Sigh. Another Independence Day went by. Freedom, an ad screamed. At last, I thought but it was a soap promising to unfetter me from my oily skin. An India Today poll said that Biharis rated Laloo as the best chief minister they’d ever had, Star News showed little shriveled Oriyas dying after eating paste and the Outlook concluded that India was still a riddle (or is it muddle?), where apparently 68% of married women still needed permission from their husbands to go to the market….
Me – I celebrated Independence Day Eve by riding the evening bus from Bangalore to Mysore. Once a wonderful 3 hour journey through some of the most tranquilly beautiful countryside, it’s now an almost 4 hour harrowing ride through countryside thoughtfully dotted with gaudily lit beer bars and “panjabi dhabas” which provided truck and other drivers the necessary “refreshments” needed to hurtle at 70kmph towards what should be certain death but which is not because you expertly swerve away at the very last nano-second, missing by the sliver-est of a whisker. A kick almost as good as the beer. About midway through this thrilling excursion, there was a loud exhausted, p-s-s-s-s-sh from the nether regions of the bus. The driver slapping his head and exchanging an exasperated look with
the conductor confirmed the joyous news – we had a puncture. As we ambled to a halt, I overheard this interesting exchange
Conductor “Do we have a jack?”
Driver: “We did, but someone took it.”
Even when our jack-less state became clear to all the passengers, I seemed to be the only one aghast. There was nothing left to do but start off again, wobbling at the pace of a bullock cart powered by Prozac till we reached the mid-point bus halt, fortunately nearby. While we refreshed ourselves with chota pegs of tea/coffee in little steel thimbles freshly rinsed in ditch water, the driver diligently went around the other buses halted there asking if any of them had a jack. Naturally, no one did. Why would a barely maintained State Transport bus that regularly pelts through 150 kms of one of the busiest, potholed stretch of roadway in the country need to keep a jack? I mean would an Eskimo stock up on ice cubes?
I looked around to see if anyone else was as alarmed as I was. There was only bonhomie and good cheer. So, to soothe my jangled nerves, I decided to visit the ladies’, tucked away at the end of a long, slushy path. I squelched through, determinedly looking at my feet because looking up would mean a direct view of the interior of the gents’ where somebody had thoughtfully positioned the urinals right next to the open doorway. I managed to make it without seeing anything that good girls shouldn’t. The ladies’ had all the usual mod cons. No lights, a choice of lavatory stalls with either running water or doors that latch. (The rare ones that had both normally also had stylish piles of human excreta in various stages of ageing) I braced myself for the usual nostril-withering stench. There was none - only a faint spill over in from the men’s. Inside, instead of the usual surly (I’d be surly too if I had to shovel other people’s shit for a living!), slatternly “attendant”, stood a smiling, slim young woman in a clean blue saree with little white flowers, eyes shining in the velvety darkness that was her skin and the nightfall. I smiled back tentatively and ducked into the first loo. Surprise again – it was clean! But so that I wouldn’t get too spoiled, the door wouldn’t close. “Don’t worry,” the smiling chocolate-in- blue-sky girl said to me, “I’ll stand guard.” When I emerged, she was still there, the Guardian Angel of the Ladies Loo, white flowers blooming like her smile in the dank darkness. As I pressed a coin into her hand, in her eyes shone something bright and beautiful, something indomitable, something untouched by the filth she lived in and cleaned day in and day out. And free. Maybe it was just the moonlight. To me, it was the spirit of Free India