An ode to a daily commute.
In school, they taught us précis writing. It was like cooking without the spices; like ignoring the extra pinches of chaat masala and the flakes of chilli. You followed the steps, you put in the facts and you got a story. But, like the précis dish, the story wouldn’t smell good, wouldn’t make your brain feel, think and want. It was a convenient tool, but it wasn’t a very exciting one.
On my way to work today, I realised that the life of an average commuter on an average day in his average life is usually told précis style. He wakes up, gets dressed, chooses his preferred or forced mode of transport and, nine out of ten times, leaving out unfortunate incidences involving helmets and speeding fines, reaches his office. That’s all right. That is exactly what happens, and no one can say this story isn’t right.
But today, when I slid into my chair, the dust of the road hadn’t quite shaken itself off. My brain was clogged with images fighting for attention and my ears were still ringing with honking cars in the wrong lane. There was a long, not very organised queue of Delhi’s multitude of commuters waiting for acknowledgement; and why not? Beautiful spring flowers get their odes, changing seasons, birthing lambs, the moon, the sky, the sun; all of them have their soft boards covered with pretty words and lilting passages. And then we have this person, this nameless commoner, wakes up already tired, pulls on hopefully washed and ironed clothes, and eats breakfast while staring down an empty, desolate looking space on his wall.
So I’m piecing together a little something. Not an ode, my rhymes are limited to cats and bats and rats and then I’m usually out. But I’ve been a commuter. I’ve used the buses and metros and autos and cars in my city. So have you, perhaps. You’ve gotten out of your houses and walked purposely to your nearest auto-stand every day. And then, if you live in Delhi or a place like Delhi; things aren’t that easy from there on, are they?
The first auto driver, he isn’t so friendly, not so accommodating. You tell him where you want to go but he isn’t interested. Doesn’t quite understand why you think he should be. You try another one and, poor man, he has his troubles too. His meter isn’t quite working right. He doesn’t want to, but he’s forced to charge you a couple of extra tenners. The sun is beginning to scald the back of your head and your watch hasn’t stood still while you try to save your money. You get in, and are greeted by two very clearly photo-shopped pictures of Kareena Kapoor in garish red on either side of you. You stare ahead, trying to will your peripheral vision away, and staring back at you are twin pictures of, if you are lucky enough, the latest heartthrob Bollywood has propped up. This is great, you have company. Fumbling with your bag, you pull out earphones and plug them in, but the auto driver is way ahead of your game. He turns up the volume and, suddenly, you are in the middle of a song and dance sequence that must involve at least one rainbow-coloured costume and three snow covered peaks. Well, at least you found an auto. It’s all about counting your blessings.
In New Delhi, autos are wonderful things. They aren’t but can easily pretend to be, invisible. These can manoeuvre very tight spaces, make loud, frightening noises and toss traffic rules and caution to the wind. Like demigods. Your auto driver knows all the golden rules and, within minutes, has incurred the wrath of three cyclists, two motorcyclists, one DTC bus and several car drivers. The honking is beginning to make your ear ring, and everything is laced with the loud 1990s music and the driver’s own rendition of Every Day Abuses Made Easy. It’s perhaps not even nine, and you’ve already learned three new words. Suddenly, everything slows down and gets louder all at once. There you go, the inevitable Clogged Road. There is one in every commute. This can usually be attributed to either one or all of these — a broken down bus, a flat tire, a stray scuffle, and/or a cow in no hurry. You look around because you are in an auto and, well, there isn’t much to do. You count three sweaty, angry men behind the respective wheels of their mid to high level cars, one baby driver (this comes with the added bonus of a double take), three street children performers with impish grins and sun-bleached hair and at least two traffic policemen who would rather be anywhere but here.
If everything goes to plan, in less than 15 minutes, you are off again, and this time, only if you are lucky, you reach the metro station without further ado. I’ll say this about Delhi Metros; they make it easy. The escalators and elevators are usually working, the trash stays in the trashcans, the lines are long but manageable, and things proceed smoothly, with only occasional hitches. A few broken down ATM machines are hardly worth a grumble. Then your metro, like clockwork, comes to say hello and you get in. You don’t look for a seat, not unless you are old and believe in humanity and kindness. An able-bodied man or woman boarding the metro must stand unless an empty seat practically lands in your lap. There is not much use of this seat though. Even if you do get to sit down (always a bigger possibility in the women’s compartment), you will be asked to “please madam adjust” multiple times. Once, I held on to the rod and, even there, had to adjust. The entire rod above and below my hand was empty but an unusually rotund lady decided that it was my hand’s spot she wanted. So I adjusted.
Without a seat, you cannot read and cannot sleep and cannot really do anything but shift your weight from leg to leg till that cloyingly sweet voice tells you to get off. But that is just a ruse. This isn’t a choice. You won’t actually get off yourself. You’ll be made to get out. You’ll fall forth from the mechanical doors and be caught in that sea of heavily perspiring humanity. And then you’ll walk, walk to your office on a gloriously sunny day, clutching your bag and straightening your clothes and side-stepping animal waste and ignoring the occasional man relieving himself on the pavement. And you’ll enter your office and greet the couple of people sitting there and they’ll ask you how you are and how everything is; and you’ll say fine, just fine, because you are.