It was a working Saturday. All that was left were me and my timeless romance with performance reports, excel formulas and carefully crafted mails. By lunchtime, I was done mailing some urgent deliverables to a scumbag in disguise of a client. For a change, I decided to return home early.
On normal days, I commute to work by metro to avoid prolonged bus journeys and nagging backaches. Another day and another metro journey to work, but this was no ordinary day.
It seems to me, bus drivers in Kolkata are descendants of Victor Frankenstein. Obsessed, cold-blooded and reckless; all the essential qualities you need to dodge traffic, perform fierce overtakes, speed on bumpers, sneak through political protestors and tolerate passengers who keep banging the body of the vehicle and issue ultimatums to drive the bus like a Formula1 car.
I was in no mood of a toilsome journey that afternoon, but I decided to board a bus anyway. And that turned out to be quite an experience. It was 4:30 PM, the time when the timid sunlight reluctantly touches half of every building in the city and gusts of wind whistle through the roadside trees. The bus stand was deserted; only a vortex of pre-owned bus tickets, dust and a cardboard box were picked up by the curious wind like a tourist strolling aimlessly in an antique shop.
I stood there, thanking my lucky stars; maybe I will manage to find a seat for me. Finding an empty seat is not much of a big deal if you’re not familiar with how the buses here try to roll you like you are a dice, until you come out blue. As somebody who is born and bred in India, I have to tell you that you don’t see people smiling randomly for no reason here. You’ll come across many sarcastic comments and witty one-liners that you quietly chuckle at in your head. But people who tell us to squeeze a smile out on a packed public transport can go kill themselves. Heck, do I have to smile on demand now? If you smile for strangers, you would be considered a jerk or an idiot. It requires strong arms and sticky legs to stand amongst your fellow passengers who are mostly in a bad mood and get involved in a brawl at the first opportunity. If you lose your balance, trip and step on someone’s toe or ‘accidentally’ elbow someone to ‘claim’ an armrest, may the lord lift up His countenance upon you!
A blue dot slowly emerged from the bend in the road and grew bigger and bigger till it began to take a shape. It passed a few signals, rattled down the street, turned and stopped unwillingly a few steps ahead of me. Heaven be my witness! Half the bus was empty! As I climbed up the stairs, a few curious eyes inspected the new arrival for a moment then deiced to turn their gazes outside the window. I took the luxury of selecting a window seat and heaved a sigh of relief. Some of the passengers were chatting about politics, the most favorite topic since the last few decades.
The bus slowed further as the traffic light turned yellow from green. On such occasions, private cars speed up instead of slowing down and preparing to stop. But, bus drivers utilize every traffic signal to let that extra passenger get on board. No one boarded the bus except a hawker selling local sweets. Some of the passengers glanced at him curiously. That’s what they are supposed to do, scrutinizing everyone and everything that commutes. I overheard two of them whispering to each other about buying some sweets. The hawker was selling them at 5 rupees a piece. As he advanced to the seats, advertising his sweets in a hoarse voice, most of the passengers showed no interest and turned their heads away. My two fellow-passengers, the owners of the whispering voices, asked the hawker to show his stock. The hawker, a young man in his mid-thirties with a bony physique and a large mustache, put down the aluminum bucket from his hand and removed the orange cellophane cover to unveil his stock. While my fellow passengers were busy selecting the sweets, no one noticed that the bus has stopped and another hawker entered through the front door and started selling the same sweets at the same price. His shrill voice made the first hawker aware of his presence.
He noticed the first hawker and his jaws hardened. “You have no business here! This was supposed to be my bus!” he screamed. A verbal battle ensues between the two.
“I will make you regret this by teaching you a lesson!” The first hawker shouted.
“I don’t care if I lose money” blabbers the second man and starts selling his sweets at a bargained price, two for five rupees instead of one. The second hawker was taken aback at this dogged decision, but renewed the strength of his vocal cords and howled abuses at his competitor and said “Five sweets for five rupees, I will ruin you for good!”
The passengers were enjoying this ruckus. A few of them pulled out their wallets and purses to take full advantage of the moment. The word of war continued but the battle stopped at one of the hawkers selling ten pieces for 5 rupees. The other hurled abuses and got off the bus at the next stop. All the sweets were sold out in a minute. I was, perhaps the only one who could not take advantage of this and regretted for being so clumsy. The conductor came forward to collect cash fares and handed over charming little tickets from assorted bundles. He noticed that I was the only one who did not buy sweets. As he came to my seat, he winked at me, smiled and said in a barely audible voice, “they do this daily, only the regulars are aware of this. Twenty such sweets are not worth of 1 rupee!”
You can take away whatever lesson you must from this tale, but my lesson was this: For the love of everything God stands for, do not underestimate bus journeys!