Imphal Express Bus

I feel the coldness on my back. I shudder a little. As the chill of the rainy morning seeps into my skin I automatically move closer to him. My body touches his backside in perfect alignment from head to toe. There is barely any part of my body which doesn’t touch his. My left hand lies across his soft and warm belly. I always crave for this part of his body; soft, smooth and somehow always inviting. I might have gotten used to putting my hand there, for some time now, when we sleep together. But I seem to be pressing into him slightly tighter than usual today. It makes me conscious also, so I check if he is still asleep, unaware of my stubborn hands on his body. At the same time, I can feel warm sensations triggering inside my body; a stronger urge than usual. This spurge of feeling, something like an adrenaline rush taking the shape of a desire inside my body, seems to thrust me closer to him. I hold him tighter and my hands automatically start rubbing his soft belly in circles. All the while I’m also scared that I might wake him up. But the sensations and urge are powerful to the point of overwhelming. Even as I try very hard to stop myself from doing whatever is about to happen, the sensations take the better of me. My hand slowly touches his nipples, groping his breast and squeezing it a bit and rubbing it softly. Then after a while I find my hand touring down slowly and slowly, rubbing his skin as it goes down, towards the lower abdomen now and I perfectly know my hand is not going to stop just right there.

A week later, contrary to Ningthem’s fears, the two boys are ecstatic in each other’s company. Pari insists on sleeping together every night now and his casually playful behaviour in bed makes Ningthem excited. When they bathe together every morning, Ningthem steals glances as Pari pours water on his body; the water dripping over his crotch area covered under his brief excites him inexplicably. The two boys are seen together at dinner table, assemblies, class room and in the playground. The bliss however soon turns a tricky bend when they fight about something that has made Ningthem very upset. Pari won’t just stop following him; riled with this overwhelming attention, Ningthem first tries to avoid him as much as he can, but eventually succumbs to Pari’s dedicated persistence. A month passes on thus and one day the school principal makes an announcement in the assembly that ends up making both of them very unhappy. They barely understand all of it, but they come to understand that due to the ceasefire in Manipur, food supply may not able to reach their school. The principal declares that there could be a temporary break if the food supplies stop and the available stocks get over. What do these boys in school know about ceasefire anyway; except for it means a break? Pari is excited about the break because he has many friends back home. Ningthem has already dreamed in reserve all his dreams about spending every night with Pari and so the thought of a holiday saddens him. Pari pinches Ningthem while passing a wry smile at the mention of the break, Ningthem hates him for the excitement he feels about going home, however the touch, still a reminder of their physical proximity, continues to arouse Ningthem.

Imphal has come to a standstill. After AMUCO announces indefinite general strike, the state has been literally shut down for more than two weeks now. People come out of their houses after early lunch and throng the streets of Keishampat, Governor Road, Babupara. Soon, tear gas smoke envelopes the city. One fateful day the crowd turns bigger and more unrelenting than before. After some scuffle between the agitated mob and the tensed security personnels near Sanjenthong, there comes a continuous round of firings from nearby. Mobs crossing Sanjenthong at that moment go berserk. Once the firings stop people who had run to the nearest corners and alleys to hide from the violence, slowly come out one after another to the street. There is blood splattered in the street and then the next thing is the sound of people crying and shouting, creating panic and confusion. Next day, the terrifying news comes through newspapers and ISTV news -thirteen protesters are killed in the firing. Everyone takes to the streets the next day and thereafter.

When Pari, other classmates and a few seniors from the dorm come to Ningthem’s room, they find him curled up like a ball with his face towards the wall. Pari sits on the bed and says something to Ningthem, but he doesn’t move. When one of the seniors calls his name out loud enough for everyone in the dorm to hear, Ningthem slowly turns his face towards them. He has a fake half-smile prepared on his face as he turns to face them. All of them now try to squeeze in and find a place to sit on Ningthem’s bed. The seniors console him and the rest of them say something hoping it might be affectionate enough to cheer up a classmate whose brother has just died in a police firing. None of them really know much about the incidents that have happened in Imphal. They use the word ceasefire as if they know what it means. Deep inside they are just excited with the prospect of a holiday if the protests continue and food supplies run short. Ningthem doesn’t usually talk to most of them and he is not used to having so many people in his room. In his confusion and awkwardness, the only thing he manages to say is that he is going home the following day and that the principal has signed his leave application. Everyone says in unison, “Come back soon” and leave in the same bundle. As the seniors walk out, the rest follow them out, leaving Pari and Ningthem in pregnant silence. Pari tries to say a thing or two but finds it difficult to form the right words to speak to Ningthem so he decides to go to bed after a few unremarkable words. As Pari goes to bed next to him, Ningthem turns to the other side as he decides he’s been betrayed by Pari’s enthusiasm for the holiday caused by the street riot that led to his brother’s death. Both do not utter a word for a while. Pari draws himself closer to Ningthem so that he is close enough to whisper in his upset but expectant ears, “Sleep now, I will see you off tomorrow”.

