he was known as Sardarji. He epitomized all a Sardar was expected to be: six feet tall with muscles and strength to match, a twirling mustache and beard clasped to his jaw, piercing black eyes, and loud guffaw. Sardarji had a Sardar's temper, too. He was not easily roused, but his roar put tigers to shame and his blows could crush an elephant's skull, or so Patwari would claim.
Patwari was the physical opposite of Sardarji, a puny man, literally skin and bone. But his physical deficiency had never stopped him from getting into fights. Sardarji always said, twirling his moustache into pointy curls, that Patwari's acid tongue and ill-timed sense of humor would bring them bad trouble one of these days. Patwari and Sardarji got along famously, though. Partly because Patwari didn't unleash his sense of humor on his friend, and partly because Sardarji felt a little protective of the puny Patwari, but mostly because the two men had been together for a very long time. They made a good team. Sardarji drove the mini bus from the Asansol bus depot to Ranchi and back everyday. Patwari was the bus conductor.
"Ho Patwari. Sat Sri Akal!" Sardarji strode into the depot and gave his bus a friendly slap.
"Sat Sri Akal, Sardarji!" Patwari raised his bidi as a salute before flinging it across the dusty tarmac with his thumb and index finger. He got up, cracked his knuckles, and stretched. The day had begun for another Asansol-Ranchi-Asansol roundtrip.
The passengers started to trickle in at 6:45. Patwari eyed them idly. Most of them had already bought their tickets at the depot's ticket booth, so he didn't bother to get up and investigate. He would check their tickets at leisure once the bus started. Besides, from his years of experience as a bus conductor, he could tell a ticketless traveler from ten yards away. They rarely had that problem on this route. It was a long distance route, mostly frequented by families and middle-aged businessmen. College kids also took this route at the start and the finish of their academic terms. But these young people, though boisterous, never gave them any trouble. On the other hand, some of the family men would sometimes try to palm off a buxom girl or a gangly youth as an under-12-year-old just to save half the cost of a ticket.
Once Patwari disgustedly told the father of a giggly young lady she was old enough to bear his (Patwari's) children, and Sardarji had to intervene to break up the ugly scene that followed. Patwari was made to apologize for being disrespectful to a zenana, but not before the father's pride had crumbled before Sardarji's flexed muscles.
Today's passengers were almost exclusively of the family type, except for an unshaven student who had gone somewhere for a weekend jaunt and was now returning to the St. Xavier's College at Ranchi. A few other passengers caught Patwari's eye. Among them were four Gujaratis, middle-aged couples who seemed to be either very intimate friends or relatives on rollicking good terms with each other. The foursome sat together in the only two seats facing each other in the bus, looking like a group of plump, softly murmuring pigeons. A couple of seats away sat an old Mullah with his daughter or daughter-in-law and infant. The woman looked frail and sick, and her baby was so small, it was barely visible through the sheets and towels swaddling it. A broad Hindu matriarch with her cowed under husband, sister-in-law, and brother-in-law presided over the seats in the middle. The rest of the seats were occupied by single gentlemen off to Ranchi on business and young couples engrossed in themselves.
At 7:30 sharp the bus hummed to life. Sardarji gave his moustache a little twirl, which was Patwari's signal to sing out, "Chal Sawari!" and slap the side of the bus, balancing on the steps with the door half closed. He would continue to lean out for a portion of the journey, until the bus gathered speed and left the town for the highway. Then he would leave his post by the steps and check the tickets of the passengers, sometimes making light conversation with those who felt inclined to talk. Finally Sardarji would make eye contact with him in the rear view mirror. Then it was time for Patwari to produce his tobacco pouch and roll out two cigarettes, which he would do carefully, seated on the foam covered bench on the left of the driver's seat, across the gearbox and engine. He would light both cigarettes and hand over one to Sardarji.
Together they would smoke and indulge in small talk, sometimes including the passengers, too, at least those who were seated in front and close enough to hear above the roar of the bus's engine. Smoking pouch cigarettes was a luxury Patwari enjoyed but could not afford. Sardarji knew this, so he didn't smoke more than one or two per trip. Sometimes Sardarji bought a pouch of tobacco and kept it casually on the bench. Patwari never acknowledged them, but Sardarji knew, and Patwari knew he knew they were appreciated.
