The book in his hand was the first thing that drew my attention to the man sitting beside me but it was the absolute lack of exhaustion in his demeanour that made my attention stay on him. 

At the day’s end, in a bus full of worn-out, exhausted passengers, the man stood out. The expression, “as fresh as a daisy” came to my mind as I observed how his face glowed, how not a single strand of his fashionably styled hair was out of place. I could still make out the sharp creases of iron in his cotton shirt. He reminded me of kids in spick-and-span uniforms, waiting for their school buses in the morning, their wet hair combed to meticulous perfection by their mothers.

Conscious about how messy I appeared in comparison, I sat straighter, tucking behind my ears the loose strands of hair that had escaped my ponytail and tried to appear calmer, less exhausted, as if I hadn’t spent a tiring day in the office. I wondered what he was reading. 

The man caught me surreptitiously trying to read the title of the book in his hand. 

He grinned at me. “It’s a thriller. By a Japanese author.” 

He closed the book and showed me the title. Newcomer by Keigo Higashino. How carefully he first put the bus ticket in the book to mark the page!

“I have read Higashino’s Devotion of Suspect X,” I said, adding, “I love reading Japanese authors.”


“I feel, no one understands a lonely mind better than them.”

“Are you lonely?” 

His stare made me squirm. Too many thoughts crowded my minds, one upon another, from which I tried, but failed to elicit one coherent reply.

The man seemed to sense my discomfort. He steered the conversations back to books.

“I find the mothers in Chinese novels very lonely,” he said.

“Aren’t all mothers lonely?” I asked, not meaning anything, just glad to say something. 

“Everyone suffers loneliness.”

“But only a few authors write well about it,” I said, this time with conviction. 

“Like your Japanese authors?” The man grinned again, adding, “They write well about crimes too. Have you read In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami?”

The bus made its way along its route, picking up and dropping off passengers. Immersed in conversation, I didn’t notice the setting sun. We were discussing the male gaze of the protagonists in the Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s works, when I realised that the next stop would be mine.

These days, everyone, including my sisters, was preoccupied with Instagram reels and Netflix. It’s an opportunity to converse with someone who appreciated books. So, when he suggested it, I sent him an Instagram follow request.  

You didn’t meet a reader every day. Otherwise, I was not the kind who easily gave in to a conversation with a stranger in the bus. Or followed them on Instagram. 

Outside the house, I spoke with measured gravity, smiled and laughed only on the demand of etiquette, and rarely joked. I was the type to observe others in silence. With eyes cast down, I observed how a colleague began licking his lips as the lunch hour approached or how my boss always sneezed in odd numbers. 

I always saved these observations for when I was home. Then, I would regale my younger sisters with the juicy tit-bits. The three of us would burst into fits of laughter, till the door in our room parted open and mother hobbled in, trying to quiet her three daughters.

She would whisper, “Keep your voices down, your father will wake up.” 

For a while, we would gather our heads together to gossip in a hushed murmur, till one of us, usually me, again spilled out in laughter. Sometimes Sangeeta, sometimes Ruchita would put a palm over my guffawing mouth. But this caution lacked intention and only served to make us laugh harder. We would double over in laughter, rolling on top of one another. The bed would start creaking at all the movements.

It wasn’t until our father coughed and cursed in his bed, that silence settled in our household. Then, we could hear Bhola in the next door yard, its barks piercing the midnight air with long, drawn out moans of grief. One by one, the dim light from our phones would fade into darkness. 

I was the loudest inside the house because outside, I was so quiet. 

Outside the house, I always remained demure. As if father’s red-rimmed, yellow gaze followed me to the bus stop, to the market-place, to my office, to the music school where I conducted weekend lessons and to the park, marking my every step, my every movement, always beseeching me to be quiet, proper; as if one toe out of line and father would hiss at me, releasing the reek of alcohol that now never left his breath.

