The buses that command respect
The different states of this nation, that we call India have always attracted people both from across the world and also its nationals within the country. Traveling away from your home state in such a big nation always gives you the same thrill that you experience when traveling abroad. You may get to see new folks, new dresses and taste some new cuisines, which you are certainly going to love, especially when you are in such a vast country. I love such expeditions as well and whenever I get a chance for such trips I grab it whole handedly. However my fetish during such visits is to try out the public modes of transportation prevailing in those places.
This time it was Varanasi, a mysterious and an aesthetic city and also one of the most ancient cities in world just at the banks of the mighty Ganges. In the peak hours you hardly even find a place to land your feet safely, especially in the streets in the marketplace. It is difficult for you to move forth as per your desired pace but such courage you need to have in order to keep yourself moving in the busy streets in the cities of the Northern India. The city is located in the Purvanchal/पुर्वांचल (Eastward) region of Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in India. The city gave me both, plenty to blabber about to my pals and plenty for my pen to scrub on the paper but I would like to refrain myself from such minute details about the city or its Ghats as you can just trouble your beloved devices and use Google to get a bulk of information on the city. The above chunks of minor information although would have given you a gist of the place. It is just like a host serving a bit of tea to the guests who’ve just arrived. Let me not meander now and talk about the buses that ply in these roads, in and around the city. Like most of the North Indian cities; buses, auto rickshaws and the rickshaws alone comprise the most of the public road transportation in Varanasi. However cabs (chiefly operated by OLA) and E-rickshaws are also fast being popular in Varanasi. The auto rickshaws are also very interesting as you get a panoramic view sitting on it which you won’t get in private cars or UBER and OLA cabs. This time, as I was alone in Varanasi I wanted to try most of the Public Transportations available out there and I was in kind of haste to try them out. The first pal, as usual to call me inboard was an UPSRTC (Uttar Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation) bus. I had intended to board a bus before boarding any other means of public transport; you call it a superstition or a good omen or whatever you may wish it’s up to you to decide. It happened thus that I went to Varanasi cant. bus depot and inquired if I can get a bus to Vindhyachal and fortunately found one.
I can’t express my eagerness that I felt at that time to merely have a glimpse of it and I eventually succeeded in that as well. It didn’t look much different from the other buses that stood there at the bus stand. Nearly all the buses there were quite old and you may call them rickety but they all commanded respect. I had earlier seen those buses in images on the internet but I don’t have a stark faith on the internet generated images. Yes, once when I confirm it by seeing it with my eyes and find it compatible with the internet image then I have no problem trusting it. I can well assure you that you are not going to find much of the travel experiences in UPSRTC buses on the internet. The regular passenger folks enjoy it and very much depend on it but they don’t talk or write on these topics, because there are more serious things to discuss in your life. It’s just as you don’t value what you have but when subjected to do a day without it, you feel its importance and either you want it to flourish for good or cherish it.
