January 9, 2002

across three zones for 70p

my adventures in london have officially begun.

all i wanted to do was reach uxbridge station, at a shop where praveen said he would be waiting for me. for a distance that requires one bus and 10 minutes, it took me three hours, and three buses. just because i took a detour to rashmi‘s house on the way.

my digicam ready to catch anything that looked colourful, having exchanged lunch and giggles with rashmi, and brimming with excitement about travelling all alone, i did something that is unfailingly characteristic of me: i caught the right bus from the wrong bus stop.

london is neatly divided into *zones. i live in zone 4 and was asked to take the 207. and i did just that, except that i forgot to cross the road. travelling all the way till its final destination – one hour, one way – on a bus pass that actually was not supposed to take me till there, i thought of praveen who had taken 30 minutes off his busy office-hours and would now be twiddling his thumbs outside the shop, wondering what was taking me so long.

shrinking into my jacket to hide from the cold, i strained to look outside the huge frost-coated windows, as the rain and fog did nothing to speed up the inching traffic. later as my eyes got adjusted to the patterns on the glass, i found out what was adding to the minutes. major roadside construction work, just what i needed :-|

i resigned to my self-imposed condition, and decided to wait for the bus to take me home at its own sweet pace. the helpful bus driver advised me to take a 607 that would reach me home faster. since i never had been on a double-decker (in london) before, i decided to look for a seat in the almost vacant-bus upstairs. here i met my second adventure for the day.

a young schoolboy of about 13 or 15, who looked worn out and bogged by what seemed to be his schoolbag. something about the boy made him look apart from the seven or nine other noise-making students who got into the bus along with him. i shrugged my suspicions away, telling myself that he must have had a bad day at school, and that nothing else was wrong with the picture. but it was.

seated on the adjacent row facing the glass, he put his head down and slumped in his seat. was he unwell? was he drugged? as his schoolmates got off the bus, the deafening noise changed into a frightening silence as i watched this boy from the corner of my eye. he had eastern features hiding behind a very-english appearance, tall, thin eyes and yellow skin. there were just the two of us in the upper deck of the bus now, and my faithful woman-intuition told me that the boy knew he had been noticed.

pulling out a shaky finger after uncrossing his hands, he slowly scribbled on the frosty window pane. in an handwriting that looked like the font used by horror-movie posters, he drew a little figure, and wrote haltingly:

“please….help….me…”

that did it. i had had more than enough excitement for the day. it was freezing and i was in a terrible hurry to empty my bladder. and then this boy was asking for attention. part of me wanted to ask him if he was alright and if he needed help, part of me was also terribly afraid of what might happen…

as the dilemma raged in my head, the boy stood up and painfully walked away. i should have been relieved as i watched him go from my window on the upper deck, but he turned to look back at me! and instead i felt a deep sense of guilt grip me as i saw him fully for the first and last time.

i guess the most memorable adventure is the most recent one.

i once absent-mindedly boarded a train for secunderabad; had an inch-long pin in my foot for four months because no one would believe me, until i got an xray to prove it; missed my bombay-bound train from bangalore, faced nasty interviewers and got lost a thousand times, and each time i felt things couldn’t get any worse. but perhaps this one wins a nomination for the ‘scariest experience’ award.

i’ll never forget that sad haunting face, and i sometimes feel i should have asked him what was wrong. but i was terribly afraid then. i wonder how anyone else would react…

what would you do?