Of late, the number of buses has come down. If I miss the office specials, I have to change two or three buses, and by the time I reach my office, I can’t get hold of the attendance register at all. That day, they would put a “late” mark. Whatever be the situation, I had to leave home by 9:20. If I didn’t, the special buses would go away and result in late marks for me. There’s a limit of three late marks per month. If one crossed this limit, a day’s CL (casual leave) would be cut.
At home, everything has to be done with clockwork precision to meet bus timings. This is a practice normal to every employee. Some of my colleagues, having no time to eat, put something in their box, and finish their breakfast on the bus.
Only those who board on a daily basis are seen on the special buses. New faces are very rare. If at all someone new does get in, some speak to them. Others ignore them.
In the last few days, a girl has been getting into our special bus. It seems like a sari has been wound round a little girl. She looks like a teenager. She is thin and fair complexioned. Wearing a small black sticker bindi, she smiles without saying a word to anyone who speaks to her, stands a bit detached and sits down if she finds a vacant seat. If not, she would continue to stand.
After the tension-filled work that comes up to the neck at home, I get over my exhaustion in the bus. If I speak to someone, my heart feels light and tension-free. One day, I struck up a conversation with this new girl on the bus. “Are you studying? Which college, amma?” I asked her, thinking she was a young girl.
“Not college. I’m working,” she said, smiling half-heartedly. Another day, when the seat next to me was vacant, I called out to her and made her sit next to me. Smiling slightly, I asked, “How are you?”
She said, “Ah...I’m fine, madam.”
“Where do you work?”
“I’m in the Secretariat. And you?”
“I’m in the DGP office,” she said, and added, as if in some pain. “You are in the Secretariat? I didn’t know all these days that you work in the Secretariat.”
“Why? Do you have any work in our office? What work?” I said in a tone that would give her the confidence that I might help her out.
“Yes, I have some work in the Secretariat. Haven’t been able to go in there. They give a pass to enter at 3 p.m. To obtain it one has to stand in a long coir rope-like line. By the time I get the pass and enter, it would be 4:30. By that time all the office employees would only be thinking of leaving, as it would be time for the office specials. If I go in the morning, they wouldn’t let me in. There’s a file concerning me in the revenue department. Would it be possible for you to take me along to the office?” She pleaded.
In the meanwhile a beautiful woman sitting in a row in front of us turned around and said in a complaining tone, “That they don’t let outsiders enter the Secretariat is untrue. You go into the office and you find all kinds of people selling paper pins, safety pins, saris, umbrellas, pickles, and dry fruits. Even beggars come in to beg. It’s just said that they don’t let in outsiders. Everybody goes in, quite grandly.”
“If it’s only those, that’s fine. All kinds of brokers, middlemen, agents, people who do underhand deals, small or big ones, keep coming. There’s no stopping them anyway. They stop only people like you,” said the woman sitting in the row behind us.
“Ah... that’s true,” saying this to the one at the back, I asked, taking liberty, “By the way, when would you want to come?”
“I will obtain permission from our madam today, saying I will come tomorrow after taking care of my work at the Secretariat.”
“By the way, I forgot to ask you your name…”
“My name is Karuna.”
“All right, what work do you have in the revenue department?”
“Concerning a site.”
“What site? What’s it about?” I asked in a friendly manner for the details, giving her the feeling of confidence that I would get it done.
I don’t know what kind of closeness she had felt from my conversation and the way I was asking about things. She looked around. Ours is a special bus. The conductor is there for namesake. No work of issuing tickets. Everyone would be carrying bus passes. So he had looked for a vacant seat at the back and sat there. Observing all this, lowering her voice, she said, “Madam, you would know. Right here, eight years ago, a police officer, along with the driver of his jeep and the gunman, were killed in the firing by naxalites. Do you recall, madam?”
“Ah...ah... I remember. Many years ago, isn’t it?”
“That driver was my husband,” she said sadly.