Meanwhile the very first glimpse of the bus that I was to board stirred me with a strange nostalgia. I was at once reminded of हरिशंकर परसाई/ Harishankar Parsai’s satirical travel account entitled Bus ki Yatra/ बस की यात्रा (A bus journey) which is written in the Hindustani language and I read it as a schoolboy. Just like the narrator in that satire I was also overridden by some strange and haunting thoughts but soon I brushed them aside. I concentrated all my thoughts on that bus as we were boarding it. I had a companion accompanying me throughout the journey straight from my home, but he was exceptionally reticent and very introvert in his approach, so we didn’t had much of conversation which neither I intended to as we had ample time for it back at home. My maiden query I made to myself was whether this bus will start at all or it would just get stuck over here. I envisaged that bus as an old Indian widower who is soon planning to renounce the world and going to the holy lands. If this old lorn creature, this bus refuses to offer her service any more she can move to Allahabad or Hardwar which is nearby. Her home depot Varanasi is a pious and a holy land as well and she may meditate remembering her old days of youth, when she used to carry a bulk of pilgrims to Lord Shiva’s Kashi Vishwanath /काशी विश्वनाथ temple over here in Varanasi or to Goddess Vindhyavasini /विंध्यवासिनी of Vindhyachal in nearby Mirzapur district. It may have been someone from her community, a bus just like her from any anonymous Indian bus depot, who might have inspired poets like Arun kolatkar to describe a bus covered by tarpaulin carrying pilgrims to the pilgrimage in one of his poem (The Bus by Arun Kolatkar). It would look exactly as a white old Indian lady (White as even the bus was) chanting the mantras and meditating on the name of God during her solitary meditations in such holy lands. I was musing with such grotesque thoughts when suddenly I found the engine was started and the entire bus was vibrating like a fork. Passengers too began to receive vibrations at a measured and at constant intervals as if receiving a massage therapy. Passengers were busy discussing on topics like time, distance, tickets, politics and various other things which made a bedlam around. The way I saw the steering wheel of the bus was vibrating, I felt pity on the bus driver. Poor old man with whom I sympathized but could do nothing as this is what we call life. Even we keep clinging ourselves to such feeble steering wheel but at the same time we have an immense trust in it. The bus depicted the exact condition of the third world countries, as the bus was overloaded so badly that it tilted to one side, its steering wheel and brakes were very feeble. The driver and the conductor were mere spectators who are always abused badly no matter if they are guilty or not, as they are taken for granted in any inconvenience caused to the passengers during the journey. If they both are there they are held responsible for any unpleasant happening en route. Same fate I see with the third world ‘democratic’ countries where its leaders are always abused for the problems within the country no matter if they are accountable to it or not. The population like the passengers in this bus keeps themselves ‘overloading’ until they find space and at length when you see the bus from outside you find a humongous tilted figure in front of you.
As the weather outside was parky, the vendors and the peddlers were trying out their fortune and tried the best pitch of their voice, as high as they could zenith it. As usual they came up with some amazing jingles (and a few jargons beyond my reach because they were in the native tongue) which you cant even find on TVs and the radios, while a few so funny and peculiar that you wouldn’t mind banging your head on the seat next to you. One had composed a rap music song using the various brands of edible items and it was amazing to hear as he sang it. Slowly the wheels began to roll and bus stand was left far behind. It was the periphery of the city when we came to see the real roads, the highways of Uttar Pradesh. The problem was that I tried my best to see the road and locate our position as I am not yet so modern to use the Google maps. The signboards and hoardings I still consider being the best maps in the Indian National Highways. But as far as I could see I saw ditches and the dust emerging out of them. I fancied traveling through the sand dunes in a desert while the bus that was wriggling on those dilapidated roads looked like a ship sailing in a stormy sea. I was amazed at this contrast but in such moments you fuss and fright began to take over me. I pressed myself back to the seat and started to brush aside the nightmarish possible outcomes that were constantly haunting me. I never remember the newspaper or the news channel headlines when I desperately wish them to come on my lips but I don’t know what was triggered in my mind at this moment that a bunch of such headlines related to fatal bus accidents started flashing in my mind all one by one. The glasses were shaking violently and all the screws made horrible sounds but they were loyal enough and didn’t unscrew so easily, but my mind was definitely unscrewing during this journey. My companion sat gaping and cross legged wrapped in a long cape as if he had pledged to turn into a mauni mahatma (A saint who pledges never to speak in his forthcoming life) here at Kashi and wander around its pious and ancient Ghats. The weather was terribly chilly. Now these sixty five kilometers were like a sixty five steps walk on a glowing hearth barefoot!
We wouldn’t have preceded much when came the conductor with his ticket generating machine, which looked like a swipe machine and generated tickets which looked like a receipt that you receive (on demand) after using your ATM cards across India. I paid the fare and grabbed the tickets that I love to keep as a souvenir of a trip. He had written 66 in its backside which marked the amount of change money that he needed to give me back at the Vindhyachal bus depot as he didn’t had much cash balance at the moment. The ticked although used the fading ink but the logo was land marked in it boldly which wouldn’t fade that easy. The slogan of the UPSRTC was ‘Aapka Apna Saathi’ / आपका अपना साथी (A friend worth trusting) which I found interesting. It justifies my addressing this bus as a pal when it first called me, but I was so sad to see my ‘friend’ undergoing so much trouble in these wicked roads that don’t show even a little bit of mercy, or comfort at all.
