On a rather cold summer night, I was at Shimla’s bus stand to receive a distant uncle. He was supposed to have arrived an hour earlier, but his bus had had a flat, which meant I had an hour to kill.
I had been mindlessly looking at people, trying to see if any of them walked in sync to the music in my ears. Even at the late hour, the place was swarming with people, and the bustle was slicing through the music in my headphones.
The bus station, which at the time was the primary one for the city, was far too small and cramped, and how it used to service a state-capital was beyond me. The parking bay was always full of buses – some parked, some waiting to depart, and some just standing in the middle, with their engines idling. To this chaos contributed the passengers, some of whom would alight or board without even waiting for the bus to halt. Add to that vendors trying to sell tea or stale snacks, and the result was total pandemonium. Through this maze, the drivers would steer their buses around, relying on luck to deliver their passengers out of this mess.
If you somehow managed to avoid being run over or trampled and made it to the platform, your struggles would still continue. The queues at the ticket counter were never orderly, and getting a ticket was a nightmare. The few benches meant for waiting were always occupied, sometimes by sojourners, sometimes by their luggage. The pillars supporting the roof were riddled with fading posters, which were painted red by tobacco spittle, and they looked like works of contemporary art from certain angles. The smell of sweat, tears, and poorly maintained toilet wafted through it all.
Watching and smelling all this was making me a tad bit angry at my uncle. After his bus got the flat, he was offered a seat in a non-AC bus, which he had refused. He was barely an hour away, and I couldn’t understand why he would not just suck it up. Even mild annoyances seemed intolerable to the members of my family, and at times to me.
I decided to get a bottle of Coke. I fought my way through the crowd, tripping many times over bags scattered carelessly on the floor. Some of the owners of those bags saw me and the other passengers being impeded by their possessions, but they chose to ignore the suffering of their fellow travellers.
On hearing my demand, the shopkeeper looked up at me, and went back to the piece of paper he was scribbling on intently. I asked for a Coke again, and he turned around, opened the refrigerator, and after rummaging through it for a while, placed a plastic bottle on the counter.
I was busy looking through my wallet to find change to pay, when I noticed a middle aged man standing next to me. In a soft voice, he asked for a bottle of water. The shopkeeper sighed, audibly, and without looking away from his paper placed a bottle of water on the counter.
“How much is it?” the man asked.
“25 rupees,” the burly shopkeeper replied.
“That’s too expensive,” the man responded.
The shopkeeper shrugged and said, “That’s the price. Take it or leave it.”
The man stared at the bottle. He turned it around and examined it from every possible angle. He bounced it around in his hands, as if he were weighing it. Then he said, perhaps meaning to keep it to himself, “It’s too much. I could just drink some from the public taps.”
“You could drink some from that gutter for all I care,” the shopkeeper replied.
The man said nothing in reply.
I paid for my beverage, but I couldn’t leave. I kept watching the man starting at the water bottle. To me that price was nothing, but to this man, it seemed buying it was the decision of a lifetime. He was wearing traditional Himachali sleeveless woolen jacket, a pahari topi, and trousers – a generic look for villagers in the state. His shoes were worn out, and the bag that hung from his shoulders had some tears, which revealed its contents.
After a few moments, the man kept the bottle back on the counter and walked away. I felt like I should pay for it and give it to him, but I did not. I watched him disappear into the crowd.
As I stood sipping my cold drink, I had a hard time swallowing every gulp. Maybe I felt guilty – as if the poverty of that man was my fault. Or perhaps my inaction in helping him out was eating me up.
Those with lesser means and beggars are a common sight in India, and I, like everyone, had become accustomed to it. We have been desensitised to misery, for it is so wide spread. It seems almost innate in existence – as if the natural order requires some people to live a life of plenty and exuberance, while others starve for mere morsels. We console ourselves, sometimes by petty charity, sometimes by insinuating that the condition that the poor are in are the result of their own actions. We do this because at some level we realise that for others to have their fair share, we would need to give up that we have accumulated over years and, sometimes, generations – and that, to us, seems unacceptable.
By and by my uncle arrived. The green well-maintained Volvo, the pride of Himachal’s road transportation, slithered through the crowd of touts, who were there to solicit customers to hotels. I helped a local coolie unload my uncle’s bags from the bus’ trunk. The AC was running on full blast, and I shivered as the door opened.
“It was awful,” my uncle said, as he stepped down from the bus. “We had to sit in the bus for a long time while they changed the tires. Thank God they kept the AC running. I would have died otherwise.”
I nodded and started leading him to my car, but not before turning around to see if that man had come back to examine his water bottle. He was no where to be seen. Maybe he drank from the public taps. Maybe he did drink from the gutter.
“Get me a bottle of cold water,” my uncle said, as we were almost near the exit. “A branded one. None of that local crap they sell at the bus stops.”
Without looking at him I made my way to a nearby shop.