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94

Route Ninety-Four
A story of unfulfilled love 

Part 1

 

Her pale face is radiant under an August setting sun; she sits on a bench at the bus stop 94. A rusty rooftop above, and the bench under with its pastel green paint peeling off to a hard, grim dour. Waiting for bus no 94; it is late. Instead of searching for an alternative route, she walks a quarter of a mile every day and waits here. Day in and day out. Year in and year out until one day, she turns ninety-four herself.

 

Her tired eyes stare into oblivion and notes a solitary restless daisy through a lonely crack of the cemented road; across the bus stop, bobbing its breezy yellow head, anxious to fly away, but for its roots spiraling all the way through the gaping, jagged cranny. She lets out a sigh; her eyes light up. All she is left with is desires nestled within the cozy warmth of her heart; a place gone cold from all the waiting.

 

Where is he? The man, her one true love? He asks her to pick him up from this very bus stop, the last bus at 94. She wears a pink, floral sari which wraps around her young, smooth body. The bus never comes. She waits hours until the day is gone, afternoon and the evening. Still, no sign of buses here. An empty, abandoned stop.

 

She continues to look at the empty road ahead, still waiting for the bus arrive. The daisies are in full bloom of spring. She hears someone call her name, “Ayesha, Ayesha, look, look, I’m here.” She turns her head, and a shiver runs down her spine; she views a bare tree by the river, leaves growing out of it, disproportionately, insanely psychedelic. “Where are you, I don’t see you, I don’t see you anywhere, Mohabbat, Mohabbat, where are you, my love? Do you see me?” Ayesha asks, her heart swelling; her breathing shallow with excitement; she inhales the faint perfume of his hair oil dispersed in the air. Soon, soon he will be here and pick her up and hold her against his chest. His soft lips pressing down on her ruby red, melding into rich hot chocolate cake.

 

Part II

At Fajr, Mohabbat Ali Khan wakes up to the sound of the azaan. It drifts through the minaret of a local mosque of his neighborhood. He descends the narrow stairs, and steps outside into a mosaic courtyard through a floral inlaid arched architrave. This mosaic square is fenced in by stucco brick walls on two sides. He nearly sleepwalks toward a tap near the western wall and turns it on to do his daily ablution, wazu, before the namaaz. He begins to wash this hands, elbows, face and ankles three times. Rinses his mouth three times, and three splashes into the nostrils —three splashes for each of the body extremities.

 

During the partition at the time of independence from the British, his parents opted to stay in India, After they pass, he continues to reside in the old capital of Delhi. In the same house too, the ancestral property. A blue arched house, beautifully antique. Accustomed to communal riots, love-hate relationships are common with the Hindu, Christian and Parsi friends, but in a complex social conglomerate; he lives through and grows up with much political turmoil, not alien to situations increasingly volatile.

 

He hears the water trickle, also from the other side of these thick walls as the neighbours, the Dilliwallas are walking up. Hot tea brewing in a shack restaurant, the delicious aroma of deep-frying samosas, daal puri, parathas and omelettes swims through the morning air. After prayer, Mohabbat Ali Khan steps outside the gates to go for his customary morning walks. Munshi Giasuddin, the local barber’s salon down the alley is open. It is early, but he already has a client. He is sitting in a wooden straight-backed chair by the roadside. Munshi is rubbing up soap on his beard and chatting away. He nods at Mohabbat as he walks past.

           

Mohabbat walks a mile. His usual rounds are all the way up to the Jama Mosque, and then looping back. He usually performs Fajr at the mosque which takes care of both the namaaz as well as the morning walk. Today, however, he is pressed for time, and prays at home. He looks at the barber through the corners of his eyes, and runs a finger absent-mindedly through his thick beard twisting up his moustache, thinking that his beard also needed a trim. He walks a couple of steps ahead and sits down on a hard bench at the shack restaurant for some hot tea and samosa.

 

“Salaam Janaab, how are you this morning?” a tea boy asks.

“Walaikummassalam,” Mohabbbat replies over a slight cough. “Yeah, I’m very well.”

“Tea and samosas? Freshly fried,” The tea boy asks.

 

Mohabbat nods, and sees that the tea boy is disappearing around the corner to fetch the order, while he sits in the mellow morning light, watching the barber’s precision cutting next door. His client spits betel saliva occasionally on the side, at which the barber lifts his razor sharply away from his face.

 

Mohabbat has a date today with his Ayesha in an unkempt mossy garden near her house. His eyes dilute just thinking of her. He must wear her favourite hair oil, today. His thought is interrupted as his order of tea and hot samosas arrives. He bites into its crunch carefully, sipping and savouring the white tea at the same time. He wants to pop into the barber shop next door after he finishes, here.

 

Over to the barber shop, he looks at all the hair oil bottles from various brands shelved around a glassed window bay. He picks up Jaba Kushum which is her favourite. He pays up and leaves the shop. The barber smiles at him; he leaves with a polite nod.

 

Mohabbat walks home. He enters through the gate and climbs up the stairs. He decides to take a shower before he leaves for his date. He puts on a white embroidered kurta and pajamas. He lavishly oils his hair with Jaba Kushum and runs a comb through his beard. He comes downstairs and steps out on the road; he hears howls closing in like the fury of tsunami. He sees a huge mob approaching his house; a sporadic riot is at his gate.

 

The bus no 94 arrives in time. Mohabbat is lucky to escape the mob’s scourge. He stands almost camouflaged against the wall’s whiteness. People enter his home, and they drag out his possessions; rattling, rusty trunks, his books, his charpai bed, his father’s easy chair, hookah, and his violin, hurling them all out on the street in a heap. He says nothing—an innocent bystander, he trudges along the wall with caution until he arrives at the bus stop. He falls a few times before he is able to ascend the bus; a sweaty forehead, a few drops of sweat fall over his eyes lids, an already wet beard. He wonders if there’s riot also at Ayesha’s place. He finds a window seat through the crowd. Stumbling, he sits down.

 

The bus is moving. He lets out a sigh of relief. Thankfully, there’s hope. He is thinking of starting a new life with Ayesha some place safer, perhaps abroad where there’s peace and stability. As long as the bus is moving, there is some hope. He looks around him and sees panic in the wet frowns of his fellow passengers. This bus will take them away where all can rest in peace. Suddenly, an explosion catapults the bus.

 

Part III

 

Young Ayesha’s sweet pink sari comes undone; it is noosed around her neck, strangulated. The pink hue reflects a bluish blush on her silken, smooth skin. This place is eerily deserted. Doctors know better. She lies in a white starched hospital bed. Her skin is decrepit, mottling. Mohabbat is here, coming towards her, she waits, she hears his voice, echoing through her comatose brain. She desires to go on a safari with him, maybe not on the unlucky 94 after all. He is smiling … she sniffs the odour … her favourite oil brushed into the strands of his hair. Glib winds whisper into her ears. Ninety-four years of wait cannot atone for this wrong. The bus has changed course. It does not come here anymore.    

Writing with Pen

Mehreen Ahmed is an award-winning Australian novelist born in Bangladesh. Her historical fiction, The Pacifist is an audible bestseller. Included in The Best Asian Speculative Fiction Anthology, her works have also been acclaimed by Midwest Book Review,and DD Magazine. and nominated for Pushcart, botN and James Tait. Her recent publications are with Litro, Otoliths, and Alien Buddha.

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