Saturday, August 20, 2016

Just A Stranger On The Bus

"Thank God that's over," I thought to myself as the familiar scenes flowed past my window. Work was done for the day and I was on the bus back home.

There had been a big creamy cake brought with a flourish to my desk - had to be big of course, to feed the assortment of my dozen teammates. There had been singing, a creamy slice of cake ground into my hapless face, hearty wishes, bonhomous back-slapping, birthday bumps, general merriment. Well, happy birthday to me. Is it really such a big deal? Ever since I can remember, birthdays I have always looked askance at. The synthetic duty-bound wishes, the obligatory gifts, the fuss and bother, the excess emphasis on body and age...whoever invented this diabolical social trifle? Well yeah, they did go to all that trouble to procure the cake but I doubt it was from any altruistic motive as much as an excuse to have themselves a good time. One silent wish filled with blessing and love from someone who truly cared would be worth a hundred fold more than all this hue and cry.

"Hey Arjun!" enthusiastically hailed Biju, one of my flat-mates, as I let myself into the place I exist when I'm not at work. "You won't believe which movie I managed to get hold of today! The action is supposed to be kickass, macha!!"

"Sorry Biju, I'm going to be holed up in my room all evening. Conference in Bangalore tomorrow. I've a short topic to present and a heck of a lot to prepare for."

"Oh come ON!!" he protested, "If it's not a conference, it's a deadline, or a book or something equally nerdy. It's your birthday da. Lighten up! Have some fun!"

"Sorry man, not today," I said shortly, as I walked into the kitchen to make myself a quick cuppa. "Just knock on my door when the dinner carrier comes in, ok?"

"Not today, not ever," he grumbled. "No movies, no pubs, no girls, no nothing. You need to break out of your shell. Live a little. Tell you what - watch a bit of the movie with me at least while you have your tea?"

"Told you Biju, not a minute to lose. Aneesh will be in any moment now and I'm sure he'll watch it with you," I called back as I escaped to my room. Aneesh is our other flat-mate and a video-game buff. He and Biju are as thick as thieves, their worlds coinciding harmoniously. I, on the other hand, constantly feel like a stranger in a strange land.

I dawdled over tea in my room. Maybe I'm a misanthrope, plain and simple. An introverted misanthrope, at that. Perhaps I could have humoured Biju and watched some of that damn movie with him, but after dealing with exactly that kind of people at work, I have little slack left to cut for the ones at home. Endless crude jokes, dumb pointless hilarity, arguments over sports, superficial movie talk, speculation over girls, and weekend pubbing plans for more of the same. When up close and personal with such company for an extended time, it feels like a magnetic field perpendicular to my own has been super-imposed over me. I feel unreal, like a puppet going through the motions. I don't know myself anymore, I am a spent force. Do I seek solitude like a miser seeks gold because my world is filled with such people? Or is there something basically wrong with me? Life seems a game played out by misguided characters, all striving in the most useless pursuits, subject to every imaginable pressure from every external source, until the real person in them is utterly drowned in the cacophony.

"God!" I exclaimed aloud, "Is this all there is to living?" This gravitating toward, this running away from. The grasping for this, the rejecting of that. Are we doomed to this futile exercise all the way to the gate of death?

Yet, there are moments when I sense a foreshadowing of light at the periphery of the soul. Almost present, but not quite. Glimmers of immortality, a whisper of the eternal. I claw out desperately for something higher, to see, to understand once and for all...only to close in on empty space. It remains beyond grasp, beyond definition, intangible, elusive - until the mind falls helplessly in upon itself after spinning round in the same torturous circles. That's when the stifling burden of life closes in, threatening to suffocate, make me submit to its blind norms, snuff out the thread of connection with the light. Everything, everyone seems to pull me down, seduce me with wrong purposes, futile goals. And I am inevitably drawn back once again into the inconsequential details of life.

I shook my head and opened my laptop. Time to prepare my topic for the conference.


Bangalore was fresh and cool, raindrops glistening on the trees, the air crisp and full of promise. I paused on my way to the bus, closed my eyes and inhaled deeply the air rinsed clean, infused with fragrance from blossom and tree and earth. Ah, the cool, green, familiar feel of home! The bus had seating in train fashion, seats facing each other in little cubicles, and I made for an empty one so I could take in the sights of my hometown in peace.

My parents and grandmother lived in the heart of the city in one of those fast-disappearing old ancestral homes with large grounds dotted with mango, guava and jackfruit trees, a profusion of creepers growing in an arch over the gate, and intricate wooden ornamentation on the front door.

I hadn't told them I'd be in town, wanting to walk in at the back-door that evening and give them a surprise. I grinned picturing my grandma's reaction - in her old robust days she'd have given me an affectionate box on the ears and a chiding for not letting on, but having mellowed considerably in her old age, she would probably cover her delight by immediately and matter-of-factly offering to make me something to eat. My father in his perennial banian and dhoti would want to know all the details of the conference, what topic I presented and how many people were present. My sweet little mother swathed in her soft comforting cotton sari would cluster around and beam her joy at having her only son back in the nest.