Meanwhile a passenger who had to get down the bus much early than the last stop got a ticket till the last stop. It was a miscommunication that resulted in a loss of 20INR for that passenger, 10 for his own and another 10 for his wife. As I said the tickets are processed through machines so it can’t be refunded. I could now envisage the row that was to follow and was not willing to see it as the road was spooky and cranky enough. But I was taken aback when I saw how lightly they handled it. Instead of a row the man took the ticket smiling while the conductor apologized. Even his wife whom I took to be a termagant was seen complacent as if saying with a smile, ‘to err is human and to forgive is divine.’ Someone from a nearby seat said that you spit down these trifles known as coins in the form of betel leaves. Everyone’s gesture employed that it’s best to avoid a quarrel when possible. I reproached myself for being so prejudiced towards that lady but forgot that ye to kashi ki bhumi hai sahib, yaha kadam kadam pe adab deknhe ko milta hai (this is the land of kashi where everywhere you see folks full of modesty). I had always heard of this modesty, that I call banarsi andaaz shown by the big hearted people of Kashi, but for the first time I saw it through my eyes and it was so soothing to travel in a bus loaded with the pacifists. Although the evil road was already troubling us as I heard someone complaining about his aching haunches, we were also happy that we were approaching our destination shortly. I wish the roads would have been amicable exactly as the boulevards and the other beautiful scenes sprinting by were which I peeped through the window. The big posters on the roadside all full of the promises that were meant not to be kept, depicted smiling big people with their arms folded, painted with iridescent colours were now blanketed densely with dust. The posters may be renovated in the arrival of next carnival fest, maybe this time with the new smiling faces but the promises cropping out of the troubles that natives face in their everyday lives shall all remain the same. Meanwhile I noticed the bus just like Harishankar Parsai’s bus that he talks about in his satire gave way to each other vehicle that asked for way as if saying I am too old to race along or overtake now and gone are those days, so you may move forth laddy. Trembling with the load and occupied with such thoughts it could be seen drifting to the safe side of that broad but dilapidated road. At length it took a big turn and reached the destination just after ten minutes since that turn. I was still frantically trying to trace the similarities between mine and Harishankar Parsai’s bus journey after landing in that bus depot. The conductor returned my 66 INR as I showed him the ticket. He tore it slightly which I didn’t like as I love to collect them as souvenirs of a journey but soon I thought about the campaigners of ‘go paperless’ and grieved as there wont be any ticket to collect as souvenirs in the upcoming future. They behave as if paper is the only reason for deforestation. We had tea at a stall where the driver and the bus conductor were hanging out as well, requesting us to aboard them during our return journey as well. My companion spoke for the first time saying that we’re better off with the Indian Railways and we would check for its route and availability. However I saw them (the driver and the bus conductor) for the first time with such respect. It was amazing how within such limited resources they managed the roadways (as they popularly call these buses in Varanasi) so well. I didn’t notice what at that moment forced me to say so but I interfered in the middle and only replied that we’ll board the bus in our way back to Varanasi as well. Their happiness to such a response was so contending for me while my companion couldn’t help removing his eyes from my face. I held him with his shoulder, smiled and said, Zara muskuraie janab aap kashi me hain (smile sir you’re in the lands of Kashi).
– Morningstar Mayank
(Dashaswamedh Ghat, Varanasi, January 17, 2017)
Ganga Ghat from Epic India
UPSRTC bus and bus Logo taken from wikipedia
Ticket Image clicked by the author
Mayank Kashyap is a graduate in English, hailing from an ordinary place with some extra ordinary experiences. He likes to provide wings to his imagination through the beautiful genre of poetry. He likes to sign with a pseudonym – Morningstar. He had an excellent time at St. Xavier’s College, Patna, where he studied literature and had a close look at what life actually is. Now he devotes his time to reading and writing. He reflects his experiences through words like a painter depicting his world on a canvas.