Gopi hurried inside the crowded Sonapur-bound bus, and looked around in vain for an empty seat. There was none. Have to stand all my way to Sonapur, he thought, unless anyone got down, which rarely happened as all people usually headed to Sonapur, a small village on the outskirts of Guwahati. The journey was forty-five minutes long. He glanced at his wrist watch: 9.00 AM. The bus was about to leave.
Some more last-minute passengers bounded in, others shouted for departure, few elders banged the windows; the bleary-eyed conductor blew his whistle, the engine growled to life and, with a lurch, the old bus trundled off.
Gopi was a young man of twenty-five, living in Guwahati. It was Sunday and he had been eagerly looking forward to meeting his fiancée, Geeta, who lived in Sonapur.
The bus swayed on the winding roads, the winds whistled, and Gopi, clutching the handle bar, allowed himself an easy smile and permitted his thoughts to stray off dreamily on Geeta, their first meeting, their first proposal, honeymoon plans, and so on.
Thirty minutes later, as the bus skidded to a stop, Gopi jolted to present. Sonapur had come. He looked outside the window at the green fields, rustic roads and old shops. The village happened to be a refreshing spot for the urban dwellers on holidays.
People bustled about and got off the bus, paying the bus fare to the conductor. Gopi stepped down, reached for his shirt’s pocket – he kept the money both in his wallet and in his breast pocket – and paid the bus fare. And then, almost involuntarily, out of habit, as anyone would do, his fingers groped inside the back-pocket of his trousers where he kept his wallet.
For the space of a heartbeat, he froze. The pocket felt empty; there was no wallet. Alarmed, he spun around, his eyes scanning the ground hungrily, even as a terrifying thought stabbed him: Someone stole my wallet! A thousand rupees, a debit card! Or it might’ve fallen inside the bus…he thought with a flicker of hope as he began to make his way back inside the bus…
Gopi stopped short in his tracks. Something had caught his eyes. There, a small, wiry boy to his right, about fifty meters away, trotting away; an unmistakable air of hurriedness about him. Gopi caught a glimmer of leather in the boy’s hand just in time…
“Stop that thief!” Gopi shouted. “Stop him!”
Before the onlookers could understand, the small boy, on cue, broke into a run, swerved around into a narrow lane and vanished from sight.
Gopi dashed after the thief, heading into the alley, shouting all the time, cursing himself from being stupid to have shouted. He should have remained silent when he had seen the boy and stalked without making a fuss. The boy ran like a monkey, the wallet in his hand. The lane was completely deserted, wet and slushy, bordered by tattered tin-roofed huts and trees.
I can’t catch him! Gopi thought dismally. He was out of breath, any moment his legs would give away; for a stout, short man like Gopi, it was implausible to catch a sprightly boy.
Someone unexpectedly ran past Gopi. A bald young man – tall, thin and agile – was after the thief. Good God! He’s helping me! Go, go, please catch him…Gopi thought with renewed hope.
As luck would have it, the alley was a dead end. A ten-foot-high wall blocked the way. The boy, as nimble as a mischievous monkey, scrambled up a tree trunk and leapt high to grab the top of the wall. For a split second, Gopi thought that the boy would jump over and escape. But the boy’s hand somehow slipped on the wall and he fell with a sickening crash on the sludgy mud! The boy cussed loudly.
The bald guy had reached the end of the alley and was about to catch hold of the thief. The naughty lad jumped up to his feet, recoiled back in panic and confusion, and threw the wallet on the ground. He again clambered up the tree trunk and, this time, jumped over the wall and escaped.
“Come back, you thieving!” the bald man cursed as he picked up the wallet, “If I ever catch you….”
“Thank you…. Mister!” Gopi said, out of breath, as he caught up with the man.
The bald man looked at him and said rather amusedly, “Um…well…I – “
“Thank you for helping me! The boy escaped…but oh heavens! My wallet is all safe!” Gopi thanked earnestly as he held out his hand to take the wallet.
Well, you might be thinking that the story now comes to an end…but no, here comes the crazy part.
The bald man, looking curiously confused, said, “Well… I am the one who should be thanking you! In the bus stand, I heard you shouting ‘Stop the thief!’ Immediately, I realized my wallet was missing! And then I followed…”
“What? I don’t –” Gopi stammered. He looked at the wallet in the bald man’s hand, and gasped.
It was not Gopi’s! His wallet was smaller than the one he was looking at. And then…the realization hit him with the force of a bullet. Indeed, from a distance, Gopi had thought the boy had his wallet. The thief had actually stolen the bald man’s wallet and had run off! Gopi had shouted ‘Stop that thief!’ The bald man had heard and followed.
Gopi stood frozen and speechless. The bald man thanked him and walked away.
But then, where on earth is my wallet? Gopi thought, mystified beyond anything; this means my wallet never got stolen! But if it isn’t stolen, where the hell is it? ah…yes…yes, yes, the bus! It must have fallen inside the bus! Oh, damn! The bus will have gone by now…I didn’t see the number plate…
Dazed and disoriented by the bizarre turn of events, he was about to go back to the bus stand, when his phone rang. His mother was calling. He answered, unable to think how he could explain his unbelievable ordeal.
“Yes, Maa,” Gopi said, trying to keep his voice as steady as possible, as he walked on briskly.
“Gopi! Have you reached Sonapur? I’ve been trying to call you, but the line’s been busy!” his mother sounded overly anxious about something.
“Yes, Maa… I’ve arrived…listen…” Gopi decided to tell her.
But his mother began to rant, “Gopi! How silly of you! Just because your wedding is coming, it doesn’t mean you’ll take leave of your senses! You left for Sonapur in a rush! And there you are! You didn’t take your wallet with you! How did you pay the bus fare?”
Gopi stopped in his tracks. A thundering rush of astonishment and relief surged inside him as he heard those words. How silly he had been!
He nearly shouted in delight, “Oh Maa! Thanks a lot! Yes, yes, no worry, I paid the bus fare! Oh gosh! Thank you, maa! Yeah…I will call you later!” he hung up the phone.
As the strangeness of the day caught up, he convulsed with laughter and hurried along to meet Geeta.