Alina was hungry. She was not in the mood to listen to the integer homework that the Math teacher wanted the very next day. As the bell rang for close of school, her stomach chimed along with it. She needed to eat soon but had nothing at hand. She looked into her bag for pocket money but realised that she had not got some for a while.
As a twelve-year-old, all you needed were ten rupees of pocket money to be the magnate of the day. Every child would get her own lunch for the break at noon, most of it hastily gobbled up in the first two periods. This meant that by the time school got over, there was a pack of starving children, their eyes roving for some stray morsels.
The ten rupees came in handy at exactly this moment. Having a tenner safely tucked in your socks presented you with many options. You could buy three samosas with a toffee as change; two Cola ice lollies, one Choco-bar ice cream, two servings of “chaat” or a ten-rupee packet of chips.
While some children wanted the quick fix of an ice cream, the smart ones thought of their forty-five-minute ride home. If you wanted something to last, you would go for something you could have bit by bit, licking each grubby finger to get the maximum punch.
The obvious answer was a packet of chips. While Magic Masala Lays ruled the roost, its packet was large but the insides unsubstantial. Cheetos were great too, its best quality being the ‘chuura’, crushed chip powder at the bottom, which made your finger your very own cheesy lollypop. However, one brand of chips truly united the important elements of taste, ‘chuura’ and a good serving size. That was Kurkure-sticks covered with a spicy mix, each stick could be licked till you got all the spice out, and then it could be eaten.
Alina loved Kurkure and that was exactly what she craved at that at moment. No money in hand, she had only one option and that was to find a ‘bakra’. A bakra or sheep is a gullible person that you can fool easily into doing your bidding.
As she left the school building and walked towards the buses, she kept her eyes open to spot one. She passed by Shazia first who had three samosas in hand. She laughingly asked her to share. Shazia was a tough one. She got out of the situation saying that she had bought them for a teacher so needed to get them to her unscathed.
She then passed by Insha whom she had fought with the past month. It was Insha’s birthday today and she was treating everyone with ice cream. Alina smiled at her faintly but Insha turned away haughtily. “Oh well, she couldn’t have predicted this, could she?”
Wearily she got into the school bus and looked for a seat. She had three bus friends, a well-known friendship category of its own. They were people who had separate lives once they got off the bus, and who hung out mostly inside it. Four is an odd number for a bus friendship group as the seats are for threes and twos. This meant the first three got the big seat and the fourth one had to find a space around their seat to keep up with them.
Alina saw that the three had already got a seat. She sighed. Nothing was going her way today. She then thought of her second order of business and looked around for a young bakra with something to eat. She stood in the middle of the bus aisle and scanned thoroughly. Nothing. It looked like the bus was a no go as well.
She saw that Honey had one empty place in the two-seater. “Is the seat taken?”, asked Alina. Honey nodded a no and Alina sat down. Honey was a few classes younger, a quiet, passive round thing. She never offered much in the way of conversation, but she would smile shyly at jokes being cracked around her.
Grumpy and hungry, Alina looked out of the bus window as it started making its way out of the school grounds. She did not talk until Honey said quietly, “Do you want some chips?” Alina turned slowly and saw Honey’s fat paw clutching a packet of Kurkure, extended out almost like a prayer offering.
Alina smiled and thanked her stars. She put her fist inside and made a big sweep. She came out with more than politeness dictated but she did not care. She gobbled a few and then realised that home was forty minutes away. She smiled at Honey and started licking each Kurkure bit by bit.
Alina liked looking out of the window. It was a crisp sunny day, with the sweet promise of new flowers in the air. The bus route was scenic and that made her happy every day. They would first pass by Jhelum river, which was dotted with houseboats and then they would make their way to Dal Lake under the shadow of the towering Zabarwan range. Many local families lived in the Jhelum houseboats same as the Dal Lake. But Dal Lake also had others especially furnished for tourists. The fancy ones on the Dal Lake often stayed empty because there were never enough tourists to keep them full.
Traffic was really bad today and the school bus was inching forward through the traffic. The driver was in a particularly bad mood. He was known to be the driver with the foulest mouth amongst all the school buses. Sometimes the teachers would reprimand him after an episode of road rage. He would just glower at them till they shut up.
As the bus went down Abdullah Bridge, something did not seem quite right. The traffic had an urgency to it, as if no one wanted to be in that particular area. Most days after school, the traffic dawdled a bit, especially around the famous fountain near the Tourist Reception Centre. The school buses of a few big schools would meet at this intersection and try to bypass each other as car drivers complained about after-school traffic. On the road leading to Residency Road, there were often many handcarts with the latest export rejects. You could often find a nice new coat if you looked hard enough.
The bus reached the base of the bridge, near the fountain roundabout. The smell of spring that Alina had been taking in with delight was gone. It was replaced by the smell of something pungent and heavy. Alina craned her neck out of the bus window and looked into the sky. She suddenly saw columns of bitter, black smoke up ahead. The Tourist Reception Centre was on fire! She shook her head and looked out carefully again. The building they passed twice everyday was engulfed with angry flames, orange as the afternoon sun. It seemed that the flames wanted to reach the sky. But they were lazy, moving up slowly, same as the pace of the traffic today.
