Kondostara raps his itinerary, as his knuckles rap the open door against which he leans.
The bus swerves and swoosh — air funnels through the open doors at either end.
The creak of a gear shift; the swish of the driver’s sarong. Someone’s watch clangs against the double bars against the window. The grit in the air sounds like desert sand sifting through your nostrils — yes, you can almost hear it swiftly make way through the swaying cilia that desperately attempt to hold fort against this attack.
Sweat trickles; coins jingle; fingers tap and a shout from behind “Bahinawo!”
A heave from the driver, steering wheel spins; worn rexine squeals as sweat slides between flesh and seat, like a rosin-rubbed bow on a violin. Then, quite out of the blue, the brake screeches: Oil me, yako, or next time you’ll die!
Anxiousness. The sound of sliding fingers against that nylon string. You don’t see it, but you do. In that space in the mind’s eye — just above your left ear. The vibrato of the string signals the steady approach to its target and then triiiiiiing! The bell manages to belch a ring through the rust that encrusts its rims.
Click. Ssshhshhshshs… Static. Driver switches the radio on. FM.
Hiru? Maybe Ran?
Who knows, who cares?
A momentary pause followed by organ melodies, electric guitar and clarinet floating intermittently with the ambient acoustics of the swerving bus.
Susil Fernando’s voice blares lazily. The coloured fairy lights surrounding the sign ‘me rathayata budu saranai’ above the dashboard come alive, blinking to the baila beats.
Even you and I let the driver’s swerve sway our bodies to the same rhythm.
You steal a glance at me. I pretend not to see. You’re relieved I’ve missed the beginnings of a smile playing on the corners of your lips, as you listened to the witty lyrics. You don’t know, but the space between us has now shrunk an inch or two. Must be all the swerving…
Konda decides to up the tempo and swoops his dirty-rupee fanned hand in a flourish. His “harey, harey…!” signalling the bus to move on from its latest pause.
Moving through the sea of sweat-soaked bodies, his voice floats ahead of him: “Malli, passata! Nangi, kohatada?”
This konda has that fancy ticket machine.
Chilling! Chilling! Ticket tick-tick-ticks out. Scratch of finger on paper. Red and black on faded yellow paper slips soundlessly into Nangi’s hand.
The now-empty beema packet makes a siri-siri sound as Nangi crumples it together with the ticket absent-mindedly, in the hollow of her greasy palms.
“So hot. Ammo.”
“Kannako ithing. Baa, amme, epa!”
“Amme! Aiya gahanawa!”
“Ah right, okay. I’ll be there in five minutes, machang. Bloody stuck at the traffic light, bang!”
“Allah! Indeki jummah illaya wa? Shit, missed the stop. Aiye aiye, bahinawa.”
Saw him? Yes, not bad. Quite the cute one. Sssh. He’s probably half your age. Which school wears that tie? Did he? Oh yes! Quite gratifying, cheeky dimples. Oh, there!
His ticket does a pirouette, graceful, to some quiet melancholy tune none of us hear. It falls into your lap. Black and red on faded yellowed paper, but a bright splash of blue, all numeric, hastily sprawled.
Now your heart begins to beat like a beraya in time to the baila beats in the background.
Hello, too young. Move on. Goodbye.
Smiles exchanged, end of scene.
Traffic light. Scene two must be around the corner.
On cue, swhoeeeeee!!! Shrill whistle. White helmet, khaki uniform. Traffic police. Traffic lights not working or what?
Susil made way to Desmond. Police whistle made way for the horn quartet: roundabout music. All sorts of horns. Bellows, mews, squeaks and the rev of motorbikes and three-wheelers.
“Chi! Malli, janeleng kela gahanna epa!”
“Oi meh! Naginna baha mehen. Policiyen liyay!”
You’re curious. What’s the commotion? I smile knowingly.
Time for the interlude.
“Aney, mahaththayo, mage daruwanta beheth ganna, podi adhaarayak karanna. Ping sidda wewa,” belts a cacophonic voice from a mouth full of betel-stained teeth.
Shilling shilling, taka-taka-takara-takera-tak-tak-tak. He drums his tambourine.
I look at you. Give! I would. Won’t you?
Yes, I see the questions in your head reflect in your eyes: why should you, probably a druggie.
But you feel judged by my stare. Quickly, your fingers scramble in that big malla. Digging out a five-hundred rupee note, you drop it into his old tin mug, feeling ever so proud.
The man looks dumbfounded. What luck– five hundred! He offers you a toothless grin and requests a dozen good things to come your way from his higher-ups.
Happy? Collected a blessing for the day at least.
This must be the bridge.
Lovely baritones of just-broken voices break into a chorus at the back.
Don’t turn. Too obvious. University-goers.
Gurgling giggles, teasing voices, whispers of star-crossed lovers
“Enna appa? Athu thane naan um solluren. Naan ippewe veeteku varawo?” Lilting voice, that intonation, melodious. Jaffna Tamil. Her phone rings. A R Rahman’s.
Enda padum? Can’t recall. Ah, yes, you remembered right. That’s from Mudalvan. Lovely song. My favourite too.
The gunguru tinkles to the flute, oh and there, the tabla plays now.
We both lean back. The bus moves at a constant pace. The air turns cool. Gunguru, tabla, baila organ, clap, jingle, pull squeak, shriek, squeal. Pause, repeat.
Chorus of trilingual vocals. Young, old, melodious, cacophonous, but all free.
What a symphony.
“Kotuwa! Kotuwa! Kotuwa! Bahinawanang tak gala!”
Already? You look worriedly at me.
I smile. As I get up to leave, I tap your shoulder, my bangles clink against the metal buckle of your sling-bag. We become part of the ensemble for a split second.
So, I’ll see you sometime again. Maybe next time you can stay long enough to get achcharu or some falooda at pettah?
You look down, unsure how to respond.
See you later perhaps. Or never. Time has a way of keeping us on separate tracks – the old and the new…
“Aiye, bahinawa!” I really must go now.
Silence. Silence. Silence.
“Buona Vista Interchange. Please mind the gap!”
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. They do not reflect the opinions or views of Debas.
Cover Photo: Author
Born in Kuwait to Sri Lankan Moor parents, Iman, now a Singapore citizen, spent most of her childhood in Sri Lanka, in the city of Colombo and it is here, that she developed a fondness for writing stories. She experiments with synaesthetic and cross-genre writing. Her collection of vignettes “Colomboscapes”, was published in the UK/Singapore based literary art journal, We Are A Website, in 2017. Her poem, A Better World, was featured in the book UNMASKED: Reflections on Virus-time, curated by Shamini Flint and is the co-editor of Singapore at Home: Life Across Lines, an anthology of short stories launched at the Singapore Writers Festival, 2021. When she is not writing fiction, she is engaged with academic research and consulting work in the field of public health.