There was something in the air that day that recalled scenes from my childhood in intimate detail. Maybe it was the red gulmohar flowers glowing through the early morning drizzle. Maybe it was the weather - soft and luminous, just this side of chilly. I vividly recalled, on mornings like these, the smoke pouring out of the bathroom window where water was heated in a big built-in copper pot over a crackling orange fire. An electric geyser had long since improved the copper pot out of existence, but looking out into that wonderful morning, I could almost smell the wood smoke.

I could see myself prancing around on the old grey slatestones in the courtyard while grandma sat on the tulsi katte with my lunch, deftly popping balls of food in my mouth as she regaled me with thrilling stories from the Mahabharata. There was a huge round stone, with a hole in its center, abandoned under the jackfruit tree by the side of the house - probably one part of some ancient grindstone. I had been convinced, for some reason, that it was a chariot wheel - and to boot, the same infamous chariot wheel that was instrumental in bringing about Karna's death in the battle of Kurukshetra. Such was grandma's storytelling prowess that everything she described seemed to come to life around me in that intimate and immediate manner. Strange that I should have remembered that detail two decades later. I always had more of a sneaking sympathy for Karna than for my honourable namesake Arjuna - such a tragic, wronged, yet noble figure dragged by the quicksands of misplaced obligation to his ultimate downfall -

"Yes, Karna was a great hero because of his spirit of sacrifice."

I looked up, startled out of my reverie, to see a young man about my own age on the seat opposite mine. I didn't think I was so lost in my thoughts as to not notice anyone come in, but there he was sitting in front of me, seemingly sprung to life that very minute - in a formal white shirt and grey trousers, a black attache case by his side. He seemed no different from any of the young professionals who populated the bus that day. Dark-complexioned, close cropped hair, clear eyes intent on mine.

"Did you know," he went on calmly, as if continuing some long-initiated conversation. "When the Pandavas came to know after they had killed Karna that he was their very own brother, born from the same womb, they were devastated. Had they only known the truth earlier, all that suffering might have been avoided, don't you think?"

"I guess so," I stammered. "How did you....I mean, I didn't see you sit down", I floundered badly.

He leaned back in his seat, smiled reassuringly, and simply waited while I composed myself. There was something incredibly familiar about his smile, his presence. Faint recognition stirred in some far-off corner of my heart. I found myself inexplicably warming to him and feeling strangely at ease, as one does with one's dearest friend, or with one's mother.

"You're wondering why I'm here?" he asked gently. "I came because you called, and because you were ready."

"Oh, you probably mistook me for someone else," I said, glad to get a rational handle on the conversation. "My name is..."

"Your name is Arjun, you’re in your first job fresh out of college and you’re here to attend a conference in Electronic City," he recited glibly, his eyes twinkling. "Your father is Ramachandra Rao, a retired IAS officer. Your mother..."

"Alright," I interrupted a trifle sharply, feeling somewhat rattled. "Ok, so you know all about me. I, on the other hand, have no idea who you are."

"Find out first who you really are, then you will know me. Until then, call me anything – all names are mine." He looked quizzically at me. "Each wave imagines it is different, but that is only because it doesn’t know it comes from the same sea."

I looked at him, silent, because I hadn't anything to say. I wasn't quite sure I understood. Truth to tell, I was completely baffled. I looked at him more closely. He had seemed dark-complexioned at first, but I noticed his skin had an almost golden hue. His face was remarkably luminous and fresh, like the pearly morning outside. Indeed, his whole figure seemed lit by an inner radiance. His presence was so riveting and larger-than-life that the rest of the surroundings seemed to fade into sepia.

I became aware that a river of peace was gradually trickling into the spaces of my being. It threw a part of my mind off-balance, this unaccustomed stillness that was enveloping me. I tried to brace myself against being taken over like this, pressed down with effort on the mental accelerator to muster some logical explanation for this strange encounter.

He watched me for a time with intensity, then leaned forward and lightly rested his hand for a moment on my chest. "Don't resist. Let it be."

In that instant, the last of my thoughts was extinguished and I was adrift on a sea of infinite peace, peace that pervaded every fibre of my being. Every vestige of fear, worry and control left me. There was a feeling of absolute rightness within me - a feeling that everything was as it should be - and always would be, no matter what passed or what came. I was no longer a feverish fragment of life, but subsumed by it in an utterly comforting way.

A question asked itself out of the stillness, "Why did you tell me that story about Karna?"

"As a caution. You see Arjun, every person life puts in front of you is a brother. Everyone you encounter is your own self experiencing life in another form." He paused and looked at me piercingly. "When you judge and shun the people about you, you are forgetting this. But when you realize it, you will be as remorseful as the Pandavas were when they realized Karna was their own brother."

I sat there, stunned. Yes, that had been my torment and this was exactly the medicine I needed.

