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Stranger on a Bus

Rochelle Almeida

She was not the kind of co-passenger I expected on the long bus-ride from Heathrow to Harrow. Yet of all the suave English gentlemen who could have given me a hand loading my impossibly heavy baggage into Bus Number 140 at the airport terminus, she had stepped forward, sari and all, taking firm grip of one bulging suitcase while I did battle with the other. When I had stashed my two cases on the rack inside, and had paid the incredibly low rate of one pound sixty pence into the fare-box, she gestured welcomingly, moving further into her seat to permit me to occupy the empty one besides her.

In less than the hour it took to go through winding suburban streets in a gray drizzle, I garnered enough material about her life to fill a slim volume. I had made the habitual decision to spend a few days in London en route to New York from India. Thanks to my childhood Anglo-Indian friends from Calcutta, Doreen and Wendell Symons, who generously provided a home and hospitality, this had become a somewhat customary summer detour for me. But since I wasn't traveling on the weekend and they were tied up at work, I used public transport into Harrow. They would pick me up from a local tube station later that afternoon. Much as I regretted having to struggle through the ordeals of a rainy day, heavy baggage and the hazards of public transport, I would always be grateful for the opportunity to have met the irrepressible Mrs. Patel.

She seemed to be in her mid-sixties. In a rather crumpled cotton sari, and frumpish chignon, she could be anyone's Gujarati grandma out on a shopping spree. Tendrils of gray hair escaped from her bun at the back so that she repeatedly tucked them back into her black hair net. She had that dark Dravidian complexion, more typical of South Indians that Gujarati ones, which contrasted sharply with her most enviable set of sparkling white teeth. And she smiled frequently.

As might have been expected, our conversation began with, "You're from India?"

I nodded and smiled. Somewhat redundantly, considering that she was sari clad, wore a prominent bindi and spoke English with a decidedly Gujarati accent, she informed me, "I am also from India." Then, "You've come from where?"

"Calcutta", I replied shortly, still rather reluctant about exchanging small talk with a stranger, even a very helpful one.

"And you are going where now?"

"To Watford."

"But you don't look like you live all the time in India," she said, taking in my

jeans and parka, my weather-beaten Timberlands and my Samsonite suitcases.
"I don't actually. I live in the United States. In Philadelphia. I'm returning home after a summer visit to Calcutta where my folks still live."

"Ah", she smiled, broadly and nodded. "You enjoyed?"

"Yes, I did", I said, warming to her interesting personality. "I always love going to India on vacation."

"So how come you stopped in London. You have family members here?"

"Friends, as a matter of fact. They're the ones who live in Watford. They'll be meeting me at the tube-station. Say, could you tell me where I should get off? They said Harrow-Wealdstone tube station."

"No problem, no problem. I will show you. Don't worry".

Mrs. Patel informed me that the journey would take a little over an hour. Since the day was horribly wet, I guessed that it was likely to take longer. I turned my face towards the window, the better to drink in the sights of impossibly huge pink roses climbing along front porches and over windows whose interiors were hidden by the foamiest froths of lace in neighborhoods with names like Hayes and Northolt. As the bus wound its way through those impeccably neat suburban streets with identical townhouses, red pillar post-boxes and newly constructed bus-stops, Mrs. Patel told me her story.

She had arrived in England only three years previously, after an unendingly torturous life in East Africa. But that was not where she had been born. She hailed from a tiny village in Gujarat. She mentioned its name, but it has since slipped my memory. Speaking Gujarati exclusively through her years in school in India, she was married off, by arrangement, to a much older Gujarati man who lived in Nairobi, Kenya. Needless to say, she had little choice in the matter. "When I was eighteen years old, I left India", she said, "and I have never gone back there. I am sure it must have changed very much since those days."

"Indeed, it has," I said, never ceasing myself to wonder both how my countrymen could stay away from India for so many years on end and how much the country changed each time I visited it. "You would be amazed by everything."