Listening to this, swallowing the shock, I said, “Is that so? Ah...so...” indicating that she should not stop.
“I have three children, a son and two daughters. We live in the Ambedkar basti. When my husband died they said they would give a site in Banjara Hills, would give me a job, grant ex-gratia. When I went repeatedly after them, they granted ex-gratia.
“As for the job, God alone knows the hardships I have undergone! I went about like a mad dog. I studied till the eighth class. Who knew if I would get a job or not? I was tense as to how my children and I would survive or what would happen. ‘You haven’t studied till the tenth.’ ‘For an attendant’s post you should have at least studied till the tenth,’ they said. They said the rules wouldn’t allow.
“Putting me through a lot of difficulties, they gave me a job after three years. That too, not in the city, but on the outskirts. When they offered it to me on the outskirts, I touched the feet of a woman officer and got transferred to the city. There was no hope till I got the job. It had not come easily. Big, big police saars spoke in support of my case. They had sworn in front of the corpse saying they were all there. Now they are showing partiality. Now I should get the site that is due to me. They are making me go around for that. No hope that it will come. For the ex gratia, I went about without any respite.
““Who’s bothered about a jeep driver’s wife, madam? The naxalites planted the bomb for the police officer. My husband died because of that officer. They are troubling us like this, but did they trouble the officer’s wife like this?””
“Like this, the job too came my way after many years. It came only after paying money. The file related to the site has been rejected many times. People I know kept telling me to apply again and again, and I am going around having done so. But it’s not happening. They said Banjara Hills. Then they said not there. How does it matter to us where? I said I will take it wherever they give it,” she said with a worn face.
“What are they saying in your office? You should have asked your officers,” I said.
“The file is in the Secretariat. You go and follow it up, they say. No one is bothered. Who’s bothered about a jeep driver’s wife, madam? The naxalites did not explode the bomb with the intent of killing my husband. They planted the bomb for the police officer and killed him. My husband died because of that officer. They are troubling us like this, but did they trouble the officer’s wife like this?
“They got everything done for her without her moving an inch. They gave her the Deputy Collector’s job. They provided her with security guards, cars, jeeps, and servants. They look after her like the eyelids of the eyes. Everything got done for her in a month’s time.
“What happened to both of us is the same. But why this partiality? Has everything been provided to the jeep driver’s wife? There was no one to ask this. We can’t spot a single human being who will enquire about how we are living. Very upsetting. When I think of all this, even now, I feel terribly sad.”
As she talked, her voice turned hoarse. How many problems at such a tender age! How many life truths has she washed and put to dry! Thinking so, even my eyes were clouded with tears.
The pain in Karuna’s heart could not be contained, was unending. So she said again, “When my husband died, my son was three-and-a-half years old. My daughter was two, and my younger daughter in my stomach. When she was born her father was not alive. She does not know he is dead. Whenever she thinks of him, she cries asking, ‘When will my father come? Fathers come to drop and pick up our friends at school. No one comes for us. We ourselves have to go and come back by ourselves. We won’t go to school.’ When my children cry, who will pacify them? Who will fill the void?
“Don’t know who has committed a sin. That has affected us. Someone’s sin has reached its limits for my husband to lose his life. Without any support my children and I have become birds without a nest.” Saying these words she could not control the tears in her eyes. Tears flowed from my eyes too.
I thought to myself, such trauma in the heart of this young girl who gets on to the bus and sits silently without talking to anyone. Pacifying her, I assured, “Amma, don’t worry. If you come to the Secretariat tomorrow, I will speak to the union people and ensure that your file moves. We will also ensure that it is not rejected this time.”
Just as the girl was about to tell me something, the bus reached my office stop. “I will take you to the department tomorrow. Bye.” Saying this, I held her hands to show my friendship, and got down from the bus with a heavy heart.
Story selected by Mini Krishnan.
Reproduced courtesy of Stree.
Illustrations by Siddharth Sengupta.