Years ago, when returning from college, I felt a pricking sensation at the back of my neck, as if someone was watching me. I turned around, to find father staring at me, patches of red blotting his bloated face, making him look so hideous that I didn’t want to acknowledge him in front of my friends. I was spared this duty when he walked away, his stride fast and wobbly. 

The moment I entered the house, the overpowering stench of alcohol hit me, like a punch in the face. Father had then recently turned to alcohol after losing his job. He usually drank in his room, away from the eyes of his three daughters. That day, he was sitting in the hall, his glass of whiskey perspiring into water beads as the ice cubes in it melted. I could see the effort father needed to keep sitting upright on the sofa and not slump down. 

Then I noticed mother. Crumpled on the floor in a corner! Her saree clinging in loose bounds around her thin frame, riding up to her knees, exposing bruises. Tears rolled down mother’s swollen eyes as she gestured to me, a crooked finger on her quivering lips, pleading me to be quiet.

“Is t-this w-why I send you t-to college? S-so that you c-can seduce b-boys on t-the street?” father roared, making the walls tremble. Then I realised. It was not the walls trembling, but me.

“Is t-this what your m-mother t-taught you, t-to j-jiggle your b-body in front of b-boys, t-to t-throw yourself at every b-b-boy in sight?” father spluttered, the alcohol making him stammer, the effort making him spray spit into my face. I winced. 

He hurled his slipper at mother. The blue flat rubber hit mother’s face with a sharp splash. I ran to mother, huddling over her in a protective embrace.

I felt father’s kick on my back. So forceful, both mother and I rolled over. Father stood over us, yelling words that should not be uttered in a respectable household. 

Those words still haunted me.

For a long time, whenever I smiled at someone, I heard father hiss, “Fucking Bitch.” My smile would wither away.

For months, if my eyes met a man’s, words like “Bloody Slut” thundered in my ears, till I looked away.

It was spring then. But in my memory, when I see my mother and me weeping in the corner of our hall, bruised and battered, I remember a dark sky outside. As if it was the monsoon then, when relentless rain poured from the grey sky, making the ground so muddy and slippery that if you stepped outside, you were sure to slip and get a fracture. I didn’t go to college for a week, till my bruises disappeared. 

Even now, when the back of my neck tingled, I would turn around, terrified that father’s drunken gaze was watching me.

But that day, as I discussed books with the man on the bus, I forgot about father’s menacing gaze. I forgot about father’s hissing curses. I forgot the reeking snarls, the grey sky. .

The man’s Instagram handle was paperboy. There was not a single post in his account, no hint of his real name, no profile picture. I should have at least asked his name. I remembered his eyes – shaped like lotus petals, his gaze – calm, intent. Padmalochan, eyes like lotus. I dismissed it as too old-fashioned a name. Devnayan? Eyes of God. If that was his name, sometimes I could call him Dev, sometimes Nayan. I could feel a mischievous smile flickering on my lips. I checked Instagram again, but he hadn’t messaged.

Next morning, I woke up with a smile. There was still no message from paperboy. After a bit of hesitation, I sent him a simple “Hi”.

Immediately came a reply. 

“ur body is hot fire
saw ur sexy red bra strap yesterday
u got big boobs
wanna slide my cock between those big boobs of urs
send selfie wearing only red bra”

I blinked hard and read the messages again. I came to my senses only when the phone dropped from my hand. With fingers still trembling, I messaged him:

“I think you misunderstood me. I just wanted to be friends with you. Please don’t msg again.”
Immediately came another reply.

dont feel shy
I know why u spoke with me…
why u rubbed ur boobs against my shoulder
I can take away ur loneliness 
When can v meet? 
I want to fuck u hard baby”

When did I rub myself against him? I sat down, hand pressed against my chest, trying to calm my heart. I looked down. Were my breasts big, too large? Did they give the wrong signal? 

