A Cruel Passenger

Never stop the car on a drive in the dark…

I am not in a car, actually. I am in a bus. It sounds funny, but it really isn’t. It’s like one of those jokes up and coming stand-up comedians make – the whole auditorium around you is laughing and all you feel is the hair on your neck rise. You know? All those Bad-luck-Brian memes. You smile and scroll down to the next one, never caring how it would feel to finally lose your virginity and realize it is going to kill you at the same time. I wouldn’t be speaking from experience, but I don’t think it is funny. Not hilarious, not laughable, not even smile-and-scroll-down-to-the-next-one funny. I think it is terrifying.

Anyway, I am in a bus. A Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation bus, headed down a mostly unlit road that connects Amravati to Akola.

There are things you never get used to. I once knew a guy – an actor named Sam – who was terrified of speaking in front of the audience. Even though most of his life’s work was just that. Sam used to pop a couple of Valium before every performance. Good old Diazepam. A week before the most important performance of his life, he started popping five. Wikipedia will tell you that on higher doses, the side-effects of Diazepam include anterograde amnesia. Memory-loss of the kind Aamir Khan had. Another one of those cruel jokes. But I digress.

For Sam it was the audience, and for me it is buses. I don’t trust them, just like some people don’t trust elevators. Come to think of it, elevator music paints a very rosy picture of a sealed box descending and ascending inside a dark pit. If the power goes out and the brakes fail, well, Brian Silas, never really wrote a song for that.

Damn it, I am digressing again. Must be a coping mechanism.

I don’t like buses. Especially these state transport buses. Have you ever seen the driver’s seat of a bus like that? The gear-shift? Have you heard the rattle and clinking of all those metallic paraphernalia every time the bus accelerates or decelerates? The squeal of the brakes? The thump of the driver’s hands on the steering wheel as he tries to force hundreds of kilograms to turn a bit… just a little bit… and quick… because here comes the divider…

I am in sales. I get to travel a lot, and that too between the most not-glamourous of towns. My job is to make sure my company’s customers – the distributors and the retailers who sell you your happiness – keep happy. And these small town distributors are the worst. My distributor in Akola, the guy who de facto controls a teeming Indian small town market worth around 5 million a year has decided to quit. He thinks the ‘margin isn’t good enough’. That’s what they always say: The margin isn’t good enough. What they want is more money for an immediate requirement. A new investment, brother-in-law’s gambling debt, a ‘necessary’ gift for the wife. I once had my distributor in Kamptee whisper to me conspiratorially that he needed immediate treatment for what I guessed was Gonorrhoea. Another one of them made me smile and pay for a wedding gift outside of the wedding season, and three days later I was smiling cruelly at a newspaper report about hired guns and honour killings. These cruel jokes of life, I tell you.

Anyway, I go down and interpret one of these thousand needs shrunk into a single statement. I tell these vapid, greedy almost-humans that my company can’t spend money to cover for their peccadilloes. And how can they ask for a 3% discount scheme because Gudiya was getting older every day? But I keep them happy. I provide. And sometimes, I don’t.

And every single time, I work my magic, I have to travel in these abominations. These state-transport buses. These deaths-on-wheels.

Today was particularly worrisome. There is no bus route in India that doesn’t have people throwing their material possessions through open windows to hold a seat. We have simply too many people wanting to go from point A to point B, and as long as there is even the most basic mechanically powered vehicle making this trip, we will overpower its chassis by overshooting the maximum load limit by a factor of 3. At least. And yet, today, there are only three of us apart from the driver. Just three. Impossible, really.

