Let us follow her from a distance where we cannot be seen, as she waits for the bus that will take her home. She carries a vacant expression on her face and a large handbag. It is the face of one who has had a trying day, but knows the day isn’t over yet. The exhaustion settles on her face like grime. She shifts her handbag from the left shoulder to the right, every time she feels it cutting into her skin.
She doesn’t always manage to catch a seat, even if there is a row of seats set aside for women. On days she does find one, she has a little snack. Something that she has saved for later – a couple of biscuits, a banana or a few slices of orange, some salted peanuts that she bought from the man pushing a cart. The peanuts almost always make her stomach ache – they taste unfairly good though.
Today, there are no empty seats. The bus is an oven, and if she weren’t careful, she might be baked too. It is hot and damp, sucking all the air meant to go into one’s lungs. It smells of sweat, shoes, and lunch boxes that need to be cleaned. She stands in the middle of the bus, holding on to the railing that runs above, steadying herself over each bump and jerk, slightly proud that she’s found her equilibrium when others are victims of inertia.
She sees him climb in at one of the stops. He looks ordinary in the most ordinary of ways, a man defeated by heat and monotony. Maybe she notices him because she doesn’t have much else to do. His shirt sticks to his back, his face registers nothing, except for flashes of annoyance. Clutching his backpack, he makes his way inside the bus and pauses behind her. He holds the railing with his left hand and places the bag between his feet.
She wants to look at him, to confirm that he is indeed unremarkable, and she catches his eye. They are small, tired eyes. More people get in, they are pushing for space, trying to remain as civil as they can in the face of a stranger’s armpit. He moves closer, close enough for her to feel his breath on her neck if she so wishes. Two of his fingers find themselves on the exposed part of her shoulder blade, like a question. She moves half an inch closer to him, in answer. He seems to understand this answer, which is also her request. His fingers move in circles, occasionally he speaks with his nails, sometimes they meet her neck and introduce themselves. A few minutes go by this way. His fingers, now tired of her nape, seek her waist through the fabric. Probing, teasing, waking something in her that had for long been asleep. She feels the outline of a smile on her face, somewhat apprehensive but mostly receptive. She vaguely wonders if her thighs are just sweating more than usual. But this is a more enjoyable dampness, one that doesn’t make her irritable, that momentarily erases the frown which had taken up permanent residence on her face.
A minute later, he is gone. She finds a seat and ploughs her bag for biscuits. Tonight, she will make herself a more elaborate dinner than usual. Sambar, and fried potato probably. Potatoes diced evenly, with the edges a delicious dark brown, crispy bits that could be scraped off the pan, made of oil, chilli powder, salt and starch. She realises she’s been hungry for a long time now.
After I wrote this, it occurred to me that I was merely regurgitating Ambai’s series of short stories titled Journey X, where X is a number. They follow the journey of an unnamed woman, as she travels by bus or train or on foot, they reveal to us something unexpected.
It must also be said that the Malayalam short film Memories of a Machine was playing on my mind. This film is in the style of a home video, in which a man asks his wife about the first time she felt something sexual. She recounts an incident that happened when she was about eight – a peon she had a crush on fingered her and gave her his organ to hold. The woman, when questioned about this, informs him that she doesn’t think it was wrong. She was curious, and she enjoyed the sensation. He stopped when she asked him to.
I have been feeling disturbed ever since. In this instance, the child enjoyed the sexual exploration. But can we ignore the fact that this introduction was given to her by an adult? Is exploration a euphemism for exploitation here? Shouldn’t an adult know better? This is a power structure that is skewed in favour of only one of the participants. I would have felt more comfortable if this exploration had come about with a peer. The movie is still interesting to analyze, because of what it chooses to discuss, and that it does so by putting the woman in the spotlight.