I travel a lot and most of the time by State Transport buses. When I propose to take a long distance journey, I prefer taking a window seat for two reasons: one is that it keeps me occupied in the panoramic view outside the moving bus and the second is that I have one side of mine free from the awkwardness that I feel when some stranger sits a bit too close to me. I think public transports are the only places where men and women sit close to each other. I don’t find anything out of place in such an arrangement unless someone tries to recline against me on the pretext of scarcity of seating space.
During one of my recent journeys I had a very interesting experience and also found an impeccable solution to the problem that I referred to above. A gentleman, sitting next to me, started to indulge in small talk as soon as the bus started. He seemed to belong to that tribe of Indian men who become very voluble when they find themselves in company of a woman, travelling alone, without a chaperon and the poor thing has no escape from either the bus seat or the unnecessary small talk that these men would, invariably, indulge in.
“You live in Shimla?” A very general question emerged as a gunshot. The tone was excessively inquisitive. “No,” I replied in monosyllable to give him a polite hint that he was not welcome as I was in no mood to indulge in small talk with him. “You had come to Shimla to visit relatives?” followed another question. “No,” I replied calmly. Undeterred he pried like Sherlock Homes, “Some official work?” “No.” Exasperated I said. Not to be discouraged he continued, “Oh! You must have been transferred, and must have come to arrange for settlement.” I felt like shouting but my good manners prevailed and I said as coolly as I could, “I am a retired person.” “Voluntary retirement?” he shot back. “No they retired me compulsorily.” I replied. Now compulsory retirement is always given to an employee as a result of his having proved guilty of some official misconduct or misbehaviour. His interest was aroused to know what it was that made me receive such a punishment.
“Did you embezzle official money?”
“Was it a fictitious T A bill?”
“Some vigilance inquiry?”
Tired of the guess game he looked piteously at me and asked, “What were you accused of?”
“I was accused of having caught a man from his collar.” I said keeping as straight a face as I could.
His hand, involuntarily, touched the collar of his own shirt as if to make sure that I had not caught him from the collar. He had suddenly lost his garrulous self. I don’t know whether I imagined it or it really was true but I felt him slightly pulling himself away from me and I could sense some more space around me. Now his eyes had a strange frightened look, a look of wishing to run away but as he was occupying a middle seat, he could not even move away. I was in a winning position now. He seemed to dread me like a “man-eater of Kumaon” and squeezed himself still further. And I had more space to me than I had paid for and more freedom than I had hoped for as well.
It may be a surprise for my readers but the man maintained a safe distance from me then on. So now I have learnt a mantra for safe travelling. I recite to all sitting next to me, whether they are willing to listen to or not, why I have been compulsorily retired and they maintain a safe distance from me. I have become the dreaded “man-eater of a Hilly town”!