The phone vibrated, he was messaging again.

u bloody slut, reply!
fucking cunt, u turned me on. Now suck my dick
I want to come on ur face bitch, suck me hard”

I tried to block him but could not remember how. Instead, I turned off the phone. Later, I deactivated my Instagram account. 

That day, while returning home from work, something strange happened. 

I was already in two minds about riding the evening bus. What if I ran into him again? Should I ignore him or confront him? What if he publicly accused me of rubbing against him? What if he called me a fucking bitch or a bloody slut in public? 

But the cab fare to home would not be cheap. I boarded the bus and looked around. Half of the seats were already occupied. There was no sign of him. I took an aisle seat, next to a young girl sitting by the window. She peered at me through her thick glasses before turning away to continue gazing out of the window. 

I woke up with a start when, thrown forward by the bus’s brake, my head hit the backrest of the seat at the front. My eyes flew open when I saw him. Paperboy. Sitting next to me by the window, where a few minutes ago, the girl with the thick glasses had been sitting. 

I attempted to rise, but my legs had turned to jelly. Gasping in my struggle to breathe, clutching the backrest of the front seat, I again tried to get up, to run away.

“Are you fine? You are drenched in sweat!”

Surprised to hear a female voice, I turned around, to find the girl with the thick glasses still sitting by the window, her eyes wide with concern. There was no sign of paperboy. I blinked hard, was I dreaming a moment ago? 

“I’m f-fine. Just f-feeling a b-bit t-t-too hot,” I replied, and was startled to hear my voice slur.

The girl didn’t look convinced. She tried to push the window pane further back, to allow more air in. But the pane was stuck. She could not budge it even an inch.

“The conductor can help us,” the girl announced.

“There’s no need. I am completely fine,” I tried to assure her, relieved to hear that I wasn’t slurring anymore.

But the girl raised her voice. “Excuse me, excuse me!” 

To my dismay, paperboy, dressed in the khaki uniform of a bus conductor, came running towards us. 

I could feel sweat trickling down my back. Why was paperboy staring at my chest? I checked to see if the top button of my shirt had come undone; I had been mindful of it throughout the day. Was my shirt too fitting? I tried to breathe slowly, so that my heart would not pound so hard, so that it would stop threatening to burst out of my chest. If my chest was so large, why could it still not contain my heart? My vision started to blur. In defeat, I closed my eyes.

The following day, I took a cab to work. I earned well enough to travel by cab on occasion, I reasoned. I looked out of the window through my sunglasses. Because of the tint of my eyeshades, the sky outside appeared gloomy. Suddenly, I caught the driver’s eyes in the rear view mirror. They seemed familiar. Was he checking me out? Of its own accord, my left hand went up to my neck, making sure that my shirt buttons were fastened.

I felt a strong surge of irritation at mother as I sensed the stench of garlic riding up my throat. I always asked mother to go easy on the garlic, at least while preparing breakfast. She never listened.

I was sitting directly behind the driver. All I could see was one long sleeve of his cotton shirt, the crease of iron running down its course in a sharp line. I could see the top his head, his hair was combed to a neat perfection. Just like paperboy’s!

I could barely control the tremor in my voice as I asked the driver to stop the cab. To my surprise, he stopped without any question. I threw some cash at the backseat and ran away. 

I tried to calm myself. I was just seeing things, I told myself. It was okay to take a sick leave, by next Monday I would be over this incident, I reassured myself. 

I had to walk home, though. Every time I hailed an auto-rickshaw, paperboy leered at me from behind the wheel.

Next Monday I remained cooped in the bedroom, the curtains drawn shut, me lying prostate on the bed, staring vacantly at the ceiling. 

“Spending time with the kids will do me good,” I had told myself, as I set out for the music school the previous Saturday. 

But the short walk to the school left me battered; the blazing sun pierced into my eyes, making them tear up. Sticky sweat plastered my hair to my scalp and neck. 