The bus traveled along the Grand Trunk Road leading towards Dhanbad, gathering speed with every milestone it crossed. They would reach Dhanbad around nine in the morning and stop there for about 40 minutes while the passengers stretched and ate breakfast. Patwari and Sardarji refueled here, themselves as well as the bus. There was a particular tea shop they patronized, into which the bus passengers sometimes followed, and this time it was the old Mullah and his beti or bahu with her baby who joined them.
The old man ordered tea for himself and puri-bhaji for the young woman. She seemed to be ill at ease with the baby, which started to cry. The baby's "waah waahs" created a din in the dark and otherwise quiet tea shop. Patwari turned to pass a comment, but Sardarji stopped him. The noise had attracted some itinerant Hijras. There were two of them, and they sidled into the shop, clicking their tongues. Their garish make-up and muscular bodies made them look like gargoyles. The woman cringed, holding her baby close to her bosom. The old Mullah stood up in agitation.
"Arre Daddu! Why are you worried? Don't you want us to bless the newborn?" lisped one of the Hijras, swinging his false braid. "We'll bring you good luck," sang the other, eyeing the woman professionally. It is a well known custom. Hijras, or eunuchs, are supposed to bring good luck to newborn babies. Their presence is considered auspicious. In this case, however, it turned out to be otherwise.
The old Mullah turned almost hysterical at the mention of good luck. "What good luck? Look at my poor daughter. She's been turned out from her husband's home because of this baby! My poor daughter's virtue has been questioned by those scoundrels! Good Luck? Never have I met one as unlucky as my poor daughter!"
The young woman tried to hush her father. Her baby, sensing trouble, stopped bawling but began to whimper softly. Rocking the infant in her arms and trying to comfort the old man at the same time, the frail young woman cut a poignant picture, which promptly touched Patwari's heart. "Hey you two! Saale, neither male nor female! Get the hell out of here before I kick your filthy asses!"
"Ye, ei! Babu! Who's talking to you?" The Hijras turned towards Patwari in unison. Being bigger built, they towered over the small man until Sardarji stood up.
"You were talking to my passengers," Sardarji said quietly. The Hijras looked at him for a couple of seconds, then muttering among themselves, turned and left.
Patwari and Sardarji returned to their masala tea but were interrupted again. This time it was the news on the radio. Crowds of curious people materialized before the radios in every shop on that road. As soon as the gist of the news had been digested, opinions were formed. People excitedly discussed The World Trade Center and the forces that had brought it down, though nobody among them had seen the towers. The two men also listened. It took them a little while to unravel the sequence of events and the number of lives lost. The name Osama Bin Laden ricocheted around the walls and then zoomed in again to buzz in the ears of the people. The city was literally agog with the news, and the bus passengers were equally excited. Kashmiri and ULFA terrorists had become dhal-chawal; the people had grown so used to listening and reading about these, they paled in comparison. Nobody was sure about Bin Laden's identity, at first. But as is the case, there is always some truly wise guy who knows all about everything. Such a person quickly gathers a following when rapid news is required, and the knowledge spreads through the ranks. The two gentlemen among the Gujarati foursome turned out to be the most knowledgeable and garrulous. Sardarji's bus suddenly became a most unlikely soapbox for the duo's oratorical skills.
Sardarji started the bus amidst this hubbub, without twirling his moustache. And Patwari didn't loiter at the steps after shouting, "Chal Sawari!" The passengers of the Asansol-Ranchi-Asansol roundtrip mini bus returned to their seats much enlightened and excited after their breakfast halt at Dhanbad. They felt a heightened sense of the world around them, its past and present, and the powers that be, both good and evil, that could change destinies forever. They naturally drew parallels with the tragedies at WTC and their own knowledge of what had been occurring in India for the past 54 years. The current terrorist situation was not so much alive to their minds as the riots in Bengal and Punjab during independence. The whole bus became a movable feast of opinions ladled back and forth, forth and back. Anecdotal history dotted discussions of world and Indian politics; and the why's and wherefore's of such extremities were discussed animatedly.
The atmosphere in the bus became increasingly charged, and Patwari wanted to participate. "So Mian Saab," said Patwari jokingly to the old Mullah, "This Bin Laden fellow, your country cousin?"
