The only reason I stayed back was the karate classes that were being conducted in the reverberating halls of my school. The karate coach was a tough looking man, toughness, in part, added by the 8 year old’s rationality of karate being a tough guy’s thing. I wasn’t allowed to enroll as my father thought that would make me aggressive and probably violent towards my sister. He didn’t recognise my needs for self-defense (even from my sister) as valid reason. So I learnt a technique which has held me in good shape for the decades that flew in after that: stand on the side lines pretending to do work while you learn by observation. My bus was to leave in about 5-10 minutes and I rushed out to check whether the driver had arrived. He was this Parsi guy who was very strict and scared the daylights out of all of us. I left my bag and lunch basket on the seat, thereby reserving its occupancy before rushing back to watch the class. I must have shuttled back and forth a couple of times to check on the bus’s departure but the intervals must have grown (though, ideally, they should have shortened). I suppose a part of the class got very interesting and I must have been engrossed in it before I realised that it was quite some time since I had checked the bus. I rushed out to see the bus missing and as expected, with my baggage. I ran out of the other gate (which used to be shut for buses but was a short cut into the route that the bus took) but saw that the bus had passed that point too. The first thought that came to my mind was “Mom! Dad!”. They sort of came together whenever I did something really really wrong.
I darted out of the gate and ran over the stone bridge (this is near Mazagaon in Mumbai) and around the turn. Thankfully, those days I was in shape owing to my involvement with the athletics team. I must have ran pretty fast as my thoughts were panting in my head and were interleaved with ideas for possible excuses for missing the bus. I knew I could never make it in front of my parents, but hope is a sneaky talker.
Suddenly I was yanked to a halt by a middle aged man.
“Where are you running like this?”
“I …. bus…. school… bus…. home.”
“Are you mad running like this on the road? Where are your parents?”
“Home… bus… school.”
“You missed your school bus?”
Here, a nod sufficed.
“Don’t be silly running around like this. Here, take 50p and take a BEST bus back home.”
I shook my head vehemently as I remembered (and it amazes me how a little head can recall instructions laced with threat and warning and bad stories as lagniappe) how my mother forbade me from taking anything from strangers. He pried open my palm and put the searing coin in there.
“Go, take a bus.”
I ran like a boy possessed, both in the urgency of reaching my bus and in the hope that the guilt of having accepted money from a stranger would leave me alone. The coin screamed out at me making me feel guilty and slowing me down near the bus-stop. I ran on after that momentary pause, the weight of fatigue and guilt slowing me down in imperceptibly increasing quanta.
I recall those moments very well. I was rushing past several stores which had once been innocent rectangles casing wares of ignorable kinds. Now they were looming square eyes watching me through leather, bread, laundry and engine oil while I rushed past them wondering which would be the one. At length, I picked a laundry store where I slowed down. I wasn’t sure whether it was the promise of white linen hanging behind glass shutters that soothed me, or merely tired feet begging to stop, but that was the shop I picked. I stopped and while my heart beat a forest drum in my ears, I laid the 50p where the shop shutters entered the concrete frame of the shop entrance. I knew it would either be picked up by someone (thereby passing on the guilt or basically being nullified) or crushed by the shutters. I looked at it one last time and ran on. I did manage to get into the bus eventually after having run 2-3 kms or so.
I wasn’t sure what frightened me so much that day: my parents, missing the bus, taking money from a stranger, having to run through the roads of Bombay (which is a scary thing to do at any age) or having to revisit the idea that people are not nice when they are also strangers.
Decades later I find myself in Ottawa. A strange land with strange ways though beautiful in places like a painting that you don’t want to buy though you wouldn’t discourage your friend from buying. I was heading to Ottawa University and I realised that I did not have change ($3). I had about $2.25 in loose change and $5 and above. I was hoping that the driver would have the change. The funny thing about buses in Ottawa is that no one really checks whether you carry a valid ticket or not. It is not about being irresponsible and sloppy on the part of the driver (maybe that too) but about the sheer trust people place in each other. As in, why would you want to cheat OCTranspo? No seriously, why? Everything here in Canada seems to run on trust and would require someone to really be a hardened criminal to want to do something cheap and illegal. I am sure that criminals abound here as well, but on basic matters like bus tickets and store managing, they seem to trust people a lot. Anyway, so here I was hoping that the driver would have change for $5.