By this stage, I felt far more comfortable with her. It was impossible to feel other than safe in her presence. A small smile played constantly around her lips. She gave me her complete attention as if I was the most interesting person she had ever had the good fortune to meet. She seemed oblivious to every other passenger on the bus, including those who came in with dripping umbrellas and squelching shoes and sent a shower of fine spray over everyone else, much to my annoyance.

"Did you like living in Africa?" I asked, thinking it only polite to continue our conversation.

"Beginning time, it was alright, I suppose. I learned to speak and read English there. But then, many things changed. As the years passed by, my husband's business began to slow down and we became poorer."

That was when the harassment began. Mr. Patel blamed her for becoming pregnant each time and giving birth to the four children whom he could ill afford to feed. The emotional abuse started first. He stayed away from home at nights, fully convincing her that he had found himself a mistress. Then, the drinking began, so that the man she married became completely unapproachable. " Not a single word I could speak to him," she said, still smiling slightly. "If I asked him one question, he could slap me on my face. Hard."

Mrs. Patel did write to her folks in India, but they ignored her mail for months on end. And when she did send a letter with a neighbor who was visiting Gujarat and promised to hand deliver it, they responded by washing their hands of any responsibility towards her or her children who, as they grew, lived in fear of their father, maintaining their distance from him and pitying her for being trapped in his clutches.

"So many times I thought of running away from him," she recalled, "but only the thought of my children kept me with him. What would happen to them if I left? He would ill-treat them. Better to stay with him until they grew up", she explained.

Somehow she endured those endless nightmare years but they weighed upon her health and made her sickly. Asthma assaulted her and a series of allergies left her breathless and weak. Never having an independent income, she was unable to support herself in Kenya. Whatever little her husband gave her by way of housekeeping money, she funneled off to buy her children little treats–a pack of crayons perhaps, a bag of candy, a stuffed toy, a box of marbles. Two girls and two boys–Shakuntala, Amrita, Dinesh and Saurav--had watched silently as their mother was bullied through their childhood years. "One day, I thought, they will remember how much I sacrificed for them and they would look after me," she said.

But, one by one, as the children grew older and flew the family nest, she heard from them less and less. Unable to wait to put distance between their unhappy parents and miserable childhoods, they took refuge in their own marriages, university studies and successful professions. On hearing this, I sighed. It was the same story everywhere. I had just returned from Calcutta, where, in church, rather frequently, my parents pointed out to me their own Anglo-Indian friends, rapidly facing destitution, upon being abandoned by their children who had emigrated overseas. "Ageing disgracefully", was how my mother put it. Former railway motormen or schoolteachers, their retirement funds had long run out in a country whose inflation had broken all expectations. As their children struggled through careers as clerks in British ministries or travel agents in Australia, their fading blue eyes still contained the hope that the next postal delivery would bring that life-saving draft or coveted check. But these never arrived. Disowned by their own kith and kin, these Anglo-Indian retirees had grown dependant on the paltry pensions doled out to them monthly by philanthropic organizations based in the West. My own father, conscious of the diminishing size of his Provident Fund, kept the wolf from the door by his few shrewd investments in the stock market. On the many occasions that I suggested they move to the States with me, my parents smiled kindly and shook their heads. "India is where we were born and brought up", said my father. "Thank-you, my girl, but we are best off right here in Calcutta."

And while my mind raced through these thoughts, marveling at the similarity between Mrs. Patel's circumstances and so many ageing members of my own community in India, she continued her story. Her husband had grown older and deeply haggard. No longer attractive to other women, he returned to her embraces, hoping to find in her loyal arms, the solace that, in his old age, continued to elude him. She had long awaited his return but was not prepared to forgive. Since the future of her children did not worry her anymore, she took the almost unheard step for her community and her generation, of leaving him and filed, one fine day, with little warning or mental preparation, for a divorce. She called her own children as witnesses to the emotional and physical abuse she had suffered at his hands all those years. But she need not have worried. Her petition remained uncontested, her husband still stiffened by disbelief of her gutsy move, to react coherently.

