I love traveling within India by bus.
In this post, I have narrated three bus stories – one outside a bus and two inside a bus.
Outside a Kerala bus while driving on the Kerala highway
Garishly painted, bloated, and poorly designed, the large rounded forehead of the Kerala bus proclaims its name – a ‘Binnymol’, ‘Sajumon’, or thereabouts. Its innocuous name – in many cases, the name of the youngest member in the owner’s family – is a cunning deception.
The very choice of the lettering size that takes up half of the windshield space is designed to intimidate. While weaving in and out of traffic and intermittently emitting high decibel screams, it resembles a sperm whale escaping a larger predator.
It is specifically on such occasions that I take the safety warning printed on my rear-view mirror very seriously – ‘objects in mirror are closer than they appear’. I allow the beast to pass.
Quite suddenly, the bus cuts to the left and grinds to a halt while breathing heavily to disgorge the still-shaking passengers. The driver leaps off the bus. He is middle-aged and wiry, in his lungi (a garment wrapped around the waist) with no footwear. He crosses the road to buy cigarettes and runs back into the bus.
The bus jumps up, screams again, and races ahead leaving a cloud of dust behind. With the speeding bus ahead of us, we heave a sigh of relief.
A life-saving lesson: never overtake this beast. Like bad karma, it is sure to catch up with you.
Inside a Kerala bus
Private buses in Kerala are like elephants on an overdose of steroids. They are driven madly by unassuming drivers – in this case, the driver was a middle-aged man with a liberal application of sandalwood paste on his forehead indicating his inclination to things metaphysical.
Wearing a fading white dhoti (a garment wrapped around the waist) folded half-way up for quick movement of the limbs to save lives – both inside and outside the bus and rubber slippers on his feet, he was driving like a devil-possessed but with the cold demeanor of an Arctic iceberg.
The beastly vehicle was hurtling down hairpin bends at breakneck speed, avoiding contact with pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles…just about.
No one, including the driver, could claim to be firmly seated at any given point of time. People around me were clutching onto anything handy even if it were a benevolent neighbor’s oil-smeared hair plait.
A bus trip in Karnataka – Mangalore to Thirthahalli
The bus driver is a young man with a stylish beard. He is wearing a khaki shirt over black trousers. He appears to be a man of few words. Except for a couple of times when he indulged in some pan masala, he is fully focused on the job.
The bus is a smaller version to enable easy negotiation of the Ghat section (the winding hilly roads) and given the same engine as the larger bus makes this bus very powerful. A framed picture of the Gods adorned with a marigold garland makes this bus invincible. I am on the right bus, I think!
I am seated on the first seat next to the windshield facing the driver. Rotating slightly on my seat to awkwardly face the windshield, I am almost in a similar position as the driver.
The road is in great condition. Occasionally, the driver presses a small lever and the bus emits a loud shrieking sound. This horn is not for the faint-hearted.
The bus is full. Although the bench facing the driver can at best accommodate only 5 people, and all the 5 seats are currently occupied, the conductor keeps coming to us and asks us to squeeze ourselves closer. He returns disappointed when he realizes the futility of his instructions only to return a few kilometers down the road to repeat the instructions. I always knew travel brings us closer but my wife and I are not just close, we are now almost fused. For the same reason, I am relieved that my wife’s adjoining passenger is a middle-aged woman.
It is a bright day and the bus, although noisy, appears to be in top condition. We drive over several water bodies, all of which are full as a result of generous rainfall in these parts – such a beautiful sight to behold. Occasionally, we pass yellow-colored metal barricades and the bus swerves left and right to avoid hitting them before it stabilizes.
We briefly enter Udupi, the temple town. I spot a shop, ‘Sri Krishna Emission Test’. Very appropriate! Given the way the country’s air quality is headed, divine intervention is certainly needed.
As the driver enters the Udupi Bus Stand, a group of young burqa-clad women who appear in the way is quickly scattered by the shrieking horn. The driver smiles and I thought I spot a similar spirit in them. This is regular Indian life – no time for an emotional overdrive. No offense meant.
We pass a narrow winding road and slow down. Two buses coming from opposite directions have stopped in the middle of the road and the drivers are exchanging some notes. Our driver blows the horn just as a matter of polite courtesy – no hard feelings! In fact, when the jam clears, our driver waves at the ‘culprit’ driver and they exchange smiles.
We have entered the Ghat section. The road is winding and climbing at the same time. Driving on the Ghat section demands special driving skills – our driver seems perfectly poised to take us across the Ghat section. I spot the new phenomenon around these parts – a column of Harley Davidson riders.
With every curve, we ascend higher. Now we can spot the deep valley enveloped in mist. At every blind turn, our driver blows the horn for almost 20 seconds each. He is a generous man. I spot monkeys scurrying for cover as our driver inflicts the horn on them.
We have reached Agumbe. The conductor announces a longer break for snacks and tea. Many of the passengers have alighted.
We have now resumed the last leg of the drive to Thirthahalli.
Traveling on a regular non-airconditioned bus takes us through the real India. Air-conditioned travel insulates us not only from the heat, dust, and noise, it also insulates us from the buzzing Indian way of life.
Life in the real India is based on a sense of fluidity and approximation. When we introduce the Western template of high accuracy, cutting-edge quality, knock-your-socks-off service delivery, and insane customer expectations, we end up complaining all the time causing misery to ourselves and to those around us.
I love bus travel within India.
One thing is guaranteed. When it comes to bus travel, I am never ever likely to say, ‘Bus, bahuth ho gayaa!’ (Hindi, to mean enough is enough).