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Quirk of Fate

By V. Venkatesan

ABOVE THE din of the rain beating down on the roof of the bus could be heard the raucous warbling of the driver. Sung principally to keep himself from dozing off, the song described the anguish of a passionate lover who finds that the one for whom he sighs is immune to his numerous charms.

Whether or not any of the insomnia afflicting the victim of unrequited love rubbed off on the singer, his noisy rendition of the tragedy ensured that none but the soundest sleepers among us got a wink of sleep!

The rendition ended abruptly in a stifled oath as the bus slithered to a halt on the wet road. Must be a flat, I speculated, as the driver leaned out of his cabin window into the rain. If it was, it couldn't have picked on a more godforsaken place or a more ungodly hour. Any suggestion of civilization must be at least 50 km away. It was nearing midnight, and as if all this wasn't enough, there was, as Shakespeare would've said, a civil strife in heaven.

But it was no flat tyre which had prompted this unscheduled halt. A moment later, the rear door of the bus swung open, and in stepped the wettest man I've ever seen. His thoroughly soaked dress clinging to his body, the newcomer surveyed the entire bus, his eyes finally alighting on the seat next to mine -- the only one vacant.

Water squished in his shoes as he staggered towards me, for the bus had now picked up speed again. And it was then that I noticed that tucked beneath his left arm was a small paper bundle which the stranger was doing his utmost to conceal. And by the look in his eyes as they met mine, I could infer that my discovery had not gone unnoticed.

"I suppose I owe you an explanation -- if only to reassure you that I'm no highway robber," the man said, smiling, as he settled down beside me. Then, with exaggerated furtiveness, he partially unrolled the bundle and gestured to me to take a peek. From within, two large, round, dish-like eyes stared back at me. I looked up, puzzled.

"An owlet," the stranger said, matter-of-factly. "Injured." He then proceeded to narrate a most bizarre story.

He had, he said, been travelling by an earlier bus when the storm broke. Probably blinded by something, an owlet had come crashing into the bus, breaking the windscreen, in the process hurting itself badly and startling everyone.

He had, he said, wanted to carry the owl with him to the nearest town where it could be nursed, but the other passengers would have none of it. The owl, they said, was a messenger of death, and having it on the bus would only bring them bad luck. He had wanted to save the owl so badly that when his attempts at persuasion failed, he'd opted to get off the bus with it -- despite the storm. Which was how he'd been picked up by us, wet and in the middle of nowhere.

AFTER ABOUT an hour's drive, our bus slowed down again. The storm had by now blown over and the stranger and I stuck our necks out to see what was wrong.

It was an accident involving, as my stunned acquaintance put it, "The Bus." It had presumably gone out of control, had shot off the road and ended up at the bottom of a huge, wayside field well.

No survivors, naturally. The "messenger of death" had seen to that. n

(Published in The Hindustan Times.)

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