It struck me later on that, just for a second, I had been off my guard. I lifted my hand in order to scratch the back of my neck. It was only when I brought it back to the armrest that I realized what had happened. At that instant, the young man in the seat next to me had pushed his own arm there. When they provide one seat per person couldn’t they provide two armrests in between? If they don’t provide that much, how can they claim it’s a luxury bus?
I was on my way from Nagercoil to Madurai because a telegram had arrived very early that morning saying that a distant relative, who had been born in the last decade of the previous century, had died. The darkness was fading. There was a comforting south wind. I had bathed in cold water at dawn and dressed myself in stiffly starched clothes—a veshti with a green border and a favorite shirt with small checks—and I was feeling fresh and renewed. My heart was full of the happiness and contentment I always feel when I escape from my home and my town. That trespass took place just as I sat back in my seat with a profound sense of comfort and decided not to waste any more time, but to think about India’s future forthwith. It wasn’t even 6:45 in the morning.
When I chose my seat in Nagercoil, the window seat on the left was indeed empty. I didn’t sit there. Even in the worst of accidents, the seat on the right of it affords the best chance of escaping completely unscathed: I discovered this through an article I had read in an American journal, which explained it all with illustrations. I had not shared this secret with anyone, as I didn’t want anyone to compete with me so long as I was alive. I checked out the people who climbed into the bus, one by one. As soon as he entered, I chose a young man, favoring his slimness and bright look, and pulled him next to me , moving my knees to one side. He, too, had an 80 percent chance of escaping, should there be an accident. After me, he had the best chances. His youth deserved that much, didn’t it? Even though I had been prepared to give him this much consideration and affection, and in spite of my previously established right, he committed this transgression. One thousand ninety-six years had passed since the death of Jesus Christ. The driver was making progress, negotiating the bends as if he were cutting through butter.
The title of Leo Tolstoy’s book What Is to Be Done? came to mind. One thing was certain. On no account should I give way so much as a single hair’s breadth. But before that, I should also determine whether his transgression occurred in full awareness or by accident. One’s actions are successful only if they are morally justified. Intentions are more important than results. Unknown to him, I began to observe his face—a handsome one—keenly. A difficult task indeed to pierce through his eyes, dive into his brain, gather into the palm of my hand the bubbles, breaking out, as if from smoke clouds of thought, and to read them. What artful devices are needed to stand firm in this world!
It’s possible he assumed an innocent expression after acting deliberately. The young man could hardly know the fact that I have lived for fifty-nine years since the month of Aadi as of this year, that at every stage of my life I have put up with smart operators who are either my kith and kin, or sharks at my office, and that I have progressed throughout my life by fighting every inch of the way. It seems his eyes could see only the forty years difference between us. He saw my receding hairline, the gray behind it. Immediately and effortlessly he must have thought, “Old man.” I told myself it wouldn’t be too long before he suffered for these calculations.
Before I undertake any action, I check its scientific validity even more than its moral justification. This has been my habit. This is why I need some time before I act. I placed my left hand in my lap. Suddenly it began to feel heavy. It seemed to ache and itch, indicating it needed to go to the armrest urgently. Such stubbornness! I sent it an urgent message through my brain, “Stop that pleading.”
It was not possible to think of the youth’s transgression as accidental. This was a deplorable act. It was to be regretted greatly that although so many teachers of literature had reached and pointed out the good that lies frozen within man, this youth was trapped in his meanness in contradiction to all that. I moved my arm toward the armrest, as if by accident. He showed no signs of moving his own arm. His firm resolve was clearly apparent. He was turning the pages of the magazine he held in his left hand very carefully, using the fingers of that hand alone. In that case, his transgression was surely a premeditated act.
I began to reflect on the note I might have filed against this illegal trespass had I not retired from my government post. Sentences in English rushed into my mind. I began to write them down.
It is very important to note that the passenger was an older man. It is a generally agreed principle in India that age is accorded respect. Besides the fact that the petitioner had occupied that space previously, he had established his right to it by placing his arm on it for approximately three-quarters of an hour. After that right had been infringed upon by a fellow passenger, the petitioner had indicated his desire to re-occupy the space, because of physical or mental necessity. Even so, there was no giving way. From this, I conclude . . .
