Background note: On 21 May 1991, Rajiv Gandhi, a former prime minister of India, was assassinated by a suspected LTTE suicide bomber at an election rally in Sriperumbudur, near Madras in the Tamil part of India. The assassination of his mother, Indira Gandhi, by Sikh militants in 1984 had sparked a pogrom against Sikhs in the north. Anxious to avoid a repeat act, Indian Tamils went to great lengths to dissociate themselves from the assassins, and anyone from Jaffna or anywhere in Sri Lanka.
Older folks in India like to say that they remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard of Mahatma Gandhi's assassination. I'm nowhere near that old, but I do remember where I was and what I was doing when I heard of Rajiv Gandhi's assassination. I was on a rickety, creaky bus, trying to get back to Madras in time for my exams to enter a technical institute, after a pilgrimage enforced by my grandmother ("How can you even think of appearing for your entrance exams without Divine Blessings??"). At that precise moment, I was trying to sleep over the sound of a wailing baby, and a recent Tamil hit being played over the bus' tinny speakers.
Suddenly, the bus screeched to a halt. I snapped awake and sat bolt upright, as did everyone else except the baby, which contented itself with taking its wailing to a new crescendo. A loud babel of voices began shouting from somewhere outside the bus. The baby bravely tried to compete for a while, but eventually gave up and lapsed into a sulky silence.
"He's dead! They've killed him!", the voices shouted. "And we're going to slash the tyres!" A little more shouting, and it became clear that it was Rajiv Gandhi who'd been killed. The news was shocking enough, but it was made worse by the fact that the people outside our bus seemed to think that the best way of mourning would be to slash our tyres.
The driver got out of the bus, and after a long and earnest conversation with the hulking thugs, he got back in. "It's all agreed," he beamed, "they will not slash our tyres."
The passengers emitted a collective sigh of relief. The baby began a hopeful, tentative wail.
"They'll only let all the air out of them."
The passengers' howls of protest drowned out even the baby's fiesty response.
"Look", the driver said. "If they don't slash the tyres, the company'll send someone out in a breakdown truck and they can simply pump air back into them. That's really the best way."
We grumbled, but there really didn't seem to be an option. A morose silence descended on the bus as we settled down to wait. The singer on the tape seemed to have lost much of his vigour. Even the baby quietened down to only an occasional howl.
After a while, I got up and walked over to the driver. "When did you say the company would send a breakdown truck?", I asked.
"Oh, not long," he said. "Tomorrow. Probably. Unless those people punctured its tyres also. It could take longer then."
Oh, great. And here I am with three days to go to my exams. I told the driver exactly what I thought of his company, but he was unimpressed. "Why did you go travelling so close to your exams?"
"I was on a pilgrimage to pray for good luck!", I protested.
"And look at the luck it brought you." The driver seemed quite pleased with this witticism, and broke into a chuckle. This was the last straw. I grabbed my bag, and stomped out of the bus. The baby lustily hailed my departure.
The nearest bus station was ten kilometres away. It was totally deserted, except for the manager's office which was locked, but blaring Tamil hits from the 60s. "Oi, open up there", I yelled.
The manager poked his head out of the window. "No buses today!" he said. Don't you know, Rajiv Gandhi is dead?"
"So when's the next bus to Madras?", I asked. "Not for a while," the manager said. "They've let the air out of all our tires, and the buses won't run." I sat down heavily, and buried my face in my hands. Suddenly, I had a flash of inspiration. Surely they had a pump for the tires? I rushed back to the office. They did have a pump, it turned out, but the goons had taken the hose with them. "Quite clever of them," the manager said happily. "We'll have to get a new hose from the next station, but we can't because we don't have buses to send."
I looked desperately at the road. "How far to Madras?", I asked. "Oh, not too far", the manager said. "Only four hundred kilometres or so."
Four hundred kilometres.... If I had to arrange one rupee coins end to end to cover a distance of four hundred kilometres, I'd need twenty million of them. With twenty million rupees, I could buy a nice farm in a valley. Actually, I could probably buy the whole valley.
I shouldered my bag, and started walking.
One hour later, that didn't seem like such a good idea any more. It was well past midnight, and I was tired enough to drop. I walked a bit more, and then I gave up. I threw my bag down, and lay down to sleep in a field by the side of the road. The cloud of mosquitos that had been trailing me hopefully for the past hour cheered and dived into the field with me.
Indians believe that Death rides about on a huge, black, buffalo. I idly wondered what the Death of Mosquitos rode. Something agile, hopefully, because this was going to be a busy night.
