Driven Off The Path

His hands smelled of engine oil, a smell he was too familiar with to even notice under normal circumstances. But today he could understand why people drew back a little every time he walked past them. He had become too familiar to notice that reaction too. As he gunned the engine to life and pressed his hands together in a small, silent prayer as was his routine every time he started the bus, his only thought was to reach home and wash the smell off him. It was late, later than he had ever driven the bus. The reason he had taken the job of driving a school bus was because of the hours. He was nearing fifty and he no longer wanted to live the life of a passenger bus driver.

It was a life he had lived for over twenty years, never caring for the smell that came from his hands or clothes, never caring for the time he was reaching home at. For twenty years, he had driven the 32-kilometer stretch between this place and Sirohan, and seen both the places grow from sleepy hamlets into bustling towns, with wider roads, bigger bus stops, more passengers, and the thing that drove him out eventually, a sense of impatience that his passengers and the traffic around him seemed to carry with them. Though he could not remember it now, his friends and wife would often tell him that he himself carried no less of it in his younger days. It was what kept him going, six times a day, over and over that 32-kilometer stretch, through sun and rain, when the work of widening the roads meant driving over the mud packed on the side, rising and dropping like a ship in a turbulent ocean, half burying the tyres when it rained and turned the road into a stretch of mush. He could drive the roads with his eyes closed, he would say. He never looked at the gears or the dials or the meters, simply driving with a sense he had picked and honed over the years. And then, the same stretch, started to wear him out.

For twenty years, he would leave home at 6 in the morning, do the first trip to Sirohan and back, and then then would come home for his bath and his first meal, and then leave again. This time he would do two trips and again come home for lunch and a bit of rest. Finally, he would go back to the bus stop, sit on his driving seat, and drive the distance thrice. Between rides, on stops, at the railway crossing where the barrier would stall his last trip, he would find time to rest and enjoy his forced breaks. Perched on his hard backed false leather seat, his helper and conductor would bring him his tea, his biscuits, his smoke, and even his last meal of the day which was always a glass of rum with a piece of chicken and anything else that the man at the dhabha where he parked his bus for the night could rustle up. This was when the man who owned the bus and had the contract to run the route would drive over in his car, settle accounts, pay him his due, and if the business was good, a little over it, and leave. The driver would then walk back to where his lived, a ten minutes’ walk that he would take again at six in the morning. Impatient to get back on the road. Though a young wife awaited him, even when it had been five days of continuous driving. Saturday would be lean days, when only four trips were needed. And on Sunday he was given an off from his work. He didn’t ask for one, he didn’t want one. But people who took the bus every other day needed one, so he had to take one too.

Then one day he woke up on a Saturday and felt a little relieved that he only had four trips that day. The next day he was glad it was a Sunday and he could stay home. Now, a few years later, he didn’t remember on which Saturday, or on which Sunday, he first felt like it. But he did remember starting to look forward to those days. He remembered feeling miserable on a Sunday when the owner had accepted a booking for a wedding and though he was promised extra money and a bottle of rum, he had kept looking for excuses. Eventually, he did go, but he had been silently cursing the wedding party all the way and back, and when he had dropped them at the guest house, he had deliberately ripped some of the seats and blamed it on the guests, so the owner never put up his bus for such uses on his off days.

He no longer remembered the day when he realised that it wasn’t Sundays that he hated driving on. But that he hated driving on every other day. Then one day, maybe on a drive he realised that he didn’t hate driving, he hated the hours. He clearly remembered that day.

It was on the journey back from Sirohan, when a light rain had flown in from elsewhere, so that the clouds hung at some distance, the sun dodged the edges of the same clouds and fell over the road and the bus, as the raindrops splattered in surprise over the warm windscreen. He had let the wipers lie idle, knowing enough of the road to trust the view between the trickle of water on glass in front of him. He felt good that day. Maybe because it was only the second trip, or because the next day was a Sunday. Or because of the rain and sun that rarely made an appearance together. It was a warm day of an early spring, he could hear the chirp of the delighted birds, and his own bus was packed with people going to the annual local fair in his hometown. He looked at the rear-view mirror over his steering wheel and caught a man with his little daughter. The father was struggling to get his daughter to sit on his wife’s lap, while he himself stood, holding a bag with one hand and the bar over him with the other. But try as he might, the little girl hung from his hands, sometimes from his shoulders, or just pulled at the muffler around his neck as the mother of the girl tried to keep her seated. He smiled, and thought of his own daughter. This girl was probably six, or five. You could never tell. And his own daughter was now fourteen. He tried to think of her when she was this age, and suddenly, the day changed. Not just for him. The clouds that had been generous enough to lend their rain to a sun-lit spot rushed in like a spoilt child and blocked the sun. The rain hardened, and soaked the warmth of the early spring with a reminder that the winter had still not left. The father pulled the muffler closer around him, the mother opened her shawl and let the girl crawl in, where she stayed for the rest of the journey. The day had just gone back on the promise of making the annual fair one that would make the journey worth getting up early and saving for.

