She takes the Bus by Shweta Sharan

She is in a long-distance relationship with her boyfriend. They live in different cities. When they are together, they take photographs of each other and put them up in the galleries that will have them, which are not many. But after The Hindu does a story on them, everything turns. They are travelling artists, their separation, an experiment for their art.


To see her lover, she takes the bus from Mumbai to Pune and then back. She catches the Friday night bus, twice or thrice a month. Night travel seems to her very atmospheric. Sometimes, to save money, she sits in film theatres in Pune and falls asleep, setting an alarm for when she needs to get up to catch the bus. This she does when he is out shooting late.


They are trying to document their lives through photographs, a tissue sample of the beast that is the city. Her boyfriend studies filmmaking in Pune and she is a painter who works as a multimedia manager in Mumbai.


At first, the visits to her lover are like foreplay. Distance makes them more flirtatious and curious about each other. There is a certain thrill in packing and leaving her bags in the Barista in Linking Road so that she can kill time before the bus comes, arriving in Pune and checking into a hotel she can afford, sneaking into his hostel, talking about the films that he will make one day, and about how it is she who inspired him to give up his job as a research manager. When he applies to film schools, she takes printouts of his submissions and couriers them. She goes over the small storyboards that he creates, corrects his essays and selects the photographs that he will send out.


Through the photographs of their relationship, they are trying to use art as a mould for life. They started the project to keep their relationship alive, but after the first steps, they find they have the courage to set on a path to create a model of the ideal. Jealousy, which used to drive her to madness when he photographed other women, or didn't call, is now far away. She is so malleable that nothing upsets her about their situation.


Their photographs are about where they go, whom they meet, their work, their hobbies and their personal life. It isn’t easy to represent the difficulty of trying to find each other again when they reunite, and so they create mythologies of distance using suburbs, drive-ins and hotels. It is like testing out some kind of invisibility shield and they feel like magicians when they sit and talk about depicting memory and change through photographs without using any captions or statements. They both shy away from outright representation. An object can be so antonymous to its meaning and maybe, they think, it does not have any meaning whatsoever. A large wall can signify both imprisonment and freedom, markings on a body can be either tattoos or contour lines for plastic surgery, a body can both accept and reject foreign parts. They test this to such a degree that they feel like exhilarated children.


They photograph their Skype conversations which they foreground with unmade beds or open balcony doors. He shoots other women at work or in pubs. Does he see her in them or does he see them in her? He shoots a visiting contortionist group from Oakland. He shoots children and students on Fergusson College Road and Koregaon Park. He shoots hostels in Senapati Bapat Marg that are crooked-backed and squalid, and film equipment, camera lights and interns, journalists and academics, and even goes to Chambal Valley to do a daring video shoot, representing their relationship in the fringes of the dacoit land through photographs that are out of focus. She shoots the trains in Mumbai, the street dogs, cats, chickens and cows, painters and domestic workers, vegetable vendors and traffic constables, waiters in small hotels and circus acrobats from Uzbekistan.


He prefers black and white photographs, she likes colour. He argues against centralising the subject, she goes ahead and does it anyway.


Of the two, her boyfriend is the more gifted photographer. His hands hold the camera as if it is an appendage; he is walking and moving continuously, clicking. She sees a documentary on Gary Winogrand and she is reminded of him. His photographs have the immediacy and the stillness of oil painting, they have the texture of current times, the familiarity and the disconnect of history. She asks him if he can make an average girl look beautiful, to which he replies that he would like to make a beautiful girl look average.


She is an instinctive artist who likes to create paintings that are large in scale, because she imagines she is becoming part of them. She cuts sheets of synthetic paper and draws using two-coloured ink. She then combines these drawings to make ten larger drawings that she uses for a large painting.


