What does the phrase “packed like sardines ” remind you of? To the average Mumbaikar it’s the Mumbai local, to a Delhiite it’s the hustle and bustle at Rajiv Chowk metro station and to a Kolkattan, a public bus. Home to over 4.5 million people, Kolkata is a city of old world charm, a city brimming with emotions and nostalgia. No matter how long you’ve been away, you’d always come back to familiar surroundings, to memories, a place you’d feel at home. Kolkata today is changing, evolving at its own lethargic pace. You may find glittery shopping complexes and malls popping up, flyovers flanked by trident street lights illuminated in the colors of the Mahadev, random sculptures strewn across the city in the name of beautification, but some things haven’t and will probably never change, at least in the foreseeable future.
Public buses may have gotten a makeover and an upgrade from their infamous blue tinned ancestors, but they have succeeded in keeping their legacy alive. Plastic and vinyl may have replaced the wooden seats, some may even come with air conditioning and you may not as frequently feel you’re in a vehicle out of “The Flinstones”, but they still manage to uphold their heritage. Even today, if you’re fortunate enough to get onto a relatively empty bus and get hold of a seat, you’ll have to rely on your impeccable martial arts skills to make your way out of the crowd. If you aren’t as lucky and you already see people spilling out of the bus like spaghetti out of a pasta machine, you get to play superhero for a day. Use all your grappling abilities, Spider-web shooter, Batline and whatever you can muster to hold on to dear life!
As adventurous as bus rides are, the passengers take people watching to a whole new level! From the snooty aunty who will use her perfectly grown kid as an excuse to hijack your seat or perhaps use you as one, to the unsuspecting creep who’d be staring at you without batting an eyelid throughout the journey, to the random pervert making the extra effort to half plunge himself out of the window and to use the telescope and periscope fitted in his retina to check out random girls in a passing bus, Kolkata bus rides have etched myriad memories and countless stories.
In all this chaos, the bus conductor deserves a special shoutout. He not only skillfully orchestrates and manages this utter confusion, he dons multiple feathers in his cap. Unknowingly so, the man is not just a ticket collector, he’s the real Demi God. He’s the accountant; the face reader (he knows exactly who’d pay and who is looking to hitch a ride); economist (judiciously allocating scarce resource, i.e. space, to allow maximum utility to consumers, while maximizing profit); physicist ( he even instructs passengers as to what angle they should stand to minimize impact from changing momentum); action hero (uses his profound kickboxing skills to literally kick out pickpockets from a running bus); loudspeaker (no matter where you’re placed in the sardine tin, you’ll know when it’s time to make the attempt of jumping out); DJ (he’s the one in control of the radio, need to dedicate a song to your beloved? He’s your man); makeshift mechanic; PR professional (from daily commuters, to other drivers and colleagues, to local cunts and pickpockets, he n knows them all); the list just goes on…
Today, I am far from the maddening crowd, the cacophony of traffic, the sweltering heat, the chaos and drama but every time I’m home, I relive my solivagant explorations, soak up the nostalgia, experience the city through its people, food and culture. I may still prefer to Uber around most of the time but my visit is always incomplete without that one bus journey, with the conductor screaming “aaste ladies, aaste ladies, kole baccha!” ( go slow, woman and child on board!), that riksha ride (they have motors for pedals these days), or the occasional trip on a disco auto ( the ones with the flashy decor and woofers for speakers, playing Bhaijaan’s numbers or romantic tragedies), because Kolkata is an experience. A melange of emotions. With all its perfect imperfections, Kolkata is love. The city with a soul, Kolkata is home. After all, Kolkata is close to my heart, like my Janaba. Kolkata is my Janaba among the cities I’ve lived in. 😉