The old man looked up at him with a puzzled frown. But the sudden drop in the conversation gave him inkling this piece of witticism was misplaced, and his face became immediately stern. "Arre Bhai? What are you saying?" said the Mullah. "Is this the way to joke with an old man?"
Patwari sensed the change in the weather and grinned sheepishly. "No offence, Mian Saab. Just joking."
Sardarji looked at him disgustedly through the rear view mirror. But the atmosphere had grown considerably chilly, and even the bus tires seemed to whisper, "Muslim, Muslim, Muslim."
It suddenly dawned on the old man: he, his daughter, and the baby were the only Muslims on the bus. The others were mostly Hindus, some of who were pure vegetarian, too, and the rest, a small minority compared to the Hindus, were Christians. The Mullah looked away and tried to busy himself with the baby and its mother. But the nimbus of sudden suspicion and hostility grew thick behind his back. Whispers rose higher and higher like the waves of the sea in high tide, marooning the little Muslim family in their corner of the bus. Sardarji concentrated on the road ahead, and Patwari sat on his seat counting his coins. The houses on the sides of the road grew sparser as they sped away from Dhanbad.
An hour later, the bus limped to a stop, one of its tires punctured. Sardarji cursed. Changing a bus-tire in the middle of a dusty road is a time-consuming affair. Patwari got down to take out the spare. The passengers, who had begun to nod off, became suddenly fully awake and hostile again. They frowned at the trio as if they were to blame for the puncture. Many of the passengers decided to stretch their limbs on the dusty footpaths flanking the road, and the old man urged his daughter to stretch her limbs, too, as the baby had started to grow listless in the hot bus. She obeyed, only to walk straight into the arms of trouble.
A few dilapidated buildings, long abandoned by their original owners, hugged the edge of the road. Hijras lived here, plying their trade for truckers who preferred more exotic fare over the women who serviced them by the highways. From here the Hijras made their regular forays into the town and back, hitching rides on buses and trucks several times in a day. The young woman was unfortunate in that two of the Hijras who emerged from the buildings happened to be the same ones who had heckled her and her father at the tea shop earlier in the day. Strengthened by their brothers—or sisters as they would have preferred it—they were now more than ready to lay siege.
"Alright Mian Saab. Now let's see how you wriggle out of this without paying," said the one who lisped. And immediately a chorus followed. The Mullah tried to bundle his daughter back onto the bus, but she was too petrified to move. One of the Hijras snatched the baby from her arms and examined it. The mother let out a wail of terror immediately echoed by her baby. The bus passengers stood shocked and silent by this display of aggression towards a zenana and her baby.
"Hey!" shouted Patwari. "You give the baby back to the mother!"
"Hai!" shouted the Hijras back. "Hai. Hai. We won't. What will you do, re?"
"Ei conductor," said the lisper's partner, clapping his hands menacingly. "You were such a hero back there. Now let's see you get your two fathers here, haanh!"
"Sardarji!" Shrieked Patwari.
"Sardarji!" mimicked the Hijras, drowning out the mother's wails with their clapping.
Sardarji brought himself up to his full height and advanced, glaring at the Hijras. The Hijras looked at him and laughed. They lifted their skirts up to their knees.
"Oye. Sardarji! Want to have a good time? Come see what's under our skirts!"
This was too much for Sardarji, who fled to the rear of the bus where the punctured tire awaited his muscles.
The passengers now fled to the safety of the bus and craned through the windows to get a better glimpse of the drama outside. The old man was near hysterical. "Please, sirs, help us. Please, they've taken my grandson away. Oh please, don't be so hard hearted."
"Give us 200 rupees for seeing your child, and you can go!" screamed the Hijras. "Hey hero," they said to Patwari, "why don't you get the money?"
Patwari spat on the dust but otherwise held his peace. Some of the bus passengers advised the old man to give the Hijras the money to avoid further harassment.
"Brothers, where will a poor person like me get 200 rupees to spare?" he cried. And, then turning to the Hijras, "Oh sisters, what harm have we done to you? You can see how wretched we already are. Can you not be a little kind? Please, Allah will bless you."
