A chance meeting of a young boy and girl at a bus stand seems to be brimming with the lethal(?) ammunition of upsetting the apple cart, in a big way. Read the love story ‘I am Your Man’ by Santosh Bakaya, from Bring Out the Tall Tales, a collection of short stories by Santosh Bakaya and Avijit Sarkar.
Why is he not coming?
Aditi mumbled under her breath. Her parents stayed in Chandigarh, so did Amit, her fiancée, who was passing by; they had a rendezvous at the ISBT, in Old Delhi. He was coming in a luxury coach from Chandigarh, the number of which she carried in her purse. After a dealers’ meet, in Delhi, he planned to fly to Mumbai, [erstwhile Bombay], the next morning. She had just completed her post-graduation in English literature from Chandigarh University, and was working as an intern in a reputed publishing house, in Delhi, till the time she landed a job.
It was a very cold day of December, actually Christmas Eve, and the passengers sat huddled on their luggage, their faces hidden in their blankets. An obese cop stood smoking, leaning heavily against a pillar, while a pup, to the cop’s infinite discomfiture, tried to send friendly vibes in his direction. An emaciated man, dressed as Santa Claus moved around between the passengers, his anguish hidden under a Santa Claus mask, his hunger pangs crushed under an improvised paunch, which wobbled as he moved. He himself appeared to be a little shaky at the knees. Drunk? Disoriented? Depressed? Down on his luck?
The Bus Terminus was a miniature world in itself. The people did not look like killers, but they were. Yes, they were. Killers all.
They were all killing time, some languorously, some with a frenetic air, some throwing impatient glances at their watches. The gluttonously inclined were snacking on monkey-nuts, gorging from the massive tiffin boxes they carried with them. There were others slurping sugary tea, looking indifferently at the others sniggering, scolding their brats, or simply yawning away. Some looked around with absolutely funereal expressions, others lounged on their luggage, snoring rebelliously. There was a heap of rubble on which sat a family of dogs, the pups were in a feisty mood, a skeletal cat stood a few feet away under another lamppost.
No, there was no rat around.
Although music was her passion, the rhythm and cadence of the Bus Terminus failed to hold any interest for her. She just hated waiting. The coach was supposed to reach at 5 pm, and it was already 6 pm.
Why wasn’t it coming?
It was the time when mobile phones had not made their appearance yet. She kept stealing glances at her watch. Yes, it was the time when watches were still in. Tired of pacing the Bus Terminus restlessly, she looked around for a vacant bench, there was one near the shop selling sandwiches and coffee, at the far end. Not vacant, but it still had space for her to squeeze in, next to the man who sat there reading a book.
She went closer, and was pleasantly surprised to notice that he was humming the classic Leonard Cohen number, “Dance me to the end of love.”
She stopped to listen. She loved Leonard Cohen.
The moment he saw someone standing, he stopped humming, and the moment he saw that it was a girl, he sprang up from the bench.
“May I?” She asked, pointing a diffident finger towards the bench.
“Please,” he said, and got up, his disheveled hair falling all over his face.
“Oh no, don’t go, there is ample space.” At her insistence, he again sat down, but now, he neither sang, nor read, just fidgeted restlessly.
“I love Leonard Cohen,” she said, sitting on the bench.
“Oh, you do?” He said, looking at her emerald green eyes which betrayed obvious agitation.
“Yes,” she said, her eyes sweeping across the buses.
“So, you heard me humming?” He asked, slightly abashed, but absolutely smitten by the green of her eyes. He had never seen eyes so green.
“Yes,” she said, looking furtively at her watch. Still there was no sign of Amit, where was he? She could feel the stranger peering curiously at her, every now and then, raising his eyes from the book he was reading. She tried to catch a glimpse of the book, and guessing her intent, tilted the book in her direction.
It was Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie, of course.
A hoarder of books, she loved Agatha Christie, but was more inclined towards Hercule Poirot, rather than Miss Marple. She possessed all her whodunits, some bought second hand from Sunday Daryaganj Book market.
She started using her ‘little grey cells’, to remember whether it featured Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple. Hercule Poirot, of course, her gray cells said. Ah, the eternal allure of Hercule Poirot!
“I love books, especially murder mysteries and I love Hercule Poirot.” The man was talking to her, but she was eavesdropping on some snatches of conversation. Of her own.
“Why waste money on books?” was Amit’s perennial refrain.
“When I have a house of my own, I want to have a huge library, where I can spend at least eighteen hours a day,” was Aditi’s.
“You know, there is some controversy surrounding this song,” he said, trying to make small talk, snapping her from her brown study.
“Yes, I have heard of it, but oh no, it is already seven, no sign of the bus.” I am waiting for my…uh, my fiancée, he is coming from Chandigarh.”
