A bus that leaves no room for boredom

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As a city bus ambles through the urban jungle, the mindful commuter observes how people observe one another, and become a temporary community of sorts during the journey.

‘On the same boat’ is the archaic phrase connoting ‘companionability in a shared situation’ that today should read: ‘On the same bus’.

The middle-aged conductor of the green DTC Ashok Leyland bus, deftly swapping tickets for change, rattles off his standard jingle urging commuters traveling without a bus pass to take a ticket. He reads people. And he reads books too — The Book of Simple Living. Sitting near the window that day during my morning route of an uncrowded DTC bus, I espy his eyes scanning the short paragraphs of a book containing Ruskin Bond’s ornithological anecdotes and coming to a rest on the illustration of a bird.

*

Shortly, another aspiring storyteller is making a grab for the passengers’ attention — a marketing agent who got on the bus spinning tales about pills of Pudinavati (“Pudina aur Ayurved se bani goli”). He begins his sales pitch with a pronouncement about how people are wary of accepting the truth, instantly putting his prospective clientelle on the backfoot at the outset.

The journey then turns into a short course in performance poetry. A very raw, original, creative and spontaneous form of spoken word poetry. The audience buys the ticket from the conductor. Windows provide all the ventilation possible and the booming voice of the sales agent reaches or bounces back from the backseats if the crowd — consisting mostly of lower working-class women and men, college students, school students bunking school, old men, people who come to Delhi for the first time and are ready to drop off at Lal Quila as soon as the bus reaches Daryaganj, and many more — is not too dense. These agents sell many things of common utility: Pudinavati pills for an upset stomach; meanwhile, another agent may climb aboard to tell us about wallets and churan; another about a digestive mixture that can cure Pyorrhea in two days; then, one more may clamber on, with a set of pens (which I may as well buy).

The marketing agent has a badge pinned on his chest. He wears the classic Dev Anand topi. After selling some four or five packets of Pudinavati pellets, he sits down. A daily passenger probably identifies him as a regular, because they start chatting. And he takes the opportunity to talk up the company that made the goli. “People like my pitch, so I can’t just sell them anything. This is a fine job. There is no compulsion that I have to sell these many units. Sometimes, in the days of troubling heat I hail the A/C bus, walk to the back of bus and sleep. Earlier, I worked in Pune. Had to learn the language there… you can’t work in place until you know the language of that city”. And he goes on to expound upon the common words between the two languages.

After a month, I see him again. He’s wearing cream trousers that are dirty at the edges and an offwhite collared T-Shirt. His collars are flattened, but the classic hat is missing. His hair curls have grown a little and are now touching his neck. His hair is set in place either by sweat or Navratan hair oil and parted from the right side. I think he won’t be hawking today. Maybe, I will get to see what he talked about that day — about sleeping on the back seat when he doesn’t feel like selling. The agent sits in the front seat of the non-A/C bus. He waits until a few more people have boarded the bus from the back gate, gets up and, gripping the pole for support, he begins.

“We accept the truth that we don’t want to hear. You go out to eat to good food, and suddenly, next day you are rewarded by stomach ache, gas, indigestion. You would take leave from work, stand in long queues in hospital and get a ₹300 prescription. All this running around for a normal pain from indigestion. Look here! This one bottle has 50 pellets which will relieve all your stomach problems. Just for ₹10. The other packet is for ₹20 and has 100 goliyaan.” He makes a killing.

*

Another day, when the wind is blowing in Kedarnath and we are receiving a nice breezy rain (but not wondering that this is May, so why aren’t newspapers shouting “Save Climate, Save Climate”), a bus driver’s voice alerts me to step back. “Step back or get ready to fall off.” In orange cluster buses, I have always been asked to move to the front of the bus, near the doorway. Basically, a commuter is expected to stand as close to the door as possible even when their stop is 20 minutes away. I have not always heeded this unasked-for piece of advice. Green buses have a much lower flat floor, which makes it easy to alight from the bus. It is comfortable to stand in those buses without the fear of getting flung into the wind shield when the driver brakes too hard.

Anyway, I am still smarting under the rude tone of the driver when he asks me where I need to get down, and I am mollified. The bus keeps on a straight lane even as autos zig-zag their way around it. I notice an old battered Samsung smartphone kept on the face of the speedometer. The phone has fallen so many times that the back cover is hanging on by a strand of plastic. A full-screen YouTube music video is playing in full volume, but only a few people standing near the driver can hear Rafi’s voice.

By the time the bus reaches my stop many people have gathered near the driver’s seat. Though “Best of Rafi — A Legend Has No Substitute Vol. 2” is blaring, the atmosphere is that of calm. People looked calm. There was a time when my mother and I wouldn’t travel in a bus that didn’t have a stereo as we visited my grandma’s house for summer vacations. Seeing that day the full screen video and an audio that wouldn’t reach me properly, I feel the voice already making its impact by calming the bus down. Just before deboarding, a middle-aged office commuter asks a fellow commuter in black-and-white striped shirt, “Do you want water?” The others behind him nod in unison, “Haan itni garmi hai. Peelo sir [It is so hot, sir. Do drink!].”

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