After years, I hopped onto a double decker bus. I’m not sure why I say ‘hopped’. Hopping was as unlikely as gracefully waltzing in. A more accurate thing to say would be that I lunged desperately at the bus and that somehow I didn’t fall. That I was forced up the stairs and onto the upper deck because there was nowhere else to go. That I managed to sit for 10 minutes, surrounded by weariness and careful impassivity, until someone shifted and the possibility of a seat emptying broke the spell.
Trying to keep my own face impassive, feeling the crowd thicken, breathing in infinite disappointment and anxiety, I felt as if I had to grow another skin at once. A skin thick enough to prevent an osmosis of mood and mein.
Those who stop taking buses and trains, forget what the city feels like for most Indians. I do use public transport a lot, but have stopped commuting during peak hours. That evening, I hadn’t planned on boarding a bus, but it was after five and Cuffe Parade was spewing out line upon line of office-goers. Since no cabs were free, I went to the bus stop and thought: I’ve done this; it’s not all that hard. Besides, Mumbai’s BEST services are really quite decent, and so on.
It was bad. The bus was so full that if I kept my seat on the upper deck, I’d never make it down to the lower deck when my stop arrived. There were people crammed all the way up the steps. So I went down to the lower deck, and discovered that I had nothing to hold onto. No grab rails or straphangars where I found a spot to stand. With the bus braking and lurching every few seconds, it was near-impossible to keep my balance. Yet, the near-impossible was achieved through sheer force of will and several muscles working in tandem. It was a militant form of yoga.
Now I was forced to remember why I had sworn to myself that any life plan — anything at all — had to be better than this. Surely, my life couldn’t be reduced to a degree of stiflement so that I’d rather risk my life standing on the footboard than being squashed on all sides by a crowd, even if that crowd is all female? I wouldn’t be reduced to the sort of pettiness that makes the most generous spirits lunge at seats and argue about who is entitled to sit down first?
As the bus turned towards the promenade, I caught a glimpse of the setting sun glancing off grey water. It was a tiny hint of mercy. For a minute, I breathed easier. Then I found anger. This wasn’t just bad, it was much worse than it was. The slow bleeding of the BEST has meant fewer buses, older buses, never enough buses on busy routes. Taking away chunks of fairly profitable public sector companies — such as electricity supply — and handing it on a platter to private firms has meant that public transport can’t be subsidised the way it was. The continual focus on cars has meant more roads, bridges and sea links to cut down on traffic time, but never any dedicated bus lanes.
Outside the bus, I spotted foreign tourists taking selfies. I wondered whether they thought of this as a good city. Of us, as a happy people. Look at us! Smiling through it all even as we hang off the sides of a rickety bus. Look at us, coping. Suddenly, I wanted to shake a fist at someone.
The author is a writer of essays, stories, poems and scripts for stage and screen
The iconic red bus
Bombay Electric Supply & Tramway Co Ltd started in 1905 and Double Decker Bus Services were introduced in 1937.