At the Trichy central bus stand we boarded No.128 towards Thuvakudi. Wife and I were on our way to the Regional Engineering College, where we had studied together in the 1990s. In a foolhardy attempt to revive the collegiate spirit and relive those days, we decided to do without the comforts of a rental car and chose to travel by public transport. The bus was already full when we boarded – all seats were taken – and soon we were rubbing shoulders (and not only shoulders) with fellow passengers, mostly working class men and women. I sensed some of them staring at me, standing incongruously amidst them in my jeans and kurta, a camera slung over my shoulder.
The bus conductor, a well-built young man in khaki uniform, was busy urging people further into the bus, creating space for more people to climb on board. He didn’t seem to mind that this would make his job more difficult, and in spite of no obvious monetary incentive to it he kept trying to accommodate more people. “Get inside! Get inside!” he would shout in Tamil, “Hey! Can’t you see that space? Move inside man! Yes you! Get inside, everybody, move inside!” After a few moments of this shuffling and jostling, Wife and I found ourselves separated by a few meters, she with the women in front, me with the men at the rear. (This is one way how twins get separated at the beginning of Hindi movies from the 1980s, before the climax brings them back together many years later.)
The bus began its journey, and the conductor, standing near the front exit, collected money and issued tickets. Passengers sitting or standing further away passed money through a chain of hands, and the same chain passed back the ticket and change. The conductor was like a magician with money: folded bank notes appeared and disappeared in between his left-hand fingers, and his right hand conjured up coins in a flash, sometimes from his bag and sometimes, it seemed, from nowhere.
From my position I could barely see anything outside: around me were oily heads and hairy hands. (A crowded elevator, in contrast, is five-star luxury.) Standing next to me was a short young man, not more than twenty-five years old, struggling under the pressure of taller men around him. At one point he looked up at me and said, in a feeble voice, “Bheed bahut hai.” It’s too crowded. Yes, I replied, and added that his Hindi was good – was he from the North? It was the beginning of a conversation.
Kunaal was a migrant worker from Madhya Pradesh. Nine years ago he left his parents and migrated to Tamil Nadu with his uncle. He worked in a marble quarry, earned four hundred and fifty rupees a day for nine hours of labour. The job, which involved carrying heavy loads all day, was not easy, but he was used to it. His uncle was now a thekedar and had earned enough to buy a car.
“Who is that woman with you?” Kunaal asked suddenly.
“She is my wife,” I replied.
“Oh! So you are married already?”
“Already? How old do you think I am?”
At this he grew confused. Though his Hindi was fluent, his manner was diffident and every so often he would hesitate, unsure how to proceed. He stared at me for a few seconds, and then said: “Maybe thirty?”
I smiled: “You are off the mark by a long way. Anyway, tell me what you do for entertainment – do you watch Tamil movies?”
He had referred earlier to his acquired knowledge of Tamil, and now he spoke about his favourite actors: Rajnikanth and Surya. He loved Rahman’s music, but felt it had turned repetitive over the years.
“I sometimes go to the movies with Tamil girls,” he said. “They are nice, but they are also strange. I like talking to them, and as long as I am talking they are fine, but the moment I try something more, they say ‘Get married to me first’. It’s so difficult with them, what to do.” He shrugged in a matter-of-fact way.
Later, thinking of this moment would lead me to tears of laughter, but at that moment I only saw the detached frustration in Kunaal’s honest face, and his abrupt question about my marriage began to make sense. Later still, after the laughter had subsided and the incident acquired a poignant character, I was reminded of Manu Joseph’s novel Serious Men, which contains a reference to this plight (if one may call it that) of young men in India. Recalling the younger days of the protagonist Ayyan Mani, a dalit, the narrator says:
He would woo typists, secretaries and shop attendants, and mesmerize them with his general knowledge, the future rebellions he planned against the rich, and his jokes about the Brahmins. They would let him squeeze their breasts on the Worli Seaface. Then, misled by decency, they would ask for marriage. And weep through the pause. Traditionally on the Worli Seaface, infatuation fondled and love cried. He was terrified of that love.
When they began to brush his hand away from their impoverished chests and talk about where it was all heading, and whispered to him the simplicity of marriage, he left them in the knowledge that they could cash in their virginity somewhere else.
Kunaal shared Ayyan Mani’s social background and his aspirations on women, but few of his talents to woo them.
He got off the bus at a stop near Thiruverumbur. This may have been difficult without the conductor’s help. “Make way! Make way for those getting down!” the conductor shouted, his voice booming over the engine’s roar. Kunaal squeezed through the tiny available spaces and disappeared from view.