The conductor and the driver are having an animated discussion about a corrupt contractor, which worries me. The road is lit only by the bus’s meagre headlights, and there are multiple diversions. Just recently I heard that a school van in Kerala tipped over and fell into a river killing 7 school-kids. The driver missed a curve because he had turned around to shout at the kids who were ‘singing songs at the top of their voices, and were not letting him concentrate’. There you go. Another irony no one can laugh at. Can you imagine all those little voices transitioning from song to scream in a fraction of a second? The mood changing from cheeky cheery happiness to the cold fear of death? Were a couple of the catchy lines still ringing in their heads as they heard the splash? The day I read that news report I immediately browsed through my music looking for the song I would like to be listening to as I fade out. I haven’t decided on one yet. The lack of music makes these journeys so much more terrifying.

Deaths on the roads are gruesome. Everyone has seen the kind of havoc conservation of momentum can wreak on moving cars. Fronts crumbled in, sides dangling, backs imploded. Very few of us have actually seen a dead body, however.

On a long drive from Nagpur to Pune, my Area Sales Manager told me of this theory of his – accidents happen at times convenient for the general public. Late at night, early in the morning… times when an average Sales Manager is not expected to be travelling the road. And so we don’t see the bodies. No blood, no severed limbs and lifeless heads long-pressing the horn, no guts and thank the Lord, no organs. Because that would be terrible. I tried pointing out that maybe modern vehicles are safer than that, and then stopped myself. I had seen an accident victim once. A man whose motorbike skidded on a wet road at an inconvenient speed. He had died because he wasn’t wearing a helmet, and the impact had split his head open, cracked his skull and bled his life out. But that hadn’t been what struck me the most. I remember seeing the man’s legs – one lying out straight, another bent under him at an impossible angle – and wondering how in hell he reached that configuration. It seemed (hilariously?) impossible. Mankind has understood the physics of forces since the time of Newton, and routinely runs computer models containing a thousand variables, but that man lay in the middle of the road like an unexplainable black hole singularity. A specimen of our true limitations. And that’s why I had stopped myself.

And that’s why I am terrified right now as the bus driver callously moves the steering wheel while he talks of the ills of the corruption. And just as I close my eyes, trying to distract myself from a fantasy of pain, blood and dismemberment, the driver almost brings it alive by flooring the brake pedal. I lurch forward, the conductor falls forward and down, narrowly escaping death and the only other passenger on the bus – a wannabe hot-shot Mumbaikar with matted oily hair and fake Skullcandy earphones stuck in his ears – breaks his cheap sunglasses on impacting with the seat in front of him. He had kept them hanging handily on the front of his shirt, from which the breast pocket and two buttons too many were missing. Unlike me, he seems more annoyed at having his song interrupted.

Ae! Kai zaala re!” the conductor shouts. My only other co-passenger gets up and shouts a few words quite unbecoming of young personages who would sport trendy sunglasses and listen to music on their Smokin’ Buds. I feel like I must say something, too. But I can see the driver, who is shouting too. In the confusion, a man reveals himself to be standing right in the middle of the road, getting drenched in the rain.

Oh. Here’s a detail I have missed out on. It is raining. Quite heavily, since the last ten minutes. This kind of rainfall is not expected in the Vidarbha region. People aren’t ever prepared for rain, anyhow, even in places like Cherrapunji, where rain is about the only thing you should expect.

Rain is very, very cruel. It doesn’t fall, it screws you. Today you buy a kilo of potatoes for 22 bucks, and the day after, it is suddenly 28. You look offended and the vegetable vendor looks at you and smiles with his paan-stained set of thirty-two, “Saabji, no rain,” he says.

When it falls it is even worse. It compounds the traffic, it halts men and women going about their business, it gives young new couples the false concept of eternal love, and worst of all – as it drenches you, seeping through your brand new recently ironed shirts down to your skin; as it greys out sunlight and fills up the puddles – it poisons you with hope. You start hoping about the little things first – stupid things like the temperature falling – and from there on, to all those impossible things – agriculture reviving, prices falling, lives improving. Until next day, you go to the vegetable vendor and pick potatoes up at 34 bucks a kilo. Rain has destroyed crops.

