He missed what the man said, what with Mir babbling in his ears, and assumed it a generic thank you. “No problem.” The man gestured imperiously, and he took the earphones out. “What?”
“Bag-ta dao,” he said. “Least I can do.”
“It’s no problem.”
“It isn’t a problem for me to stand, either. Come on, give it.” And he tugged the bag off and down. “Just because I’m old doesn’t mean I’m feeble.”
“I hadn’t meant…” But of course he had, and flushed at the ears and the nape of the neck.
“I’m not complaining,” he said, settling the bag in front of his own, “simply pointing it out to you. These small ways in which they discriminate against the old quite fail to register with even the most well-meaning of the youth.” The bus jolted over a speed bump, and he clutched at the bags. “Discrimination is a strange thing,” he said, then, “have you noticed, for instance, that it’s rarely the elderly that are accused of crime?”
“I hadn’t noticed,” Amol grinned. Clearly the man is obsessed with being discriminated against. “Aren’t mafia masterminds often old, though?” Don Corleone and such, he thought and didn’t say. No point aggravating him further. Doubtless that’d be discrimination, too.
“No, you tell me, if someone in this bus suddenly says that their wallet has been lifted, who would you suspect? A well-pressed, neatly-combed old man,” he gestured to himself, “or an untidy young ruffian who looks unemployed?” the long finger jabbed at two boys around Amol’s age standing nearer the ladies’ seats than they needed to. “Well?”
He shrugged, nodded. “Fair enough.”
The old man smiled up at him. “Discrimination, I tell you. It’s not as though someone my age couldn’t have done it. But,” he stopped to gently push away the man beside him, who had been dozing since Amol got on the bus at Dharmatala, and possibly since before that. “As I was saying, this is possibly a useful sort of discrimination.” He paused as for some sort of response.
Amol twitched a grin back, and leant forward in not-entirely-pretended interest. “Why, sir?”
“Were they to search the old gentleman’s shabbily genteel valise and find a variety of purses and wallets, he’d possibly not survive the lynching that would follow, right? Whereas you young people…” He paused to shift the bags again. “It isn’t as though I don’t feel bad, you know, about them. Last month, one died before he could be taken to the hospital. Bad business. Quite put me off for days, weeks, actually.”
Amol twisted his grip on the overhanging handle, and changed hands—his left was beginning to itch. “First day back, huh?” It’s amusing to think of this rather imperious man—who looks like a retired officer—as a pickpocket. Discrimination again.
“Needs must and getting back in the saddle and that,” he allowed. “Besides, the weather is so opportune.” He stopped again, like he had earlier, and Amol, now playing this strange game quite wholeheartedly, lifted an eyebrow in inquiry. “Well, they’re all too wet and miserable to notice when they’re being robbed, of course.” He paused again, this time to rub at his nose. “Of course, I’m rather wet and miserable myself.”
“Quite. Koshto na korle Krishn melena, ei aar ki.” He sneezed. “I’d better go home, I think, before I catch pneumonia. Or a cold. Terrible hassle to nurse oneself through it, either way.” Nurse oneself. Not married, then. Or widowed. “And that’s my stop coming, too.”
He got up, letting Amol slip into the slightly-damp space and take the weight of his dozing neighbour. “Thanks for taking my bag.”
“Not at all, not at all.” He settled it on Amol’s lap, gently, as though it contained breakable things. “Thank you for the seat.” He smiled, swaying lightly. “You don’t believe a word I’ve said, do you?” Amol shrugged. “Quite right.”
The bus screeched to a stop in front of EEDF, and the man moved towards the entrance, bumping against a knot of others getting on and off, and disappeared, somewhat unsteadily, into the rain. Amol’s sleeping neighbour opened his eyes, very alert. “Are you mad?”
“Letting a pickpocket hold your bag, really.”
“There’s nothing in the bag worth stealing,” he said. “You were awake?”
“Yes, yes. I was feigning sleep, you know, to see whether he would try and steal from me.”
“”Really?” Given that he’d heard snores around Rabindra Sadan, Amol felt his scepticism justifiable. “Did he?”
“No,” answered Sleepy, completely unflustered. “Must’ve realised I was pretending.”
“Of course.” The men who had got on at EEDF paid their fares, and Amol relaxed infinitesimally. Just a story, then. “He got scared of you and got off the bus.”
“You think so?” He puffed up a little. “You’re joking, aren’t you?”
The bus coasted near Anwar Shah. “Me? No.” Amol said, swinging up. “Not at all.” The bag swung the other way and he had to grab a handle with his left hand, now itching furiously. “You’ve saved us all from being robbed.”
The bus stopped at the red light, engine still roaring, and Amol scrambled to get off. It took fifteen minutes to negotiate autos to the right one, and only the auto-wallah asking for the fare beforehand saved him worse than a long wet walk home in the steady drizzle.