On a bus dashboard in India. Photo by Tammy T. Stone
From the Bus, Eyes Almost Meet
Sometimes, when you’re on a bus here, in India, all you can do is look; it’s almost a desperate act.
It’s often too bumpy to read, and anyway, the Hindi music, that most mesmerizing blend of pop, soul and bhajan (devotional song), is aggressively persistent frankly captivating. This music is one of the reasons we’re not travelling with any portable form of music.
We took three bus rides today. What would have been unbearably hot and dusty most days during these languid days of summer was passable comfortable; the day is a bit overcast, and almost cool in the earlier hours of the morning.
The buses, however, without exception, are packed. We were lucky to get seats for the first and last journeys of the day, because by sheer chance we arrived at the bus stands just as the buses were pulling in, long before eventual departure. These moments on the bus are quiet compared to the chaos swirling outside of it, almost peaceful. You can watch the driver read the paper, smoke or stare off into space, or leave the bus for one reason or another.
You can talk quietly as you listen to the ticket guy flit here and there around the bus shouting out the destination to attract customers, or hear people noisily embarking and settling in; there’s a general sense of anticipation for the ride to come in the form of laughter, chit chat and packages of food wrapped on laps or resting on the ground.
Once the bus leaves, that sense of peace dissipates, and suddenly you’re smack in the middle of an Experience; there’s no hope for perspective of any kind. So, you just look, from a small, awkward seat, or lodged between people … wherever you can find something for your eyes to rest on.
I sat at the window for the first ride, so I stared outside as we passed endless shops, chai places, mechanics, men sitting around, old men sitting on tree barks, kids walking to school or to the bus (often the one we’re on) in groups, cows grazing in garbage piles.
You watch, and India seems to greet you in a joint understanding that you have entered a wormhole in which old or familiar rules no longer apply. I find myself both in the space and watching it, not sure quite what the vantage point is.
Then, suddenly, I saw something. Someone actually, and I was jarred out of my semi-trance. A man stood at a human-forged intersection of sorts, not young or old, sickly or fat from wealth. He had no animals, or tools, or friends. Somehow, the space around him felt crystal and so powerful that everything around him just slowed down, almost fading away.
He wore a simple, modest dhoti (a skirt made from cloth the men wear here in Tamil Nadu). What arrested me were his thick dreadlocks and his shell-shocked eyes, which were somehow enormous despite his distance from the bus. Dreadlocks are not out of place among the sadhus (orange-clad spiritual seekers) of Rishikesh, but they’re downright strange in the middle of a small town of industry deep in the south of India.
This man looked frenetic and wild, his energy spilling all over his immediate surroundings, but there were people all around him, and they hardly seemed to notice him. I briefly wondered if I was making him up, because he was what I needed to see, or what I was already harboring inside.
His eyes seemed to say, “I am in India, as are you, but I’m not India. Think twice about what you see, what impressions you form. Everyone around me belongs here, but you found me. I am stood still. Where should I go? I might belong to another place entirely, and maybe I’m on my way there.
And you? Where do you belong?”