Friday, June 02, 2006
A Tribute: To The Great Bengal Buses
In Kolkata, I usually always travel hither and thither by public transport. Not having a car to fulfil my whims and fancies, all my travelling is dependent on buses and the illegal yet practical "shuttles" (share-cabs).
The hot weather, coupled with high humidity, makes Kolkata a blazing hot and uncomfortable steam-bath on most afternoons. Public transport seems daunting and off-putting to say the least. However, there is something about them in Kolkata, that is strangely endearing to me. If you're a regular bus-passenger too, you will know what I mean.
Conductors speak in their own language. At every stop, the sheer velocity at which they rattle off the names of the stops ahead is mindnumbing. The words Burrabazar, Park Circus, Jadavpur, Esplanade and so on are blended together in a unique advertisement style. You listen to the rap, and strain your ears to catch the name of the place you want to go. In a cycle of 5 seconds each, a competent bus-conductor can spout out the names of all the stops the bus is going to. And the litany of locations repeats itself endlessly until the bus is crammed up or he runs out of breath. The bus-conductor thinks of himself as a bit of a hero in a film I think, because he always does his acrobatics whenever the bus stops, hanging from the bar above the door, calling out to everyone in sight. When the bus starts off, he doesn't need to hold onto a bar or support. He stands there grimly and nonchalantly, a brave man in the midst of a turmoil of sliding and slipping passengers holding on for dear life. Bus-drivers, on the other hand, are the most irritated of all sub-species of humanity. Never have I seen a bus-driver who didnt have a frown on his face, and an irritated look in his eyes. Kolkata buses tend to race each other on the road, as many pedestrians have noticed only too closely, but I wouldn't blame the drivers for it. Driving all day, in the city heat, going over the same route all the time, one must give them some largesse to pursue their little sports. What more entertainment does the guy have all day? His day's joy lies in outdoing Bus No. 37A, or 43B for that matter, in a drag race to the next traffic light.
A bus, is also the best place to hear the different voices of the city. You cannot be bored on a Kolkata bus, if its even decently occupied. In one corner, you will have a couple having a mild tiff over the guy's dooshtu habits, or the girl's chenchamechi (which by the way, means I think a mix of nakhra and overbearing attitude - symptoms evident in all girls). They dont bother to speak too softly or anything. Lost in their world, they speak quite normally with each other, passing out their golden secrets and private moments to the rest of the passengers, who are only to eager for a distraction from the beastly weather and pollution. Somewhere else, you would have someone or the other talking loudly into a cellphone, trying to explain himself to his wife or unwinding his tensions on a lowly employee. So, if you're alone and bored in a bus, a pleasant time can be had listening to his rantings or subdued mumbles of self-redemption.
Crowds are most interesting in the evenings, when large numbers of office employees are treading homewards. Treading metaphorically that is, because they are on a bus. You have female co-workers going home together, giggling over something or other, in their annoying way. Dont know why but woman giggling make me want to sometimes do violent things. But I have thankfully had a good upbringing. I restrain myself. I hold back. I content myself with gripping the bars very very tightly. A nice thing about the Bengali women though is that their prattle, for some reason, sounds pleasing to the ear. I wonder if you've had occasion to hear two, or possibly three, Bengali women talking amongst themselves in Bengali. They have this really fast manner of emotional and excited speaking, and animated gesturing which interspersed with the light laughter, combines to make a very soothing melody to a weary mind. You cant make out what they're saying really, they adjust their vocal speeds so, but it sounds nice all the same.
This one time, I was coming back home in rush hour traffic, standing in the bus. My bus was filled with home-bound office-workers, carrying the black briefcases and handbags that mark their tribe. Everyone sitting or standing quite contentedly and quietly. As the bus reached a red light, another car next to the bus screeched loudly to a halt, mildly hitting a taxi in front. The two drivers got out to begin the ritual shouting match, as the light turned green and my bus ambled forward.
Now, the bus is off, and the passengers are suddenly kicked alive. It starts off with one old man commenting loudly on the modern-day traffic hazards. I cant recall exactly what he said, but it earned nods from several people around him. Another man then made a point about the youths in the streets these days, and how they risk their own lives as well as the lives of pedestrians. He earned still more nods. These views were further supported by another mid-thirties gentleman who, gesturing with his umbrella, argued strongly about the accidents caused by the frequent traffic snarls. Slowly slowly, other men in the bus turned around and started listening in. Someone would make one point and someone else would counter him. Within a few minutes, the whole bus was involved in the debate. People began to clammer for their chance to speak, and would then begin to regale this sudden audience with their own experiences with rowdy drivers, corrupt traffic policemen, youth on bikes, youth in cars, youth on foot and youth on bicycles. I tried to hide myself behind a old lady, lest someone point at me ("There's one of them!!" or "Oi dekho! Oi chhele!!") and charge me with flames and pitchforks. It continued in the same vein, with people laughing at the speaker's anecdotes or offering condolences and sympathy. Like war veterans, shaking their heads solemnly as if they could empathise with the other soldier's miseries.
No one here knew the other person. They werent even really speaking to each other. They were just looking in front, or at their briefcases, or at the opposite window and talking as if to themselves. But everyone wanted to speak, and get a moment to bask in the glory of public oration. As the stops ahead came up, the people got off slowly one by one. They walked out a little straighter and with a smile of contentment on their faces. The debate ended in 10 odd minutes itself, as the crowd thinned out. I, still just standing there, felt like an alien observer watching over the activities in a different world, or like an explorer as he watches from afar the species he is studying. The subjects of my observations, they were all Bengalis. And standing there, I began to think on what I had just witnessed.
A seemingly innocuous and amusing incident it was. But to me it reflected so much more. Bengal, the land of free speech, where the revolution against the British truly began. Where the educated middle-class once could raise its voice against oppression and tyranny, now they can only watch on mutely as the political games are played every once in a while. It seems the desire to have that pulpit still resides in the heart of the people of Bengal. How often, I wondered, do these people, ordinary middle-class 9-to-5 employees, get the opportunity to speak their mind, to vent their feelings and receive the accolades of an agreeable audience. In the daily grind of their lives, such opportunities could only be wished for and never found. The people in the bus didnt know each other, not even the names of the people they were addressing. They all seemed satisfied and satiated, having unwinded their souls, held an audience, however meagre, and fulfilled that childhood, inherited fascination for the power of the pulpit.
Buses in Kolkata are never short of surprises. They always have something to offer. Be it an insight into the minds of so many 'ordinary' normal people, a pleasant ride listening in on the lives of others, or even the opportunity to watch the passengers beat the side of the bus if its going to slow [thus relaying their anger and frustration to the driver], a sight that is surely unique to Kolkatans. Our buses are filled with life and fraught with excitement - food for the introspective as well as the fun-loving. If you only care to look.