The month was July. I was returning home after my semester exam from South India where I was pursuing my medical studies. The other day I had a tiring journey by train for nearly four days.
I boarded the 7.30AM Karma Transport to Khaling from Samdrup Jongkhar. My seat was at the window sill on the left aisle. Sitting beside me was a girl in her teens. She was the most beautiful person in the bus and I saw that she attracted discreet glance from the passengers. A cursory glance later I was convinced that she was a student going home for her midterm break. She looked most debonair in her marthra kira with a dark blue tego over the snow-white wonju folded at the sleeves and collar. Her hair was washed, trimmed and combed into an Alisha look-alike. The one garment she required to win total applaud was her smile which she seemed to hold back mysteriously.
We travelled for an hour in silence. I would have broken the ice but the look of strained unease because of her proximity to a stranger stopped me. But before another hour of speechlessness passed, I could bear it no longer and blurted out my first ceremonial question. ‘Ussa,’ I asked with almost a whisper, ‘Where are you going?’
She blushed and looked straight ahead not replying. A bashful belle, I thought, pleasantly surprised in this day and age of brash woman’s lib. I asked again a little louder half suspecting that she had not heard over the sound of the bus engine. ‘Are you from Samdrup Jongkhar?’ She nodded, but with a slight frown on her innocent moon face. I wondered if she was ill for she suddenly looked uncomfortable. I felt that I was disturbing her or maybe she was a remote village girl, a daughter of some down-to-earth family. ‘Ussa,’ I said again concerned, ‘aren’t you feeling well?’ She smiled a most timid little smile, almost a disdainful grin. I searched for the slightest sign of disapproval on her face. None. I was relieved to note.
I introduced myself, but eliciting no response I left her alone. Is this the common man’s unwelcome boldness to woe innocence and frailty of a woman. I laughed at myself with a sly grin. The bus halted at Narphung for a while. I stepped out and bought some biscuits and candies. The five minutes outside the bus seemed like five impatient hours. I ran back to the bus as it horned sharply. When I returned, I found the girl had occupied my seat by the window. She rose to vacate it when she saw me coming back but I assured her it was all right.
‘Zhugchho,zhugchho, it’s ok I will sit here.’ I sat down just as the bus began to move. I offered her what I had bought but she refused shoving it back on my lap. I insisted as she shook her head then finally placed it upon her lap. ‘Please don’t feel shy…here take it.’ Timidly she picked it up and smiled her thanks. ‘May I know your name, Ussa?’ I persisted gently longing to hear her voice. She never replied. I asked again when she gave a stern look in my eyes. She opened her mouth, and then swayed her head side to side, saying nothing. I grew exasperated and tugged at her tego. ‘Why don’t you answer me? What is wrong to talk to me?’
She turned away and looked out of the window. The leafy trees were breezing past the window at great speed. I caught her hand anticipating a hateful look. She pulled it away with a jerk. For the first time I saw annoyance in her eyes. It stopped me short. I felt ashamed as I released her tender fingers. ‘I am sorry,’ I said. ‘I’m just being friendly, you know…’ There were tears then in her limpid eyes. I saw her bite her lips as if to hold back tears from crying. That really shocked me. What happened next really rattled me to no end. She held her head down on the window sill and her body heaved as she sobbed.
I cursed my unholy boldness and sat quietly for very long time. At Wamrong where the bus stopped for lunch, she did not budge from her seat. I went for a pork curry from the Tshering Restaurant all the while regretting for tormenting the girl. As I returned, I bought two packets of wai wai noodles and handed over to her wordlessly. She did not deny my offer and I felt calm again. I wrote down my address on the paper from my diary with a note at the bottom reading: “Sorry for being the cause of your tears. Write to me, my friend…” I handed my diary and asked her to write her name and address for me. She took the book and pen reluctantly and began to write.
I looked outside and was surprised to see a green maize field of Khaling valley come into the view. When we reached Khaling, she handed my diary back and rose to alight from the bus. Outside there was an elderly woman waiting for my new friend. They walked away down the pebbled road hand in hand. As the bus began to move, she looked back once in my direction; smiled a broad smile and waved. I waved back longingly. It was only after quite a while of bemused thought that I looked into my diary and what I saw there made everything clear as a bell. She dad scribbled in kindergarten writing: Pema Zangmo, class VIII, National Institute for the Disabled, Khaling. I did not know either to feel sorry for her or for myself. Her dumbness brought a shroud of magical numbness to my adventurous mind and the rest of the journey was the longest I had ever taken.