Illustration: Manjil Rijal
Illustration: Manjil Rijal

The odyssey of Kartar Singh

A short story

It was a ramshackle bathroom in a hill-station hotel: the Indian commode was under a stampede of muddy footprints and the tilted washbasin had an oily mirror thumbed by a host of unknown hands. Water frothed into the sink as a spectacled Kartar Singh stood there, each foot planted square in a tile on the floor. He had already dabbed his face dry with a small towel neatly slung over his shoulder. Now, patting this towel, he dried his wet hands and observed them clean against the washbasin white. After a quick search for his reflection behind the mirror's oily prints, he stroked his black beard peppered with twists of grey, adjusted his red turban and brought this routine to an end. Kartar Singh twisted the tap tight and shouldered through the bathroom door. As he left, the cubicle was swallowed by the same darkness that covered McLeod Ganj Bus Stop outside.

Kartar Singh commandeered Parvati Travels' deluxe bus, numbered HP 82-5285, on its sinuous journey from McLeod Ganj to Delhi every Thursday night, departing at 9:15 pm. With every passing week over the last twenty years, he had carefully curated the route from the bathroom to his wife and son – the objective, whom he collectively called JJ. Kartar Singh measured his prowess as a driver by the execution of this meticulous sequence which he had deciphered over time. By the exclusion of anything new, and a surreal repetition of the past, he was confident he would reach home on time. So, wearing the same grey kurta and carrying his ragged leather suitcase with dignity, Kartar Singh descended the rattling metal staircase of his cheap and carefully chosen hotel. He crossed the road snaking past tall and ominous pine trees in the dark, and then went down a dirt trail into the bus station.

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Himal Southasian