Standing in the aisle was the white haired man with a red & white striped shirt, blue jeans with an empty plastic water bottle stuck in the back pocket of his jeans. He wore leather slippers. He stood tall and held on. What was his story? His shirt reminded me of a sort of candy – the oversweet kind. But there was an almost quiet dignity to him that one could sense. It was a contrast to the others.
On the right was the girl seated, wearing a mask with a pink flowered blouse with ruffles, messaging on WhatsApp in Sinhala with English letters. She messaged Lihini and then some M surname. She was fast and focused. Perhaps she was sorting some important matters or some insidious ones coz she kept looking around quite furtively.
Getting up from his seat was the boy with Apple ear pods (or could be RedMi) coz Apple is life, bro (or, coz you gotta fake it till you make it). He tucked away a brown pouch clipped on to his belt buckle. He stood tall in his jeans and shirt. Perhaps heading out for the evening to meet – someone? Or some people?
At the back, in the last seat was the lady seated in a raw silk saree with a pleated pota, with her lunch box wrapped in a serviette sticking out of her bag, talking animatedly of people leaving to go abroad and working as cashiers, with the masked lady seated next to her.
“You know this lecturer from Colombo University went abroad and is working as a cashier now in one of those big supermarkets”
“But you say it’s worth it in the long term?”
“Yes, after about 10 years you can do something with your life”
Both are clutching the seat handle as the 138 lurches along. Both wear bits of gold – earrings, bracelets, chains.
The white haired man got down and suddenly there is the lady standing in the aisle in a short floral dress with white sneakers, clutching her bag as she holds on to the seat handle.
The girl seated in the last seat on the left is in a top with a red inner piece to protect her modesty while she peers at edited photo collages of herself on her phone.
The man seated in front in an onion pink shirt with his off white socks poking glaringly through his lifted trouser pants.
The interior looked like that marshmallow souffle at hotel buffets that think people with no palate will be enticed by colour. Psychedelic lights and some indistinguishable music completed the ambience.
The 138. Iconic bus plying from Kottawa to Fort. Well known for its mania to race with fellow 138s. To careen down Union Place with its multiple byroads and no qualms whatsoever. A killer bus – because it has killed many – as morbid as that sounds. Yet it’s a useful bus. It covers many areas and many paths.
It also stops at the top of my road.
So here was I after my gym session. Gym clothes on, laptop bag, clothes bag & handbag. I was the quintessential after office woman heading home. In the bus. That’s fine – it’s 48 bucks now. Used to be 55. Nice contrast to the tuk tuk that takes almost a 1000. Every penny counts these days.
I observed all this from my middle seat at the back of the bus. Such a curious site as we journeyed. Somehow I had forgotten what it was like in a bus and how so many people come together and go their separate ways each moment, each day. And how this in a sense was like the cog in a wheel of a very rusted machine.
Broken. That’s what we all were. And the 138 was a good indicator of that brokenness. Rushing, lurching, careening and at the same time plying the same old route each day, the same destinations shouted out and the same bell on a fraying nylon cord being pulled to indicate the need to stop. But always briefly. Never too long and never enough. But it worked – the same almost 20 years ago and it will continue to do so 20 years on.
The only guarantee would be the vacillating prices of the tickets. A bit like life. Many things change and it only differs at what cost – cash or kind.
I finally reached my stop and managed to get down before the bus took off. Walking past the many people waiting to go home to however near or far from what I called home. I walked the dark streets and looked around carefully at the odds bods that were walking around. One grab would ruin my day so I was super alert – my bags clutched closely to my being. It wasn’t fun but it was a fact of life. My road was dark as usual save for the multi coloured lights emanating from a Relax room. Woe betide anyone who thinks I was heading in there – the fuck shop for those who had nowhere else to go. Sad, but at least such places offered people some solace for spaces of intimacy.
I passed Relax and headed on down the road listening to some music. It was dark but not too dark.
Walking down the road – Mr. Scruffy scratching his unruly head of hair with one hand, a lit cigarette in the other with one ember floating to the ground and snuffing out in the water.
He looked like a worker from the site. They were from all over Sri Lanka. Puttalam, Athurugiriya, Kaduwela and wherever cheap labour was available. I gave him a bit of a stare because I did not want to be some demure creature indicating weakness. Ah, the lengths we go to, to protect ourselves. And some sorry mofo will be whining about how women like me are too aggressive. Sure. Have you faced a pervert? Got groped? No? Then STFU. Some of us have to do what it takes to survive. No knights in shining armour (AKA ayyas, mallis, uncles & bros) to save us. We save ourselves – and yes, it comes at a price.
On the last stretch home was me listening to Danger Zone from Top Gun which was ruined by the jarring bastardisation of Beethoven’s Fur Elise a la Choon Paan tune from the bread van. Gosh, it was a cacophony alright and the two did not mingle in the same way that I did not really mingle with some of my fellow neighbours. The two were chalk and cheese, as were we.
Never mind. I don’t think it’s a crime to not always fit in. Some of these neighbourhood circles could be claustrophobic to say the least. Like the mothers who band together and spurt their fears into reality and the men who smoke and drink their way through life while their sons exchange ganja at the corner not realising that I have a bird’s eye view of what they are doing.
The only comfort I had was on the few occasions that I heard couples shout ‘I love you’ to each other down the road which was so new and so refreshing. At least let youth prevail in their youthful love and not live life with cynicism as their companion.
But those were not folks I interacted with. Perhaps they were not even from this road. Who knows.
Some people are best kept at barge pole distance. The few who I connected with stayed in touch with me and I with them. That would suffice I felt.
I turned into my gate, looked around again, opened it and quickly went in. One cannot trust anything these days and darkness always hid its perpetrators well.