Buses have been an inalienable part of my life. Right from when I was a baby to the present, I have relied on them as a means of transport. In fact, it is the vehicle in which I have travelled the most. Inevitably, a multitude of strong memories and emotions are tethered to this red giant on wheels. I have been witness to and have experienced pleasant, funny, embarrassing, distressing, painful, irritating, obnoxious and even scary incidents during my journeys.
A quick primer about private buses in Kerala. They are mostly coloured bright red. Unlike other states in India, there are very few public transport buses available to commute within the city, so people rely on these bright red buses on a daily basis. Interestingly, they are not numbered route-wise but have names that I feel, give them a human touch. St.John, Hasnamol, Arafa, King, Mangalya, Jyothis, Nawaz and so on. So if you overhear someone at the bus stop saying they’re waiting for Aishwarya, in all probability it is the bus they are waiting for. Some times when seen from a distance they even seem to look human! It amuses me how my psyche fabricates humanoid images of these buses. Some look depressed or have a frowning face, some have huge nostrils and some others are decked up like a bride during festivals.
Having travelled so much in buses it would not be fair on my part to brush aside the people one encounters in them- most importantly the driver, cleaner (fondly called kili which means bird in Malayalam) and conductor (ticket collector). They are too conspicuous to miss with their numerous avatars ranging from friendly, kind and helpful to flirts, oglers, gropers and heartless beasts. Young, old, middle aged. All kinds. Then of course there are my co passengers- babies(crying or sleeping), children(school going, armed with heavy bags), working women (bathed in coconut oil, hair dripping with the oil-water emulsion), college students (well dressed, ready to flash their student travel concession cards), fish mongers and labourers (with their pots, basins, baskets and tools) and many others with their own stories of joy and grief.
Each time I step into its threshold I get whisked away into another world, a world bubbling, fuming steaming within the confines of the flaming red chassis. With not an inch to be spared, the overcrowded bus speeds away like a lunatic, least concerned about other beings on the road. Trapped inside and suffocated by the various smells and carbon dioxide laden puffs emanating from my fellow passengers exacerbated by my short stature, I make a desperate attempt to stand on my toes gasping for some fresh air. In utter disappointment, I withdraw my attempts as the slightest movement invites devilish glares, scowls and tch-tchs from the aunties poised to attack with their elbows outstretched. How can I forget those days when I helplessly watched the bus speeding past my destination due to my inept jostling skills? Or the days I scrambled out of the bus, my hair a total mess, my duppatta caressing many a confused head as I tugged at it waiting outside the window for some benevolent stranger to throw my bag out and for another to catch it promptly and hand it over to me.
On many occasions middle aged men tried their luck in touching, pinching or pressing themselves on to women “by mistake”. Sometimes I watched helplessly, at other times I was rescued by safety pins and high heels. Infatuated drivers and cleaners sometimes refused to accept the ticket fare in spite of insistence. Once, a lady nearly fell off the moving bus as it raced ahead impatiently even before she could alight. There have been pleasant incidents too. Those lucky days when I managed to get a seat and travel comfortably, when I was helped by a lady in picking up my wallet that I thought was lost in the crowd and those days when I got to sit with friends enjoying a conversation about the most mundane of things. The luckiest day when I reached college alive and safe having travelled on the foot-board with only my feet inside, torso and head getting drenched in the merciless monsoon showers, my hands clutching the rails as if holding onto my soul which could slip away any moment.
On Saturdays and holidays I would get to sit by the window and tap my feet to the tasteless music being played by the driver, savouring the sights along the road and the breeze on my face. A luxurious gift that ignited many thoughts. On those days I often compared the journey to life. There is a beginning and an end. Many things happen between the two. People come and leave. There can be good experiences and bitter ones, some that make us happy, others that teach us a lesson. Some people and things stay with us throughout. Others depart when it is time. Some come very late in life but leave their indelible mark. Some others are never noticed. Some may have been worth noticing. In the end, however pleasant or bitter the journey, one has to move on with renewed hope. A new journey, a new beginning....a new life.