I still maintain that it was just another bus ride. Although, scratching around for excuses in light of the events that followed, I concluded that there was a first I could attach. It was the first ever time I had travelled on a bus. From Brigade Road. Alone. In a green Big 10. Not terribly convincing is it? Right then, it must be Fate and Her indigestion issues again.
It had been a fruitful Saturday morning. Not only did I get to meet some old school friends, but I got to watch a visually orgasmic ‘Tron: Legacy’ at the same time. Ah, the light cycles, the discs, the Grid, the pocket fighter jets and Quorra; I can ramble on for a bit like this, but obviously this is not the event. Only halfway through a lazy Saturday at the end of the cheapest 3D experience one can get in Bangalore, we asked ourselves –
‘Why not make a good day even better?’
So, we found ourselves sitting in a mildly alcoholic smelling corner of this restaurant called Three Quarters Chinese. Though the excellent food justified it ultimately, we found our own choice perplexing initially as we quickly discovered that none of us really liked Chinese food. How were we to make amends for our hastiness? Why, by making a unanimous decision on where to have dessert of course.
Mama Mia, it was. We noticed belatedly that it was a bit of a ‘healthy’ eating place – every ice cream counter was plastered with helpful signs like ‘96% Fat Free’ and ‘You can eat 20 scoops of this and still look like Kate Moss!’ However, we’d already settled down with our ice cream cups (After Eight for me) and more importantly, we’d had our attention drawn to a shiny new – unmanned – Foosball table in the corner. So, we spent a good hour showing off our skills at the table for the ladies. No, seriously. There were a bunch of girls laughing their tinkling peals of laughter standing by the side, but it might have been a case of laughing at us than with us. Sigh. Anyway, with our stomachs full to bursting point and our hearts glad, we went our separate ways. A short uneventful journey later, I found myself home and plopped in front of a TV watching ‘Beverly Hills Chihuahua’. The End.
Well, not quite. If that had been the case, you would be seeing a blog post a day on the flavour of toothpaste I use to brush my teeth. We did go our separate ways – Advaith and Aditya went off to catch an autorickshaw, and I went looking for Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood PC. Wait, was that the spark that ignited a raging wildfire? Was that the mote of dust that upset the delicate churnings of Chance’s gizzard? Maybe, but you can’t really fault me there, can you? It’s only Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, you know! I didn’t find it though.
There’s a point where Brigade Road sharply changes. Where the short stretch of supermetropolitanism with its fashionable women, emo kids, swanky cars and counterfeit watch sellers trying to hawk their wares speaking a charmingly affected English ends and the robotic routine of the real Bangalore with its indifferent crowds and colourful bustle begins. That’s where I got onto a bus. A Green Big10 that would take me to within a kilometre of my house.
I can’t really remember the exact instant when I noticed him. Obviously, I can’t then tell you when he boarded the bus. Perhaps he got on at the same place I did. Maybe he took a while to notice the suggestive look in my eye and make his way over to give one of his own. I’m not sure but when a middle aged Muslim gentleman with a healthy paunch drapes himself all over your shoulder, you cannot help but notice eventually.
First, I passed if off as the crowded bus syndrome. Let me clarify that distasteful concept a little. I had, some time before, observed remarkable similarities between an overflowing bus and a mosh pit. People change - dramatically - from their usual touchy selves where they maintain a foot wide bubble of personal space and shrink away violently at the merest hint of trespass to near about the exact opposite, when put on a crowded bus. Just like in a mosh pit, they push and shove for no reason and take no offence when someone bigger and better comes along and does the same thing to them. They paste a vaguely doped glassy look on their faces and deep into their eyes, just like in a mosh pit but without the hallucinogens, roll their sleeves up and make a straight line dash for that last empty seat. I should love that right? Being the unabashed metalhead that I am? Where’s the metal, man, where’s the metal? Without it, I don’t just want a foot of personal space, I want two.
It quickly became apparent to me that this was more than that. There are lines of propriety, good people on a crowded bus, even for you, and this man was crossing them with gay abandon. I decided to fight back. Pretending to pick up something up from the floor, I bent down for an instant, and when I came back up I sat a little more slouched than before. Using every inch of muscle in my shoulders, and the bones too if that can be done, I squared my shoulders with a sharp jerk.
