I can never get over how an insignificant choice in my past changed the course of someone’s life.

 

I climbed up the stairwell on the bus, its steps steeper than my pencil skirt could permit. As soon as I entered the coach, I inhaled in the unventilated air, lined with sweat and smoke. I jostled my way down the aisle, keeping my eyes peeled for an empty seat (unlikely present) and my body away from prying hands (likely present). With a stroke of luck, I found a vacant seat in a far corner, the only empty window seat no one wanted to sit on as it was near the emergency door that remained half-open. I sat with my handbag on top of my lap, my hands cradling it close, idly looking out the window to pass time. We passed another bus stop, but the bus didn’t halt. It never stopped there — it remained deserted almost always. As we whooshed past, my eyes caught sight of a splash of red. A red dupatta, tied around the neck of a young girl, no more than fifteen. Her big doe eyes widened as the bus approached and her shoulders drooped in defeat as it moved on, never halting.

What should have been a minor incident in the humdrum of my big city life now haunted me. That night I went to sleep with the vibrant red scarf imprinted on my shut eyelids. The next morning, when I boarded the bus again, slapping away the almost wandering hands of the conductor as he helped me up the monstrosity they called stairs, I beelined straight for the unwanted exit seat. I looked intently this time and was not disappointed. She was there. Her hair tied back today, but her red dupatta was still waving merrily in the wind. She took in a sharp breath as she caught sight of the bus, and exhaled wearily as it thundered past, its cacophonous horn blaring proudly.

This continued, for a week, then two and then three. Each time the bus came, the red-scarfed girl gazed at it longingly, her eyes tracing the big blue letters written on the side of the bus. She consumed my thoughts. How could someone, without fail, arrive every day to a bus stop to catch the bus but never garner enough courage to signal it to stop? After a month had passed, I made my decision. Five minutes before reaching the stop, I told the conductor that I wanted to disembark there. The conductor looked me, puzzled, and then he seemed to shrug it off. After all, Indian women are known to make unreasonable demands. I got off, the steps seeming steeper with every descent. I went to the girl, her caramel skin glinting in the piercing afternoon sunlight, and tapped her on the shoulder. I could see in her eyes the blue letters fade into a glimmer of recognition. I simply said, “From tomorrow, there will be an empty seat, the one next to the emergency exit with the faulty lock, the one no one likes to sit on.”

As I walk down that same road, past the same old bus stop after a decade of transformation, I hear the familiar sound of a certain bus’s horn. I see a mature, confident girl in the window of the exit seat, smartly dressed with a handbag on her lap, a tattered red dupatta tied around the strap. She looks at me and smiles and I smile back. The bus stops for the girl to get off and she alights elegantly, walking towards me. I ask her and she tells me that the bus stops for her. Everyday.

 

– Tanvi Jain, Delhi Public School, Noida

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