Standing on the side of the road, I stood ready to hold my breath at the black arm of exhaust that shoots out of the tail pipe with fingers that expand in the air, clings to my hair and settles in my lungs. Without a scarf, I held my hand over my mouth and nose, I squinted my way into the already crowded bus and managed to squeeze myself into the space between the door and the first row of seats. (There is a tactic to where you stand and for those who never make that discovery – they’re likely to miss their stop.)
The khalashi bhai hung out the door yelling our route and destination, “Jawlakhel-Lagankhel-Jawlakhel-Lagenkhel-Ekantakuna-Lagenkhel!!” he strung the locations together as if on a mission to discover the new longest word. With an understood silence from passengers and those passing by, the bus creaked to a start, spat out dark clouds, and groaned on the crumbling asphalt. I hung onto the bar, my 5 feet frame a good fit for the low ceilinged bus, arm extended anticipating the inclines and slopes, feet braced for the heavy lean of bodies on the rollercoaster road. “Jawlakhel-Lagenkehl,” the boy of eight or nine said to everyone and no one in particular hoping to shove a few more commuters onto our bus.
With a slice of window in front of me, I could see his hair browned by dirt blowing in the lazy wind, his small shoulders slowly building muscle, his body and perhaps his life taking shape. Jolting at stops, ignoring the angered blare of other horns, counting cash and reluctantly returning change, the boy remained mostly expressionless except for the large toothy smile he gave to some dais he must have known. I watched as one tousled his hair and I wondered if that was the extent of affection he received.
Glancing around, the bus was carrier to the usual – a few school girls with twin ribboned braids hanging over their shoulders, a college boy with bent neck trying to lose his discomfort to the music in his ears, young mothers with toddles at their feet or on the lap of a nearby seated passenger, everyone minding their own business, gazing at spots of no particular interest, moving to the will and wiles of the potholes and bent tin of the bus.
“Jawlakhel,” the khalashi bhai yelled without the tone indicative of a question, “Chha bhai!” I say hoping he’s heard me and I won’t have to resort to panicked yelling. “Lau ta didi, bhara nikaldai garnus hai?” he says while I, already well prepared, hand over a 10 rupee note and 3 rupees in change as I get off. Unaware and uncaring of who I am or where I’m off to next, I hear “Lagenkhel-Lagenkhel-Lagenkhel” as his voice trails off and disappears in the sound track of Jawlakhel.