All of ten, he had come to see the huge City of Joy, flooded with lights, adorned with beautiful and artistic ‘pandals’ at every nook and corner, with loud deafening music of Hindi movies on the streets. He had come with his rustic dad, who was equally overwhelmed by the sight of Kolkata’s magnanimity. The city seemed to embrace everyone, irrespective of their caste, social profile etc, with a warm smile and a loving hug.
They had boarded a bus, probably for the first time. For people who have no idea of the buses of Kolkata, let me give you a rough idea. They keep filling till you choke inside and people hang out of the doors like a bunch of monkeys. But luckily the boy and his father got themselves a much coveted window seat. The boy had wide open eyes and it seemed, he wanted to take back home the whole of the city - the fun, the noise and the essence, imbedded in his mind. He was collecting stories which he could share with his less fortunate friends who never had a chance to visit Kolkata.
The bus was filling up fast with people - ‘Urban’ and ‘Well educated’ men, women, children, all decked up and looking their best. There was already a commotion inside. To be able to stand still without being stepped on, or being hit by someone’s elbow seemed practically impossible. People gave cold stares at the rustic duo as they occupied the seat which otherwise could have been taken by anyone else…The local Miss India with her painted face, the middle aged mother of two, the elderly man in Kurta Pajama. But all these people were not lucky to get that seat and were somehow managed to stand still as the bus raced along the road.
Suddenly, the ‘little boy’ grew restless. “I want to throw up, I want to throw up,” he told his father. A more confused dad, completely unaware of the ways of the city, didn’t know what to do. Before he could think of anything, the ‘little boy’ threw up- And hell broke loose.
People standing close to them, waiting for their turn to take the seat were repelled as if struck by lightning. Immediately in a rippling action the pandemonium spread. It was a wild fire. One could hear a growing shuffling of the feet and groan and grunts from the far corners with the precariously hanging passengers nearly thrown out of the bus. A mini rampage set the whole place astir. There were stiletto jabs, elbow knocks, missing bags and broken finger nails. There were shrieks and cries and angry shouts from all over. The duo in their pool of yellow slush was the least of the problems but they were the villain of the piece alright. “Why do the buses allow such villagers who have got no civic sense?” shouted a middle aged man carrying a small girl of his own. “Hey you stupid oaf, jut the boy’s head out of the window. He’ll ruin our dresses,” shouted another woman.
The perplexed father couldn’t even comfort his terrified son. He had no clue what to do. He tried to push his little head outside the window to assuage the crowd. He was like Abraham trying to please the God. “Just put your head out,” he said with great annoyance. He was not angry with the child. He was unable to handle the indignity they were thrown into. He was just flushed and angry and humiliated and it showed in his face.
“No, daddy pleases … the wheels the wheels” was all the frightened boy could manage to say. His body was crocked up uncomfortably, his throat choking in the firm grip of his father. His face was smeared with tears, dirt and water. His new clothes were soiled. His father’s clothes were soiled too. He wondered if he was being punished for his vile act. In his meek voice, he simply told his dad, “I’m sorry, I’ll never do it again.”
He wanted to go back home to his mother, amidst his own people. He wanted to be pampered, to be asked thousand of times how he felt, to be offered some cold water and lime to make him feel a bit better, to be assured that “Nothing’s wrong, it’s absolutely OK.”
But to the contrary, things were so different here. Not a single soul had a kind and healing word for them. Everyone looked down on the ‘little boy’ as if he was some criminal. People covered their noses with their hankies. The women, who probably have mothered so many children, shouted the most. The Miss India made an act as if she had never witnessed something so horrid and would throw up herself. A man, all decked up, yelled “Get off the bus, you moron. People like you should not be allowed on public transports”.
They rebuked him, made him feel like a pest in the world full of colourful people who only physically resembled him and his hapless father.
Like frightened new born calf he shuddered now and then and sat glued to his father. They both seemed to seek refuge in the other. They seemed inseparable in their pain. All the excitement in the boy’s eyes had been replaced by awe and horror. He was stunned to see his city of joy suddenly reveal it ugly fangs and its gnawing claws.
I reached out and gave the father my chilled bottle of water for his son. But the ‘little boy’ refused to take it. I was taken aback. What must have that little soul gone through, that he refused water when he needed it the most?
He reminded me of my chartered bus trip to Digha when I was his age. We didn’t have a car at that time, so we were on a chartered bus – One of those old and rusty one which rattled each time it dropped in a pothole. I used to get sick in them Felt nauseas each time and would eventually throw up. My mom had tried all sorts of things to make me feel comfortable - Feeding me an hour before boarding the bus, stuffing me with antacids, not feeding me at all, feeding me on the bus etc. But nothing would help. I would inevitably feel sick at the smell of petrol and would just throw up.
Later my mother came up with this ingenious idea of carrying plastic bags for an emergency puke attack. She knew my fear of jutting my head out of the window in the National Highways with buses coming from opposite direction at the speed of light.
Puking till date makes me very uncomfortable. Memories of that day, memories of the pinched expressions on the faces of the co passengers have infused in me the fear of puking in public. If I am sick now I have to isolate myself completely from everyone even from my parents. And every time I throw up, I cry. I feel this strange, inexplicable pain within. My body seems to refuses to take part in the activity against gravity.
The little boy brought it all back. While others would have pressed ctrl alt del and forgotten that little incident the moment they got down of the bus, amidst the gaiety of the Pujas, I could not forget the pain in his eyes.
I felt ashamed of being part of the city people who showed no compassion to him and treated him like a dog. I felt embarrassed at our hollowness in the midst of the plenty we project. I felt guilty I couldn’t hold him and comfort him when he needed it most. What stopped me?