The idea, of course, was that with that act I would drive a painful wedge into the persistent paunch, and hopefully get rid of it for good. It didn’t work and in the middle of the bout of helpless frustration that ensued, I realized one thing. That man had the paunch. Historically speaking, I have spent roughly twice as much time being a chubby, paunchy fat kid than the emaciated coder-nerd of college. So, I should know a bit about perfectly reflective stomachs. Yes, there comes a point in any path to obesity when your paunch achieves the optimum level of restitution. It drapes over the waist just right: it achieves just the right amount of flexibility to not jiggle around embarrassingly in moments of activity, to not – on the other end of the spectrum – be so hard as to give off a mortifying impression that it belongs to a bodybuilder: it becomes the shield of all shields. Throw a punch at it, and it will roll it around mockingly and throw it right back at you with twice the force. Worse, it acquires the consistency of the stickiest glue, with disastrous results as you’ll see.
What did that mean in the context of my shoulder charge? One, that my shoulders hurt a fair bit from the effort, and two, that I was now wedged in a rigid Yoga guru posture with no hope of going back to a more comfortable slump. The paunch had oozed around my shoulders to occupy the recently vacated space. I decided to take a look up at my relentless persecutor.
I found myself looking into a heavily lined, ruddy face adorned on top with the orthodox Muslim’s cap. His cheeks were covered with thick, poisonous looking copper coloured hair. There was no moustache. It wasn’t a pleasant sight. The man looked down at me - this might be retrospection colouring my account - but I could have sworn I detected a note of glee in that face of bland evil. I looked away quickly before - the horrors - he might develop an inclination to start chatting.
I spent the next ten minutes pointedly staring out of the window, in the process making the guy occupying the window seat uncomfortable. In a futile attempt to take my mind off thoughts that involved me being sold off as a camel dung cleaner to some rich Arab, I thought about the giant tub of After Eight ice cream that lay near my feet. I forcefully wondered how long it would last without melting and if my grandmother would like the minty taste. It was supposed to be fat free, right? Perhaps even my mother, who was on a diet, could enjoy a bit of it. Something broke my laboriously constructed chain of thought. He was saying something!
I pretended to not hear and ignored him until the insistent tone in his voice became too much to bear. When I looked up however, I still couldn’t hear a thing he was saying, because my brain temporarily shut down from the stench. Even the memory’s enough to make me gag. As an unenviable collection of nicotine (and whatever the hell else) stained teeth induced in me a strong urge to shut my eyes tightly, at the same time a powerful whiff of what smelt like stale dead fish rotting for a month mixed with fermented garbage juice seeping from a year old corpse, assailed my stunned nostrils.
‘Time?’ he said, pointing at my watch, and tapping his wrist for emphasis.
‘Five o’ clock.’ The expression didn’t change. ‘Paanch.’ I clarified with finality.
Incredibly, that snippet of conversation did bring me some respite. For about ten minutes, because then everything became a whole lot worse. The dude in the window seat decided to get off! My petrified brain failed for the second time in quick succession and instead of coming up with a brilliant on-the-spur plan to make a quick getaway, I limply moved over to the window seat. The man took the aisle seat. As my brain slowly recovered from the shock of proximity, I brought out all the tricks in my manual on ‘How to make it patently clear that you are not to be disturbed?’
I held my head in my hands and rocked back and forth as if in the throes of a painful headache. Chronic migraine, if he were to ask, but if I were to give that reply then obviously all was already lost. I narrowed my eyes to soporific slits, and stretched and yawned as best as I could in the cramped space without touching anything. I opened my cool touch screen phone and stared importantly at the wallpaper for a minute. I checked my watch repeatedly; I synchronized it with the phone stares to hopefully let everyone know that I was late for a meeting, and fretting about it.
Maybe it worked for a bit. It was, by definition, a stop gap solution and stop gap solutions cannot, beyond a point, well, stop gaps.
‘Where are you headed?’ he said slowly.
I knew my tinnitus act was getting a bit trite, but I decided to employ it one last time, and ignored him. The voice did not rise a jot, but the insistent tone returned and despite myself, I turned my head towards him slowly. The metaphor that popped into my head at that point was that of a condemned man’s walk to the electric chair. A laboured sort of slow, world-weary and inevitable as a baby’s bawl. Why, you with the poor short term memory, wonder. Did I mention the stench? I think I was as close as I could get without slipping into a dead faint.