Ningthem has sullenly packed his backpack with as many clothes as he could fit. The walk from campus to the bus station which takes almost thirty minutes, is so tiring and lonely that he cannot imagine carrying two bags all by himself which would taunt his alienation, so he puts everything in the backpack. Pari just sits there watching as Ningthem crosschecks his stuff once the packing is finished. Ever since the bad news came, Ningthem has stopped paying attention to anyone around. He does his things quietly and keeps to himself. As they leave the dorm and walk towards the main gate, Pari finally begins to think what all has changed in the last couple of days. He feels unwanted and rejected. So he in turn avoids getting into Ningthem’s way too much. Only when he cries or forgets to eat does Pari act as the same insistent stubborn guy who doesn’t give up till he gets his way with him. And Pari also has a subtle way of retreating immediately without being too obvious about it once the purported task gets done, as if done unfeelingly, as some kind of duty. However, Pari too realises that lately, Ningthem is not his usual self. In fact for the first time he watches Ningthem closely and is surprised to find how delicate and vulnerable a person he is. He thinks Ningthem in his extreme sadness is still a person of exceptional calm. But he wants to tell him that the way he has been avoided in the last few days is saddening to him as well and that he can come along if Ningthem asks of him. But, Ningthem’s quiet fortitude about everything makes it more difficult for him to say anything at the moment. He is also not sure what saddens him more: seeing Ningthem breaking down in front of his eyes or his own feeling of being unwanted and avoided by Ningthem. These thoughts occupy his mind as they leave the dorm. When they reach the main gate Ningthem will have to go alone further, because without a leave application no student is allowed to go beyond the gate. Pari’s sorrow begins to take a palpable shape that he can feel more significantly now. The idea that he will have to stay without Ningthem and without being sure of how long worries him unprecedentedly. He abruptly hugs Ningthem and in a moment of confusion, uneasiness and worry he utters, “go safely, come back soon”. But these are not the words he really wants to say. Ningthem softly mutters back, “yes” and walks ahead slowly, gaining pace as he takes the turn at the end of the road. Pari stands there at the gate transfixed and wondering why Ningthem has not stopped to even look back once. A teardrop trickles down his left eye.

Pari walks back slowly, deep in thought but also restless. But then he walks faster, almost running by the time he reaches his dorm. He runs to his room, quickly shoves a few clothes in his bag and runs to the principal’s office. Just outside the office, he scribbles a few lines and goes inside. God knows what he has written in the application or told the principal, he gets his application signed. Now he walks so fast that some of the students even stare at him, one of them shouts out his name -Pari. He yells back “I am going home”. Once he is out of the gate he slowly starts running, pacing himself with slow and fast sprints in a town of a dull pace, while constantly checking if anyone is particularly looking at him in amazement or with unsolicited curiosity. He must have taken hardly fifteen minutes to reach the bus station. He looks around for the Imphal Express buses. He runs towards the only Imphal Express bus left in the parking lot. But there are only few passengers sitting in the front. He goes inside but Ningthem is not there. He asks one of the passengers, “When did the last Imphal Express bus leave?” The man replies, “ten minutes earlier”. Pari just nods and comes out of the bus. He tries to think if he remembers any landmark or clue to find Ningthem’s house in Sagolband. He tries hard to trace any stray clue in the conversations they have had about their homes. He just can’t remember anything. He looks around and goes to the nearest paan-dukaan to buy a Pepsi first. He opens the bottle, takes a long sip looking at the evening sky. The sun has almost reached the hills in the west.