‘Ahaha! How sad to think there is, in this world,
Nothing more wretched than human existence’

— Kumaranasan, 'Karuna'

“Aren’t you getting off?”

Desperately hanging on to the ticket rack with his left hand, the conductor, who looked neither young nor old, asked him. “The place you bought the ticket for is far behind us.”

“Yes! Stop the bus!” he said, waking up suddenly and looking anxiously into the night. Whether the conductor rang the bell or not or the driver stopped the bus or not, he found himself in the darkness outside as the bus sped away towards its destination.

Later, he would re-examine those unclear moments several times in his mind. Were there other passengers in the bus? And were they, except, perhaps, for a handful, asleep, swinging like damaged pendulums? Did a couple of them wake up at the sound of the conductor’s voice and look at him with interest? Perhaps a child had laughed.

He thought the conductor had grabbed his shoulder and shaken him awake. The leftover pain in his shoulder must be from the conductor’s fingers. Or did he bang it against something when he scrambled up? He tried to imagine that the conductor had, with the help of some passengers, pushed him out of the bus. In the end, he decided that, in the anxiety of having missed his stop, he had got out by himself.

The congealed darkness knocked against his leg and hurt him. In the silence, the sound of the bus engine still reverberated in his ears. As his sleep-addled mind cleared and the feeling of anxiety left him, he began to doubt whether he had even been in a bus. All he was sure of was the fact that he was here, on this road, in the dark. He shook off such muddled thoughts with a smile.

As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he realised the place was completely deserted. He had acted foolishly. He should have bought another ticket and remained in the bus until he could get off at a proper stop with at least a couple of shops. Reluctant to believe his complete isolation, he looked around in the hope of seeing a faraway light from a house yet to retire for the night. But there was nothing except for a light breeze.

As always, the four of them – Kunjumon, Devasia, Punnan and Soman – had got on the bus and sat together in the long back seat. He was never alone in the bus because he was not the one who got out last. They would sit together chatting and laughing, his jokes always drawing the most laughs.

He was known for his jokes at their workplace too. He would make up salacious stories about Beena, who had big breasts and a round behind, and Soman, stories that sounded almost real and sent everyone into a cacophony of laughter. And when his stories threatened to completely cross the boundary of decency, Soman would scold him, but his reluctant use of swear words would make them laugh even more. He always got off at his stop, leaving them a nugget to laugh about.

He stood by the side of the road for a long while, hoping for the headlights of a bus or a private vehicle. The area was flat, and the road went off into the distance without any bends. Thinking that the vehicles speeding through the deserted night might have enough time to see him and stop, he walked into the middle of the road and stood there.

Until a moment ago, he knew clearly the direction he had come from, but now he had lost track of which way he was headed. If he had to go right, he should be standing to the left of the road, and vice versa.

A sudden sound froze him in his tracks. Perhaps a snake or a rat moving in the dry leaves. He stepped off the tarmac and realized there were no dry leaves on the verges, not even dry stalks of grass. His inchoate fear scared him. One’s mind might pretend to be happy or sad, but fear is different. He was not the type of person who panicked and made a ruckus upon seeing a snake.

Wondering why he was feeling scared, the traveller walked carefully forward. He didn’t have to be scared of darkness or of ghosts, or even of thieves or robbers who might be skulking around like spirits. All he had in his possession was his lunch box that was not even washed properly, and a small amount of money.

Usually, he paid no attention to small noises, but when there was another disturbance, his ears pricked up. At first, it sounded like water flowing in a small canal but he realised it was the sound made by winged termites swarming out of the soil. He thrust his hand into the swarm.

If he hadn’t fallen asleep in the bus and ended up unexpectedly at this deserted place, a few more termites would have staggered into the sky instead of hitting his hand and falling back on to the soil. He surmised, wrongly, that there were houses nearby, and that their owners had switched off the lights against the swarming insects.

At that moment, he came very close to figuring out the reason for his fear. It was the first time he was so completely alone. “I’ve never seen anyone who refuses to be alone even when he goes to the toilet, and continues to talk to someone outside,” his wife had exclaimed soon after they were married.

“I was not alone even in my mother’s womb,” he had replied. “And when we came out, we had all these brothers and sisters waiting for us.”

In the mornings, when he and his siblings would form a line and walk to the northern compound to defecate, children in the neighbourhood who had no siblings would call out, somewhat dejected: “There goes the shitters’ procession.”

They would sit in a row and shit until the place was called shit yard. In the nights, they would sleep, pushing and kicking one another, on two mats on the floor.

As a strapping young man, when he first got a job at the company, he had tried to get a woman to fall in love with him. After the siren announcing the end of the workday, accompanied by seven or eight of his friends, he would follow her home, trying, along the way, to get her to talk to him. “What’s the point in even considering it?” she asked those who intervened on his behalf. “He is never alone!”

As he stood with his back to the road, he felt that a vehicle passed him by, and that the lightless, soundless, exhaustless vehicle had travelled through his mind. He should have put his arm out and it might have stopped. It could have been his last chance to escape the night’s gelatinous darkness. He imagined that he felt the wind as the soundless vehicle passed by him, and that the leaves of the few sparse plants trembled in it.

In that state, he looked into himself and talked, somewhat loudly. Just some random prattle, just loud enough to hear if a dozen people were standing around. He had seen old-timers at the beginning of mental imbalance talk like this, gesticulating. With an innate sense of embarrassment, he looked around to see if anyone had seen him, and walked on. In the feeling of complete freedom, he hitched up his mundu and scratched his butt, and released a loud fart.

“Even that nasty bastard would do,” he said, kicking the earth, thinking about an old man he and his friends had once beaten to a pulp. He had forgotten the reason for it, except that the old man had done something wrong, something like trying to hurt a child he had been left alone with.

“I would explain myself if you were alone,” the old man had told him when he had bashed his face in. That night, he had gone to bed thinking that his blows were not strong enough as he had no previous experience in beating up people. And he had dreamt something about his arms and legs not following where his mind went.

He rarely had dreams because he was in the habit of talking through most of the night, falling asleep late and waking up early. If he could find the old man now, he could have sat across from him and listened to his rationalisations.

Presently, he noticed that he was walking on a lane of packed, dry dust that had branched off the main road. It looked like it was about to rain, and if it did, he could experience that unique, earthy smell for the first time.

A small building stood jutting into the lane, and when he saw it, he felt as happy as though he had run into a person. It looked like a shop, just a room and a veranda. He ran his hand over the low wall surrounding the veranda, examined it and sat down. The dust had been wiped off by those who had sat there during the day. Discarded pieces of paper crunched under his feet.

He could read the big letters written on the walls even in the darkness. ____ Memorial Reading Room. The letters spelling out in whose memory it had been set up had faded away. Must be Indira Gandhi Memorial Reading Room, he thought.

“She was a woman with balls,” he had said to his wife on the day Indira Gandhi died. His children were named Rajeev and Sanjay. He had never come across reading rooms named after them. Probably because he hadn’t really paid attention – one only sees what one is interested in.

It did not surprise him to register that he had never read anything other than his schoolbooks and newspapers. He only read the headlines in the newspapers and avoided the rest, saying that things had not changed since his birth.


Excerpted with permission from Adam, S Hareesh, translated from the Malayalam by Jaysree Kalathil, Vintage.