"When you cut the lights out think of all the things you can't see"Scissor Sisters, "Lights", Ta-Dah (2006)
The line above, I discovered, was a lot deeper than it sounded.
I boarded the last bus just a few seconds before it started rolling out of the bus station in Mangalore. A cloud of invisible noxious odours - a potent mix of dead fish, gasoline and the local unwasheds - hung thickly in the interior. I screwed up my nose from the foul assault to my delicate nostrils, tramped through the wet, muddy aisle, and joined Shaki, Sze Yin and Abby near the middle of the bus.
Everyone knows that the middle seats of a bus are the best ones. Personally, I think that the front ones aren't too shabby either but those poor sods sitting there would be the first to perish (horribly, if I may add) should the vehicle choose to take a flying leap off a ledge into some gorge, or play bumper cars with an 18-wheeler truck. The backseats are the worst, of course. The least of their sins would be that they are always and invariably the grimiest and smelliest part of the bus. They would be the most heavily graffiti-ed (with atrocious spelling and criminal acts against the laws of grammar) and have the most alarming collection of potentially disgusting stains marking the cushions. The seediest looking hooligans would always congregate at the back, and every article of garbage which finds itself on the floor of the bus would magically migrate there as well to join their human counterparts. In addition, the passengers at the back would also be intimately acquainted with every speed-bump and pothole which the rear wheels strike. A collision from the back with a sufficiently massive lorry would no doubt end the lives of these doubly unfortunate folks already forced to endure the hardships of occupying these abominable seats.
The Backseats of the Bus. You can hear the capitalisation in the tone they were uttered, often with inflections of fear and an accompanying shudder.
The reason I took the effort to impress on to you the horrors of the backseat is because the four of us were reassigned there by a conductor whose face looked as if a few backhand slaps would do it a world of good. Apparently, the middle seats were reserved for some ass-wipes who miraculously managed to call dibs on them before they even board the bus. Guess who amongst the four of us won the opportunity to squeeze in with the putrescent and pungent local Indian gents in the very Last Row for the two-hour journey1 back to Manipal? Fuck.
By the way, I'm not discriminating against other races or their religions. I'm discriminating against people who attempts to murder me with their B.O.
The bus stopped at Bharath Mall to pick up those reserved-seat-ass-wipes. The four of us were joined by Jason & Co. who were also in Mangalore for the day, but they were forced to stand because all the seats were taken. I gave up my place to Pei Min (who was with Jason's entourage) and attached myself to one of the support poles, which would be my best friend for the entire journey. Sitting while a girl has to stand always makes me feel like such a cad. Regrettably, I couldn't perform the same service for the other two femmes in Jason's gang because I had only one seat to surrender.
In order for you to truly appreciate my predicament of standing in a moving Indian bus, a couple of possible deficiency in your education must be filled, namely those regarding the sorry, sorry physical state of the Indian roads and the peculiarities of an Indian driver;
The road between Mangalore and Manipal has only two-lanes and has more holes in it than Dunkin' Donuts. It was little better than a cow-path with a bit of asphalt laid on it. That did nothing to curb the speeding tendencies and neck-risking overtaking endeavors of the bus drivers. It's like a really clumsy vehicular ballet on that narrow two-lane road; weave out on the wrong lane, overtake that truck going at a placid 100 km/h, narrowly miss another bus that's coming like a freight train from the opposite direction, rinse and repeat. Theme park thrill rides got nothing on an Indian bus trip, I can tell you.
And the dark of a stormy night (and the fact that there's no lamp-posts at all along most of the 2-hour-bovine-highway) was certainly no reason for the captain of the bus I was riding to surrender his hazardous habits. So there I was, clinging to the support pole with both my hands, being swung around like a rag doll, and experiencing a bit of air-borne time now and again every time the bus hit a kink in the road. On top of all that, I was positively retching from the terrible stench of the bus which seemed to have doubled after the conductor shut both the bus' doors (remember what I told you about his face?).