Signs of a dreadful quarrel were beginning to appear. I kept thinking of the directions in which the quarrel might go. The problem of the armrest did not appear to be one that could escalate easily. Perhaps some problems might give that impression. Yet as the quarrel became more heated, several onlookers, seeking only to escape their boredom, were likely to butt in and start to give advice, totally unaware of the worthlessness of it all. This always happens in India, the inevitable consequence of a combination of too much leisure, too many difficulties of life, a sense of inferiority, and boredom. Before the quarrel began, I would have to keep handy some forceful replies to all those would-be advisors. If they said, “It’s only a trivial matter,” I might have to retort, “The young man stamped on my foot.” When there’s a quarrel, you have to emphasize certain points, don’t you? India had not yet sunk to such depths as to allow a young man to stamp on an old man’s foot. I might even have to add, “Even though I warned him several times, he stamped on my foot repeatedly.” I might have to lift my left leg and show it. There would certainly be an advantage in lifting up my veshti to reveal my bare leg up to the knee, even if there were no marks on it. It would be enough if I managed to get just one person there to say, “Are you blind, you bastard? Why did you stamp on his foot?” The victory would be mine. Everyone there would leap on him. He wouldn’t be able get away, however much he shouted.
That was a Monday. It struck me that if the quarrel started at half past seven, at which time the rahu kalam—the proscribed inauspicious hour-and-a-half—began, it might turn against me. As an opening gambit, I placed my hand at the front part of the armrest. Now the front part of the armrest belonged to me, the rest his. It was good that I could establish my rights to that extent at least. When I observed the casual manner in which he held his magazine, it was apparent that at any moment it might be blown by the wind and fall at his feet. In such a case, there was a distinct possibility that his right arm might leap upward in an automatic reflex. And generally, such automatic reflexes happen 50 percent more often in a bus than in one’s home. If that happened, it would be an easy matter for me. I would then move my arm swiftly backward. After that, not just this fellow, even MGR, Chief Minister of Tamilnadu and matinee idol, would not be able to move my arm from the armrest until we reached Madurai. I was a retired revenue officer. In a district well-known for its accusatory anonymous letters, I had left the Service without a single black mark against me. There was no reason why the young man should know all this.
Taking advantage of the vibration in the bus when it emerged from a pothole in the road, I moved my elbow backward. My elbow met the back of his hand with some force.
He began to erupt.
“Why the hell are you poking me with your elbow?”
This was the very first sentence he spoke. Oh yes, he was from my hometown, I could tell from his accent. After that he glared at me without blinking once. Such fury over a trivial matter!
A couple of passengers turned around. Encouraged by this, the young man raised his voice and began to shout.
“I’ve been watching him all the time. Sirs, the man has been wriggling forward like a worm. We, too, have paid good money and bought our seats. For goodness sake, if he doesn’t want anyone else to travel with him, shouldn’t he take a taxi and go on his own?”
Several people in the bus stood up to take a look. It was the right opportunity for facing him down. In order to conduct my business in a different way, and establish my dignity, I rose up from my seat slowly, grasped hold of the seat in front of me and began to speak in a hesitant and quiet manner.
“Sirs, listen carefully. My arm just grazed his forearm fleetingly. Just for that, he looks me in the eye and calls me a worm, without shame.”
After a brief pause, I raised my voice and said, “Listen to his language! ‘Worm,’ he says, ‘worm.’”
As I made my complaint, I made a wriggling movement like a worm with my forefinger.
A decent-looking man sitting in the seat in front, clearly upset, waved his hand at the young man and said, “Do you have any brains? He must be as old as your father. How can you call him a worm, your tongue will rot!”
Now most of the passengers in the bus stood up. The driver looked round and dropped speed. The conductor made his way toward us. While I was preparing myself for his questions, a gentleman who seemed to have the esteem of everyone there got up from the last seat at the back and moved forward, holding on to the seats on either side, one side then the other. He waved to the conductor to sit down, and cleared his throat, preparing to conduct his own investigation.
He was a bit short, this man, with a broad body and a slight paunch. He might have been about forty, but he was totally bald already. A half-sleeve shirt. His face looked vaguely familiar, but I could not remember where I might have seen him.
He looked round about him once. Then, assuming the manner of one who was about to conduct a full trial, he addressed me.
