How are the worst journeys in India made? Train journeys in the unreserved compartments and bumping down a pockmarked, bepuddled road in an auto are certainly strong contenders for the honour. However, if I had the privilege, I would bestow the title on a journey on the buses that carry passengers to town from the depths of rural India down the irreproachable highway- especially on a rainy day.
Soft masses of dull grey clouds slip and slide, layer upon layer. In the distance, a rim of pale blue sky resists the invasion as a frivolous wind rises from the sea and pushes the clouds around. Raindrops fall, form little shimmering puddles, fly in the alternately warm and cold embrace of the wind. Leaves blow lower side up, eerily grey-green in the suffused light of the sun that struggles to break through the sheet of clouds. The lofty palms sway and revel as the sea breeze sings to their fronds. Can anything hinder the enjoyment of such romance?
Apparently yes. As I begin to soak in the atmosphere and feel the pleasure of the numbing raindrops, my reverie snaps when I walk straight into the largest puddle on the road and am liberally splodged with mud (and manure, too, considering our cattle have more freedom on the roads than motorists). Discomfort begins here, and the rain ceases to be romantic when it gets heavier and pounds on the skin instead of falling in teasing, caressing pinpricks. And just in case I am in any danger of escaping into the blessed realms of imagination again (quite improbable if the 'discomfort' has already begun), I am brought back to earth by the hard-hearted sceptics that wander the planet in such abandon as cannot be justified or forgiven. This is the breed of drivers who have no concern, real or imaginary, for pedestrians, and revel in splashing them with not-so-pure rainwater; the men on motorbikes who choose this moment to put Valentino Rossi to shame as they whizz past, muddy drops flying in a million directions.
I consider myself lucky if a driver is kind enough to stop at the unauthorised 'bus stop' (no preaching, please- who doesn't break rules?) bang in the middle of the highway. These buses never do really come to a halt; they are like F1 cars raring for the five red lights to go off. Once I'm in, I heave a quarter of a sigh of relief, for the ordeal is not yet over; in some senses, it has just begun.
All the seats are occupied, and there are quite a few people standing. The 'Reserved For Ladies' seats are invariably filled by men. I don't really support this kind of reservation, though, so I decide to (do I have a choice?) stand and sway with the bus. Next comes an encounter with the rude conductor who has a bag full of new coins, yet insists that he doesn't have change. That obstacle surmounted after no little trouble, I wait until I can find a seat. I try to get as comfortable as I can while I’m standing, but very soon there are passengers ready to get off- carrying luggage, of course. So now I have to press myself flat against a rod or a seat. The driver brakes suddenly, I lose my balance, somebody else loses his/hers, and what follows is the Domino Effect.
I find a seat. If it’s next to a window, I can be sure that the panes will be jammed shut if it’s summer and refuse to slide close in case it’s cold or raining. If not near a window, then I’m next to a door. Past me file the passengers, with burdens of unimaginable kinds. One of them, though, is sure to carry a live rooster by the legs, the poor bird shrieking in agony. How I’d love to substitute the man for the bird! What wouldn’t I give to be able to travel once without coming across a person carrying home fish or a bird to make a meal of! (No offence to non-vegetarians, but I do think nobody likes to watch an animal being carried away for slaughter.)
There are days when the bus is almost empty, and the heart yields to the romanticism of sunshine and rain once again. The rattle of the metal of a bus coming to pieces, bereft of the accompaniments of irritating cell phone ringtones, howling babies and private conversations carried out in loud voices, is music to the ears. Nobody to stare or eavesdrop. Bliss overcomes my despair. Until I realise that this is yet another of the tricks of illusion and will not last long, at least while our civilisation flourishes and grows, and we persist in denying the existence of a code of conduct for public behaviour.