A gust of wind blew from nowhere, making schoolgirls hold on to their skirts and young ladies to their hair. Dark clouds rolled about in the sky, and the air suddenly felt colder and somewhat sinister. It was twilight, the sun had set but darkness had not yet set in, there was an eerie glow in the air. “This is the scene where the vampires would sit up in their coffins and walk up the dungeon steps,” Pi Parteii thought to herself. Why had she seen that movie with Charlie last night? It was so unlike her, staying up until eleven watching a movie, that too on a Sunday night. She looked around the bus stop, everyone looked so grim and serious, and they all seemed to be running. Running from something, vampires perhaps? “Stop it, Parte,” she told herself, “There’s no such things as vampires.”
The bus came, and it was jam-packed. If it was any other day she would have waited for the next one, but today she was in a hurry. Cecilia and Zotea were coming to dinner, and she was worried about the cooking. She had put the boys in charge, but something was bound to go wrong, it always did. She had hoped to go home early today but it turned out to be the busiest day she’d had in a long time. She climbed inside the bus. It was even worse inside than it looked from the outside. It was so crowded she had to stand near the door. The air smelled of cigarette smoke and sweat. The two women sitting next to her were talking loudly. The young man standing beside her had earphones plugged into his ears, he must have turned the volume to the fullest; she could hear the music coming out through the earphones.
“And then he called me and asked me to go back, but I said if you want me back come and fetch me, and you know he wouldn’t dare set foot inside my parents' house, so I guess I'm not going back,” the woman sitting beside the window said.
“That’s the spirit. You are much better off without him. And you look... happier,” her friend said.
“You know what, now I'm officially a nuthlawi, a divorcee,” the first woman said, and they broke into giggles.
There was a loud bang of thunder, the wind grew fiercer, and it was rapidly getting dark. Pi Parteii reached inside her bag, felt around it, and found she didn’t have her umbrella with her. Wonderful. Now she would have to call one of her sons to meet her at the bus stop with an umbrella. Well, it hadn’t started raining yet; if this bus went a little faster she could make it before the rain came.
“Why does it always rain every time I am away from home?” an old woman said, “I hope that daughter-in-law of mine remembers to take in the washing.”
The conductor, a short plump man with paan stained teeth, squeezed himself between the passengers. Pi Parteii took out a ten-rupee note and gave it to him, “Kulikawn,” she said.
The conductor stopped, and looked at her. “Nu Parte, is it you?”
“Why, it is Sangtea. How are you?” she said.
“I'm fine. It’s been a long time, isn’t it? How are the children? They must be all grown up now.”
“Yes, they are all bigger than me now. Cecilia got married, you know.”
“Cecilia married? The last time I saw her she was about eight years old and I had to hide my tools from her.”
“So, Sangte, why are you a bus conductor? You were a very good carpenter.”
“Oh this, I am just helping out a cousin, his conductor went home and he couldn’t find anyone else.”
Pi Parteii gave him the money again. “You know where I'm going.”
Sangtea refused to take the money. "It’s all right, you are in my bus now.”
“Take it, I don’t want to feel guilty.”
“It’s okay, really,” Sangtea said.
“You know, Sangte, we are still using all the furniture you made for us.”
“You should come visit us some time.”
“Yes, I will do that,” he said, and made his way to the back of the bus.
It was raining heavily now, and people hastily closed the windows. Pi Parteii found a seat, sank down, rummaged inside her bag and took out her cell phone. It was switched off. Now that was strange, she didn’t remember switching it off. Oh, it must have been all the squeezing and crushing. She switched it on, and dialled Charlie. It rang and rang, but Charlie didn’t pick his phone. She dialled again, and listened to it ring. One, two, three… eleven, twelve rings. Still he didn’t pick it up.
She disconnected, and dialled their landline number. All she got was short beeps. Trust the phone to stop working every time it rains. She could call Christopher, but he was using his Delhi number and had asked her not to call him. “Roaming charges,” he had said. Her husband had refused to get himself a cell phone (“I can’t work these new gadgets”)
She dialed Charlie again, still no answer. She disconnected, and dialled Christopher. He answered on the first ring.
“Chris, why is Charlie not answering his phone?”
“He’s over at Zotea’s house.”
“Why is he over at Zotea’s house? I put you two in charge of the cooking. Have you done anything yet?”
“They are not coming for dinner. Pi Hlimi suddenly got worse, and everyone is gathering there,” Chris said.
“When was this? And why didn’t you call me?” Pi Parteii said.
“About twenty minutes ago. We called you a hundred times; your phone was switched off. Why did you keep it switched off anyway? “
“That’s not important. Listen, bring an umbrella and meet me at the bus stop, go now.”
“Where’s your father?”
“He too is at Zotea’s house.”
“Okay, now go.”
She hung up.
It was completely dark outside now, the driver had switched on the lights, and she felt like she was travelling in a night bus. The bus was almost empty, and it seemed like the rain and the wind were getting louder by the minute. Pi Parteii suddenly felt sad, sad for her poor daughter, for her son-in-law, for Pi Hlimi and the grandchildren she would never see.
“Nu Parte, it’s your stop,” the conductor said.
“Oh yes. So long then, Sangte, come see us whenever you want.”
“Will do. Goodnight then.”
She got down and looked around, but couldn’t find Christopher anywhere. She remained at the bus stop, dimly aware that she was getting wet, but she didn’t want to step inside any of the nearby shops, didn’t feel like talking to anyone right now.
“Let me have my moment of sadness, let me be alone for just a few seconds, because in a few minutes I will again have to be the comforter.”
All around her, the rain kept falling in sheets.
Aduhi Chawngthu is presently working in the Mizoram Civil Services. In her free time, she is a voracious reader and enjoys writing and taking pictures. She wrote this short story in August 2009 as part of an entertaining serial, chronicling contemporary urbanized Mizo society. Unfortunately the serial was never quite completed. We hope she finds time amid her hectic career to properly finish it someday soon!