The Hijras were not to be deprived of their 200 rupees. Their pride had been injured at the teashop, and now that they had the old man cornered, the Hijras had no intention of letting go. The bus passengers didn't seem inclined to help. Many of them had started to show impatience. Sardarji got the new tire in place, but didn't walk up to the Hijras. He quietly got into his seat and waited. The passengers asked him to negotiate. Sardarji shook his head and sat tight behind the wheel. He didn't like the idea of having his manhood compromised by a bunch of non-women. In reality, this was the same predicament for all the male passengers in the bus, even though as men it was their duty to protect. But who wanted to exchange words with shameless Hijras who lifted up their skirts at the drop of a hat? Chhi-chhi! And, that too in front of the entire zenana? Arre Ram-Ram! Tauba-tauba!
Patwari at first inched towards the bus but changed his mind and inched towards the old man. He turned to the bus passengers. "Arre bhaiyo! Please stand with me! Let's get this sorted."
"Arre Bhaiyo!" mimicked the Hijras. "Come come we'll show you what's underneath our skirts!"
Nobody moved. The young woman kept stretching her arms towards the baby, but she didn't dare go toward the Hijras. She didn't notice her baby was actually gurgling cheerfully in the arms of an older Hijra, who seemed like a sort of mother figure to the rest. This Hijra held the baby in his arms like a tender flower, his leathery face glowing with kindness and affection. The rest of the people were too excited at the prospect of a showdown to care about anything else. The stalemate showed no sign of abating. Instead it had gathered a crowd of curious villagers, who grinned and pointed but kept to a safe distance.
Inside the bus, the once vociferous Gujarati gentlemen were absolutely silent. They even kept their eyes averted from the drama outside. The two Gujarati ladies showed concern and whispered to each other agitatedly. The young couples were quiet and watched everything with round eyes, shocked by this rude intrusion into their private world. The solitary gentlemen remained as they were, solitary and silent. The student slept with his head on the window on the side facing away from the Hijras. But the matriarch was beginning to loose patience. She was a big woman, used to having her way. Her gold bangles jangled angrily at the inability of all the men to handle a group of Hijras. She nudged her husband, but he didn't respond. She looked at all the other women sitting docilely next to their husbands and snorted. Then she got up.
"Are we mothers or what?" demanded the matriarch. "What is this nonsense going on? How can we sit here and allow strangers to come and snatch her child? Isn't she a mother like us? Muslim or not, she is a mother, right?" The women nodded and murmured. Taking this to be a sign of courage, the matriarch got into the aisle of the bus and beckoned the women. "Come, sisters, let's show the men how we deal with situations!"
What followed was a lengthy discussion in murmurs and sometimes raucous disagreement (from the Hijras). The men were too cowed to go near and listen to the bargaining. The old man stood on the outer edges, wringing his hands. Patwari stood next to him, feeling sheepish. The matriarch called him. Patwari edged forward. She motioned him to collect money from the men in the bus, which Patwari, grateful to play a positive role at last, proceeded to do with energy. Sardarji gave two 20 rupee notes, signaling it was from both of them, which Patwari accepted with a salute. The other passengers, except for the student who slept on, quietly contributed their 10s and 20s. The matriarch handed over the collection to one of the ladies to count, away from the Hijras' interested eyes. Some verbal and material exchanges followed, after which the baby was handed over to its near-fainting mother. The matriarch of the women and the matriarch of the Hijras exchanged friendly good-byes. The younger Hijras winked at the men in the bus, and one of them gave Patwari a friendly prod, which he accepted, grinning. And the bus was ready to start.
The matriarch returned to her seat and shot a triumphant look at her husband and all the men around her. Some of the men had the grace to thank her for easing them out of a tight situation. The rest of the women, too, felt pleased with themselves, and soon started a friendly discussion with the young mother about her baby and her circumstances. This last friendly gesture was enough to get the old man started, and he poured out his tale of woe to all sympathetic ears. Soon the baby was passed from lap to lap and crooned over. Snacks were offered to the mother and the old man. The passengers lapsed into easy affability as the bus rolled on towards Ranchi.
Patwari lit two cigarettes and offered one to Sardarji. The Sardar took it and said, "Saala, next time don't expect me to bail you out!"
Patwari simply bent his head and inhaled deeply.