Berth – pt. 4

Later in the night, the potholed road took its toll on the bus with a flat tire. He gingerly stepped out of his berth, careful not to wake the woman. Which didn’t work as fumbling in the dark for shoes has never proven to be an easy task, ever. She looked at him with sleepy eyes and asked something in her language. He gestured her to stay put, managed to convey to her everything was ok, and went out to stretch his legs. Their semi-forced cohabitation of the berth for a few hours seemed to have given rise to years of simulated nocturnal comfort and safety in her.

When he re-entered, he found the woman asleep, comfortably and fully stretched on his berth, his backpack and book neatly stowed to the side. True, he had enjoyed her very present presence, but he was determined not to switch places with her. He gently prodded her in the leg, and she woke up startled. Grinning sheepishly, she moved back to her seat and fussily gathered the shawl around her.

When he awoke next morning at the noisy terminus, he found the woman pressed against him as before. Nothing had really changed between him and her, the two strangers. Separated by a thin shawl and cold metal, separated further still by who they were, they had been together for a night, tentatively seeking, and finding from each other something that was either teleologically superior or inferior to the simple act of two physical bodies voluntarily inhabiting a confined space together for an extended period of time; superiority/inferiority being purely subjective.


As she left the bus in a hurry, she forgot her shawl. he called out to her and handed it through the window. She smiled her brilliant, toothy smile. He smiled back. He didn’t know her name or anything about her; he didn’t want to.


Part 3 | Part 2 | Part 1

Berth – pt. 3

There exists an awkward time of the evening in places of communal transit and accommodation (cheap hostels, for example. Also – dorms, trains without private coupes, red-eye flights, weddings of spouse’s friends) when people with inadequate acquaintance between each other make tentative gestures and use phrases that indicate an overwhelming need to retire – e.g.: a yawn slightly louder than necessary, a cursory rifling through a bag at their feet for some mystery-item that never materializes, opening the window and peeking through the rushing air into complete darkness.

As this time approached on the bus, the men seated on his berth had vanished, reaching their destinations at one of the innumerable small towns the bus stopped at. The woman still firmly held her foothold, her two sturdy legs reaching and resting from the other side of a metal pole, almost touching his own feet. Almost.

When it was time to sleep, the woman brought out a threadbare, leaf-patterned, pink shawl, and draped it on her feet. She made sure the edges were tucked under, and that no part of the shawl touched his. She sank down some more on her seat, and closed her eyes. She still didn’t take too much of his space, he reasoned with himself as he drifted off.

Death is the great leveller, but Sleep is one too, in its own literal sense. In a couple more hours, she sagged further down in her seat until they were almost side by side up to their waists; him stretched out as much as he could on the berth, her angled inward and abruptly cut off at the waist by the cold, hard metal. Space had finally run out, and his own legs were resting against hers, through the thin shawl that she had carefully positioned. No harm, no foul.

Close to midnight, the bus stopped at another nameless, sizeless town. He was awakened by the commotion and he saw an old man enter and walk towards them looking for vacant seats at the back of the bus. The old man saw them, torsos in separate seats, but their legs entwined, as if the warning signals of propriety their brains had sent hadn’t traveled all the way down their bodies. The old man didn’t understand the tableaux, but neither did he.


next… The Morning After | Part 2 | Part 1

Berth – pt. 2

The bus started, and on the way out of the frontier town, it took on the additional services of being a local shuttle – it picked up people at small towns along the way and dropped them off at other seemingly smaller towns. The local townsfolk who entered and departed the bus were decidedly unabashed about finding a place to sit on the crowded bus. Thirty minutes into the journey, he found himself sharing his 5-foot berth with two men who had found enough space to sit next to where he had stretched his legs. He resigned himself to telling these men to get off his berth after 10 pm, even though he knew their only options were either the uncomfortable middle seats between the last berths or the dusty floor.

Among those who entered the bus and found the middle seats suitable enough were two women – the kind of woman who lent this parched western land much needed color – women brightly arrayed in red, pink and purple sarees, with white plastic bracelets that came up to their shoulders, and a veil demurely held over their faces with their teeth. He had spent enough time there to recognize the archetypical Westland Woman if he ever met one anywhere else – their almost full-moon-shaped faces, their large and direct eyes and their ever-present smile that never broke into a titter or a giggle. Seated next to him on the straight-backed middle seat was the younger of the two women, squeezed on the other side by her companion of considerable heft, seemingly destined for an uncomfortable night of travel.

8PM : time for dinner. Consuming any food on the tail-end of a bus is even harder than riding at the aforementioned coach-coccyx. Morsels of food brought up to the mouth computed their own trajectories to get there; a slight miscalculation would end with a smear of almost-always-yellow gravy dribbling down your chin.

She brought out her tidily wrapped dinner, but had no place to rest it. She turned toward him and tentatively placed the plastic dish on his berth, to see how he would react. With two men already on his berth, he didn’t think another minor encroachment of his domain mattered. He let her eat without complaint.

After eating her food, seemingly emboldened by his passivity and the general desire to stretch out after a good meal, the woman decided to rest her legs on his berth. Now the lower portion of what used to be his berth had a grand total of two pairs of legs and two human behinds perched comfortably. Come 10PM, and they were history, he declared to himself…


next… Strangers in the Night | Part 1

Berth – pt. 1

He embraced the fine yellow dust that now permeated his clothes, his skin, his breath. He had traveled through the dusty landscape of a part of his country that was as foreign to him any other land thousand miles away. He had soaked in the strangeness of the people and the places, but he couldn’t always evade the memories of loss and loneliness during these idle hours of solitary travel.

He was at the far reaches of his country – frontier-lands where people were seemingly honest, hence suspect. Suspect, and curious. The natives didn’t understand why someone who looked so clearly like them could only speak stutteringly in their language, and the itinerant backpackers didn’t understand why a native was trying to make conversation without selling them something. He had begun to enjoy his unique position in the ecosystem of Terra Tourismus. Even when the ecosystem was inverted, as in the one he inhabited elsewhere, where the backpackers were the natives and vice-versa, his position remained the same.

Now the trip was coming to an end. He was content – the nighttime desert (with only a faint whiff of camel dung) and the majesty of the old palaces (best paired with a complimentary bouquet of horse manure) had filled his mind with wonder and peace. One more bus ride through the night, and his journey would end. He would leave this place, perhaps not to visit it in his lifetime again.

He had booked a berth on a ‘sleeper’ bus. The sleeper bus was a recent attempt by the natives to bring the experience of lying horizontal and being jolted all night in a cramped 5-by-2 faux-leather plank while traveling on railway tracks, to the potholed asphalt roads of the land. As he boarded the bus and checked his ticket, his heart sank. His berth was at the very end of the bus. While trains restricted human-brownian motion to two or three directions, the tail-end of a bus meant being granted five degrees of freedom to be thrown around. He settled down and made himself comfortable as much as he could.

The bus was filled with backpackers. Two berths ahead, a German couple on honeymoon had found the sweet spot – the middle of the vehicle, where neither rear-vehicular whiplash nor blinding headlights through the front could disturb their sleep. Across the aisle, a duo of Spanish females had taken up residence. He watched with amusement as a fat, middle-aged tour guide tried in vain to get their email addresses. “Tu es mentirosa”, the girls told the man, and the man offered as proof his whiskey-unstained integrity from the night before.


next… Mixed Company