Then began her long and arduous attempt to find rehabilitation in Kenya's failing economy of the late nineties. Despite her best efforts, she said, to make a living for a while as a cashier at a local grocery store and later re-shelving books in the local public library, she was unable to earn a decent wage. It was when debt threatened to engulf her that her relatives in England, her sister Shubha's family, decided to sponsor her application for immigration.

"Oh, you were so lucky", I interjected, "that you were able to make a life in England."

She acknowledged my words fervently but swore that it hadn't been easy. With anti-immigrant sentiment growing daily, politicians in Great Britain were faced with a hostile electorate who did not agree with their do-good gestures towards refugees from Kosovo and Croatia, Bosnia and Hersogovina. "The government was busy dealing with the Eastern Europeans", she said, "and they had little time for immigrants from Asia and Africa. For a long while, it did not look very good."

In the middle of this conversation, she turned to me and said, "What's your good name, please?"

"Ingrid", I responded. "Ingrid de Mellow."

"Ah, Christian?" she asked. "From Goa? Lots of Christians were there in Nairobi from Goa."

"Anglo-Indian, actually", I corrected her. "From Calcutta. Alipore."

She nodded and smiled. "I am Mrs. Patel."

I shook hands with her, said, "Nice to meet you" then stared out the window hoping to find my bearings. "Don't worry, don't worry", she assured me. "Long time more for your stop. I will get down with you. I will not leave you alone."

I was astounded. "But won't that put you out of your way? Where are you heading to?"

"Oh, I have no place to go," she said. I watched her, open-mouthed. "I just sit on this bus every day, early in the morning and I go to end of route and then I take another bus and go to end of that route. Evening time, I get down near my flat and go back home. Every single day I am doing this."

"Good heavens! Whatever for?"

"Best way to get out and see the world. See? I meet people this way. Look? I met you and I got to talk to you. If I sat at home, I would be in empty-empty Council flat watching whole day TV. I don't like TV much, so I go out for bus rides in summer time."

"Well, isn't that an awful waste of money?"

"What money?" she laughed and fished deep down in her string bag. "You see this pass?" she asked, showing me a card with her photograph on it. "This pass is given to all Senior Citizens in London. With this card, we can ride the buses and underground for free."

I stared at her in disbelief. Surely she had to be joking. "Didn't she have a job? Or any other place to get to?"
"I am retired", she chuckled. "Once you are over sixty years, everything this government takes cares of. This is wonderful government. It is wonderful country. Tony Blair, God will bless him, he is very giving man. This government has taken place of my children. It is taking care of me in my old age."

"I don't understand," I began. "In what way does the government take care of you?"

The British government, it appeared, arranged to give Mrs. Patel an immigrant visa when they discovered the extent of her personal suffering. Though her relatives had filed papers on her behalf, it was left to the immigration authorities to decide whether or not she was deserving of British largesse. How could they possibly have granted immigrant rights to a woman who was so elderly, I wondered, and who had long ceased to be a productive member of society? Was it asylum she had sought? Did they give her refuge on humanitarian grounds? But she refused to get into the technicalities of her case, saying, "Only God helped me. It was only prayers. My great-great faith in Satya Sai Baba made it happen."

I listened in silence. "You know Satya Sai Baba?" she inquired.

"I have heard of him", I responded, seeing images of a plump South Indian swami with a benevolent smile and a large Afro that had become his signature hairstyle.

"He's wonderful-wonderful man," Mrs. Patel said, and I thought, oh boy, here comes the lecture. She will now try to indoctrinate me about another one of India's many godmen.

To my surprise, she did not. However, she did disclose that since that time, she had become a fervent devotee of the Hindu spiritualist who lived in the South of India with a massive following. She was unable to say enough about him and his generosity. He had shown her the way to help others, to return the good deeds that had been generously showered upon her, she said.

And while she tried her best to make me see sense, I was still unable to take it all in. The British government, she explained, did not just provide safe passage out of Africa, but once she arrived on British soil, being that she was an elderly woman, had also granted her a monthly stipend to provide for her expenses. She was advised to lose no time in applying for government housing--a Council flat, as she termed it--and before long, she was able to move out of Shubha's home into her own little bedsitter in which she lived rent-free.