The traffic was inching forward slowly for a reason. It was not only because there were people fighting the fire. There was also a large group of people shouting and protesting. Alina saw some people in khaki uniforms, presumably the police, who were trying to control the crowd. The bus could not go through the crowd quickly enough as it was dense and almost unyielding.
Alina thought to check how the other drivers were doing in the cars. As she looked at the other cars, none of the drivers in the cars seemed exasperated as other days. Their faces were tense and drawn, as if they wanted the traffic to let up even more so than other days. She then looked around the bus. Children had varying expressions of awe and fear, but all were transfixed by the building on fire and not the chaos on the ground.
“Get down now!” the bus driver shook them out of their reverie. They all turned to look at him. He was angrier than he had ever looked, but there was an expression in his eyes that they had never seen before: worry. A loud bang and then a hissing sound accompanied his shout. The children scrambled to get down under their seats. Suddenly, it was a headless bus, with the driver at the helm and seemingly no other people inside.
He started honking loudly and cars started moving away to make some space for the bus. Everyone could hear him swearing at the traffic, the people on the road, and also calling upon god, “Trath peyan, ya khudaya reham”. He seemed to want to run away from something. “Surely the fire from the other side of the road will not reach us?”, thought Alina. As she lay wondering what was worrying him, the bus started smelling strange.
“Was it smoke? “, Alina wondered, while squeezing Honey’s hand. But it did not have the bitter acrid smell that she had been smelling for the past ten minutes. It seemed distinctive but then also like nothing she could remember smelling before. She peeked above her seat and saw that no black smoke had entered the bus. Honey was scared and the bag of chips was lying languidly at her side. Alina was still hungry, so she made the most of that moment. She grabbed a few more chips and started licking another piece of Kurkure. Before she could finish all of them, her eyes started watering.
She had been in the kitchen many times when her mother chopped onions and would get a bad bout of tears. They always ended with her avowing that she would never cook when she grew up. The tears were not worth it. But this was different; there was no kitchen to run away from. Her eyes started to itch and water uncontrollably. After second grade, she had stopped carrying a handkerchief with her. Now she had nothing to contain the sneezes that had suddenly started.
She felt like she had gone from being perfectly healthy to having a bad chest infection in one go. She looked across under the seats to see how the other children were doing. All had started coughing, and many of them seemed to be in different stages of a good cry. She had never felt this way before and it seemed like neither had the other children. Between coughs and sneezes, they all looked at each other—confused at what was happening to them. Alina closed her eyes and mentally tried to will the bus to part the traffic and leave the spot they were in.
It seemed like a long time but within a few minutes the driver had manoeuvred them out of the Tourist Reception Centre area, and they were now in Dalgate. A teacher called out to the children to get up from under the seats. Wary, with a Kurkure in her mouth, Alina rose up with the rest of them. Grimy hands reached up to wipe away their snot in unison and then clean them collectively with their school pinafores. One teacher walked the length of the bus smiling at them and assuring them that all was okay. Her smile was a little tight and did not reach her eyes. She did not explain to them what the mysterious smell was. Instead, she told them that they would reach home soon and not to worry. She also instructed them to open all the windows to let the smell out.
As the teachers settled back into their seats, children started talking loudly about what the mystery smell was and why it had made their eyes water. No one was sure what is was, but all definitely agreed that it was a small adventure. They all felt that they had escaped something, but no one could put a name to it. After all, a runny nose and some tears were not really dangerous, were they?
The driver did not look back at all. He seemed like he had a single-minded determination to get the children home. The teachers looked back and asked the children to clap for the driver, calling him a hero. He looked at them abashedly, with eyes redder than all of theirs. The children clapped in unison because it was obvious that the mystery smell had affected him the most and he had not faltered in his driving. He turned to the wheel again, looking a little overwhelmed. They did not see any more emotion from him from then on, not even on the day he retired from his job.
Slowly, the smell passed, and the children stopped sniffling and coughing a lot. Alina had finished nearly three quarters of the chips while Honey was looking for her handkerchief. Her belly was full enough till lunch, and there was still a tingling sense of adventure in the air of the bus. She felt that it had been a good day. She felt a little bad having taken advantage of Honey’s chips but since Honey did not seem to have realised, she decided to stop thinking about it.
Alina gave Honey a big smile when she found her handkerchief and asked her if she was okay. Her quiet affirmative was enough for Alina and she turned to her side to look out of the window again. They were passing by the Dal Lake now. The waters were calm, unmoved as all the other days. She saw the houseboat called “Dubloo” and laughed quietly to herself. She always wondered why someone would call a houseboat “go drown”, the literal translation if you broke the name into “Dub-loo”. She kept looking out till her sister touched her shoulder. It was time for their bus stop. They walked down the stairs, waved goodbye to their friends and started racing home for lunch. It was the end of another school day.
Note: Tear gas, often pronounced as “tyre gas” by locals, has been used as a method of crowd control in the Jammu and Kashmir insurgency. It is often used indiscriminately, without taking into account the presence of women, children and the elderly.
In 2005, foul play was suspected when the Tourist Reception Centre caught on fire before the inauguration of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus route—considered an important step in the peace process between India and Pakistan.