A few observations about the glaring differences between air that is conditioned and air imbued with the earthy smells of camaraderie
The headlines couldn’t have stated it in plainer English: no government buses would run on the first day of the national trade union strike. I took a walk in my neighbourhood and to my astonishment I saw air-conditioned buses zipping around freely. A neighbour confirmed this: she had gone out for lunch with her husband and met many an airport-bound Vajra coach. Hello, who does the Vajra think it is? Does it no longer belong to the BMTC? Or is it too snobbish to consider itself as a bus at all? For a moment there my old mistrust of the “red elephant”, as I’d called it in this column seven years ago, slowly resurfaced. I had declared rather grandly that I would never swap the lively scenes in an ordinary bus for the kingly comfort of a Volvo. Well, I am ashamed to admit that I haven’t lived up to my oath.
A single Vajra bus conveys me to three popular destinations: film society, theatre and friend. Suffice it to say that I succumbed.
But I will offer no more excuses — only a few observations about the glaring differences between air that is conditioned and air imbued with the earthy smells of camaraderie. Something about a chilled and soundproofed environment makes us lower our voices. Middle class etiquette takes hold of us and we turn into Miss Manners. In a Vajra or on the metro we avoid eye contact, stare at our laptop screens or fiddle with our phones. The only persons we speak to are our travelling companions if any, or our absent companions whom we connect to through our mobiles. Ordinary bus passengers, on the other hand, are automatically and unselfconsciously connected to one another. Nobody is a stranger. You are given the license to stare at anyone, to butt into any conversation.
In an ordinary bus, one afternoon, a Hindi-speaking young man with a backpack hesitantly approached the conductor saying he wanted to go to Ulsoor Lake. “You should have got off at the Lido stop and walked,” he replied. “Never mind, you can get off at the next stop,” said an old man seated beside me. Together they gave him directions, repeating themselves several times as is the norm: he should turn left at the Ulsoor police station traffic signal (where the driver obligingly made an unlawful stop) and keep walking till etc. After they had sent him on his way they began to puzzle over his unusual destination. Why the lake? At which point of the lake? It struck me that the young man was wearing a turban. “He must be going to the gurudwara,” I piped up. And felt as if I’d solved the mystery of the century when the old man and the conductor broke into “aha”s and vehemently accepted my theory.
Transfer me to the metro, though, and I clam up. A couple of schoolboys in green blazers boarded the train at the M.G. Road station. “Our stop is next?” asked one. “Next to next,” said his classmate. That would be the Ulsoor station, and I was willing to bet that the boys lived in Indiranagar. Sure enough, when the metro pulled into Ulsoor they did not get off but mimicked the recorded announcement that punctiliously refers to Ulsoor by its proper, original name: Halasuru. “They’ve changed the name, ra,” said one of the boys. It was on the tip of my tongue to cry out “No you moron” but I held my peace. However, on another trip, when two women began to wonder aloud why Ulsoor was being mispronounced I could stand it no longer and burst into a lecture. It is surprising how many commuters — not only migrants but natives as well — are perplexed by this name; it is perhaps their class that isolates them from the local history and environment.
Any debatable comment in a bus is immediately met with interjectory, explanatory, contradictory voices. But one alters one’s behaviour to suit an a.c. space. One bites back words that are desperate to emerge. A Bengali couple on their maiden ride from M.G. Road were volubly expressing how “super” and “fantastic” the experience was. When they touched Indiranagar the man told his wife, “Look how fast we’ve reached. By road it will take 40 minutes.” Forty minutes! A gross exaggeration and I was dying to say so. “Next stop is Byappanahalli,” he announced. A siren went off in my mind, complete with flashing red lights. You have no idea of the heroic effort it took me to refrain from correcting him.
I was on the last metro from M.G. Road one night and just ahead of Trinity the overhead speakers stirred to life. “The next stop is M.G. Road,” said the flat, mechanical voice. “This train terminates here.”I smiled to myself. When I heard the same message ahead of Ulsoor and of Indiranagar too, I grew mildly alarmed. My outmoded brain pictured the driver changing cassettes at each terminus, flipping the ‘A’ side to ‘B’. Had he forgotten to make the switch? Perhaps he had fallen asleep! If this had been a bus I would have heard an instant uproar, half-mocking and half-complaining. Here, I tried but failed to exchange glances with even a single commuter. I looked up, sighed and shook my head. How I missed the warmth, the natter and the droll chatter of the ordinary bus.
(Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org)