I took in the details of her story with a growing sense of wonder. To me, it all amounted to such a marvelous rescue and transformation of a practically destitute woman into someone with a sense of pride and independence. That dignity which had eluded her throughout her youth was finally hers in the evening of her life. Housing was not the only thing to which she was entitled, she said. Medical expenses were non-existent, thanks to Britain's National Health Service, transportation costs were covered by the renewable monthly pass. This left her with a generous allowance for clothing and food. The government provided her with three hundred pounds every two weeks to cover grocery bills. "How much I can eat?" she asked rhetorically. "Just little dal chaval everyday and some dahi and fruits, bas. Not costing much."

I remained silent, not knowing how to respond. "You know what I do with the money I save?"

She looked at my puzzled face and said, "Oh yes, I am saving lot of money. I receive six hundred pounds per month, but I do not spend more than two. I have just few saris and some chappals. In winter, I am needing coat and some good boots. That's all."

"Well, I suppose you send the money to your children?"

"Oh no, not at all." She laughed mirthlessly. "Enough they have. Full and plenty. They don't need few hundred pounds from me. No, no, no. I send all my savings to India."

"To India? I repeated blankly. "To whom?"

"I am sending it to that place near Bangalore where Satya Sai Baba has set up beautiful hospital. Every six months, I am sending to him about five thousand pounds; ten thousand pounds per year, I give entirely into his hands because Baba helped me to be in this wonderful country. I have great-great faith in him."

I stared at her in disbelief. "Personally that hospital I have not seen", she continued, "but Baba has sent me pictures. It's beautiful. They are having all kinds of facilities. Leading Indian doctors from USA are coming there at different times in the year to donate time and give free-free advice. Nobody in that hospital pays anything for treatment. It is all free!"

All free? In India? Was she sure? Or was she being taken for a ride?

"All free," she reiterated. "Entire hospital was built by foreign donations and maintained by faithful followers outside India. People like me are sending money and keeping it going. Now Baba is getting ready to build another hospital". While she enlightened me, she smiled broadly, deeply triumphant at being the bearer of such great news and clearly delighted to be associated with such philanthropic zeal. Then, something suddenly occurred to me. Was she telling me these things to squeeze a donation out of me? Did she expect me to feel guilty enough to reach into my own wallet for my checkbook? I did not know what one could put past her.

I was about to say something in anticipation of her plea for a donation when a few moments later, she tugged on my arm and said, "Soon your stop is coming. Don't worry, you take one suitcase, I will handle other one. I will get down and wait with you until your friend comes."

"I would never dream of imposing on you like that", I began, but she silenced me by walking up to the driver and requesting him to be patient at the next stop as there were two suitcases to be unloaded. Before I knew it, she was heaving one of them off the luggage rack, inducing me to do the same with the other. When the stop arrived, she was already at the door, while I stood close behind her. We were deposited in the midst of a busy traffic island with cars whizzing past as I rolled my baggage painfully towards the sidewalk. For her age and her structure, she was a strong woman and showing no signs of asthma, she handled the second one rather splendidly.

"Let's wheel these to opposite side", she said, leading me towards the bottom of a flight of stairs that had a sign at the top saying Harrow-Wealdstone. "Your friends told you to meet them where?"

"They told me to get off the bus at Harrow-Wealdstone tube station, so I guess we're at the right spot."

"Yes," she agreed. "This is the place. Let's chat and wait."

Doreen was not expected to pick me up for at least another half hour. Mrs. Patel used the time to convince me that she was not a lonely, bored soul, but someone with a mission, a purpose in life. "As you can see, I keep myself busy," she said. "Suddenly, now, after so many years of ignoring me, my children want me to sponsor them to come to England. But," she smiled shrewdly, "now is my time in life to ignore them."

"But wouldn't you want to have them close to you?" I asked. "Surely they would have better lives in this country what with all the political troubles in Africa…"

"Of course it would be better for them," she said, "and they are now begging me to sponsor them. But for me it would not be good."

