The disapproval of the bus driver was audible. In her near-term pregnancy and with her toddler-daughter, Gani was taking too long to board. She was travelling from her home to her parents’ house, where she would give birth to a child within a fortnight.

Gani ignored the abuse. She had developed the armour; of not listening to all she heard. She knew there would never be a compliment; there had never been, since her birth, even from her parents. With her gender and caste, she was always humiliated; verbal transmissions could be insulated; physical assaults by strangers tearing her since she was 13 were unforgettable.

The driver’s displeasure was understandable; any delay would cut down his ‘rest period’ before the return trip. But the reception by fellow passengers was not. Men, young and old, had a good look at her, even noticing her navel. The women were vocal. “Look! Shameless to expose herself in this condition.” One even wanted to say, “Hope the bxxxx knows whose litter she is carrying,” but did not. It would be inappropriate here; at her village, she would have been bolder.

Gani’s husband had dropped them at the bus stop on a bicycle. He had to rush back, to earn his daily wages as a construction labourer. He could not miss a day’s work, now that his wife was unable to contribute to the family kitty. It was three hours’ journey to her parent’s village. Gani was tired; the foetus had drained her already malnourished body. She surveyed the bus through fleeting eyes, looking for a vacant seat.

There was none; a few passengers were standing, strategically positioning themselves to occupy seats as they fell vacant at next stops. She leaned herself against the side of a seat. She wanted her daughter to hold on to something but the child would not. For the child, her mother’s pallu was the only anchor she relied on. She would not leave that, even though it meant frequently hurting herself with the bus jolting on a rugged track.

The conductor was busy issuing tickets to those who had boarded the bus from the rear. It was her turn now. She took out a currency note stuffed between her swollen breasts. No one had offered her a seat. He noticed a man occupying a seat reserved for women. He had seen the woman boarding, but leaned on the front bar with his head down, feigning sleep. The conductor shook him awake. The man got up reluctantly.

The mother lifted her daughter and pushed her on to the vacated seat. The daughter wanted to sit in her mother’s lap as she used to. But she understood; it was the turn of her sibling to occupy that space.

Gani thanked her god. It was all she presently wished for. Her both children ‘safe’ for the time being. One seated; the other resting in her belly. She was confident that her womb could stand any insult that a three-hour rough bus ride would offer her, standing, holding the cold metal of a headrest.

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