A bus ride in India is no joke. It’s something each person wakes up thinking about, getting up half an hour earlier to beat the crowd. Skipping breakfast and rushing goodbyes, we march, as strong soldiers, to the nearest bus stop. With each step our resolve intensifies and an inner strength reveals itself as the big bus trundles in. The bus is a sight in its own right. A big sign painted in neon orange names it ‘Dolly’, its bright green paint is now peeling off the sides, from the front bumper hangs a fancy accessory made of lemon and green chillies (To protect it from the evil eye). As it screeches its way to the stop, we prepare ourselves mentally. Even coming half an hour earlier doesn't give us any extra space.
As the bus nears the stop one can hear the cries of the conductor, ‘Palayam, Palayam, Palayam’ ‘ A salesman at heart, he pitches the stops to the onlookers ‘Palayam verunno?’ ‘Do you want to come to Palayam? As though his calls might tempt them to change their destination and join him on this amazing trip to ‘Palyam’. However, many are attracted by his calls and like bees they gather around the door, waiting for Mr. Conductor to let them in. There’s a second there, when everyone is gearing up for the climb into the bus, a second where the expression on the conductor’s face is like watching the face of Pharaoh’s soldier’s as the sea closed over them (I imagine). The conductor takes a deep breath and opens the door, upon which the human beings in the vicinity lose their humanity. We fight over each other, doing whatever we can to secure a seat. Within seconds there are no empty seats only some smug passengers who continue to look so till their stop arrives. The not so agile passengers begrudgingly stand near the seats, their hands firmly grasping whatever metal they can hold on to. Often elbows contact faces of seated passengers which are then followed by not so convincing apologies which could just mean ‘Serves you right’.
Soon the bus reaches its maximum limit of passengers. But for conductors here, Impossible is nothing. They squeeze in another hundred passengers till you’re no longer sure if your feet are your own. You're engulfed in this mass of human flesh, of varying shades of brown. Your face might be in another woman’s armpit and your leg might be stamped on by a million passengers, BUT, that doesn’t bother you. You hold your breath and wait for the bus to start. Without a warning the bus jerks to a start, throwing naïve newbies onto the persons in front of them. The seasoned travellers on the bus give each other smug knowing looks, laughing internally at these ignoramuses, unaccustomed to the ways of the jungle. And then there are some mutated members of the menfolk who get on the bus ONLY after it starts. They get this twisted pleasure out of chasing the bus and then hopping onto it, only to hang on to the door till their stop arrives where they get down before the bus comes to a stop. Who said we Indians are boring? We make even bus riding an extreme sport.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Darwin came up with ‘Survival of the fittest’ after a bus journey here. Here, a moment of weakness can throw you out of the game. Hence babies, heavy bags and walking sticks are handed over to random seated passengers in a silent protest against their momentary comfort. The babies and bags stay there till the owners reclaim them, without thanks, just before disembarking. I often wonder, what if a woman gives me her baby and isn’t able to collect him before she gets down? Do I get to keep him? Or should I surrender him to Lost and found?
The most wondrous of sights in the entire bus ride is watching the conductor wade through this human mass shouting ‘Ticket ticket’. And this guy isn’t our average kumar, even in a crowd of hundred he knows which person is yet to buy the ticket. Unlike Moses, this sea doesn’t part for him, it needs to be swum through. And without a thought he does that, from the front to the back of the bus, this man with a mission sells tickets, not letting a single person escape without paying.
The bus ride itself is like a horizontal roller coaster, or more like the video games we had in the 90s in which we need to overtake each and every vehicle on the road. The bus driver, probably a former F1 driver, drives like there’s no tomorrow, wading in and out of a sea of pesky yellow auto rickshaws,whizzing by those pretentious ‘Innovas’, screaming at two wheelers which dare to come in his way, making sure that he hits each and every pothole on the road with force that jolts one's teeth. And never, not even for a second, does the driver take his hands off the horn. In his mind he’s probably thinking ‘Horns were made for honking, and honk I will’. This might be the most reasonable explanation for why we are called loud. We wouldn’t be heard over the horn otherwise.
Finally this ‘Dolly’ on wheels reaches the destination and to keep the climax as entertaining as the movie itself, the driver doesn’t consider slowing down before stopping. He just brakes. If only we Indians weren’t susceptible to inertia….