It is a cruel joke, this rain. It gives hope and then takes it away.

And hope is what I see in the eyes of this man who has made us stop the bus on a drive in the dark.

 

Did the scissors cut away to your heart…?

The man has now climbed our bus and is seated at the front. The wannabe, his hair a mess, looks at him suspiciously. I go through the details of this man’s desperate pleas for help from just a couple of minutes ago. His mother had been fighting cancer for the past year in a hospital in Akola. An hour ago he had received the ‘fateful call’. These sad stories don’t really sit well with me; they are a dime a dozen. What surprised me more was that there was at least one oncologist destroying his career in Akola.

Don’t get me wrong. I sympathize with those in grief, and with all those who are dead, dying, ‘fighting for their lives’, but one shouldn’t think the realm of the dead is too sacred. Ever heard of that joke? Grandfather asks a kid to hide – his school teacher is out looking for the kid with a stick in her hand. The kid says, ‘Well, Gramps, I think you should be the one hiding. I told her you were dead.’

And people are supposed to laugh at this? What a cruel joke!

So I don’t trust this man. An accident is not the only way to die on the road. People die of other causes all the time, and not just spiritually. There are people dropping dead of cardiac arrests, and asthma attacks all the time. There are rarer forms of death on a bus – aneurysms, strokes… murder. Murder is the one I am afraid of right now. Succumbing to the malice or desperation of another person – not the best way to die, that. This man could be malicious, he could be desperate. Worse yet, he might be nursing madness – something like a serial killer.

Serial killers aren’t that mainstream in India. We are a country obsessed with the baser crimes – crimes of passion, crimes of honour. Rapes, murder-suicides, lynching, even. But apart from maybe two or three examples, like that fellow who used to murder footpath dwellers, I can’t remember too many who killed out of some deep-rooted psychological imbalance. We haven’t really had a Ted Bundy, yet – a man with a charming personality, good looks, an above average IQ and a pathological desire to kill. And yet, recently there had been some disturbing news which pique both my curiosity and fear.

Over the last couple of years, random people have been found murdered on the minor highways in India. Sometimes in Kerala, sometimes in Rajasthan, twice in Maharashtra itself. No connection between the victims, except that they were all travelling on the roads when they died. In fact, we wouldn’t have known it was the same person doing it had he not carved out a symbol on the forehead of all his victims. It was a Greek letter that the killer engraves with what the police suppose is a short, sharp blade, maybe a Swiss knife. A lambda (λ).

I remember reading about it with my Area Sales Manager in Nagpur. We were trying to figure out the possible contexts in which a lambda gets used, and the only obvious ones were the uses in Science and Mathematics – the mean in a Poisson distribution, the wavelength of a wave. The Manager wondered how broken a man must be to carve out the symbol of wavelength on the forehead of his victims. I pointed out to him, that maybe the killer was smarter than that – that maybe he was using the symbol as used in Nuclear Physics to indicate ‘half-life’. Maybe he thinks that in this world, nobody is living their lives completely, and that he is putting these people with half-lives out of their misery. My manager had laughed at that theory, suggesting that maybe we should investigate the employees at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre for murder weapons. I didn’t laugh. I found that joke quite cruel.

The bus is now moving even as the conductor chats with the newest member of this motley group. His eyes glisten, as they move nervously from one side to another. He is not the most attentive listener, this newcomer. He is easily distracted, jumping at the occasional bump in the road or a particularly noisy shifting of the gears. We are about three quarters of an hour away from Akola, but to me it seems likes three centuries.

A year ago, I was in a cab, travelling to a distributor in the town of Chandrapur. The distributor thought the margin wasn’t good enough, but I knew that during summers in the Vidarbha region, manpower is extremely precious. The malnourished, underpaid flunkies of these distributors often choose a month of no-pay over dying from a heatstroke on their thirteenth trip to the godown and back. To keep this fear of death away, you need some incentive. And as usual, I was there to provide.

