It was the coldest day of that winter. The rumble of the last bus to Hazaribagh town slowly became louder. It could be seen turning around the bend in the road. The bus stand was at the edge of the town. On all sides, as far as the eye could see, were vast empty fields with sal trees towering behind them. The unhurried mist began to slowly but surely engulf the countryside till nothing was left of its original character.
If on a winter’s night a traveler came to this part of Hazaribagh town, they would undeniably notice the stillness and the immensity of the landscape. It was as if the place was waiting and watching for something to happen.
If at this time the bus came and stopped in front of you, you would fail to see anything inside it, as the windows were frosted over. It would give the impression of a ghost bus, with no one seemingly driving or getting on or off.
But a passenger did get off the bus at the bus stand that night. The woman, Mahua, just above thirty, was returning home. She stood rooted to the spot where the bus dropped her off for a long time, so much so that her form seemed an integral part of her surroundings. Mahua waited there, hoping for the sound of a creaking rickshaw, but all she heard were foxes barking in the distance. It was getting very late, and the worry about reaching home safely took precedence over other thoughts now. Standing there alone, rigid and alert, she suddenly became aware of the presence of a second person around her. She looked about but saw no one. She considered walking home but immediately dismissed the thought, knowing it would be madness to even attempt it. It would take her a long time to walk home.
The man came upon her all at once, as if from nowhere, and stood directly in front of her. A cycle rickshaw had somehow materialized behind him. Mahua looked at him, half in fright, half in wonderment. He stood towering a good head-and-a-half over her petite five-foot frame and had a sturdy build. He did not have a single gray hair on his head, but it was bushy and untidy and tangled, and he wore it a little too long. Contrary to what one would expect, he did not have a beard. The skin on his hands was rough from hard physical labor, like the texture of sandpaper. He had a dark complexion. There were creases on his face—around his eyes, nose and mouth—that must have originated from endless exposure to the sun. The face was ageless, and in it were imprints of memories both glad and sorrowful. He had bloodshot eyes. This startled Mahua, as it offset the otherwise compassionate demeanor he had.
His movements were controlled though; there was no possibility of him being drunk. There was something odd about him, but it was not the reddened eyes. It was the fact that those eyes met her gaze too frankly; not in a disrespectful manner, but in a kind and understanding one. Wisdom radiated from those eyes.
‘Where should I take you?’ he asked Mahua.
‘I am waiting for someone to pick me up,’ Mahua said, a little afraid, hence cautious.
Silence. Then, ‘Okay, I will wait till I see you safely on your way home.’ He nodded at her and went over to stand by his rickshaw.
His accent was familiar but impossible to place.
Mahua was beginning to see the folly of her lie. The man wouldn’t leave her alone. And he didn’t look like the kind of person one could argue with. After weighing her options, she decided to come clean with him.
‘Actually, I was waiting for a rickshaw. The bus had broken down on the way, so I got late. No one is coming to take me home; I am on my own,’ she said meekly, half expecting him to scold her.
‘I thought so,’ the man said gently, gesturing her to get on the rickshaw. He started pedaling at a steady pace, talking about the landscape and the history of the hills, rivers, rocks and forests of Hazaribagh. Mahua figured he was trying to dispel her fears and put her at ease. She found herself listening intently to his narrative and was fascinated by his insights. In spite of herself, she began to relax. She puzzled over the source of his vast stores of knowledge. This was surely something unusual among his class of people. She got curious about her benefactor.
‘How long have you been here? I have lived here a few years but I haven’t seen you around.’
‘I have seen you before; I have lived here for forty years now.’
‘Okay, tell me your name. My husband will surely know you.’
‘My name is Vishnu. Yes, he will know me. Everyone here knows me … So why didn’t anybody come to receive you at this time of the night?’
‘My husband is ill and doesn’t know I am coming.’
‘Don’t worry; I will take you safely home,’ he assured her.
Mahua kept asking him more questions. She wanted to get to know him. ‘Who are the people in your family? Where did your ancestors live?’
‘My wife is no more, my children live in the city, and I live alone at the other end of town.’
‘Sorry to hear that. You must feel terribly lonely then, with no one to talk to when you go back home? Do you cook your own meals?’