In comes a red box with a loose middle, snorting and and sighing doors open. I walk in and ask the driver if she (oh yes! drivers can be she’s out here) has change for $5. She says no. I ask her what should I do. She recommends asking the passengers for change. So wobble towards the rear and spot an old lady (she is the first amongst the humans I encounter) and ask her whether she would have change for $5. She shakes her head with a rather strict “No”. Then I walk up to the next old lady and ask her if she has change for $5.
“I beg your pardon.”
“Ma’am, I was wondering if you would have change for five dollars.”
“Oh! no, dear. What is it for?”
“I need to buy the bus ticket.”
And she begins to rummage through her purse. In the mean time I ask the people sitting behind whether they have change and they all shake their head. I contemplate getting off at the next stop or just forgetting about the $2 that I would be losing (but that’s Rs. 80, and I wouldn’t mind losing that while buying a pair of jeans but in a bus!? 80 looms larger with a finger wagging in disapproval). Then suddenly the lady stops invading her purse and offers me 2 orange stamp sized card which I faintly recognise as being bus coupons/passes. So I smile at her and say, “Thank you ma’am, but I do not have change.” I thought she misunderstood me as wanting coupons/passes in exchange for money.
“That’s ok, you can have them.”
My mouth clamped shut as scenes from years ago rushed in front of me. Somehow I managed to smile and stepped back.
“No ma’am, that wouldn’t be fair. Please take this five and I’ll willingly take your coupons.”
I calculated that I would rather give $2 to an old kind lady than a driver of a red box.
“No, no. Please, you can have these.”
I decided to excuse myself so that I could walk further towards the rear of the bus before deciding on losing $2 to the driver. The first strict lady suddenly leaned forward and blocked my exit.
“The lady is being extremely generous. You should probably take it.”
I simply didn’t want to take it but I thought it would be culturally impolite to refuse someone to be generous. The lady was still holding out the coupons/passes, smiling at me and urging me with her eyes to take it. I offered the $5 again and she simply shook her head and refused to take it. I bowed low and thanked her for her generosity and accepted the tickets. I walked over to the driver in a trance and asked her if I needed to drop both of them in. She confirmed that. I don’t know why but I hope the driver would say, “You know what! I just found two loonies in my pocket. You can have them” and I could rush back and thank the lady and return her stamps. Well, that didn’t happen. I walked back slowly, suddenly suspecting all eyes on me and people whispering “Look at him, took money from a stranger and that too an old lady.”
I bowed lower to the old lady before sitting down. I was too ashamed to even put that $5 back in my wallet. Somehow that note felt corrupted. I kept holding on to it before placing it in my breast pocket. I extracted my wallet and started counting all the coins I had with the hope that I might magically arrive at $3 (actually the stamps would cost less because they are bought in bulk). I still fell short by about 70c. I kept holding the many coins in my hand debating whether I should go over and offer at least them to her. Then I devised grand plans of giving her something but I realised that I was carrying nothing with me. My watch was too old to be gifted. I dreamed of running into her (and here I looked up at her making note of her features so that I could recognise them later. She was still smiling at me) in the future and helping her with something else and somehow repaying my debt.
My stop arrived before her’s which made me feel cheaper (gosh! she helps you and you get off before her!? How rude!) and I thanked her once more and alighted with bowed head. The forest-drum thump was playing in my chest and I don’t know why I felt awful the rest of the evening. I even refused my rational head to talk that day.
Now I was old enough to ponder over the incidents of my life and it wouldn’t be called being dull (oh! look at that little boy staring vacantly at the lamp-post. Must be dull. Must be so hard on his parents!). That man and this lady had confirmed my faith in human decency amid all vulgarity that surrounds me. Every single step in this world only reveals the abysmal pettiness, shocking narrow-mindedness, immoral selfishness and human lacking that has infected nearly every single person I meet (or maybe I am the chosen one to meet only such persons!). Every single person is so caught up in his or her life, making every move a calculated one, greedily trying to extract whatever one can from others and conducting themselves with rightness dropped in favour of self-preservation and egotistic wants. No, I am not preaching or pointing fingers at people in a mad fad of snobbery. And it is never about me and “them”. It is about how things are and the fact that I observe it separates me from it automatically, because observation is an objective act.
These people in their simple ways had revealed to me that human decency or human goodness is not a mere thought nor an incident in the presence of profit or scope for profit. I don’t think I would call it a revelation as much as I would call it a reinforcement. A dear dear friend of mine always would ask me to give up my faith in human goodness as it was non-existent (now, now! don’t be hard on her. She is right to a great extent in what she says). Maybe I will consider that sometime later…