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  • Niteen Hatle

Red Attack

Updated: Jul 14, 2020

Raj saw the red BEST bus (number 229) approach the last bus stop opposite the depot. He pulled out a packet from his shirt pocket, opened it, and thrust the ‘Banarsi 300’ into his mouth. He chewed hard on the ‘paan’ with his darkened teeth, while keeping an eye on the bus. As the bus started the U-turn into the depot, the effects of the tobacco in the ‘paan’ kicked in. His nervous system was hit first. Neurons were stimulated sending signals to the brain, which in turn activated the motor neurons resulting in muscle contraction. Raj was on a high and ready for action.

The moment the bus came within a few meters of the bus stop inside the depot, Raj ran toward it, ignoring the other dozen people in the queue. He reached the entrance first, grabbed the handles on both sides, and jumped into the bus. He ran up the couple of steps, dashed through the aisle, and acquired his favorite window seat. Other passengers trickled in to take their favorite seats. Raj looked back and saw Mr. Phanse at the window seat behind him. He looked ahead with a faint, wry smile and a hint of red saliva beginning to drip from the corner of his mouth.

BEST stands for Bombay Electric Supply and Transport. Most of the red public transport buses BEST plies have about 36 seats for passengers. Six rows of seats (two seats per row) to the right of the aisle and behind the driver are reserved for women. A single seat opposite the driver is reserved for differently abled people. Three rows of two seats each to the left of the aisle are reserved for senior citizens and differently abled. These reserved seats are marked in red letters. Interestingly, the rest of the seats aren’t marked for men. These are free for all.

There are several reasons why people would do anything to get the window seat on the fourth row to the left of the aisle. Raj’s reason was quite unique. At first, it was a conscious effort on his part to get to that seat first. Later, it became a habit. And after two years of traveling via the same bus number and on the same route, it had become instinctive. The act of getting to that seat had left the realm of consciousness and got deeply rooted in his subconscious.

BEST buses never get lined up to the bus stand end-to-end when they stop. They always roll some distance ahead of the stand. The passengers are left behind and have to run toward the bus to get in. Moreover, only elderly passengers are allowed to board the bus from the front entrance. So, it makes sense to get the front-most seat if someone wants to spit out of the window, as in Raj’s case.

The bus left the depot after about five minutes. By that time, Raj’s mouth was full of red saliva. He would look out every time the bus lost speed, hoping it to slow down considerably so that he could spit out through the window. It was barely 15 minutes since he had started to eat the ‘paan’ and he could already feel the effects of the tobacco reducing. It was neither coincidence, nor destiny that the bus turned left and stopped way ahead of the Jairaj Nagar bus stop. On cue, Raj spit some of his red saliva out the window. A spatter flew back and landed on Mr. Phanse’s left cheek. Raj turned ahead innocently as the bus started again, while Mr. Phanse looked angrily at him, but decided not to say anything.

For the past two and half months, Mr. Phanse had become a pain in the neck for Raj. Only four days after Mr. Phanse had started taking this bus from the depot, he had beaten Raj to his favorite seat for the next two months or so. On the first four days that Mr. Phanse sat behind Raj, he had tolerated spatters on his hand, his shirt, his cheek, and finally on his glasses. Unlike Raj, Mr. Phanse had made conscious efforts on each of those days to beat him to that seat. Instead of an aggressive approach, he decided to take a sensible step to solve this problem. He had begun to enjoy taking this bus to his office, but that joyride had come to an end three days ago. Raj had been able to reclaim that which he thought was rightfully his.

The bus got the next four green signals and sped toward Raj’s second spot in about nine minutes. The traffic signal at the crossroad before the Mahavir Nagar bus stand was where he would usually spit out all his ‘paan’. Ninety-nine times out of hundred would his bus get a red signal and stop. Raj looked up at the signal as he approached it. The signal was green. He was sure it would turn red as the bus reached the zebra crossing.

His mouth was already full of saliva. He tried to get out any remaining bits and pieces of ‘paan’ from the teeth with his tongue. He gargled once so that any pieces of ‘paan’ stuck to his teeth and gums would come away. He moved his head toward the window and looked at the signal as the bus closed in on it. It turned red and the bus stopped. Raj immediately put his head closer to the window opening and emptied his mouth. Right under his window a Bajaj Avenger sped away. Almost all of the red saliva fell on the biker’s back and some on the rear seat. Raj looked at the biker as he sped away and then at the signal. Still red. He got his head away from the window and swore angrily, ‘That’s your punishment for breaking the traffic signal!’

Wait! Not all the red saliva had got out of his mouth. Some of it still remained. And more of it had started to gather. He looked straight up ahead without a hint of worry. Because in another 10 minutes, the bus would be nearing Lalji Pada and right after the Lalji Pada bus stop there was a garbage dumping area on the roadside. Raj had used this area before and that’s what he planned to do next.

The bus did not stop at Lalji Pada as it was fully loaded. It moved on and passed the garbage bins. Raj took the opportunity to spit out all the red saliva toward the bins. This time he didn’t look back at Mr. Phanse.

The bus moved some distance and slowed down because up ahead there was a signal and also a speed breaker before it. Out of nowhere, a man came running toward the bus, jumped up near Raj’s window, and spit a whole load of red saliva inside.

Raj’s face, his arms, and his shirt were smeared with red saliva. A stream of red ran down his cheeks toward his mouth. There was red on his ring and his watch. There was red inside his shirt pocket and collar. The look on his face was of utter disbelief. His face was not, “How could it happen to me?”, but, “How could such a thing ever happen?”

Raj was a branch manager of a famous stock broking company at Malad.

*Only two paragraphs of fiction in this short story.

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