‘Hey, hey, stop, you’ll hit my car!” shouted Himani, heart in mouth to see the 87 bus jamming her front right fender. The mouth of her township was packed with autos, rickshaws, cycles and people milling in every direction. It was 9 at night and she was tired from work.

And she couldn’t believe her eyes. To get hit so badly when she was simply sitting in the car, engine switched off, headlights and indicator on waiting for the bus to swerve out so she could swing into the gap and go home, which was fifty feet down the lane. At least three buses blocked the mouth of the township leaving her absolutely no space. It was the same intolerable situation every day.

Muttering about women drivers, the driver poked his head out trying to gauge the situation. Half a dozen men materialised urging the locked vehicles to back off each other while cracking mild anti-feminist jokes. When her car was finally free of the wrestle, Himani swung in to make for home ignoring surprised glances from bystanders who were clearly expecting a face-off. She had groceries to dump and packages to remove from her car.

Once home, she jumped out to assess the damage. The gashed fender brought angry tears to her eyes. Without waiting to provide explanations to her parents she swung right back and made for the depot. The traffic had thinned since it was almost 10. Himani had a good mind to race to the nearest police station and lodge a complaint against the delinquent bus. In a moment of vicious determination, she had memorised the number. She parked her car in a corner and approached a seedy looking customer with a dirty bucket sloshing mud-water.

“You must be one of the cleaners. Where is the 87 starter? I want to talk to him.”

Immediately the man became secretive.

“Why?” he wanted to know.

“I don’t have time for this. Just tell him I am going to Gorberia police station to lodge a complaint against bus no 2917.”

Gaining some satisfaction from the man’s dropped jaw Himani turned away. By the time she had settled in the driver’s seat her car was surrounded by a dozen men, one wiry customer marginally taller than the rest.

“Here, here, now why should you go to the police station?”

“Who are you?”

“I am Balaichand Sarkar, the bus-union secretary,” soothed the man. Clearly her threat had rattled them. Then began an hour-long argument in which each party accused the other. Himani was incredulous.

“I was standing with my engine switched off. I am responsible? From which angle? You people block the township mouth from dawn to dusk. If a senior citizen — my parents are old and ailing — were to fall ill we wouldn’t be able to push our way out. Precious moments would be lost.”

“Look, don’t talk shop. If you complain against us, we will lodge a counter-complaint saying you were drunk.”

“Drunk?” Himani screamed, “Look at me, do I look drunk? I teach in a college!

“Big deal! We all know what college lecturers are. They are a dishonest lot. When I was in college only one teacher, Subhasree di taught well. All the others slacked.”

Himani felt her blood pressure shooting up. When finally she returned home around 10.30 the first person she rang up was her advocate friend Pearl Siddiqui in Delhi. Pearl heard her out.

“How much money have they promised?”

“They haven’t promised anything. That Balai person said maybe he would be down at Calcutta Motors tomorrow morning to assess the cost and then he would talk with the owner.”

“I very much doubt if he will shell out anything.”

“I know and what is awful is the abuse. You should have heard them. I have lived here for 25 years and the way they insulted me. Twelve men against one woman. When at last I said, yes I can see, I am the wrong and you are the right, since late at night I have come alone to protest and twelve of you have ganged up against me, like magic they turned their backs and walked off. It would have been funny if it hadn’t been so dreadful.”

“If that is the case, cribbing isn’t going to yield fruit. This is the problem with the middle class. You crib but lack staying power. You have to tackle the problem at the root-level.”

“Believe me Pearl, I want to make a noise about this. I telephoned the township secretary and told him everything. He asked me to write a detailed letter. When I agreed promptly, he was, I don’t know, he sounded flustered. And glum. He became pretty non-committal.”

“You have to understand Himani these are spent-forces you’re dealing with.

They won’t help you. You can write, you have education. Send a letter to the ministry of transport complaining about the blockage and the insults. Keep a note of the date. Keep sending letters at intervals to the ministry and to Lalbazar. Someone somewhere will pick one up eventually. Look for other aggrieved souls in your township. Enlist their support. Create a solid protest base.”

Himani felt inspired listening to Pearl. She put down the phone since her mother was calling her to dinner, but afterwards she switched on her laptop and started writing. Dear Sir/Madam, On the tenth day of …

***

The major part of next morning went in Calcutta Motors. Raghubir, the young man who sat in the shabby office of the service-centre was running his palm over the damaged fender when Himani saw Balaichand swanning down in his cycle. Balaichand had kept his word. This was unexpected. Ignoring her, Balai addressed his queries to Raghubir.

“For this kind of damage we don’t usually tap insurance. The sum will come to Rs 3,500,” Raghubir informed him.

“You have to reimburse the amount since it was your fault,” said Himani brusquely.

Balai was dismissive. “The owner has to be informed,” he said. “If he isn’t willing you can always go to the police as you had planned to in the first place.”

