One way of getting to know a city well is to take its public transport. More specifically, when you take a bus, you find out things about a city that you thought you knew well. When I was in Bombay recently, I took a bus from Worli to Regal. Now, a bus taking the usual route would have gone via Haji Ali, Pedder Road and so on, taking the logical, well-established way of getting from point A to point B. but this bus – Route No. forgotten-the-number – turned left at some point when I wasn’t noticing, and the rest of the journey was an adventure the high-point of which was a sign that read: “Today is Prevent Car Theft Day. Spread the word.” What were they thinking? Did they hope that designating a day and putting up a sign would shame the car thief into slinking off hopelessly into the dark?
And what are the odds that you would have spotted such a sign outside Phoenix Mall? This sign I saw was outside a slum where carefully constructed ‘first floors’ housed sleepy people just waking up or watching TV two feet away from their eyeballs. No doubt the people who dreamed up the line thought these guys absorbed English by osmosis from their TV sets. Because the sign wasn’t even bilingual. That’s targeted advertising for you.
There’s something comforting about being on a bus whose you route you know so well, you can fall asleep and wake up in time to get off at your stop. The 91 from Haji Ali to Kalina used to be the perfect bus for me when I was at Sophia. I staggered out at half past six in the morning, and got an empty seat near the window. Slightly more than an hour later, I woke up just in time to jump off and walk briskly to college.
This only happens after a long time, though. The first time in a city, on a route, on a bus is always an anxious time. (The first time I ever took a bus was in college; having studied in boarding school, I never needed to take a bus ever. This incident has scarred me for life, but I will not recount it here. It would make me blush.) You wonder if you’re standing on the right side of the road; if you have enough change in your bag; if you ought to ask how much the ticket is, or look cool and take whatever change the conductor gives you, always thinking the while that he could be gypping you and you’d never know it; or worse – you could look really silly by handing over less money than you need to give. Hell -- you're not even sure you'll know when it is your stop. It's enough to make you never want to go anywhere.
In Bombay, my peculiar problem was getting used to reading bus routes in Hindi. Never having had to use numbers in Hindi, I could barely recognise one number from the other. Of course, in time you get used to it. It’s better than listening to people rattle off numbers in Hindi, as happens all too often in Delhi: “Hanhji, yeh painsath pandrah paanch sau nabbe?” Huh? I always hung up or said, “Wrong number.”
I’m not even getting into the anxieties of standing while taking a bus, especially in Delhi. Suffice it to say that we were never unarmed; an open safety pin was sometimes protection enough.
Sometimes, you’d get on from the front of the bus, because the queues were too long at the back, and you couldn’t face the thought of being felt up by dozens of men as you made your way to the front. So you got up at the front and passed on your change to the conductor and hoped that no ticket inspector would turn up. Of course, they invariably turned up on the days you thought you could get away with a two-stop ride with no ticket. Others routinely got away with never buying a ticket just by the simple expedient of hissing out ‘ishtaff’ from the corners of their mouths. Even if they were callow second years from Dayal Singh (that has to be an oxymoron, I just realised.)
But this business of getting on at the front – it is a peculiar characteristic of buses in the south, that the women have to get on at the front and stay at the front of the bus. At least, in Bangalore and Hyderabad, you get on in the front; don’t think that happens in Madras, but they certainly do seem to all sit in the front (nothing about Madras stays in my head. I’ve taken buses there but it’s all a thankfully blurred memory).
In Bangalore, while editing a film, we travelled every day from Seshadripuram to Jaya Nagar. Until then, Bangalore, for me, was M.G.Road and Brigade Road. It was Koshys and Permier Book Store and Select; and that film guy whose place I always forget – just down the road from Koshys.
Taking a bus changed all that. Sure, you passed the Vidhana Soudha and all the palces you’d expect. But the bus also took you through Chamrajpet, where the houses look like they’re from another century. When jobs are ‘Bangalored’ it’s not because of places like Chamrajpet and Gandhi Nagar.
Do you notice an omission? I do. I’ve never, yet, taken a bus in Hyderabad. It sounds awfully snooty to say thing, but I’ve never needed to. Yesterday, as I was waiting for the light to turn green, a bus pulled up next to my car. It occurred to me that if someone was visiting and asked me what bus they should take to go somewhere, I wouldn’t have the shadow of a clue. I know 127J (in Hyderabad, there’s a letter alongside the route number, to indicate area. So J is Jubilee Hills, K is Kondapur and so on.) but that’s the extent of my meagre knowledge.
So that’s on my list of Things To Do Before You Hit Irreversible Old Age.