For the driver, it wasn’t the day lost under a cloud that darkened his day. It was the sight of a little girl rushing into her father’s arms, and the thought that this memory would stay with him for life, but it would never be of his own daughter.

After completing the journey, and after braving the stares from a sullen crowd that had to now escape the very fair they had come for, he sat on the driver’s seat of the bus and drove back for the last time. For a month or two, he stayed home, seeing his daughter leave for college and his son for school. He tried to reach out to them and talk to them, the way he had seen some of the passengers talk as he watched them through the rear-view mirror. But the moment was gone. There was a hesitation, a slight irritation, at being around in the hours that he never was. The hesitation and the irritation were his and also of those at home. That, and the ever-growing worry of living on savings got him to accept the offer to drive the children of the newly opened school. With the town around him changing, bigger schools that were built outside the boundaries of the town had been coming up. And for the first time, children started taking buses to school instead of walking there.

On the very first day of dropping the children back at their homes, his bus broke down. For the next two hours he, along with a mechanic that the bus contractor had sent for, struggled with the engine and the wires and battery and finally got it back to life. After many months, he was on the road again, driving a bus. He felt good about his hours now. He had the time to see his own children walk in and out of his home now. He had the time to eat with them. He had the time to cook for them, which is something he only now realised he liked doing. There were only a few dishes he could make. And though he made lesser money now, he had a job that came with a retirement age, and a schedule that might keep him alive and in working condition when he reached that age.

Every morning he would now ride his cycle on empty roads to the school. It took him a little over half an hour, and he loved the time he spent of the saddle, never having had the luxury to look at his own town in slow speed. At the school he picked the bus, rode out to town and the suburbs, picked the kids, dropped them to school and took the bus for refuelling. By eleven he was free, along with other drivers, to play cards, laze around in the bus parking lot, eat his lunch with the others, and step out for a cup of tea at the local stall. At 2 he took the same route to drop the children, and then returned by 4 to drop the bus at school, Returning by cycle at this hour took him around an hour, and wasn’t as pleasant as the morning ride because of the traffic and the sun. But despite all that he was back home by 5pm, feeling tired but fitter. He would have a cup of tea with his wife, help her cook, talk to his children, watch TV with them, play cards or carrom and sleep early to be ready for his journey the next day. But like him, the other three — his wife and his children — hadn’t changed their routine. They didn’t mind him being around. As long as his presence fitted in with theirs. There was always a slight hesitation if he asked for more. On Saturdays, when the school was off, he stayed home while his wife and children went to the world they had built in his absence. It was partly the reason why he agreed to drive the bus for his old employer on a Saturday, to ferry a family to the deity’s temple beyond Sirohan. The new driver had drunk too much last night to be agreeable to a crowd on a pilgrimage.

He returned late that evening, his passengers having found that the stalls and swings around the deity’s temple offered a lot too. And when the returned, he found his children and his wife living the lives he had tried to become a part of. But now, he felt like an intruder. And though they all did smile at him as he walked in, and had their meals with him, he could see that even without he occupying that chair, they would have done the same.

The next day, he went to the bus-owner’s house and asked for his seat on the bus. The bus owner was too eager to accept, and even increased his salary a little. The new driver had made him lose a lot more by over-speeding, upsetting passengers, and breaking down the bus due to his own negligence.

On his first trip to Sirohan the next day, having left home at 6 as earlier while his children slept, he gunned the engine, and then reaching over and above the steering wheel, he pushed the rear-view mirror away from the line of his sight. He could easily drive over the known roads without additional help from that one thing. And anyway, it had done a lot more harm than good.

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