Udaysingh tied the half full sack of peanuts securely with a jute rope and swung it over his back. The coarse jute rubbed against the side of his neck as he shuffled slowly toward the bus stand. The smell of dry mud, rubber, jute and sweat hung in the air. He was just in time to catch the 03:15 bus. His knees creaked with an audible pop as he boarded the bus. Crepitus, the doctors called it. He had been delaying treatment for over a year now.
He spotted a place at the back of the bus and sighed happily. The journey back home would take the best part of three hours and he was looking forward to a nap. The bus conductor came around and Udaysingh fumbled in his pocket for money. He only had two rupees, so he opened his sack of peanuts and took out the dented steel box which held his day’s earnings. He carefully counted eleven rupees and gave it to the conductor.
“Bhaisahab, the cost of the ticket is fourteen rupees. The fares have been hiked”, the conductor remarked in a monotone.
Udaysingh piped up. “How is that possible? I travel this route every week. The fare is eleven rupees!”
“I have been repeating the same thing since the past two days. The cost of diesel went up three days back. Fares for all routes have been hiked since then. You must not have travelled in the past two days. Fourteen rupees”, said the conductor, arms outstretched. Udaysingh chewed his lip and cursed. His hand dove into the steel box and he handed over three rupees whilst muttering constantly under his breath.
The rickety bus rumbled along the highway and soon Udaysingh was snoring gently.
Half an hour later Udaysingh woke up with a start with an urge to relieve himself. He waited anxiously as the bus motored along a highway specked with sleepy bunches of mud-thatched houses. Fifteen long minutes later, the bus pondered to a halt at the bus stand of a neighbouring village. Udaysingh shot out of the bus and made a beeline for the urinal at the far end of the bus stand. He was basking in welcome relief when he heard the bus horn. He hurried to make his way back. Even so, he could only wave out frantically as the bus pulled out of the stand ahead of him. He cursed and cracked his knuckles nervously when he realized that his sack of peanuts and dented steel box were in the bus. He waddled as fast as he could to the adjoining highway and started waving out to passing vehicles. A number of cars zoomed past and a lorry trundled by without stopping. Presently, a truck screeched to a halt owing to his desperate waving. Udaysingh explained his situation to a droll-faced truck driver. The truck driver regarded him curiously and told him to hop in. Udaysingh hauled himself in the passenger seat of the truck and they set off.
They rode almost silently for a couple of minutes. Udaysingh was cursing and muttering under his breath.
“Where are you coming from?”, the driver inquired casually.
“Lohagaon. I got down to relieve myself at Ratanpur bus stand and the bus sped off without me. My peanuts and my money are in the bus. I must get my sack back! Hmmm. I hope nobody runs away with it. I had half a sack full of peanuts. And my money! Those are my earnings for this entire week! I only have two rupees in my pocket. We must catch that bus.” The words tumbled out of Udaysingh’s mouth in anguish.
“Don’t worry, we’ll catch up with the bus. It cannot be more than three kilometers ahead of us. Though you must give me two rupees when we catch the bus”, quipped the driver, glancing at Udaysingh.
“Hmmm”, grunted Udaysingh, eyes fixed on the road ahead. They drove for ten minutes without any sign of the bus. The driver kept making small talk and Udaysingh responded in monosyllables. Soon the only sound that could be heard was that of the roar of the truck engine.
Udaysingh spotted it as they were rounding a bend in the road. He smacked the dashboard excitedly, “There it is!” The driver saw it half a kilometer ahead and sped up. “Sohangarh is coming up in less than a couple of kilometers. We’ll catch your bus by the time we reach the bus stand.” They pulled in at the bus stand right behind the bus. Udaysingh jumped out of his seat when the truck driver called out, “Bhaisahab, my two rupees?”
“Two rupees for what?”, snapped Udaysingh.
“We spoke about it. You said you would give me two rupees for catching up with the bus and dropping you”, the truck driver reminded him.
“Look, but I will give you no more than a rupee. I can’t spare more than that”, shrugged Udaysingh.
“Well, you are an ungrateful one, aren’t you?” frowned the truck driver, and spat out of the window in disgust. The sound of the spit and the bus horn sounded as one in perfect harmony. They both looked up and saw the bus pulling out.
“Nooooo! Wait!” shouted Udaysingh and leapt out of the truck, showing remarkable agility in spite of his ill-health. The bus trundled off and Udaysingh climbed back hurriedly into the truck. The truck driver raised his eyebrows.
“Please, quick! Help me catch that bus!” pleaded Udaysingh. The truck driver smirked and said, “I’ll help you catch it, but now you’ll have to give four rupees.”
“Hmmm! I will. C’mon now!” urged Udaysingh.
The truck driver had had enough. He wanted to get Udaysingh to his bus, get his money and be on his way. He revved the engine and threw the truck forward into a violent acceleration, sending two children flying to the pavement in fleet-footed horror. The bus was only a couple of hundred metres ahead when they swung on to the highway. He floored the truck to top speed. Udaysingh grinned as they drew to within a few meters. Just then, they both heard a loud crack. The front tyres of the truck burst and the truck veered to the shoulder of the road. The driver struggled to control the vehicle, but it ran off the road and the passenger side struck a huge oak tree. The driver bounced on his seat along with the truck. His hands gripped the steering wheel tightly as the truck ground to a bone crunching halt. He sat there for a minute, ashen faced. He finally glanced over to his side. Udaysingh had cracked his skull against the dashboard at the exact spot where he had smacked his palm a few minutes ago. The driver slipped his hand into Udaysingh’s pocket and slipped out the two rupee coin. He glanced at it and wiped the blood from his nose against the back of his sleeve. He smirked and pocketed the coin wordlessly.