I watched in fascination and repulsion as the tiny drop of sweat traced a faint line across my glasses and balanced on the bottom of my lens. It seemed to take forever to fall off the edge and onto the dry pavement beneath my feet. But it finally did and I removed my glasses to wipe away that little trail of salt and water. My sweat stained, saturated handkerchief refused to dry the lens. All I got for my vigorous efforts was a foggy pair of spectacles, worse now than before. But I didn’t care. I didn’t really care to see the world in all its glory and marvel at its intricate and beautiful details, so I put those blurry glasses on and stuffed the wet cloth back into my pant pocket. The intense afternoon sun drew beads of sweat on my forehead and the back of my neck. My naked forearm glistened and shimmered, as if they were made of silver. Sweat poured down my back, drenching my shirt and the waist of my jeans; creating a widening dark stain on my chest and below my armpits. I watched in mute fascination as the stains grew darker and bolder and threatened to conquer my whole upper body. My tiny handkerchief was powerless against such relentless bodily assault.
My relief finally came with a honk and a rumble. The bus came around the corner and halted in front of me. As the people got off, those sitting at the window seats looked at me with interest. I imagine they must have seen a man drowning in his own sweat and I thought I saw many of them grinning at my discomfort. I sneered back at them, knowing that they too would be in the same boat when they got off. No one could escape from this scorching summer heat. Maybe a small respite now and then, but no absolute evasion from the burning ball in the sky. As I got on the bus, I found to my dismay that there were no window seats left. Those grinning maniacs had occupied all of them, leaving me the overhead railing to hang on to. My blood started to boil. I knew it was irrational on my part to expect anyone to give up their seat for my sake, but the searing heat and humid air had put me in a foul mood.
‘Why don’t you hit one of them in the head and start a fight. Good way to let off a little steam, don’t you think?’ asked Black. I chuckled knowing that it was an interesting option. Maybe if I bullied one of the kids, she would give up her seat.
‘Hey! You wouldn’t do that now would you? It’s crazy and not right. Moreover she is a child! Do you really want to fight with a child for a measly seat?’ shouted White. My grin fell and I gripped the railing harder as the bus passed a speed bump. Normally, I would have listened to White and followed his advice. But now, with the growing crowd pressing around me, the bus jolting at every pothole and every brake, I hated him. I hated that I had stand in the stinking crowd, with someone’s armpit near my face, my sweaty hands slipping on the metal rail and sweat dripping from my ears. I did not care for social niceties any longer. Black prodded me on. ‘Good, Good! That’s it. Build up you rage. How dare that little girl occupy a whole seat by herself? She can easily sit on someone’s lap. Why does she have to have a single seat? That seat could be yours. You could feel that cool breeze on your face and ruffle your shirt. Get rid of her now.’
‘Don’t listen to him. He wants to bring you trouble. It’s a little girl for god’s sake! Do you want to bully a little girl, just for a little breeze? What will people think of you? Have you fallen so much that you have forgotten what is good and what is evil?’ cried White. ‘Is this how you have been brought up? To bully and frighten others into submission?’
‘Well, Well! Looks like White is in full preacher mode,’ observed Black laconically. ‘His sermons are of little use, while you are baking in this tin can! What purpose do his words serve? Will they cool you down? Will they make that stinking old women in front of you disappear? Or how about that college kid behind you? Will White’s cautions abate the stench of his sweat and cologne? Push the girl aside and sit down. To hell with what others think!’
There was a sudden bang and the whole bus tilted to one side. Screams and curses were hurled at the driver. People peered out of their windows, as the bus came to a slow halt. The crowd around me had become restless, and the heat along with the constant buzzing of irritated voices further oppressed me. With a shrill blast from his whistle, the conductor asked us to get out of the bus, so that he and the driver could change the flat tire. We were reluctant to go outside and stand in the sun, but with a lot of grumbling and cajoling from the driver, we trooped out. Now I was out of the pan and into the fire, literally. The heat engulfed us as we stood huddled under the narrow shade of a nearby peepal tree. Handkerchiefs and sari ends were constantly twirled in a meek effort to bring a little breeze. I watched as the driver and conductor rolled the spare tire from the back and worked the jack to lift the bus. They were cursing the Gods for their misfortune and the Government for the bad roads and very soon a small puddle of their sweat had formed beneath their feet. With one final grunt, the tire was fitted and the conductor blew his whistle again.
‘Go! Go! Go!’ shouted Black. ‘Now is the chance! Get that seat.’
I rushed into the bus, pushing people out of the way, leaving wet hand marks on shoulders and arms. I scrambled up the steps and found that glorious empty window seat. I pushed ahead of an elderly gent and plopped myself on the cracked leather. The ecstasy of my victory flooded me. As the bus moved forward, I felt the beginning of a little wind and a smile played on my lips. Soon, my smile became a grin and then a joyous laugh, as the breath of wind grew with the accelerating bus. I felt my shirt grow cold and felt the delicious chills travel down my spine. As I looked around to see if others were enjoying the same feeling, I saw a pair of accusing eyes looking at me. The little girl was standing beside my seat and staring at me, holding on to the seat handle and crushed between two large women.
‘Look! Look at the poor kid. Are you happy with yourself?’ said White in an accusing tone. ‘You have snatched her seat and now you are looking at her with that goofy grin on your face.’
My face fell. I knew White was right. What I had done was wrong. But the billowing wind had an iron grip over me and I refused to get up. ‘That’s right! Don’t get up,’ encouraged Black. ‘Just because that little girl was slow, doesn’t mean that you have to sacrifice this seat for her. You too have paid a ticket. Survival of the fittest I say!’
Despite Black’s reasons, I had an uneasy feeling. The sweat was drying on my forehead and cheeks and the salt had turned my face into a rigid grinning mask and it looked as if I was mocking her. I saw tears well up in her eyes and run down her cheek, mixing with the sweat. Yet she did not utter a word.
I was in a fix. I wanted to help the little girl but I did not want to give up my hard fought seat in doing so. Thankfully my stop arrived and I hurriedly got off the bus. I jumped off the last step and looked back to see the bus driving away. I never knew if the girl had got her seat or not. ‘Why do you care if she got or not?’asked Black. ‘You were able to reach here comfortably enough. Just focus on reaching home before you begin to melt.’
White admonished me. ‘Are you satisfied with yourself? In a few minutes you will be in the confines of your air conditioned abode, whereas who knows where that poor girl will be? For all you know, she could still be standing in that bus, holding onto dear life and falling apart in the heat.’
I stared at the distant bus. I took out my handkerchief to wipe away the last of the salt droplets, clinging to my forehead. ‘She might have gotten her seat back, or she might not have. That is beyond your control. You know that what you had done was wrong, but the fact is that you felt sympathy for her and that is a good enough penance. Now go home and forget this ever happened. You wouldn’t remember this by tomorrow,’ said Gray.
I threw away that wet piece of cloth and looked up at the clear blue cloudless sky. The stains on my shirt started to grow again. I felt the heat wave wash over me. I welcomed the burning skin and trickling stream of sweat, knowing that this was the punishment for my sin.