As the bus came out of the city, crowded with people, buildings of various proportions in equally various conditions, the road lined with small shops and street vendors standing behind their carts, dirty and stinking side drains at places overflowing, some men shamelessly urinating on the compound walls surrounding vacant plots filled with rubbish and garbage, torn old cinema posters fluttering wildly as the vehicles pass by them, I caught a breath of fresh air and a view filled with greenery of farm fields with saplings of maize swinging in unison. But soon I got a whiff of the foul smell of the smoke emanating from bidi, which someone at the front portion of the bus was merrily smoking in defiance of the rule of no smoking in the bus.
I remembered an incident that happened when I was an undergraduate student in Belgaum. I had two very close friends with whom I was huddled in a small restaurant to drink a bottle of rum that one of my friends had been able to obtain from an ex-military person. All the ex-military men get their monthly quota of liquor at subsidized prices in the military canteen and some of them sell it at a higher price, yet much lower than the actual market price. We were not sitting in a bar. It was a small restaurant serving snacks, but the owner being a friend of the friend of mine, had allowed us to sit there, after the business hours. The two friends with me were Krishna Hulkund and Subhash Vannalli, both my classmates since I joined the pre-university college. Subhash was not a smoker, but he ate ghutka. Krishna and I used to smoke. After the first round of drinks, surprisingly Subhash lit a cigarette and let a stream of smoke on the face of Krishna, which the latter didn’t like. With a wince, he shouted, “Hey! Stop it man. I don’t like this.”
Subhash laughed and said, “What difference does it make Krishna? You too smoke.” Krishna was known for his quips, and he retorted immediately, “You ear ghutka and spit. What if someone chews ghutka and spit in your mouth? Would you like it?”
I heard the conductor as well as a couple of co-passengers reprimanding the villager who was smoking bidi and he was forced to throw it out. I left a sigh of relief. Although I smoke, I hate the smell of smoke that the smokers let out. Again, I felt the whiff of fresh air gently nudging me and my mood was elated. I felt Vani’s thigh and shoulder touching mine, giving the pleasure that I had never experienced before. Along with four of us, another three passengers were sitting on the last seat, meant for six people. If I were sitting with some strangers, I would have felt miserable, like being crushed. However, now I thanked the seventh passenger in my mind, for creating such a pleasant situation!
Nirupama and Mohan were continuously chatting with each other. When I stole a glance at Nirupama’s beautiful face, a bunch of long hair fluttering on her cheek, I felt, after all, I was not as happy as Mohan was. I started humming the ascending and descending notes of Rag Bridavani Sarang, trying variations, while gazing at the lush green farm fields in which women wearing saris of bright hues were working. When I thought I had got the notes right, I broke into singing a cheez, set in that raga. I was well aware that Vani was listening to me attentively and gazing at me.
“This is Sarang. Isn’t it?” Suddenly she asked me. I was surprised at her knowledge of music.
“Yes. Have you learnt Hindustani Music?”
“Long back, when I was in school, my father used to force me to attend music classes in the evenings, but I could never sing. Of course I like the film music, especially the old melodies,” She replied, with a bright smile.
“I too used to like film songs. But I have graduated to classical music now. I think it is a process of evolution. Some are stuck at the first level itself,” I said, without any intention to offend her, but I had to hastily add, “Of course, I love the old film songs even today.”
“I like the lyrics of the old songs along with the melody,” she said without taking any offense.
“True, in film songs, Bhakti songs and Bhavageet, lyrics is more important than melody. The musical content is secondary. But in classical music, the lyrics are secondary and musical content is all important.” I agreed with her with further elaboration.
“How is the new couple enjoying?” Nirupama suddenly asked this question bending towards us with a naughty wink. It embarrassed me and disappointed me too, for it meant she was distancing herself from me. When this thought crossed my mind, I felt ashamed. She was in love with Mohan, not me. She had got what she wanted. She didn’t know that I liked her better than Vani. I couldn’t blame her. But was she pushing me towards Vani? I kept questioning myself.
“We’re friends and not a couple like you,” Vani replied flashing a smile at Mohan.
“It’s only a matter of time,” Nirupama persisted.
Why didn’t I say anything? A thousand things passed in my mind, which could have found expression if someone else was in my place. I could never respond in time, could I? I could have said that I couldn’t fancy Vani even if I were to stay with her for ages, that I actually didn’t know about the trip, that if sufficient advance notice were given to me, I could have refused to come, that in fact I fancied Nirupama and not Vani, that all of them had tricked me into joining them in this excursion, that the name Nirupama is musical, containing the notes ni, re, pa, and ma, and I loved music, that I could have…What the hell!
Immersed in my thoughts as I was, I missed a couple of exchanges between Nirupama and Vani. The bus took a right turn on to a smaller road, leaving the National Highway and soon there was no longer a smooth ride. The speed of the bus decreased considerably to lessen the impact of bumps and was swerving now and then to make way for the overtaking and oncoming vehicles. The road, though not smooth, was a good sight, meandering and lined with huge trees. In the dappled shade of some trees, some village folk were idling by the side of the road, and as the bus passed by them, all the faces turned towards us. I pushed back all the thoughts of the present to the remote recesses of my mind, and began enjoying the view through the window, and the cool breeze that kept gently stroking my face.
A few miles into the North Canara district, the surroundings changed dramatically, with vast plain areas replaced by thick, seemingly impenetrable forest. Trees rose to such heights that sitting in the bus, it was not possible to see their tops at places. Many trees had a girth of several meters. There were teak trees, which stood erect with big leaves sprouting all around. I could recognize some sandalwood trees also, but a large number of trees were unknown to me, being a city dweller as I was. But that hindered the least my pleasure of watching them in all their glory. At some places, the woods were interspersed with these forests are swampy fallows, where the water was covered with white lotuses and white cranes hovering above or brooding, and this made the scene immensely delightful and soothing. The droplets of rainwater dripping from the leaves of the trees, shrubs, and creepers, the drains flowing with clear water, were all the sights that were so pleasant that I forgot for a while all about the adventure I had been dragged into undertaking. The villages were far apart, sparsely populated and very neat and clean unlike the villages on the plains of north Karnataka, which were perpetually filled with the rancid stink of cow dung and human excreta, and which turned into virtual hell during the rainy season, for the dirt roads were flooded with the water overflowing from the gutters, if there happened to be any.
“Isn’t this beautiful Harsha?” Vani tried to break the ice and chat with me. Although I didn’t like to be disturbed thus, I couldn’t be rude to her. I turned towards her; her face was so close to mine that she was peeping into my eyes.
“Yeah, not just beautiful, it is romantic!” God! What did I say?
She warmed up, and leaned on me closing the small gap between us, and held my right arm with both her hands and beamed at me the brightest of her smiles. Then she asked me in a whisper, “Are you romantic too?”
“Ah, my idea of the romantic seems to be different than yours,” I said hardening a bit and trying to restrain myself. I thought she would be disheartened, but she was not at all put out, for obviously she understood from my words what she wanted to them to mean.
“Is anybody hungry?” Mohan asked looking at us.
I nodded indicating that I wasn’t and others did not reply. I shifted my gaze to Nirupama to find that she had dozed off on his shoulders with a smile on her face that had not yet faded. I felt a pang of jealousy and immediately turned away to look out of window. Soon I was once again immersed in relishing the delights of the panorama of landscape.
*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***