She uses synthetic non-absorbent paper that doesn't wobble when she pours buckets of paint on it and the ink bleeds. She then challenges herself to do the same with absorbent paper, and these are hard to get in large sizes, so she learns papermaking. She tries her hand at pulp painting and is moved to find that she does well at it. Why would someone be good at something so arbitrary? She thinks, maybe she has a future in it somewhere. Pulp painting is tricky. She needs to make paper and simultaneously paint it with the pulp of paper that she makes, combining the pulp with a pigment. When the paper is wet, she builds on it and it looks like a fresco. The paint is made from abaca that she beats for twelve hours at a stretch till her hands ache and this is worth the effort, for when the painting is done, the layers are numerous and profound. What she likes the most about this experiment is that she is able to infuse it with the texture of architecture and the narrative of decay simultaneously.



What were first instituted as romantic notions of a daring adventure are beginning to crack. Her bus trips to Pune become ways to try and salvage the relationship with him. She is almost always on a bus, terrified of not hearing from him. She imagines that being face to face with him can save them.


On the bus to and fro, she feels free, in an odd way, as if she owns the nights. She realises that she loves the journeys to her boyfriend more than she does seeing him.


Sometimes, she keeps her feet on the ledge with the driver directly ahead, or she sits on the steps. She is secretly proud that she is able to live on a shoestring. Another girl travels with her. They both watch Hera Pheri on the bus, which has a DVD player and fall asleep simultaneously when the driver plays No Entry at midnight. They don’t speak, make eye contact or even connect but they seem to follow each other without intent. She gets a Fruity and the girl gets a drink. She stops to comb her hair and the girl washes her face and puts on some lipstick. She takes off her jacket and the girl rolls up the sleeves of her full-sleeved shirt.


During one of her visits to Pune, she discovers a gallery. It is located near a college and so there are always kids who hang around, point at the experimental photographs, particularly the bizarre nudes, and snigger. The gallery’s entrance has a sculpture of Priapus and this attracts enormous attention, as is understandable, especially from the errand boys, who occasionally drape it with a lungi.


And on the bus back to Mumbai, she meets people. There is an engineering student who claims to be a kleptomaniac. She does not doubt him, for he steals her digital dictionary but his stories have been there for her.


There is a bridge player from Kenya. He tells her about the rupestrian paintings that he has seen in Cappadocia, one of the only two paintings in the world depicting a teenage Jesus Christ. He is an Indian who sold his company in Kenya. She doesn’t even ask his name. He looks about fifty-five years old. He looks out at the scenery outside the window and they see a man who is living in the middle of the lake on a rock carved roughly into a low-roofed dwelling place. He would have to crouch inside, or sleep and do nothing else. There is a clothesline outside on the rock island and he is washing his clothes. ‘Wonder what he will do when the monsoons come,’ the bridge player says.


She has tried travel but she finds that when she travels, she goes from point A to point C in her experience graph, and when she comes back to wherever she calls home, she goes back to A in a few weeks. She wants permanent change, change that will hollow out the details of her life and leave it bare, and she finds that she cannot have it so easily. People are too rooted, too fixed and travel is just an illusion of flight. She prefers being in transit, like walking through corridors or changing compartments through gangway connections.


When her boyfriend comes to Mumbai, he does not come directly to her apartment but stays out to meet his friends, trying to make contacts in the city. He comes to her house at midnight. He goes to her living room and switches on her television and dissects the women and their raunchy moves in Bollywood item numbers, just to irritate her. He is spoiling for a fight, she can tell. Finally, he says, ‘I wish I can say that I want us to continue. I don't know if it would be the truth. I just cannot bring myself to feel that way. All I know is that I think I would have to stop and look around.’


When she takes the bus back to Pune, she looks out of the window. She thinks that when travelling in a bus, the world outside really looks round. She feels like someone who is unleashed upon the highway and on every part of the changing landscape. She is one with the wind, she feels atomised and parts of her are thrown everywhere, becoming a part of everything. Soon, she obliterates herself and her identity, her relationship to herself. The stories became about other people – not about her, and in this, she finds comfort.



Shweta Sharan lives in Bangalore with her husband, daughter and her books. She has written for The Hindu Literary Review, Deccan Herald and The Economic Times. She is launching her own fiction magazine, The Affair, in April 2014.


Edited by Indira Chandrasekhar.