‘Er, Silk Board.’
‘Where’s your house?’
‘Er, near Silk Board.’ My house was in fact a couple of kilometres from Silk Board, but I had decided that the time for evasiveness was past and the need of the hour was for some aggressive falsehoods.
‘Really?’ he asked with as much surprise his inflection-free voice could generate. ‘I live there too. Which road?’
I resisted the temptation to bash my skull against the grilled window and die in screaming agony. Why oh why did I have to pick Silk Board of all the places in south Bangalore? Banashankari. I could have said Banashankari and he would immediately have understood that I was using Silk Board as merely a transit point, and maybe the conversation would have shortened itself a tetchy little.
‘27th Main.’ I replied randomly.
‘Were you with your friends?’
‘Sunday’s a holiday for you?’
‘Yes’. What I really wanted to say was ‘Sunday isn’t a holiday for which space aliens?’ but I was restricted by my limited Hindi speaking skills.
‘So, are you in school or college?’
‘First year or second year?’
‘Fourth year.’ An involuntary snicker made its way into that statement.
He lapsed into an unpromising silence. I dared a glance at his profile: his unblinking serpentine eyes were busy boring a hole in the front seat. I sensed respite and allowed my thoughts to drift towards home and my dogs who would be eagerly awaiting my return. A leathery paw slithered quietly through the air and landed on my left thigh.
An involuntary shudder rippled through my body. You can’t really blame me for that, can you? I was flabbergasted. This time, my brain didn’t shut down in protest, it went into overdrive churning out explanations for this latest outrage. The first and the most obvious one concerned repressed homosexuality. Here was a man, who by all appearances was a faithful follower of a religion that hangs men for *liking* other men, with his hand on my thigh and squeezing it menacingly. The next thing he said immediately suggested another explanation.
‘We have a hotel in that area.’
‘You should come tomorrow.’
‘You said you were free right?’ in a monotone that lacked the slightest hint of a plea.
‘Not really. Tomorrow’s not a holiday for me. Besides, I have other plans.’
The second explanation, of course, was that this was some kind of scouting mission for human suicide bombers. I have, many times in my life in post-college Bangalore, been asked if I was a Muslim. Obviously, people who didn’t get metal fashion mistook my chin beard for religious symbolism. If I were to make the mistake of being seen anywhere near the hotel I would probably not be heard of again until someone in Palestine got splotches of me on his shirt, and that shirt accidentally ended up in a DNA laboratory cross-referenced with my blog.
‘Here, take my number. Call before you come.’
‘I don’t have a pen.’ I said lamely, fully aware that I could just as easily type out his number on my cell phone. Thankfully, the thought did not occur to him.
‘Give me your number then.’
‘Er, all right.’ I made no move to say or do anything. The groping hand continued its explorations and discovered my left hand, which was immediately locked into a loose grip.
‘Nice watch.’ He intoned neutrally, pointing at my shiny wrist watch. ‘How much did you pay for it?’
‘About 1000 bucks.’ I undervalued it about seven times, but still I wondered if I quoted too much, because the man immediately smiled a little. The stench impinged itself, unsubtly yet again, on my consciousness. He said nothing and looking out through the window I noticed that I was then only two traffic signals and three bus stops away from my destination. I resolved to get down a stop early.
As I’m writing this blog right now, obviously I’m safe, sound and undefiled, if slightly sheepish at my apparent sensationalism; but when the man (who’d claimed earlier that he lived near Silk Board) followed me to the door as I prepared to get off at the wrong stop, I feared the worst. A misplaced sense of confidence born out of four inches in height advantage and four months of gymming evaporated in an instant. I leapt off the still moving bus as soon as the doors opened and, mentally ascribing every condition on Earth that slows down a man’s pace to him – arthritis, allergies, old age, stupidity, I shot off at top speed towards the my bus stop, not once looking back. I don't think I took a breath for half a kilometre - I only relented after I got onto the second bus and confirmed that he wasn't on it by some devilish miracle and he wasn't running after it like a film hero trying to catch up. Whew.