“What’s the matter?”
Then he addressed everyone else.
“First of all, we must understand what the problem is, mustn’t we? What’s the use of you two just shouting at each other?”
Might he have been one of those men who had been successful at the municipal elections in some ward of our town? Or at the very least he might have stood and lost. He looked as if he had been created with the right eyes, nose, ears, lips, limbs and brain, everything in correct order—all that was required to sit on the Municipal Council.
I prefaced my plea with praise for him for having come forward in order to question us, by saying, “That indeed is the sign of maturity.”
Next, I pointed to two different spots on the armrest, and said, “Sir, listen carefully. I had my arm here, his was there. When the bus lurched forward, my arm touched his for just a moment. Was this such a great crime? He looked at me in the eye and called me a worm, shamelessly. Tell us what is fair.” I spoke that last sentence somewhat loudly.
The short judge said to the young man, “Thambi, remove your arm. Give Sir a seat and a half, and you just huddle into half a seat. You must realize Sir held a high office in the government. How can he manage with one seat like the rest of us?”
His performance and the rise and fall of his voice were perfect. Everyone there looked at me and laughed.
The man who was two seats in front said, “Sir, you are retired now and get a pension—why can’t you restrain yourself?”
“I was always restrained, even when I was in working for the government. You shut up,” I yelled at him. As usual, I said “Shut up” in English.
The short judge said, taking my chin in his hand and turning my face toward him, “Sir, look at me. Were you really so restrained? Do you remember me?”
I was silent.
The Short One looked around at everyone there and shouted loudly, “God himself could not have endured the agonies this man made me go through—so much running around and breaking my legs, just to transfer the title deeds of a tiny piece of land!”
Now I realized that my situation was becoming hopeless.
“It could all have been done and dusted in a minute, if you had only shoved some of ‘the needful’ in his direction,” the young man remarked, laughing loudly.
I was furious. While I was working, I was among those who received the fewest number of ‘gifts’ in that entire district. There was no end to the swindling that every other fellow got up to. I only received the few gifts that some people pressed upon me, only because I completed their business so well, and without defrauding the government (an extremely important matter). Even then, I only used the money to buy excellent books and never wasted it on cigarettes, or drink, or on gambling.
Just as I was preparing to denounce the youth severely, something totally unexpected happened. The man in the seat just behind the driver came running toward me in a tremendous haste. I was getting ready to fend off his attack when he fell across my lap and grabbed the youth by his hair. Giving the man’s head a good shake, he asked him, “So he would have finished his business, wouldn’t he, if only ‘the needful’ had been shoved in his direction?”
Before I could look at the Great Force that had suddenly appeared to rescue me, he dragged the young man by his hair, and shouted, “First you put down the rest of the money you owe me for your cycle hire, you cur! You can criticize the other man after that.”
A number of people now jumped into the fray and pulled the Great Force and the young man in different directions. The bus stopped. It took more than half an hour for the chaos to subside, the cursing and swearing to die down, and the bus to start again.
I pretended that I had fallen into a deep sleep. It seemed to me that under the circumstances this was the best course of action. Leaving aside all the unforeseen turmoil, a great weariness of spirit overcame me as I realized that society did not have the image of me that I believed it had. Sleep scribbled itself over me.
When I opened my eyes, the bus was crossing Mempaalam. We had arrived in Madurai. I surveyed the bus through the narrow slits of my half-closed eyes. Everyone was preparing to get off. I turned to my left. The young man was slumped over, fast asleep, his two hands held tightly together between his thighs. He looked as if he had fallen at the feet of some divine force, pleading for forgiveness. His face had lost its freshness, his hair was unkempt.
I looked at the armrest. It was a vacant territory, a tiny piece of land made of wood. Patches of dirt were embedded in it, here and there. When it was brand new, it must have had a padded cover. In the course of time, it seems, this had worn down and grown bare.
The bus stopped. One by one, the passengers left. The young man was still asleep. It didn’t strike a single wretch to wake him up. What an irresponsible world this is!
I tapped his back gently, saying, “Thambi, wake up. We’ve arrived in Madurai.”
© Sundara Ramaswamy. By arrangement with the author’s estate. Translation 2015 by Lakshmi Holmström. All rights reserved.