All too soon, the sun tiptoed daintily over the horizon, flooding the world with a delicate pink light. I made a desultory gesture at it, swatted a few persistent mosquitos off my face, and stood up grumpily. It was a hot, sultry, May morning, and I had an annoying stubble. I rummaged around in my bag. Inexplicably, I seemed to have packed my biology instruments instead of my toilet kit. I looked longingly at the dissection knife. NO, I told myself firmly. MOST CERTAINLY NOT. I looked at it again. Then, with a sigh, I started shaving. My teachers would be most perplexed a few days later to see tiny pieces of hair in the stomachs of all the specimens I had carefully dissected.
I picked up my bag and walked on. In a place as crowded as southern India, it's not easy to find a deserted spot, but I seemed to have managed to find one. I started singing to cheer myself up. Bad move. Pretty soon, I was desperately trying to get "500 miles" out of my head. I tried reciting the opening of the Canterbury Tales, but gave up after a few lines. The references to Aprille's shoures soote and the swete breeth of zephyrus were doing remarkably little to lift my spirits.
And then I yelled in joy. A sign of human habitation. A potti kadai, a little shack that served tea, coffee, bananas, and snacks. The Tamil equivalent of a highway Burger King! The owner looked very depressed, but brightened as I approached. "Not one customer today. Usually, I'd have had a hundred. A tragedy, a complete disaster! Shameful, I tell you, shameful! How am I going to feed my family?" An hour later, I'd eaten most of his stock, and both of us were looking a lot more cheerful. I told him I was trying to get to Madras.
"You have a strange accent", he said, a little warily. "You wouldn't happen to be from Jaffna, would you?"
"No", I said. "I'm from Bombay". And half a dozen other place scattered over South and South-east asia, but I wasn't going to get into that.
"Ah, Bombay!" he said brightly. "So you must have gone there during the time of the Peshwa!" The Peshwa? There hadn't been a Peshwa for a hundred and fifty years. How old did he think I was, anyway? Maybe that dissection knife wasn't as sharp as I thought. But I smiled and nodded. "So, how do I get to Madras?", I asked.
"Oh, it's that way," he pointed. "Don't worry," he added reassuringly, "you're walking in the right direction."
Wonderful. I got up, and set out again.
A few hours later, I was still walking, and begining to wonder how on Earth I was going to get to Madras in time for my exam. Suddenly, I heard a bell chiming cheerfully behind me. And then a voice. "What's up, laddie? Need a lift?"
A voice, like the sound of angels singing. I turned eagerly, and saw a grizzled old man on a bicycle. "Hop on, laddie", he said. "Where?", I asked. "Onto the crossbar, of course!", he said a little impatiently.
I hesitated. "Perhaps I should pedal..." I began. "Don't be an oaf, lad, your feet are no match for our hills. Now hop on." Gratefully, I leapt onto the crossbar, and he pedalled stoutly on.
After a while, he cleared his throat. "You have an odd accent. You wouldn't be from Jaffna, I hope?"
"Oh, most certainly not," I said hurriedly. "I'm from Bombay."
"Ah," he nodded wisely. "You'd have gone there during the time of the Peshwas, then." Yes, I agreed, that was precisely what I had done.
"So what are you doing here?", he asked. I related my tale of woe. "Hrm," he said when I was finished. "What I don't understand is why you're not taking the train if the buses aren't running."
I blinked stupidly. "Train?"
"There's a station's about fifty kilometres from here. I'll drive you there in my little joyrider, if you like."
His 'joyrider' turned out to be a 1957 model tractor. But in the state I was, I'd have happily gotten into a flying cart harnessed to mosquitos and piloted by an ex-kamikaze. I was at the train station at nightfall. The train arrived the next morning. It was crowded. It was vomiting people. Arms and limbs were spilling out of the little cracks in the shutters. I happily squeezed in. Or rather, I happily squeezed a few small parts of my body in. The train left, with me clinging on.
It was a merry journey. The wind was in my face. So was the dust. In my face, and in my hair, and in my clothes and shoes, and just about every inch of my body, except for the hand and half leg that were actually inside the train. I laughed happily for a while, like a nawab riding in a luxuriously uphosltered palanquin, but stopped when the dust started settling down and building little homes in my throat. By the time we reached Madras, I looked like a bedouin returned from forty days wandering in the desert. But I was home, and I was on time for my exams.
My grandmother was waiting for me. "Ah, do you know what's been happening here while you've been having a comfortable journey home?", she exclaimed.
I sat down on a soft, cushy chair, and smiled. "Tell me all about it", I said.