Red Light

To look into the windows of a green Delhi Transport Corporation bus at 7 p.m. on MG Road is to see a tapestry woven with the pain and struggle of mankind under the harsh illumination of a clinical tube light. I say mankind because there will be no women in it. To look out of the windows of the green Delhi Transport Corporation bus is to see smiles not of mocking, but of sudden abashment at the realization that one’s life isn’t all that bad after all. All this and more Samir thought about from the comfortable cocoon of the backseat in a large white Innova, an island stuck in the midst of a stormy sea, with sharks circling around and attempting to sell handkerchiefs, second-hand books, popcorn, and flowers.

He had glanced up from his newspaper to survey the scene. To his right was the silhouette of a tired and (so he thought) frustrated man, lit up by the taillights of the vehicles piled up ahead. A row of bubbles streamed out of the man’s right ear as a beggar boy strode forward on the other side of his car, blowing through a soap machine. Unlike the man, Samir delighted in the absurdity of sitting absolutely still and watching the red number above the red light silently tick away in perfect time to the Rajesh Khanna lyrics on the radio, through an absolutely stationery pattern of rain droplets on the windscreen, as cars whizzed by across the street divider – like being suddenly paused in the middle of a fast-paced video game. He used the time to fill in three more numbers into his Sudoku puzzle – a 3, a 7, and an 8. Before long, they would shoot off into the dark night, leaving no trace of the coincidental collisions of hundreds of isolated worlds as they shared the same space for four minutes in a miniscule corner of the world.

A knock on the window broke Samir’s concentration. He did not mind. The Sudoku was merely to pass the time and entirely unimportant to his life in general. A knock on the window and his expected response would serve the same purpose. He looked up. Between the frustrated man’s car and his own stood a little raggedy boy, who had almost certainly pushed himself up onto his toes to reach the level of the car window. He carried two bouquets of roses and a grin that lit up his little face from shabby hairline through eyebrows and down to pinched cheeks. He waved the roses at Samir. With a good-natured smile, Samir waved him away. He bent his head back down to the puzzle.

After precisely half a minute, the knock was repeated, this time on Samir’s side of the car. He ignored it. The boy knocked again. Samir narrowed his eyes and focused on the northeastern block of the puzzle. Only three digits left to fill in. This time the knock was insistent and continued for a few seconds. Annoyed, Samir moulded his generally polite features to their fiercest and snapped his head up. He waved at the window more aggressively. No, I don’t want your damn flowers. Go away. But the boy had cast aside the flowers to his other hand and was vigorously indicating that Samir roll down the window. He flapped his hand up and down at the pane, his grinning face bobbing slightly with every flap. Now, to roll down your window for a stranger in the middle of the highway at dusk is generally not a wise thing to do. But Samir was not exactly the wisest man in Delhi. He rolled down the window, his carefully crafted fierceness melting into an expression of confusion and curiosity.

The boy peered into the car. “What is this?” he pointed to the newspaper. “I beg your pardon,” replied Samir, his senses suddenly registering the humming of the cars around his, and the cutting smell of petrol fumes in the air. “This!” insisted the boy, putting his hand into the car and jabbing at the Sudoku puzzle.

“Oh,” said Samir, “It’s a Sudoku puzzle,” realizing as, the words tumbled off his tongue, that they probably wouldn’t do much to allay the boy’s bewilderment. “You put numbers in it. Like a game.”

Small furrows formed on the boy’s forehead.

“What’s your name?” Samir quickly asked, preempting the boy’s next question.

“Vinod,” the boy responded distractedly, still pondering over this ‘game’. “So you’re going to fill up the entire picture with numbers?” He seemed doubtful as to whether that made sense.

“Uhh, yes,” responded Samir. He tried to explain the point of Sudoku, but couldn’t because, as he belatedly realized, he didn’t know it himself. So he stopped, and pulled out a wad of all the change from his wallet. The boy had caught his liking with his inquisitiveness. “Here, take his,” he handed over the change with a smile, and Vinod accepted it automatically.

“How much is it?”

Samir paused, uncertain. “Uhh, I think thirty.”

“Can I have fifty?” Vinod asked, lifting up one side of his cheek to crinkle up his nose.

“No, I don’t have fifty.” He looked down at the little boy. “If I had, I would have given it to you.”

Vinod got ready to leave as the red number above the traffic light entered single digits. “You take this,” he thrust a bouquet at Samir, who had begun rolling up the window.

“No, no,” said Samir benevontly, “keep it.” What in the world will I do with these smelly old flowers? Vinod tried to argue, pushing the stems up against the rapidly ascending glass.

“Okay, okay, I’ve taken them and gifted them back to you,” Samir impatiently pointed to himself, then to Vinod. “Now they’re yours.”

The traffic heaved a collective sigh of jaded relief as the lights finally changed colour, and all the engines started up simultaneously, like a group of geriatrics getting ready to stand up and leave the bridge table. As the trees and pavement outside the window started gaining speed, Samir pulled his head back down into the interior of his Innova to go back to his thinking and Sudoku. Wind whipped against the car window as a vexed cry of an emotion he knew not he possessed arose from the depths of his Sudoku-solving mind. Instead of 2s and 9s and 4s in northeastern corner of the puzzle, his wayward pen had been doodling little roses near the jaggedly cut margins of the newspaper. 

Written by Priyanka Sethy