“And where are YOU going?”
“Amritsar, but I have no ticket, and because of this rush, there are only ramshackle buses. They told me at the counter that there is an air-conditioned bus at 8, so I decided to wait. No point going back, because I stay very far from here. If I don’t get a proper bus, I will go back and take a flight to Amritsar tomorrow morning, actually my granddad is unwell, and by the way, they call me, Sushant, and yes, by the way, I always look this shabby,” he quipped, looking apologetically at his jeans, topped by a t-shirt of equal degradation. He said this in one breath, with a naughty twinkle in his eyes, while her one eye looked slyly at him, her other eye continued scanning the buses.
Now he again started humming, this time a Hindi number. “Raat kali ik khwaab mai aayi, aur galey ka haar bani.” (Yesterday night I dreamt of a blossom, who soon became a garland around my neck) He stopped sheepishly, when he found her eyes on him.
“You don’t sing?” he asked, trying to cover his embarrassment by an absolutely irrelevant question.
“Sing, who me? My singing career was nipped in the bud,” she said with a rueful expression, eyes still scouring the coming buses.
Smiling at his raised eyebrows, she said, “Well, I was in the sixth grade, and we were singing Christmas carols, supervised by Sister Christina. You know, I secretly dreamt that I was a budding soprano, and would one day, take the world by storm. Suddenly I heard the rumblings of a storm, “Aditi, you cannot sing at all, come here, let the other girls sing.”
“Well, a budding star fell victim to the whims of an eccentric nun that dark day!” she said, with an uproarious laugh that suddenly erupted, unchecked; her agitation forgotten in the gaiety of the moment.
When she stopped laughing, she found his eyes riveted on her, with a bemused expression, or whatever.
Then a shoeshine boy came and stood before him with a plea in his eyes. He asked the boy to polish his shoes and ruffled his hair lovingly, when he shyly asked him to see his reflection in the shining shoes.
I think, it was at that precise moment that something happened inside her heart. With a shudder, she recalled, how Amit had almost barked at a waiter in a swanky restaurant, when he had inadvertently spilled a few drops of soup on his branded shirt.
Never enamoured of branded clothes and accessories, she was just enamoured of words, loved to play with them, and patted herself for the unexpected shape that they took. Amit had neither the time nor the inclination to give her a congratulatory pat, too busy patting wads of currency notes. He smirked at her humor, her puns were lost on him, her satire made him wince. She suddenly felt like a storm-tossed river, and the crash of a thousand breaking waves echoed in her turbulent heart.
The night was falling slowly, and still Amit was nowhere to be seen.
“Amit, where are you?” her head yelled.
“Don’t come yet”, her heart whispered.
Suddenly there was a hullaballoo, coming from the direction of the pillar, where the cop stood smoking.
“He picked my pocket.” A man with a look of dark menace, growled, pointing in the emaciated one’s direction.
“Saab, kai din sey kuch khaaya nahi tha, lekin mainey jeb nahi kaati.” (Sir, I have not eaten for many days, but I did not pick his pocket.)
“Tum sab yahi boltey ho,” (All of you are liars) one man said, pulling away the poor man’s Santa Claus mask.
“Chor kahin ka!” (Thief!) another screamed, kicking him in his stomach, yanking away his red cap, and pushing him to the ground.
“Santa Claus bannkey ghoomta hai!” (Moving around with a Santa Claus mask.)
“Arrey, arrey kya kar rahey ho?” (Hey, what are you doing?) Sushant suddenly ran in his direction, came between the kicking man and the man lying on the ground, and pulled him up. “Mainey chori nahi ki, main chor nahi hoon,” (I am not a thief) he beseeched, falling prostrate at his feet.
“Why don’t you check your pocket again? He says he has not picked your pocket, maybe he is telling the truth,” Sushant suggested.
All the kicking had deflated the paunch of the Santa Claus man, and now it lay on the ground, a pathetic sight. In a burst of canine congeniality, the pups had started hopping and skipping on the paunch, which was actually a pillow, improvising a bloated stomach, supposedly filled with Santa Claus mirth.
“He pushed against me,” he said, putting his hands in his pockets, sheepishly pulling out his wallet from his pocket, and looking suspiciously at it, as if it were an incendiary object planted there by someone.
“And you jumped to the conclusion that this poor man picked your pocket?” Sushant asked, with an ominous frown, solicitously dusting the beleaguered man’s clothes.
“S….Sahab kai din say khaya nahi tha, kamzori aa gayi thi,” he stammered, almost on the verge of tears.