It was even worse inside the classroom. The thick air had cast a dark, stifling spell over the room. The patches of moulds on the walls seemed to relish the humid air, giving off a putrid smell that suffocated me. 

Ignoring the discomforts, I tried to tune the guitar of a student, when I saw paperboy in the corridor, peeping inside the classroom. His eyes, trained at my bare neck until then, started travelling down my body with a deliberate, unhurried leer. 

Suddenly, everything went dark. I could sense the walls and its musty odour hurling towards me, threatening to swallow me in its darkness.

Screaming, I ran out of the classroom, leaving behind a class of bewildered students. The peon, who was loitering in the corridor, tried to come after me, maybe to help, but I didn’t stop for him.

I arrived home in a terrible state – my hair was undone, my eyes were smudged, my lipstick was smeared, one of my foot was bare and my left arm was bleeding from scratches against the wall of the school corridor. The family gathered around me, flooding me with questions. I just sat still. When I tried to explain, I could get a word out. Instead of words, out came my tears, a relentless, silent stream. I had lost the will to speak, to explain.

“This is a mad house,” announced father and went to his room to open his bottle of whiskey. After that, I didn’t remember much. 

I took to bed, rising from it only to use the bathroom. I spoke with my sisters and mother, but barely. I felt like a mountain, that could not move, could not be moved. I refused to visit a psychiatrist. 

“Why do I need a psychiatrist?” I asked.  But I knew why.

Finally, my younger sisters decided to visit the psychiatrist. From my corner of the bed, I watched them leave the house for the appointment. They were fighting my battle. Would they win? In silence, I prayed for victory, till the darkness in my mind snatched away the prayer from my heart.

They came back from the clinic, Sangeeta clutching a potted plant, which she gave me.

Dr. Shilpa told my sisters that she needed to speak with me, but it was evident that I displayed classic symptoms of agoraphobia, a mental disorder that caused an irrational fear of leaving the safety of home or familiar environment. Panic attacks, anxiety, depression, etc. are part of this ordeal,” the doctor had explained, assuring that I would get well soon.

I wondered if my sisters were telling me everything. Did the doctor actually say that I would get well soon?

I was to have my first video session with Dr. Shilpa the next evening. I could read my sisters’ eyes, they were scared that I would refuse the online session. But I didn’t. I was curious about the psychiatrist who gifted plants to her patients, who could see through your soul.

Ruchita and Sangeeta had recounted, how, several times during the consultations, they had to fight the urge to look away; Dr. Shilpa gave the impression that she could look into your eyes and see not only through your soul but also through your entire life, your family, the stain in your underwear, the broken chair lying unused by the dining table. It made them uncomfortable. It also convinced them that the doctor was an expert in her field. I didn’t like how they gushed about the doctor. Why should a doctor know about the stains in our clothes or our broken pieces of furniture? Wasn’t knowing the mind enough for a psychiatrist? I decided to judge for myself. 

When the consultation had ended, Dr. Shilpa had selected a touch-me-not with four round, fluffy purple blossoms from her collection of potted plants.

“This is for Nandita, I always gift a plant to my patient,” she had said.

I was surprised to receive the touch-me-not. I stroked the tiny leaves, watching as they folded inward and drooped. After a while, slowly, the leaves again unfurled themselves. Will I too unfurl again?  When I placed the plant by the bedside table, the movement made the leaves curl into themselves once more. I stood by the table, waiting for the leaves to unfold. 

Next morning, I drew aside the curtains of the window. A soft patch of warm sunlight streamed in. I placed the pot of forget-me-not in that patch. 

Basking in the sunlight, I gently caressed the delicate purple flowers, one by one. At the touch of the flowers, my fingers tingled. As if, they too were about to sprout into delicate blossoms.

Connect with Penmancy:


Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!

Latest posts by Jumi Das (see all)

Let us know what you think about this story.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

© Penmancy 2018 All rights reserved.
%d bloggers like this: