Siddharth Joshi, is our newest storyteller on the block. We had to pursue most of our storytellers so far. This is the first time a very interesting story came in to our Inbox unannounced. The story and the storytelling style is new and left us with goosebumps all over.
We started on a dark, rainy night.
Ever taken a late night bus from Dehradun to Delhi from the Doon ISBT? At 3:00 AM it can get quiet, eerily quiet. The bus terminal is on the bypass road which skirts the city, a lonely stretch of road snaking through crop fields on either side. If you ever take the road deep into the night, you would see a solitary light bulb twinkling in the dark far away, hear the distant cry of a dog, the howling of the wind as it blows through the field. It gives you goosebumps, the appropriate amount, it makes you look over your shoulder time and again, your ears twitch at every sound, you skin crawls with fear and it is doubly so when you hear footsteps behind you but can’t see whom they belong to.
It was the month of July, and as I approached the terminal I could feel the rain clouds conjuring, the thunder and lightning illuminating the 3:00 AM sky and the valley around it for that brief second, capturing everything and everyone in that moment as it were.
There was some activity where the buses lined up preparing for departure, sleepy, tired passengers searching for their buses and praying for a good seat. The clutter and clatter of the Vikrams stationed outside the ISBT, as they hobnobbed like ants near an ant hill. I Thought about a chai and a smoke, then looked up as the clouds roared and decided against it, nothing more depressing than getting soaking wet when you are already depressed. I Found my bus, found myself a seat on the left which seats two and settled down hoping against hope that nobody joins me. I felt tired, tired and angry, even sad, but most of all very very tired. Things had not gone quite my way lately and I couldn’t figure out what was worse, that I wasn’t able to fix them or that I no more had the desire or the strength to set them right. I leaned back, rested my head on the head rest and closed my eyes. I slept, a shallow disturbed sleep the kind you get in a non luxury, non AC non Volvo bus.
I woke up to the lurching of the bus and to the realization that there was an old man sitting next to me. I felt my space invaded, my sanctuary raided and occupied. I looked around to see that there were more than a few empty seats, acres and acres of space and he had picked me, singled me out, when I wanted to be left alone. I frowned, I was angry and turned to him, that was when I first saw his face, his eyes, staring past me, beyond me, looking at nowhere and no one in particular, right through me, at the rain crashing against the window. His eyes, they were sad, sad and tired, more tired than mine. Like begets like, eh? I swallowed the words caught in my throat and looked away with my mouth still half open. The bus moved forward.
The rain grew harder, the wind stronger as the bus started on the not so steep, slightly winding road descending from Doon valley. I looked out of the window, trying to make out shapes in the dark and rain, I could feel his eyes burrowing into the back of my head, tapping into the million tiny nerves inside, trying to establish a connection, imploring me to turn around and look at him, asking me to. I shouldn’t have but I did, and so it began.
It began as a murmur, like the buzz of an insect, coarse words blurring into each other, harsh angry words. I had to turn around, had to know if the words were for me. I looked at him and he smiled, he had laid out the bait and I bit, there was no escaping now, he wanted a sympathetic ear and now that he had found one, he wasn’t going to let go, simply wasn’t.
It started with a question, had to, like a qualifying question in a questionnaire. “Uncle, kya hua? Aap theek hain?”His response was a shake of the head, a smile, a broken toothless smile. He had been betrayed by his very own. Turned out of his own house, with nothing but the shirt on his back, penniless like a common beggar just starting out. I knew the feeling, at least I felt I did, he had struck a chord, we had established a bond, at least he felt we did. Honestly, I was too much in agony to really care, offer a sympathetic word or put an arm around the weary shoulders of this withered, battered old man, who was baring his soul to me. I decided to do the correct thing, couldn’t leave a fellow sufferer suffering by himself. I nodded to what he said, produced the right facial expressions and gestures and answered with a,”Hanji uncle, sahi baat hai”, something that you would say in the North of India, when you have to feign agreement with an elder. The bus made the first of the few hairpin bends on the road, we were leaving Doon behind.
His words grew harsher, his mood darker, a profanity here a cry of anguish there. He spoke of doing unspeakable things to his family, his son, his son’s son. I was growing uncomfortable, I wanted to get up and go but I couldn’t, he simply wouldn’t let me. It was as if he was fueling all that was negative around us, the rattling of the bus grew louder, the rain and hail threatened to smash the windows in, even the darkness that surrounded us grew darker. He had to raise his voice to be heard above all this, and boy did he raise his voice. He screamed, he shouted, he cried, all the while calling out to his son, imploring him, asking him. I sat there spell bound, scared, sadness displaced by unthinkable fear, unable to move, unable to blink. The bus stumbled on.
He was laughing now, laughing an uncontrollable, manic laugh, hysterical even. Proclaiming it was all over for him, and for me. Why me? Have you ever been afraid for your life? I was then, Why the hell me? He went quiet, staring ahead, looking at nothing in particular, lips moving but making no sound, the slight tilt of the head accompanied by the occasional jerk was back. I felt his spell break, a burden lifted of me, was once again cognizant of the things around me. That was when I first heard the driver curse about the poor visibility, how difficult it was to drive. The driver saw it late, whatever it was, too late to react anyways. He swung hard to avoid it, whatever the thing was. We were approaching a narrow bridge over a gorge, I was thrown of my seat as the driver lost control, we missed hitting it standing in the middle of the road with its arms spread out, that thing which came out of nowhere, if death had a face, it was this. Down side was that we also missed the bridge completely. As the bus plunged 100 feet into the gorge nose first, I felt I could see the old man smiling, a sad lonely smile.
There were 16 of us on that bus, there were no survivors. It’s been three years now, the old man and I are still there on that bridge, I still do not know his name, neither does he know mine, never asked when we had a chance to. He still bares his soul to me, asking me, where did his fault lie? Why did his son do what he did? And then answering these questions by himself. I still have to answer with a, “”Hanji uncle, sahi baat hai”, else he gets angry, very very angry. I told you, he wanted a sympathetic ear and now that he had found one, he wasn’t going to let go, simply wasn’t.