The villain of the piece soon evanesced, clutching the wallet, and Sushant took the hungry man to a teashop, made him sit on a bench, plying him with eatables. And the man ate as though he had not eaten for ten days. The scene almost brought tears to Aditi’s eyes.
From somewhere, the voice of Jim Reeves travelled across to her.
My pretty little snowflake
You’ve got me warm as a fire
With the burning desire for you.”
No, it was not he who was singing, he was just sitting next to the famished man, watching him eat. Yes, his lips were moving, maybe he was talking to him. Aditi’s eyes were caught by a mother trying to inject some discipline into the unruly hair of her small, rebellious daughter by making a ponytail, and she was bawling her lungs out.
“Chai, chai, garam garam chai.” (Tea, tea, piping, hot tea.)
A bedraggled boy, wearing a pair of patchwork knickers, and a huge smile threatening to spill out of his lips and eyes, appeared on the scene, looking expectantly at Sushant, who bought two cups of tea, offering one to Aditi, who almost pounced at it and giving the other to the hungry man, who had just finished eating.
“There are thirsty folks drinking hot cups of tea.
A crowded bus terminus, a book and thou near me.”
She again thought she heard him sing, but when she looked at him, he was busy reading, eyes burrowed in deep concentration. Maybe, the mystery of the Orient Express was about to unravel.
She sighed – a long drawn out sigh, looking around for Amit. All of a sudden, some fuzzy feeling started making music in her soul.
He gripped her arms.
“You are lying, aren’t you?”
“Don’t you realise I am falling in love with you, dammit! Tell, me you are not engaged, please…please.”
Her heart jumped, she could feel it leaping, going absolutely berserk, before settling down into a jerky, restless rhythm.
How could she lie? She was indeed engaged to a person, chosen by her parents, who loved to discuss financial matters, could rip the nation’s budget to pieces, his heart beat with the Sensex, and he had never heard of the Romantic age in literature. Poetry was boring, books were a waste of time, and only politics ticked for him. Big time.
There was a phone booth next to the sandwich stall.
“I want to make a call,” she whispered, furtively admiring his craggy handsomeness, amused by his endearing cockiness and bowled over by his empathetic charm. Feeling a sudden urge to feel his arm around her, and his hot breath on her cheeks, she blushed, hastening towards the phone booth. What was happening to her? Was she also falling in love with this stranger? Wasn’t she already engaged? Wasn’t she waiting for her man at the bus terminus? My man! My foot! We are hardly compatible! She heard herself muttering.
“But I will not let you go without the coat, please keep it draped over your shoulders. It is cold, wait, I am coming with you.” His voice was husky, as he uttered these words loping after her and stood near the neighbouring shop while she made a call.
“I placed a call to Amit’s mother.”
“Okay.” He mumbled, looking in the distance. When he turned towards her, she saw something in his eyes. Something that she had never seen in Amit’s eyes. She could not exactly place what it was, but it started a curdling in her heart. She, who had felt as dehydrated as a community tap during the hot, summer months, felt as though the community tap was flooded with a sudden gurgling and cascading rush of water.
“I’d say please, [please] I am your man.” Leonard Cohen again sat on his lips, but the lips, strange enough, were unmoving. She was convinced, he was a practicing ventriloquist.
They left the bus stand, the small puppy whelping and yapping after them. She bent down and scooped it up in her arms, while the man, now no longer a stranger, looked lovingly at her.
“Or if you want to strike me down in anger
Here I stand
I’m your man.”
This time, he really spoke. With his lips, his heart and his arms.
The night was all around them now, and she was pleasantly surprised [almost happy ] to realise that Amit who, just some time back, was an expansive presence on her mental screen, was now not even a tiny mote there.
Slowly, like a monarch in full regalia, the moon rode, perched on the shoulders of clouds. With one sweep, it extinguished the light of the stars, becoming the master of all that it surveyed. Aditi looked up, and saw a broad, luminous lane, stippled as if with silvery flakes. Was the moon offering them a silvery ladder to eternal happiness? She suddenly shivered, as he put an unsure arm around her shoulders, his warm breath ricocheting against her cheeks.
The mottled moon looked on, perhaps happy that she had found her man.
With a naughty smile, she thought it had the twinkling eye of a voyeur.
(Illustration courtesy: Avijit Sarkar)
It is a collection of 29 spooky, surreal, scary, sunny and humourous short stories by Santosh Bakaya and Avijit Sarkar. These stories will tickle your funny bone, send chills up your spine, make you break into goosebumps, and also make your heart go berserk. Enjoy an eclectic mix of short stories (tall tales) which caters to all types of literary palates, embellished with some eloquent illustrations by Avijit Sarkar.
Paperback: 300 pages
Publisher: Authorspress (2019)
Available on Amazon
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