New Delhi Bus Stand.
It is a December day. 8:30 pm, long past sunset. The visibility is severely low due to foggy conditions. Risky for night travelers in the NCR.
Clutching the door handle for support, Malini steps off the local bus. Her high heels make it tricky. In contrast, Imlie jumps straight to the ground in one go, not bothering with steps. She is still habituated to her village ways. Malini smiles to herself seeing this. The girls trudge forward a bit, allowing the driver to move the bus to the ‘Parking Area’ for the night. They were the last two passengers onboard, and the bus didn’t go any further.
As they glance around at their surroundings, they are met with darkness and eerie silence. The bus stand is stranded. Well, strange! A gust of cool breeze makes them shiver violently. Malini drapes her shawl tighter around herself. To think she had chosen just today to wear a half-sleeved saree! Beside her, standing in her embroidered kurta and sleeveless sweater, Imlie doesn’t seem to mind as much. She is used to weather like this in Pagdandiya, she says. Still, no matter what, it is a bad time to be out.
Why are they out here at this time anyway? Simple. The college planned a small trip for students of Imlie’s year today. Malini was one of the professors in charge. No way would Imlie have missed such an opportunity. With the rest of Tripathi family away for a couple of weeks, visiting relatives in another town, there was not much she liked at home. She, Babusaheb and Malini didi were the only ones to stay back due to college and their respective jobs. Plus, she could enjoy sight seeing along with Malini didi. So she went. With everyone crammed in the college buses, there was a lot of hooting, screaming, whistling, photography and this time the teachers joined in too. They spent a fun day touring various historical locations in New Delhi and enjoying picnic meals while on the roads. Towards the end of the day, the group visited another popular place Kingdom of Dreams in Gurugram, to watch their very renowned skit, and to the end the evening on a high. Oh, what a blast they had!
Later, as the teens were being ushered back to the buses for the return trip, Imlie dropped her purse somewhere amidst the crowd. Alas! This was a handmade piece by her Amma she couldn’t afford to lose. Upon learning, Malini immediately offered to stay back with Imlie until they found it. They must not delay the whole group. The two would easily come back later on the local bus. This is what they planned, but this is not what exactly happened. The treasure hunt for the purse took a long time, but they succeeded at last. As they ran hand in hand to catch the nearest bus to Delhi, they boarded a wrong one. Not wrong, technically, but its destination was a bus stand in Delhi they didn’t know, a good distance from their home. The bus got even late, thanks to the fog.
Coming to the present, they shuffle to the gate. There is something creepy about this place; none of them wants to spend another moment here. As they look out, a couple of trucks rush by. Otherwise, the roads are deserted too. No private vehicles or taxis. The fog hangs heavy in the air. They can barely see ten metres in front of them. It is scary because you never know what is ahead.
“I guess I should book a cab”, Malini murmurs, breaking the silence. Imlie nods, observing her surroundings curiously. She is overcome by exhaustion; she wants nothing more than to see the warm, welcoming lights of home shining in the distance, rush in, throw herself on a warm couch and doze off.
After tapping her smartphone for a few minutes, Malini sighs. “Damn, I can’t find a single cab or auto rickshaw nearby. What the hell is wrong! But then I’ve never been to this area before too. What a pity I didn’t check exactly which bus stand we were being leaded to, before stepping on the bus.”
“Malini didi, what should we do then?” Though usually very bold, Imlie senses a slight fear in the back of her mind today. After all, they are two girls alone in a lonely bus stand at night hours, with no one coming to pick them up, as of now. She is not unmindful of the facts she reads in daily newspapers. The crime rate in very high in Delhi. She especially knows how unsafe it is for women.
“Don’t worry Imlie. I am just calling Aditya to pick us up. Well and good if he manages to get a cab, else we three would have to adjust on the bike”, Malini assures her. Imlie nods again. Whether she’d be comfortable on the bike or not, is the last thing on her mind.
Malini tries Aditya’s number a few times. He doesn’t pick up. “Oh God! I’ve told him a hundred times to keep his phone handy, we never know when there might be an emergency. But this person doesn’t listen. Nicely stuck now”, she mumbles angrily. Imlie’s nervousness converts to panic in an instant. Babusaheb isn’t coming. What now? They can do nothing except wait and hope he’d call back. Maybe her imagination is running wild, but she feels like crying at the moment. They are not even familiar with this particular part of the city. And it really doesn’t appear to be anything other than a small market, whatever little they can make out in the fog. Oh, why, why didn’t they just board the college bus along with everyone else. Why did she stay back to look for the purse?
Though she appears calm on the outside, Malini is just as distressed as Imlie. This is not a joke. She is not even alone; she has the responsibility to get Imlie home safely. She opens Google Maps on her phone and enters their address. It’s almost a forty minutes’ car journey from here. No, walking is not an option then. Plus, she has her jewellery along. The real reason she feels so helpless is, she has never been through a situation like this before. Whenever out late at night, she had either her friends or parents or Aditya along, and always a certain mode of transport to get home. That is why she has no idea what is the first thing a mature person would do in such a case. Another teeth-chattering breeze blows, shaking her to reality. She grabs Imlie’s hand and leads her back inside, to a bench against the wall. It is a bit moist. They sit down.
“Malini didi, I don’t want to wait. Is there any chance we can just try to walk home? After all, who knows how long Babusaheb will take to contact us?” Imlie tries weakly. Malini shakes her head no. “Let’s wait for a bit. Don’t worry Imlie, there is nothing to stress about. I am here with you. You are not alone. You have been through tough times in Pagdandiya, right? Well, this is nothing compared to that.”
But the fear Imlie feels here, is different. A fear for safety, which she never had in Pagdandiya. The dark side of big metropolitan cities! Wait, was that the faint sound of shattering glass she just heard? Is there someone drinking, nearby? Even the driver would’ve left by now. She shudders, and rests her head on Malini’s shoulder, seeking the comfort and sense of protection she always felt with her. Thank God, she is at least not alone today. Malini didi is her elder soul sister, if not blood. She makes up her mind. The two of them would be alright as long as they have each other. But is the situation really as serious as she’s making out? She really doesn’t know. Imlie can only hope. Malini does the same. She checks the time. Past 9 pm.
Oh Aditya, do hurry up!