Himani trembled with annoyance as Balai casually pedalled away. She remembered Pearl’s warning — the man will pretend nonchalance. But he is nervous. He knows a police report could get the bus depot in trouble.

Returning from the service-centre, Himani rang up her NGO friend Sanchita Poddar, a level-headed girl whose organisation largely dealt in women’s education. Sanchita listened to her patiently and then asked, “Why do you want to write to the Home Ministry?”

“Because I want the problem to be pulled up by its roots. This kind of hooliganism, insults heaped at you at your own doorstep is unacceptable. Next they will ram into my car and not even bother…”

“I understand,” interrupted Sanchita, “All I want to know is why the Home Ministry?”

Realising her gaffe, Himani laughed guiltily. “Sorry, I got it mixed up, that would be the transport ministry and of course Lalbazar,” she clarified.

“Exactly,” Sanchita was crisp in her reply, “You are het-up and confused. You aren’t thinking of the consequences. You drive through the depot on a daily basis. You have old parents alone and unprotected in the house. Do you have any idea about these hoodlums? What you are seeing is the tip of the ice-berg. Balai Sarkar is a façade. Behind him there is the syndicate, local netas, clubs, criminal nexus. You are deliberately making yourself a target. If something nasty happens who will protect you? Who will fight on your behalf?”

Himani’s heart sank. True. Images of smashed car windows, sexual taunts and lobbed bombs clouded her mind. Her enthusiasm ebbed. “But, if they don’t give a single farthing? Can you imagine the stress they are inducing in me?”

“I can. It is completely their fault,” said Sanchita consolingly, “So talk to them. Tell them you had no idea the bus-association is so poor that it can’t even pay a piddly Rs 3,500. Try to shame them into giving money.”

Himani’s mother stood at her door.

Once dainty and pretty, the old lady, now bent with arthritis, was a shadow of her former self. “Your father and I were discussing,” she complained, “You shouldn’t have rushed out like that to fight with them. You should have taken him with you.”

“I didn’t fight, Ma. Have you seen what they did to my car?”

“Your father says you must have been driving recklessly. There is no other explanation.”

Himani burst into tears. “Baba has never had confidence in me. He has always seen my fault in everything. My engine wasn’t even switched on. How could I be at fault?”

“Anyway, no need to make a scene. Your father wants you to keep quiet for a change. Nowadays you don’t listen to us. Your friends have become your advisors. But don’t overlook the vulnerability of your position. We are middle class people. We are no match for these goondas.”

Next morning Himani woke up exhausted. Her neck ached as did her spine and her eyes kept drooping of their accord. She was drowsily brushing her teeth when her father informed her that two men had come from the 87 busstand. “Don’t be confrontational,” he warned. Himani threw him a hurt look quickly washing her mouth and straightening her tangled morning hair.

The men sitting sheepishly on the edge of the sofa were known faces. One was the bucket-man of the fateful night sporting a bad apache haircut that sat badly on his pock-marked, sweaty face. The other was Bapi da, the 87 bus-starter and Mishti’s husband. Mishti used to be Himani’s friend a quarter century ago. She used to work as stone-mason’s help in the house opposite when Himani, a slender UG student, had come to live in the township and they had struck a chord instantaneously.

They had even caught a few movies together before life caught up with them, Mishti got married and settled in the location miles behind the township and Himani found a job, but even then Mishti would stop her bicycle and talk about her children whenever their paths crossed.

“Arrey, Bapi da,” greeted Himani, “How are you? Seeing you after a long, long time. You must have heard what happened to my car at depot and how badly your people insulted me.”

Bapi da smiled guiltily while the helper quietly interjected. “I heard everything that night, didi and I told Bapi da this wouldn’t have happened if he had been on the spot that night. Didiis a local and to insult her like that. Balai da shouldn’t have done it.”

Bapi fished a slender bunch of notes from his pocket. “We have two thousand here, Madam. The money belongs to our medical fund. Please accept it and don’t feel hurt. We are very sorry.”

Himani’s hand trembled as she took the money. “Have some tea,” she offered shakily.

“No, no, we have plenty of work.” Both shook heads vehemently clearly embarrassed.

“Give me five minutes. You have come to our house for the first time,” insisted Himani, “Will you have sugar in your tea? And milk?”

“Everything. Two spoonfuls for me,” offered the helper bashfully. Bapi frowned at his forwardness. “He is too fond of sugar, Madam. I don’t have sugar or milk.”

“Don’t worry, I make excellent tea. There, the newspaper has arrived. Read it. I shall be back in five minutes.”

Himani ran out of the room to access the oven before her mother lay claim to it, and to doff the tears that threatened to plummet from her shining eyes. The day promised to be lovely.

(Send your original and unpublished short stories, in not more than 2,000 words, to [email protected])