He was never on the bus. But he was always there at the bus stop, when I got off.
I grew up very sheltered. I'd never used public transport until college. A school bus collected us sisters and and delivered us back home through most of my school years. Then my parents bought a car, and we sisters were dropped and collected by the car. It grew a bit complicated as we started college, as we went to different colleges, and school and college times clashed. There was my father's requirements of any given day to consider, too.
It took me a while to persuade my mother to let me take the bus, at least when coming home. It was never formally agreed on, or even discussed, but the unspoken debate went on a while. Because it was unspoken. I mean this is India and I am talking about the mid 'seventies; we didn't use to bond or talk things out or address issues then. Anyway, it was ages and ages before I got to taking a bus back home.
There were problems with routes and frequencies. There were buses that would deposit me practically on my doorstep, but the bus stop from my college was a longish walk, and it would be a lonely walk,too. I could take any bus to Luz and change buses, take any of the 12s, but for some reason, I used to take the 13s. It was a longer walk home from the Vani Mahal bus stop, but I didn't mind that.
I don't remember when I first noticed him. But there he was, when I stepped off the bus, walking the in same direction. At Pondy Bazaar he used to turn right, and I'd cross the street. I don't know who speeded up or who slowed down, but soon we were walking at the same pace; not looking at each other, not striking up a conversation, but just walking down the same road.
For months. We never spoke. We hardly looked at each other. But he'd be there. I didn't know which bus he took, or why he was always there at that time. I didn't know if he was in college like me or where he went after turning right at Pondy Bazaar. But walking with him became part of my routine. My friends used to call him my bodyguard and tease me about it. They'd egg me on, dare me to talk to him. But we just walked.
On days I was delayed by Buhari Hotel chat sessions and took a later bus, he'd still be there; with a slightly worried frown that'd clear as he saw me getting off the bus. I used to wonder if he'd ask why I was delayed, but he never did.
One day, I heard a kitten mewling in the ditch. I stopped. It was tiny, about a month old. It was bedraggled and had fleas. I couldn't even decide what colour it was, it was so dirty. I walked closer to the ditch and took a closer look, to see if there were its siblings with it. It was alone. Abandoned.
We had some sixteen cats of various ages at home then. Our matriarchal Mother Cat had recently had a litter. She wouldn't mind an addition to it. I picked the kitten up, petting it and soothing it.
I was vaguely aware that he'd stopped when I did and was looking quizzical. He looked aghast as I picked up the kitten. I started walking, the kitten cradled on my books. He started walking too. He turned right at Pondy Bazaar, I crossed the street and took the kitten home.
The next day I got off the bus. He wasn't there. The walk home felt lonely. The day after, I changed buses and started getting off at Pondy Bazaar proper. The walk was shorter and I didn't have to wonder if he'd be there or not. I never saw him again.
The kitten turned out to be white with a ginger tail, quite the bushiest tail I ever saw on a cat. We called him, with stunning originality, Gutter. He was the best tom we ever had.