I thought that things could not possibly get worse than this but like the protagonists in most badly written novels, I was dead wrong. The bus driver must have been psychic because he choose that particular moment to switch on the radio and blast a series of high-pitched, painful shrieks and screeches of what used to be a Bollywood song before it was thoroughly mangled by the crappy sound system of the bus. Yeah. Great. Thank you very much.
I wouldn't have been tossed about so much had I been supporting myself with two separate poles instead of one. There was another one just near enough for me but I did not hold onto that because Abby was already using that. Well, technically there's still room for me on that pole but I have a strange proximity complex; I refuse to voluntarily let any part of my body to get too close to another human being. It's like I imagine that the immediate air around a person is inviolable and belongs to that person alone, and my breaching of that invisible boundary would tantamount to molestation. In the same way, I dislike being touched. I felt every handshake acutely. Every hand on my shoulder, every pat I ever got on my back - I noticed them, and counted the seconds till the sensation was lifted. Girls make me feel doubly uncomfortable. It's not like they are ickier or something. It's just that the air around them seemed a lot more... sacred?
I didn't use to be that way back in secondary school. It's a curious way of growing up, huh?
When I was accused of smacking a girl's derrière with my umbrella last year, I denied it pointedly but I fancy that that girl did not really believe me. However, my girlfriend trusted me. She knew about my proximity problem and that I'd sooner chop my own toes off than 'molest' someone. The very idea of touching a girl drains the blood from my face. Once, she told me I was the safest guy to be with, and she liked the way I made her feel special because she was the one person where these invisible, private spaces did not apply. She was, quite literally, my only one.
Once. When I actually had a girlfriend, of course.
I brought two books with my to Mangalore, to make sure that my mind do not revisit the regions I've long roped off. Standing in a pitching bus, I was left with no hands free to hold a novel. It isn't fair. It isn't fair that more than half a year failed to dull the memories sufficiently for me to function. They are always there, right below that superficial sheen of composure I wear - always fucking ready to resurface at any bloody time to make me hate the life I live in.
Midway on the road, local passengers sitting in the Last Row exited the bus, freeing two spaces for Ching Chiet and I. Being sandwiched between him and one of the local men - who looked (and smelled) as if he desperately needed a shower - was an all-out siege on my sense of smell and my proximity problem, but that was an ordeal I was willing to endure so long as I could read. I needed to escape from my own mind.
But Chance was so vindictive that I could scarcely believe it; the driver turned off all the lights, instantly drowning me in shadows and denying me of my sanctuary - a flimsy sanctuary made of paper and words, but a sanctuary nonetheless.
Then, it was only me, in a position I loathed and in the company of thoughts that hurt. Ching Chiet and the Indian man flanking me soon slipped into slumber - bless them, for the refuge of sleep came so easily to those unsaddled and unfettered. It was strange how I could find so much desolation and loneliness sitting in a bus so cramped with people that I could hardly breathe.
The rest of the journey mimicked one of those ghost train rides you find in amusement parks. It was dark with the occasional glow of yellow light from unidentifiable objects outside the bus. The ghastly radio was still playing, only now the speaker was nested right above my head, and there were a lot of bumping and veering, often catching me unprepared and bowling me into my Last Row companions. But unlike a ghost train ride, I had the wretched society of the ghosts of my past instead of plastic skeletons and fibre-glass zombies. I stayed awake throughout, exhausted from my day's trip but I could find no rest.
We pulled into the town of Udupi at about midnight, and I took an auto back to Manipal from there. It was already 12.30 am by the time I was home again, smelling of dead fish, gasoline and the local unwasheds just like the bus was. I started the trip back from Mangalore in an almost cheerful mood but I ended it being more miserable than I have ever been in weeks.
I need the reassuring presence of a hand in mine. I need the comforting sensation of fingers running through the hair at the back oh my head. I need to be near someone who love me, to hold her and know that she's real and isn't make-believe.
I need a hug from someone who belongs to me alone.
These are all impossible needs, of course, in my world of strangers of unseen boundaries, and personal spaces.
My world is a world of people that aren't her.
k0k s3n w4i
1 It's like taking a bus from Malacca to KL; only in a garbage-truck-and-bus hybrid instead of a comfy, air-conditioned Transnasional coach.