"What do you mean?"

"What I would become once my children arrived here?"

I shrugged ignorance in response.

"Their servant. Free-free babysitter for their children. Only living to do their cooking and cleaning for them while they were out at work. Baba, no thanks. I am now by myself and I am enjoying. If my children come here, they will criticize me, comment on my clothes, tell me to stop wearing sari, wear pant and shirt. Better to stay far from their kish-pich".

"But don't you miss them?"

"Not at all. That Kenya life I have put behind me. Now I think only about my life here. I enjoy. I am liking it the way I am now. Winter is too cold, but", she shrugged. "it's alright otherwise."

But surely she had to be lonely?

"Some other Gujerati ladies I have seen here", she continued. "Sad they are and tired always. Working like servants in the house whole day and not having any friends. Nice-nice houses they are having, but what's the use? It's not their house. It's their children's house and no time for them the children have. Whole day working making money."

It wasn't long before Doreen drove up in her little black car and waved from across the street. As she negotiated her way around the traffic island, Mrs. Patel told me that it was time for her to leave. I steeled myself for the donation request, but none came. I did not quite finish thanking her for all her help when Doreen pulled up and enveloped me in a huge hug. By the time I extricated myself from her warm embrace, Mrs. Patel had almost disappeared. I saw her back retreating towards the bus stop on the opposite side of the street, the ends of her sari dampened by the wet roads, though thankfully it had stopped drizzling a long while ago. Presumably, she would take the Number 140 bus going in the other direction, back towards Heathrow.

Doreen helped me load my baggage into the tiny trunk of her car and apologized for keeping me waiting. She had been held up at work, she explained, and couldn't leave sooner.

"No problem", I replied. "I had the most interesting companion all the way on the bus and right here while I was waiting for you. There. There she is. Take a look at her." As Doreen banged shut the door of the car's trunk, I caught my last glimpse of Mrs. Patel, who carefully lifted the pleats of her sari to climb aboard another red double-decker as it lumbered into sight. I tried to give her one last wave, but I don't believe that she saw me.

That evening, over dinner, I told Doreen and Wendell all about my unexpected encounter with a courageous and very generous old woman. Surprisingly, neither one of them, upon hearing the story, could perceive Mrs. Patel the way I did. "Hmmpph", Doreen stormed, "That's exactly what is wrong with this country. All these immigrants keep pouring in and living on State welfare. Have you any idea how high our taxes are? We pay so much to keep these people idle. It's infuriating. Blair is nuts and the present government will never survive. There is nation-wide agitation towards these people who come here and live off public money."

"How fair is it, do you think", Wendell added "to take money from the British tax payer and channel it out towards India? It's one thing to do charity when you are earning the money yourself. But to be a recipient of charity in the first place and then send it to another country, that's not noble. I'm sorry", he continued, "that's a very misplaced sense of generosity." He also explained something that Mrs. Patel had left out. "If she sponsored her children and brought them to Britain, she would become financially dependant on them and would cease to receive government aid, you see."

I felt sorry that I had brought my friend into the conversation for though I knew that I would never see her again, I had begun to think of my unlikely companion as a dear friend. In the next few days, I would do the things I always did when in London–browsing among the dusty stacks at Foyle's, foraging for gourmet English preserves at Fortnum and Mason before treating myself to High Tea at the Ritz, choosing natural sea sponges at the Victorian toiletry shops in the Burlington Arcade. Then, I would board my flight and return to my regular life as a graphic artist with a home-based business in Philadelphia. I would put Mrs. Patel out of my mind, and, no doubt, the memory of our chance encounter would grow dimmer with every passing year, only to be resurrected on the odd occasion that I visited Calcutta and saw for myself the poverty-stricken Senior Citizens of my own community.

But in my heart, I silently wished her, at that very moment of argument with my resentful tax-paying friends, many happy years in the country that within a few short years, she had grown to love so dearly. How like Blanche Dubois we all are, I couldn't help thinking. How true it is that we all rely on the kindness of strangers.

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