That cab ride was highly philosophical. The cab driver postulated to me that maybe humanity was driving away the culture of ‘help’. He said that as we dwindled away whatever God had given us, there was so little left, that it was becoming more and more impossible to think of the need of others – to spare time for them. I didn’t particularly enjoy the religious twist he gave to an essentially socio-economic problem, but I agreed with the general hypothesis. Mistrust isn’t the strangest symptom of scarcity – in so many ways, it is probably one of the most predictable ones. The cab driver told me that he gave the virtue of kindness five years. I told him, he was giving it seven years too many. We both looked at each other, but neither of us laughed. It was a cruel joke.

I don’t trust this new man.

Murder… malice, desperation, madness. With each passing second in my mind I see a growing probability of me succumbing to one of these.

I have just noticed that he doesn’t really seem like a local. When he spoke to the driver earlier, and as he speaks now, he speaks in Hindi, not Marathi. I probably wouldn’t have paid this much attention had this man boarded the bus from a city; and had that city been further into the eastern arm of Maharashtra, where the influence of neighbouring Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh might present  a reasonable justification for his choice in language. And the way his pupils ferret around from one point in the bus to another! Is that madness which dances in his eyes? Is that malice? Desperation? Something about him, just doesn’t seem right. Nothing he does seems genuine.

He is getting up now, and I can’t think of a single reason, why. But as he does, my mind wanders for the first time to his clothes. He is wearing a loose striped shirt and baggy, trousers made of a rough unpleasant fabric a common villager’s garb. I spot a large dark stain on his shirt. Is that…? Could that be…? And what is that bulge in his pocket?

The man has now reached the driver, one hand in his pocket. And I realize everything. And just as I realize it and I am standing up to stop the desperate man, the driver stops the bus with a jerk that mocks Newton’s first law and throws all of us forward. I can see the conductor flying forward and the oily-haired wannabe slamming into the seat at his front. As my own torso hits the bus’s floor, I see the desperate man collapse on the driver, the instrument in his hand cutting into the driver’s back. And then I see redness… all encompassing, maddening redness.

Ever thought from here on in, your life begins, and all you knew was wrong?

The redness in my vision has subsided but I still see a lot of red. The man with the oily hair has a massive forehead, and it leaks blood impressively as I finish carving the lower tail of the lambda on it. I tug my old and trustee Victorinox Swiss Knife and it comes off with a nick of flesh causing a fresh stream of blood to erupt. I have become better with my carvings but it still takes me time. The four men are all lined up at the front of the bus, a glistening, red lambda adorning their foreheads, and rigor mortis seems to be setting in. It is time for me to leave.

Oh. Here’s another detail I skipped out on. All the time, in my head I am fighting a battle – a red storm. And sometimes, temporarily, the red storm wins.

Tomorrow, if the newspapers can figure it all out, they would post what some might consider a hilarious coincidence. A desperate man tried to take advantage of an uncrowded bus and rob the passengers, but one of the passengers was the Lambda Killer. Others might look at that story and call it hilarious; the fate of that man! But I won’t laugh. I won’t grin, or smirk or simply smile and scroll down.

Life is a cruel joke, but death can be much, much worse.

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4 thoughts on “A Cruel Passenger

  1. A comical ending really, for what was a pretty decent build up. And yeah Einstein, no mockery was made of newton’s laws. That’s how its supposed to be.

    • Well, the idea was to lay a foundation of violence with an unreliable narrator, and then move in for a big reveal. But I am open to suggestions and healthy debates… What’s your idea for the ending?

      Also, I am not sure if I understand what the ‘mockery of Newton’s laws’ part is trying to convey, but if it comes from the accident victim bit – the narrator was simply pointing out that despite our understanding of these laws, it is completely impossible to guage the intricacy with which forces work in a routine, unmeasured event, and therefore it is unwise to make a comment or prediction about cars being safer just like that.

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