Lady with the Pram
During our college days, government-run Roadways buses monopolized the road routes. Due to heavy rush, passengers would travel on the rooftops and sometimes dangle themselves from the iron grill on the back of the bus. There used to be a short-stature conductor at Bathinda who would announce before starting the bus, "Hey, listen! The bus won’t stop before Maur. There should be no passengers for Kotshamir, Kot Fatta and Maisarkhana." Embarrassed, we would get down. However, whenever we were in a group, a fight nicknamed "Bus fare struggle" would start. Picked by this over-riding authority of the conductor, a classmate of mine, would stand in the door and try to impress everybody with his authority as an officer by instructing the driver to start the bus.
Long route buses did not halt at my village. This was the period when the duo of Mohammad Sadiq and Ranjit Kaur used to sing songs like, "The Roadways bus has arrived; it has neither window panes nor windows." Carrying the memories of those old times, people of my Dagestan (Malwa) even today enquire three times before boarding a bus because, more often that not. while the board on the front of the bus announced that it was going from Bathinda to Barnala, it would actually be going to Dabwali. This reality would dawn upon the passengers only at the time the conductor issued the tickets. He would blow a long whistle to stop the bus and the unwary passenger would in no time get stranded on the highway. The passenger, sitting close to the door, would be almost in tears after repeatedly telling the bus route to those wanting to board the bus because people would ask, "Brother, will this bus go to Sunam?" The next question would be, "Will it go through Mansa city?"; and yet another, "Will it halt at Khiala?" To avoid answering so many questions, I had made it a practice to simply ask the person, "Where do you want to go?" Then, hearing about his destination, I would tell him whether the bus would go there or not. It was due to this practice of mine that one day, an explosive incident took place.
ChandigarhTransport Undertaking had started a direct bus service on Chandigarh to Mansa route. Because the bus going towards Chandigarh did not halt at my village Kot Fatta, I had to first take a bus from Kot Fatta to Mansa and from there a CTU bus onwards to Chandigarh. One day, when I was sitting in the bus and waiting for its departure, a group of 2-3 women came close to me and asked, “Brother, where will this bus go?” In response, the moment I asked them, “Where do you want to go?” One of them, a dark complexioned and heavily-built woman, looking like a village leader, sprang up like a snake and shouted, ”Hey, look here! I asked him where this bus would go and this man asks me whether I will accompany him.?” By distorting the word “go” into ˜accompanying”, this woman had turned my innocuous query into a roguish one. It was like the poet who said, “Only one dot turned me from lover to offender”. I was taken aback; she abused me three more times and went away spitting fire. Completely irritated, I felt like telling her, ˜Madam, first go and look yourself in a mirror; you are not some beauty queen like Hema Malini, (a Bollywood actress)." But I kept quiet fearing that the prime of my youth was sufficient to brand me as guilty. Lost in my thoughts, I did not even remember how the bus reached Chandigarh thereafter. My condition was like that of an extinguished Diwali lamp. Throughout the journey, the woman had kept giving me a headache. I came to myself when the conductor blew his whistle near the Tribune Chowk at Chandigarh.
On a pleasant summer evening, I reached by train London’s Elwood station from Charring Cross. The sun had set but night fall was still some time away; it used to get dark only around 10 pm. Shortly after coming out of the station, I realized that something was wrong. I felt with my hands the wallet and the bag; everything was in place. I kept walking but my mind warned me that something was amiss. The station looked familiar, the silence was also as usual and the trees before my eyes also appeared to be the same. Then why was my mind alerting me? There was definitely something wrong. I kept walking. However on reaching where the road turned, the tunnel that I had seen in the morning was missing. I immediately realized that I had mistakenly got down at some other station. In fact I was habitual of remembering `Punjabi` station names like Sangat Mandi, Bhucho Mandi, Jaito Mandi etc; But English names of stations like Elwood, Woodland, Groveland, etc got muddled up in my mind. I had got down one station short of Elwood but there was not much distance between the two. The house of my co-brother was not far from here but there was no bus available on this route. The weather was pleasant and a cool breeze was blowing. It had rained a short while ago. The sky was overcast.
To enjoy the weather, I started on foot. Deep forest on both sides of the road was converting sadness into cheer. Going up the slopes, I thought Lady Chatterley must have also passed through some such forest; there was nothing to fear. After about half an hour’s trek, I came to a turn where the road forked into four streets like the fingers on my palm. ˜What now?”, I asked myself. There were no pedestrians and the cars won’t stop. Whom could I enquire from? I could not see any street with the name where I had to go. A light drizzle had also started now. After halting at the crossing for a while, I went towards an open gate at a distance. This was Chelsea Hertz Golf Club. Seeing over 100 cars parked there, I retrieved my courage with the thought that I could seek guidance from someone there. I was proceeding towards the Reception inside the club when I saw a white woman coming from the opposite direction like a swinging Eucalyptus tree pushing her child’s pram. Looking at her glowing face, I gasped: ˜Madam how could Aishwarya Rai become Miss World in spite of you?” Had I now been as young as I used to be while in college, I would have definitely stammered while addressing her. But I merely said, “Madam, I am a tourist from India. I have lost my way home. Can you show me the way to the White Horse Hill Road?” She halted her pram and gave me a broad smile. Then, with her lips curled and eyes half closed, she tried to locate White Horse Hill Road in the air with her first finger. Finally, shaking her head she said, “Sorry, I have no idea.”Ok, it is alright”, I said and was about to walk away when she asked, “Do you have a phone number?” “Yes, I do”, I replied and started to walk once again. She brought out her cell phone from the pram’s pocket and started dialing my number. Meanwhile we had started walking slowly towards the exit. She pushed the pram with her left hand and held the cell phone to her ear with the other hand. While speaking to my sister-in-law she kept laughing heartily, “One Mr. Singh who has come from India has got lost her…. (Laughter)…Don’t you worry, he is alright… (Laughter again)… Yes, yes, he is in my care (laughter again)…I do not know whether you are waiting for him or not, but he wants to come to your house… (Laughter again)…” By now, we had reached the crossing.
She put the cell phone in her jeans pocket and started guiding me while still walking, “Please wait here on the roadside for ten minutes. They are coming to fetch you.” I did not notice when the drizzle had stopped. Now there were waves of fragrance in the air all around as if some river of fragrance was flowing nearby. The roses of her laughter and smiles which dissolved in the air were assailing my nostrils and thrilling me as never before. Touching the violin playing delicately in my heart, I pleaded with her to stay for some more time, “Madam, please stay awhile. The weather is very pleasant; it will feel more pleasant in your company.” She halted. We indulged in small talk for some time. Just then, the car which had come to take me home stopped beside me and its door opened. I thanked her and boarded the car. She went away waving her hand and saying, “Bye! bye!” I do not want to ever forget the cheerful face of that madam with the pram, who so lovingly took pains to show me the way. Now it is over two decades but I have not been able to push out of my memories the face of the woman who had asked me the route in the bus.
Copyright © 2010 Birinder Dhillon