The bus has a bathroom. Other buses that leave Bengaluru for my hometown don’t have bathrooms. They pull over on the highway when you have to pee, or they stop at a dhaba and the driver asks passengers to go so he won’t have to make extra stops along the way.
The bus is a luxury coach, dark brown from the outside. It has a thirty-two-inch TV and reclining seats and air-conditioning, all of which makes me think: What a good deal.
It’s the Diwali weekend and every long-distance coach is full of techies going home. Securing a ticket was impossible, but then I came across a new office at the back of the bus station, a travel company by the name of Alphonso Tours, and they made it happen.
The driver is busy tinkering with a hearing aid as I get on the bus. “Don’t use the bathroom for number two. Only number one,” he says, not bothering to look up.
I feel the air-conditioning already—sweet. The bus is nearly full. I look at my ticket: 20B. An aisle seat next to a bearded man on his phone, music blasting out of his earbuds. I sit down and relax my feet and begin watching the Bollywood film playing on the TV, a film in which the hero shoves the heroine from the roof of a tall building. Nothing like a movie to alleviate the boredom of an overnight bus ride. We’re past the outskirts of the city now, and farmland has started to appear on either side of the road. I haven’t gone home in months, and I’m torn—can you tell, K?
An hour passes. The bearded man takes a selfie and posts it on Instagram. I turn my neck to stretch, and the seat behind me is empty. I remember seeing an old woman with a large nose there, and I can’t tell if she’s moved to a different seat or if I’m confusing her with someone I know from somewhere else. My eyes fall on the bathroom; that’s it. She’s gone to the restroom. But then a passenger in the front, a burly man in 5D, stands up and closes the bathroom door behind him. I turn to my back and count six empty seats in the dark. I don’t remember seeing so many empty seats when I got on. Weird. Must be exhaustion. I continue watching the movie.
Five minutes later my eyes drift toward the bathroom. The burly man still hasn’t come out. 5D is empty and I’m disgusted. This man hasn’t listened to what the driver said. Instead, he’s taking an extraordinary dump. People are like that, I guess.
A lot of passengers are sleeping, some snoring. The bearded man next to me is watching a YouTube video on his phone: a man keeps springing a toy snake in people’s faces and capturing their reactions. My neighbor laughs whenever the prank results in an especially outsized response.
I try sleeping, but the movie is loud.
I take deep breaths, but sleep doesn’t come. I can sleep on the bus only if I’m in a window seat. You know that, K. You must remember the time we went on a school picnic and you took the window seat, not on the way to the orchard but on the way back home. Our bellies were stuffed with mangoes, and I told you the bus would make me puke if I didn’t have the window and you called my bluff and we fought over it. God, the kids we were, it wasn’t a pretty sight. You were stronger than me and you felt that you’d won, but I clutched at my throat and retched hard enough for some phlegm to fall on my shorts. You were sorry; you gave me the window seat and offered the kerchief Mom tucked in your shirt pocket. When I began to feel the mangoes in my throat, you told me to take deep breaths and sleep until the feeling subsided. I remember your face, blank, staring ahead, thinking who knows what, as I sloped against the window, falling asleep. Now you’re dead and I’m stuck on this bus.
It’s nothing new. You’ve been dead for a while, long enough for me to nod when people ask if I’m an only child. Long enough for me to forget that I had a brother. When you’re twenty-three, everything that happened in childhood feels like a lifetime ago. That’s just the way it is. Sorry, K. I don’t think of you often. Except when I’m on a bus and I’m going home, and what home is has changed irrevocably, not because I live and work in Bengaluru now, away from our parents, although I shouldn’t say our parents because they’re not the parents you’d remember, they’re my parents now, and I promise there’s no satisfaction in claiming them for myself. It’s just that people change and they’re not who they were, nobody is, and that’s what I’m trying to say, that life has changed for all of us, and home has too. We no longer live in the one-bedroom apartment on the hill; we fell to the ghetto soon after you died. What home is has changed so much that I don’t even know how to define it, but here I am, just thinking about all the ways it’s changed, and you, K, are on the top of that precipice.
The first thing anyone sees at home is a garlanded photo taken on your tenth birthday. You’re grinning stupidly and making a victory sign. It might be the only photo of you that doesn’t include me. Did you know that Mom doesn’t make beef curry anymore because she can’t stop herself from bringing up the fact that you used to gnaw at the shin like a dog? Or that Dad carries a passport photograph of you in his wallet to remind himself that if he’d had enough money, he’d have been able to afford the surgery for your head injury? After you died, I became the center of attention. Not right away, of course, but with time, which is what I’d always wanted, but not like that. You were always their favorite, you could make them laugh, make them feel like parents. I just make them feel like needy children now. I send them money, but I never answer their calls or tell them about my life in the city. What’s there to tell? I don’t go home except when Mom pleads and pleads. When I’m home, how can I ignore your stupid grin? How can I take their attention all for myself? I never have this problem in the city. There, people just see me as me; they don’t think of me as a stand-in for the other.
I open my eyes. 5D is still empty. Has the burly man passed out on the toilet and hurt himself? Then the bathroom door slides open, as though the person who last used it failed to latch it properly. The room is empty. Where has he gone?
Copyright © 2023 by Nishanth Injam. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.