A Nepali story by Bhupeen, translated by Ishwor Kandel
I woke up suddenly.
The bus was rattling. The passengers in the bus were crying as they were frightened. Some of the passengers were making a last bid to make it to the entrance and jump out of the bus hurriedly. The seats and the extra bamboo stools of the bus that had been full were vacant. Perhaps, a few audacious passengers had already jumped off the bus. I could see only either weak and old people or the mothers with their babies on the seats. The bus was shaking like the earth during an earthquake and was running on the street like a drunkard.
I looked at the seat of the bus driver. It was vacant. I could easily guess that the driver must have jumped out of the window just as he realised that he could not avoid an accident. At that time, I had been fast asleep.
“I must do something. If one stays sans any measures even after one predicts the accident, it is nothing more than accepting death quietly,” said a voice within me. I got up quickly and trying to keep my balance. After accomplishing this initial feat, I had the illusion that I had pushed death a bit farther away. Then, I saw my wife’s face till now darkened with terror look towards me with a glimmer of hope in her eyes. She was trying to say something lying on one of the seats in the corner holding her hands around our only son’s head. But her words were entangled in her throat. Sometimes it is quite easy to understand the language of extreme crisis. I had already understood her language.
I had been awake till the time the bus crossed the Narayani River. And in my half sleep, I heard the bus conductor shouting ‘Arunkhola, Chormara’ and knocking at the door. When I woke up, I did not immediately realise where I was. That was not an urgent need either. The most important thing was to survive.
The old people in the bus were chanting the name of God. It felt as if the blood from their heads were making macabre, abstract images on the white piece of cloth that covered the front seat. The predicament of my wife was not an exception. The blood from the cut on her head was falling on the face of the eight-month-old son. Sensing the dreadful noise and the tragic condition of his mother, the baby was crying. He was crying in such a way that he was choked for quite a long time in between.
I took the baby from my wife with lightning speed. I patted him on his back. In a while, our son started to breath normally. This was a relief. But the bus was bouncing on the road like a frantic bull. It was like bull riding in sports channel where matadors try their level best to sit on the bull and continue seated if possible. It was not the time to think of a sport. But I did. Perhaps, I was meant to lie under the bull’s deadly hooves and see the last of the sun. I did not want that.
I held the baby tightly with one hand and walked to the door, supporting myself with the other seats or the rod over the gangway with the other hand. There were no obstacles to moving ahead as the capable ones had already jumped out of the bus, making it almost empty. Compromising with the potential risk, they landed safely.
The bus was moving forward downhill with the glass on the windows clinking. I bent down and had a flickering look at the road but there were no bends nearby. It was a hopeful sign in the time of disaster. A bus without a driver knows not how to turn with the bends.
Trying to maintain balance as much as possible, I reached close to the door and started to plan how I could jump off the bus safely. Through the door, I noticed a canal beside the road and on a little height, I could see a paddy field filled with crops. I thought of flinging the baby as far as the field.
The collage of unpleasant sounds made my mind go blank again. I postponed the task, but the bus that should have stopped was moving ahead downhill humming the song of death.
Managing to move one step closer to the door, I gazed at my son’s countenance. I could not figure out what would be more ruthless – to fling him out or to keep him with me. To my surprise, he was smiling looking at me. Probably he was telling me, “Dad I am not worrying about death because I am on the lap of the most reliable person in this world. Death cannot even touch me on this lap.”
My eyes were full of tears. I lost my self-confidence for the first time in my life and prayed to the Almighty, “Oh god! Please save my child. I cannot see anything around except darkness.” My instincts could sense the start of tragedy, the end, death. But I was struggling to prove that instinct was a lie. I completely abominated the pointlessness of the kiss of the death. The rising smile of my son like the full moon in pitch darkness filled my being with the light of energy. I wanted both of us to be safe.
Coincidently, the vehicles were not visible on both sides of the road. The arrival of any vehicles from any sides of the road in such a terrifying moment could only be break the thread of life from the passenger. The bus was speeding faster singing the monotonous song of the death.
Little further, a bridge and the bank of river could be seen. The overflowing water of the canal that flooded the road was a characteristic of the mid-rainy season. I stepped down on the last step at the door of the bus and prayed for a safe landing.
“I should jump off the bus before we reach to the bridge. There is no other alternative.” The voice echoed into my being and got lost somewhere. I wanted to evade death, jumping off the bus but it would be quite impossible to save the baby as the bus was speeding on the wide and blacktopped road. I again delayed. In no time, the bus reached near the bridge. The roaring flooded river below the bridge was flowing, whirling madly.
Clutching the baby to my chest where potential death reigned, I once again looked at the seat of the bus where my wife was crying and looking at me — as if with solicitation — along with the few remaining passengers. I could hardly read her face as the blood from her forehead blurred her expressions.
She would probably have said, “Go my dear husband. Please jump off the bus with our son and save him. For me, I can accept death in lieu of his life. Please don’t waste even a second to help me. Save our son.”
Or she could also have said, “Please try to save me as well my love. I long to see my son grow up.”
Reading these two possible emotions on the countenance of my wife, I comprehended that I was a selfish husband. I was perplexed with the thought. How had I dared to reach the door with the thought of jumping off the bus leaving her alone. Were our marriage vows about eternal togetherness an illusion? Perhaps, I thought of abandonment to save our son’s life. This thought gave me some solace. I felt pleased about being a selfless husband and a father even just before the last breath.
It was the third year of our marriage. Life had offered us some moments to celebrations. Most of the time, I had been busy teaching and managing our home. She was busy struggling with her married life, establishing a loving identity in her new world and becoming a mother –the best word in the world.
This had had an adverse effect on her studies. Last year she was pregnant, but she took the examination of her bachelor’s degree in Chennai in South India. Unfortunately, she failed one of the subjects. This is the common predicament of all the Nepali women.
This time, I was going to Chennai with her as she had to retake her exam. We were supposed to catch the train next morning. Her parents had been living long in Chennai where she went to university. Our families were originally from the same village in Nepal. We met in the village during their visit, became friends and we got married. I was planning to meet her relatives, enjoy the sea beach, leave mother and child there for few months and get back home. But the accident interrupted our plans on the first day of our long journey.
The bus slowed down as it crossed the bridge. I looked through the windscreen. The bus seemed to be moving uphill. I went back to my seat. I mumbled to myself, “Nothing can separate us.”
“Dying together is better than living alone.” I had a strong sense of determination. The bus started to go downhill again — slowly at first and then faster and faster. As the bus was losing balance, I remembered a sentence from an article on mountaineering — in mountaineering, descending is more dangerous than ascending. My heart said that I was very close to death along with the passengers. I almost died in my heart. But I was still alive in my mind. The mind functions till the last breath.
I was touching my son who was sitting quietly on my lap. I touched my wife and hugged her tightly. And I was ready to face potential death. Finding myself very close to the end of life, I wanted to wail.
There was a loud noise. The rest of the windows of the bus were totally smashed but the bus had stopped finally with a strong quake. For a couple of moments, time froze. We all went back to our seat. The bus had bumped on a big tree beside the road and halted. I kissed my son and wife on their foreheads.
That was not the last kiss of my life.
Bhupeen is an award-winning writer with three collections of poetry, an anthology of essays and a novel. His creations are widely published and known for witty turn of phrases. Bhupeen is one of the founders of the ‘Conservation Poetry Movement’.
Ishwor Kadel is a poet, teacher’s trainer and educator. His published works include Baya, a collection of poems, and Echoes, a novel. He is also a reputed translator.
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