For whom the bell tolls…
He walked from the hotel to the bus stop, past the fruit bazaar. There were no oranges in the bazaar. Bananas, apples and pears. He was looking for the guava vendor. On Thursday, when he was walking from the bazaar to the hotel he had bought some guavas. Small, yellowish-green, and half-ripe. They had not looked very good, but the vendor had pushed one into his hands after slicing it in four pieces, and sprinkling his home-made masala. It had tasted very good.
He saw the guava vendor. He had moved further down the bazaar, and he had more guavas today. He ate one, and bought half a kilo. In Meerut, he thought, you got a lot of guavas for five rupees. He paid the vendor and asked him “Does the bus to Sardhana leave from here?”
“A little further. See that soda wallah there…No, not that one, the one after that… Yes, the same. You ask somebody there”.
He walked down to the soda vendor. There was a bus standing there. He enquired with someone inside. He got in and sat in one of the middle rows, by the window. The soda vendor was doing good business. He had never seen a soda-making machine before. He didn’t particularly like soda, but it was fascinating to watch the boy make the soda. The boy was not very strong, so he could see him straining as he twirled the wheels vigorously. Most people seemed to prefer the orange soda. The soda machine reminded him of the Coke Museum in Atlanta. He wondered if he should try it, but then he thought of someone who died, and he decided against it. He wondered if it would be possible to build a multi-billion dollar Goli Soda business. He wondered if branding Goli Soda would work. He wondered if Goli Soda tasted the same everywhere. He wondered if there was something like a perfect Goli Soda. He usually wondered about a lot of things.
The bus was leaving. He took out his camera, and discreetly took a picture of the soda stall. He liked taking pictures of oddball things he noticed. He had never actually seen a Soda making machine before, strange as that sounds.
An energetic young man had taken the seat next to him. After ten minutes, he turned to his neighbour and asked “Will you be going to Sardhana?”
“No, I am getting off before that. In Narla”.
“Can you tell me how far it is from Narla?”
“About 5 minutes. Where do you want to go in Sardhana?”
“The church. I have heard it is very famous.”
“I think it will be closed by the time you reach.”
“No, that’s not possible. I asked a few people. They told me it is open till 8 in the evening.
“It closes at 6. But you can stay at the Dharamshala. The church opens at 8 in the morning.
“I can’t do that. Maybe I will come back tomorrow.”
He was angry now. What a rickety old bus, and what a pointless waste of time. He couldn’t do much about it anyway. He went back to looking out into the green fields, sugarcane and corn mostly. He was never sure which was which, till he noticed more carefully. It was the sort of thing that sometimes perturbed him.
“You are visiting Meerut, are you?”
He knew the question was just around the corner.
“Not exactly. I have been here on some work for a while”.
“Where are you from?”
“Bangalore. I work in a software company there. I am here on a project.”
“You are from Karnataka?”
“No, actually, I am from Tamil Nadu, but I live in Bangalore”.
“You speak good English in Tamil Nadu”
“Pardon me?” Yes, he knew he spoke good English, but was that a compliment, or was that a question, or…
“You see, in UP, we don’t learn to speak in English so much. I am an MSc student in Meerut, but we speak Hindi in college. We don’t get chances…opportunity…to speak in English.
“Oh…Ok”. So, it was a compliment then.
“When you told you were from Tamil Nadu, I decided to speak with you in English. In the South, you people speak good English, I think.“
He wasn’t sure how to respond to that. Nobody had told him that before. When he had reached Meerut, the very first week, he had been very surprised to see hazaar, thousand that is, advertisements for English coaching classes on the local cable channel. It reminded him of school and entrance coaching. That had been ten years ago. Then, there were the IIT Jee advertisements, even for the UP state exams. He had found that very amusing for some reason. He could sometimes be a bit of a cynic. Gradually, he had come to the conclusion that UP was at least 10 years behind the South, and that had made him very uncomfortable.
“I don’t know about that. I guess so. But I know lots of North Indians who speak very good English too”.
“Yes, but you know, there you know, people like speaking in English. Here, it is different.”
“When I try to speak in English with my friends, you know, they think I am trying to show off.
He thought, his friends probably said, Behen Chod.
“Yes, I guess you are probably right about that. But you know, there are many people who were in college with me who came from Tamil Medium schools. They found it very tough in college initially, but then they adjusted. Some people still don’t speak such good English, but they are in the US, you know. It doesn’t matter so much.”
“No, these days, we get good jobs only if we know good English. See, your IT companies are not in Meerut, no? They are in Bangalore, Hyderabad, Bombay only”.
He knew the student was right. Maybe he should encourage the student to practice his English. He wanted to tell him that he should speak in English at least in his friends’ circle, and hopefully they would all be serious. He was reminded of that old saying “You don’t have a choice about your relatives. Thank God you can choose your friends”. He wondered if it was presumptuous of him to say that.
He said it anyway. The student laughed. He laughed too. He was happy the student had taken it well. He wondered if he had ever given such sage advice to anyone before. Maybe this was a first. He wasn’t sure.
“What is your name… Sir?”
“Oh…Ishan. And yours?”
“Sudip Kumar. I am going to Delhi after a week. Actually, I have finished my MSc. I am going home for a few days now. But my uncle works in a plant in Himachal. I have got a job there as a Chemist. So, I will be going there after a month. But I want to go to Delhi to British Council, and take classes before that”.
“Oh, that’s good. So, will you look for a job in Delhi?”
“No, I am going to Himachal. We will see”
“There are lots of job opportunities these days. Maybe you should try in Delhi after you have taken your English coaching classes”.
“My stop has come, Sir. It was nice talking to you. You can get down in the second stop. That is Sardhana market. Take a rickshaw from there to the church.”
He watched the young man get off the bus. He thought about giving his business card, but by the time he finished thinking, Sudip had crossed the road toward the tractor on the other side.
He waved, watching the sun struggling to go down, beyond the fields. Sugarcane.