Monday, February 1, 2010

I recently met a Punjabi* who, despite having lived in Kerala for the last 15 years, confessed to not having traveled in buses even once, because he was claustrophobic. He must have received many odd looks from people before, because he looked extremely ill-at-ease confiding this particular facet of his personality to me. I would have probably looked at him oddly too, had I not had a bout of claustrophobia from my recent bus expedition.

Every Sunday I travel by the “Chitoor Ferry” bus from Kacheripady to Vaduthala to teach my kids. I am in no way new to the madness and mayhem that one usually finds at the bus stop. In fact, I consider it a pretty good work-out session. Observe: As soon as the bus halts, I routinely put myself through a quick series of ‘run-skip-jump-grab-hoist-scan-sit or stand’ motion that every public transport user will immediately recognize.

The ‘run’ to the bus queue, the ‘skip’, where I agilely out-maneuver some poor fellow passenger, the occasional, gymnastic and distracting ‘jump’ to get to the front of the queue (usually when the ‘skip’ part refuses to yield results), the ‘grabbing’ and grappling (which eventually follows it) of the bus handle (AHA! I’m at the top of the world! er… step!), the ‘hoisting’ of the body, the quick ‘scan’ for seats, the triumphant ‘sit’ when I get a seat and of course, my not-so-graceful ‘stand’ at the lack of one.

Last Sunday started out pretty ordinary as well. The bus flew in and I got ready to do my routine, but before I could more than flex my muscles, the teeming crowd simply pulled me up the bottom step and into the bus. From then on, I began the Herculean task of simply trying to breathe! The bus was filled to the brim and more people were being stuffed in, just like a sous chef stuffing a turkey! The conductor cajoled, coaxed and prodded us towards the back of the bus, like a sheepdog shepherding sheep. I was jarred to the point of knocking my knees together, found my hair in somebody’s mouth and save for my excellent sense of balance, would have found my face nestled in an armpit! How disgusting is that?

Barely minutes into the ride and I wanted to high-tail it! It was nauseating, this total disregard for personal space and the way umbrellas, satchels and elbows all moulded into a cobweb that kept you locked on the spot. You had to croak to be heard over the deafening roar of the bus engine and either the ticket-walla just missed you or asked you thrice if you’d taken a ticket! All this, not taking into consideration the occassional high heels (ouch!), the groping hand, the accidental taking-the-wind-outta-you punch to the gut... the list goes on and on and on!

When you relive that experience, I can only wonder why I am NOT claustrophobic!

That Indian buses are/were nothing more than ‘hollow metal blocks placed upon a truck-chassis’ is something I learned after the introduction of the Low-Floor buses, which is in reality, the true bus! Dubious piece of information, if you ask me! But I understand a little more about ‘bus-psychology’ now, as I call it. The Truck-chassis (upon which our current Indian buses are modeled) were used to transport loads of weapons to the battle field during the 1st World War. Likewise, in a salute to their pedigree, Indian buses follow suit by loading and unloading passengers of their choice in huge quantities. They drive through the veritable landmine of Indian traffic, skidding to avoid any incoming enemy vehicles. Since a return trip is often unthinkable, and because the money is good, they cram us in like cows to the slaughter! The more the merrier!

There are hardly any studies regarding the seating capacities of such buses. Sure, the seats are numbered and marked, but most buses contain more people than they can hold. People hang on to the railing, the steps and to each other in their eagerness to reach their destination. No one thinks anything about falling down or being thrown out. It is seen as a stray incident. If someone dies, a few organizations hold protests for a week, the opposition calls for stringent measures, TV channel hysterics are aired and the victim’s family loses their privacy in the face of their already potent loss. What of the driver or the owner of the bus? What of the buses that still maniacally rule the roads and continue to flaunt their muscle power? No one gives a damn anymore!

Recently, when someone worriedly bemoaned his son taking off for a survival course in the jungles, I was tempted to tell him that the boy would be perfectly fine. He was in class 9 and traveled regularly by public transport. If you can survive the urban jungle and still manage to reach home by 7 pm, you have my certificate!

(*name withheld for reasons of privacy)

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