‘An old man does not need much nourishment. I eat once a day, never after sundown. It works for me. What about you? What have you eaten?’
‘Nothing. Just chai and biscuits in the morning. I left in too much of a hurry to pack anything for the way.’
‘You will have to go home and cook then?’
‘Yes … my husband will have his first meal in two days.’
‘Ah, your arrival will be of great comfort to him then.’
‘I don’t know …’ Mahua spoke almost to herself.
She hesitated for a bit, then started discussing her marriage with this stranger. She couldn’t believe it herself, but it was true—she wanted his advice.
‘… I don’t know if he really wants to see me. He didn’t ask me to come back, after all. It was only when I thought he sounded different on the phone and I persisted with my questioning that he told me he has been rendered almost immobile by a fever.
‘I feel so lonely here, even more so around Amal. After the first year of marriage, our differences began to matter. Amal sought refuge in his job and spent more and more time away from home.
‘We became strangers. And we couldn’t even escape from each other because there was nothing to escape to. I can’t tell you how depressed I got. I had so much love to give, but he didn’t seem to want it. There’s no greater punishment, I tell you, than having to withhold love.’
Vishnu kept pedaling, looking straight ahead of him. There wasn’t the slightest indication that he had heard a word of what all she had just said. Mahua waited, at first eagerly, then a little impatiently, for his response. Just when she was going to give up on him, he spoke.
‘You know, my wife and I lived apart a few years when I first came to this city. Then when she joined me, we lived a routine life, just about tolerating one another, talking to each other only when we couldn’t avoid it. We were two people who did not understand each other, and worse still, we were growing used to and content with living like that. I understood that distance and time had almost managed to ruin our friendship. We had to become friends again to mend our relationship. With time, I realized I actually desired her companionship. I could do without her, of course, but I didn’t want to!
‘I began to talk to her … about trivial things. I told her about the blisters I had got on my soles when I had once pedaled for fourteen hours, hardly making a stop. I told her how I had fallen asleep on my seat once and hit a tree trunk, how I sometimes craved a hookah, and how I saved a passenger’s life by taking him to the hospital in good time. And I found her listening, casually at first, then with visible interest. She was soon nodding and smiling and gradually sharing her own stories with me.
‘I learned that there is no happiness like that of being loved by people around you, and feeling wanted. Through our stories we managed to come together again. That’s why people get married in the first place—to escape from the loneliness which affects almost everyone at various stages of their lives. You should overlook each other’s mistakes, and learn not to expect too much just now. Remind your husband of the happy times you spent together, and make new memories with him.’
Mahua listened quietly, absorbing every word he said.
Vishnu got off the road and onto the dirt track amidst the thickets that would take Mahua home. In a few minutes, the rickshaw stopped in front of Mahua’s house.
Mahua looked at Vishnu. His eyes were redder than ever. Mahua asked him why.
‘I need sleep; I haven’t been able to sleep much lately,’ he said simply.
‘How much do I owe you?’ Mahua asked him.
‘Whatever you wish; I am just happy I could get you safely home.’
Mahua took out a note from her purse and said, ‘Vishnu, thank you for everything. Will you come see me sometime?’
Vishnu looked puzzled.
‘I don’t understand …’ he began.
‘I live alone here. You have nothing to be afraid of. My husband left me a long time ago. He had stopped loving me, but I never stopped looking for love. I will ask you again. Will you come see me?’
No answer. Vishnu stared at Mahua for a whole minute then his expression slowly hardened. Mahua understood he wouldn’t come see her.
Mahua, or whatever remained of her, turned to go inside the house. As she climbed the steps to the portico, her form disintegrated into silvery wisps that swirled around the door of the house and faded into the ether.
From inside the large white house Vishnu heard a scream. It rose above the sound of the wind that swept through the trees. A scream from a voice contorted with pain. A desperate cry.
His skin tingled.
The earth met him as his knees buckled. His head hit the ground and his body numbed as the coldest day of the season came to an end.
* ‘The Night Bus’ from #Horror has been reproduced here with the permission of the publisher, Scholastic India Pvt Ltd. All rights remain with the publisher.