Driving is rapidly becoming an elitist activity. With petrol cost going above Rs 70 per litre, even at a modest 500-odd km per month, commuting to work is costing a fortune. And it’s stupid to keep driving when there is an alternative: bus.
I love travelling by bus when we go on one of our frenetic weekend trips – which are admittedly rare now, but once upon a time they used to be frequent, especially in the winter months. There’s a certain indescribable, undeniable charm in rattling along on a rickety, roadways bus, on bumpy, rural roads heading towards some obscure destination that rarely finds its way onto a tourist map.
But commuting by bus in the city is a different story. I have a stubborn and very deep-seated reluctance to have anything to do with buses in the city. I did a bit of bussing as a teenager in Delhi. In those days, going by bus alone brought the thrill of independence and growing-up-ness, so there was something to like about it. There was, however, much to dislike, and eventually the dislike stayed. If I work very hard at it, I can boil it down to one simple statement: In the city, buses are hot, dirty, and full of men. All three are thoroughly dislikeable and, unfortunately, all-pervasive.
Heat is, in some ways, the least complex of the three dislikes. Especially in the extremes of Delhi’s climate, heat means sweat. Lots of sweat. Being packed into a bus like sardines doesn’t do anything to reduce one’s propensity to sweat. And who wants to be in contact with somebody else’s sweaty, smelly body? The blast of hot air from the windows doesn’t do anything to make matters less unpleasant.
Dirt is a much more subjective matter. I come from a family where my mother and her mother both turned up their snooty noses at people of lower social classes. “Poor people are dirty. Poor people travel by public bus. We, the wealthy aristocrats, have nothing to do with such matters. Most of the time, we pretend like such things don’t exist.” My grandmother was so extremely snobbish in her attitude to people and so driven by the need to keep herself clean that she eventually made an obsession out of it. When she was well into her nineties, she would spend hours picking “dirt” from her hands and face. My mother is much less concerned about dirt, but some of the old attitude has passed on to her and a little of it has trickled down to me. I do my best to fight it, but when I’m dressed in my smart office clothes, carrying my office laptop and nice leather handbag, trying to keep my hair neat, and my shoes shiny, I’m a different person from the backpack toting, cargo-pants wearing, rarely bathing, happy-go-lucky traveler who hops onto a roadways bus and cheerfully shares a seat with a bag full of chickens. As a traveler, I’m fascinated by the long, dirty and unruly nails that a person uses to pick their nose with; as a working woman, I’m revolted by the thought of what they might have done with those pickings while sitting in the seat I’m on now.
And then, there are men. When you’re female, and 16-ish, and you’re on a bus, and you’re in Delhi, there is not a good word to be said about men. Men are perverts – all of them. And there may be some sixteen-year-olds who are capable to handling perverts, but I was not one of them. I was not the one who would turn around and scream, spit, stamp on, jab, hit or in any way make a scene or protest. I’d just stand there, grit my teeth, and wish them dead – and by ‘them’, I mean all men. It took me a long time, and it took Amit a lot of hard work, to begin to believe that not all men are bad. By the time I finally changed my mind, I was no longer 16, and I was no longer commuting by bus.
Amit has been putting in quite a bit of (subtle) hard work in getting me to believe that buses are not all bad either. I’ve allowed myself to be persuaded to take a bus on a few occasions in recent weeks, but rarely have I gone on my own. The last time we took a bus together, the driver was eminently certifiable. Initially, he was quite sane and sober. Then, another Volvo of the same route number turned up next to us and all hell broke loose. The two monolithic monsters began to race each other on a road that had only two narrow lanes. At one point, there was only a couple of inches separating the vehicles as they hurtled down the road. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the swaying giants, but Amit held Tara tightly and looked away. In front of our bus was a humble Santro, bumbling along at 35 kmph, holding up our progress and allowing the other bus to snarl ahead. Our driver mowed down that Santro with a furious blast from his horn. If the car hadn’t been blasted out of his way with the sheer power of sound waves (and the driver’s insane fury), he might have been blasted out of the way in quite another fashion. Luckily, our stop came soon, and I staggered off the bus with a silent prayer of thanks. Amit often claims that being in the bus is safer than being outside it. He may be right, but (as long as you’re not the unfortunate insect holding up the bus) it can certainly be a lot more scary inside.
All of which notwithstanding, Amit persuaded me to do the morning commute to office by bus this morning. We left home quite late and when we got to the bus stop, there were several buses coming, but none of them was an air-conditioned Volvo. I would not be persuaded. I still have my three pet dislikes. I can’t do much about the men and my aversion to “dirt” might be largely neurotic, but at least I don’t have to tolerate the heat and sweat any more. There are air-conditioned buses, so there’s no reason I should reach office in a less than well-preserved condition.
The Volvo came and we got on. It was crowded, but only about 140%, not 200% or 250% like the buses of my memory. The front part of the bus was largely the preserve of women. I parked the twins next to two strange women (strangers, I mean; not that there was anything particularly strange about them) and did not worry about them being molested. (The twins are not yet five, but five is not too young for some men. But I have not heard of too many women molesting small girls. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but there’s only so much I can worry about, so I’ll just worry about the men for now.) I didn’t have to worry about myself anymore – not because I would be any more able to deal with being molested, but because at 37+, I probably don’t attract the wrong kind of attention any more. Besides, at least I had my personal bodyguard, Amit, on the bus.
The Volvo buses, unlike the non-air-conditioned buses, cater to a white collar audience. And all my backpacking on rickety public transport to places of dubious repute has done me a bit of good after all – given the kinds of places I’ve slept in, it’s futile to be worrying about dirt in a Volvo bus. So on all counts, I must admit that bussing it today was not as bad as it used to be all those years ago.
Amit was at the back of the bus, squashed in among the men. I was standing in front, with the women, keeping a hawk’s eye on the kids. The kids were on separate seats, looking out of their windows. They couldn’t talk to me or to each other, and I couldn’t talk to them or to Amit. We were being blasted by a stream of nonsense from the radio. Thankfully, the spoken bits were in Kannada, so I could easily tune it out, but it was more difficult to tune out the raucous music. Most of the time, I had my little shield of personal space around me, whole and unbreached. But every so often somebody would want to get past me and even in these Volvo buses, the aisle is not designed for two people to pass with personal spaces intact. And by the time I had dropped the kids at daycare, reached office, crossed the hot and dusty road and actually got up to my desk, I was hot, sweaty, dusty, and generally frazzled.
Call me what you like, but I still don’t like commuting by bus. I want my car, my little bubble of sanity in a crowded, crazy world. I want to be able to talk to Amit and the kids, whoever is with me. If I’m on my own, I want my own physical and mental space. I don’t want strangers squeezing past me every couple of minutes. And most importantly , I want to choose the music I listen to, and to be able to drive in silence if I wish to.
Unless, of course, I’m wearing my cargo pants and my trusty backpack and heading for a remote destination on a bumpy country road.