His face softened. "Can you see yourself reflected in the pupil of my eye, like I can see myself in yours? Right this instant, I am in you and you are in me. So is anyone who stands before you; have you observed this, Arjun?"

"But some people are a bundle of everything I dislike - superficial, cheap and boring. Or worse, they think nothing of lying and cheating just to gain a petty advantage. Full of false bottoms, no integrity - everything in me wants to run away from them. And you're telling me to try being their best friend?" I asked, eager to thresh this out once and for all.

"Stay away by all means - but not with revulsion in your heart. Syrup is sweet whether you taste it in a black jamun or white rasgulla. The human essence is the same in both friend and foe. Love that - revere that - serve that!"

The words dropped like jewels into the pool of my consciousness, settled deep within me. An incredible rightness was coursing through my being. I only knew that whatever of love I had experienced so far was only a dim footnote in front of this boundless upsurging of pure bliss. We sat for a while in silence.

"What do you want, Arjun?," he demanded suddenly.

I found myself replying unhesitatingly, "I want to touch the eternal, the real. I want God." And immediately felt rather pleased with that noble and fine-sounding answer. He would see I wasn't that shallow after all.

"Who is God? What is God? Those are just words. You must experience." He looked at me sternly. "Looking down on your fellow-beings and looking up at God is hypocrisy. God cannot be realized that way."

"What is the way then?" I asked humbly, utterly crushed.

"Love is the way. Live in love. Offer the warmth of your smile, the kindness of your heart, to everyone who passes your way. When you help, encourage and serve, you are loving God, for God is in every heart. Extend your hand as I extend mine to you."

I looked mutely at him, deeply stirred, resonant with understanding. His smile was a diamond burst of radiance. He reached forward and patted my hand affectionately. "Your stop will arrive in two minutes."

I was galvanized into sudden urgency. "Oh wait, please tell me how I can contact you. Please...I hope I can meet you again."

He laughed. "You don't have to find me. You are already there." Then, seeing the entreaty in my eyes, he added, "Whomever you contact, I am in that person - and from each, I will respond."

The bus turned into the road leading to the portals of the campus I was headed for. I watched the stop draw near as the moments ticked mercilessly away. He looked at me tenderly, "I am in you, Arjun, and you are in me, remember?"

A crowd of young professionals made their way down into the aisle. He motioned for me to join them. I took a couple of steps down the aisle, looked back. With his glorious smile, he raised his palm. "Be happy."

I nodded, smiled back at him, my heart light and free as a child's; and soon I was outside in the brilliant sunshine.


The day was drawing to a close as I fit the key into my apartment door. I paused for a moment before opening it – for that would irrevocably mark the end of that magical weekend. I had taken an extra day off in Bangalore to spend at home with my family. Everyday realities had already started intruding into my weekend of grace. I had got an urgent email that morning from my manager exhorting me to show up on Tuesday with a certain module all worked out. That meant the grind started that very evening for me. I squared my shoulders, took a deep breath and let myself in.

"Heyyy buddy, welcome home man!!" shouted Biju happily. "Managed to bum off on a Monday, huh, lucky you!"

"Hey Biju," I smiled. "So what's on for today's entertainment?"

"You have awesome timing or what! A colleague lent me his Nintendo today and I can't wait to try it out. I need to get a few practice runs in before Aneesh takes me on. Gonna beat the bugger at his own game! He won't know what hit him!!" he chortled gleefully.

"And you're hoping to try it out on me," I said resignedly, as I walked into the kitchen. "Chai, Biju?"

"Yeah thanks da, I could do with a cup." He followed me into the kitchen and hoisted himself onto the counter watching me go through the drill with practiced ease. "So? What say?? One hour of gaming and my kingdom in return!"

I looked at his eager face as he pushed back the specs on his nose in his familiar way, eyes lively with anticipation. I thought of the module that would no doubt take me into the wee hours of the a.m. to finish.

"Tell you what," I said, straining the tea into two mugs. "One hour it is. Lead the way!"

The End

Many years ago, a motley group of us from all walks of life - two new moms reeling under the joys of raising toddlers in their terrible twos, a graduate student from California, an aunt from England, and a young dramatic theatre artist - got together and formed a writing group that went by the ambitious name of "Invoking the Muse". And we each churned out a few stories ranging from the inevitable love story to experimenting with different genres. We even did a relay story marathon that ended up in a gruesome vampire situation. [If any of that charmed fellowship are reading this, a hearty shout-out to you - what comradeship, creativity, fun and magic we produced, and what a blessed experience of sheer kindred spirit it all was! Love you girls.]
I was hunting for something on my hard drive the other night, tired at the end of a prosy day, and stumbled upon the first story I ever wrote for this writing club. I'd forgotten all about it, so I started to read it to see what it was - and it whisked me straight into its world and left me feeling alive, awake and inspired. If a story could open my heart like that, I thought, it should be out there for what it's worth, for other world weary folks to stumble across. Thus it came about that this old story written seven years ago has finally seen the light of day.

Thanks for reading, and a golden star for memory if you got the connotation of the title!