Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Bonkers At the Bus Stand

My earlier post had me talking about the gloomy effects one experiences while travelling in city buses. This post takes me a notch higher (or lower?) to deliberate on the abode of all such buses which means I am looking at the larger picture - literally. My muse for today's post are the awesome expansive spaces in the hearts of Indian cities and towns - the bus stand - in colloquial tongue. 

The grand bus terminus in Bengaluru city - The Kempegowda bus terminus
The bus stands of Indian cities are microcosms in their own right. There is a whole parallel universe at play in these bustling centers of human - machine interaction. I have had limited opportunities of experiencing first hand the life at these bus stands but I have been able to absorb quite a few salient entities. 

For instance, I have observed that these places are not mere stretches of open spaces where the buses come in and go out of and people embark and disembark. It is not that black and white. It is not a binary equation. It has dozens of shades and it is an integer sub set that has many positives and negatives. 

When I called these places microcosms, I meant they represented India itself. It reflects the contrasts of Indian society. The good, bad and the ugly. The affluent and the starving. The haves and the have-nots. These are a network of thoroughfares - each leading to another and so on on whom the whales of the automobile kingdom move about. 

The bus stands force you to confront a world that you might not be comfortable in, people that you do not identify with and  a dialect that you are alien to. Especially, if you have been averse to travel in buses over long distances, then a sudden exposure to such an environment can be quite an eye opener and sometimes quite a shocker. 

I have had to wait at bus stands in small towns that many would not even have heard of. Where there is a sorry excuse for a shelter and space for waiting commuters, order and cleanliness are things that are unheard of and courtesy is considered a bad thing to practice. I remember this one town called Tembhurni somewhere out of Pune, when I had to go out of Bangalore to visit a far off sugar factory. This place, fortunately had a decent hotel which offered me a clean, dry place to sleep in. The morning started quite early and I was in great haste to move out of this rustic town to another town / village I had never heard of before - Bhigwan. I walked about 10 minutes to the 'nearest' bus stand to catch one of those state run buses to this place. Apparently I had missed the first bus by just as close as a whisker and I had to wait for the next bus. Somebody in the 'Enquiries' was able to help me on this. The next bus, I later realized after a painful wait for almost 3.5 hours in the searing heat of Maharashtra in May, that the first bus that I had missed had to return from its trip! 

However, during this long wait, after bouts of self pity and extreme frustration, when I would muster up enough composure and courage to inquire with the 'friendly' men at the bus stand about the next bus, another 15 minutes was always the answer. None of the buses had no route board on them and I had to either rely on my understanding of Marathi, which was lower than pathetic or the timely guidance of the friendly men at the bus stand. Each bus steered into the bus stand would get my hopes high and I would then run up to the bus only to be let down by a disagreeing nod of the conductor. Later on, may be out of pity, the men in the bus stand comforted me by saying that the bus I was waiting for would come in through a different direction while all this time I was looking like a fool running out at the sight of each and every bus. I then made a steely resolve and decided to warm the benches laid out for 'waiters' like us. Let me, mention that these seats were cast in concrete and only a few of them were worthy of my occupancy. Most of them were stained in red - not paint, but the result of regular spitting of 'ghutka' and 'paan' - local addictions. There was litter spread everywhere in the waiting area & I could count at least 3 different brands of potato chips and some bottles of a popular international cola brand.  

Since all the newspapers available at a shop at the corner of the bus stand were all in the local language and I had very little time and opportunity to learn the same and enjoy a good read. This shop doubled up as a desi bistro where locals came in for a hot cuppa of chai & paav. There was another makeshift shop by its side that specialised in sugarcane juice. Maharashtra had had a bumper yield of this celestial crop and there was an abundance of these sweet sticks all across this great state. I dreaded an attempt at enjoying either of these drinks for fear of what its ingredients might hold. I still had the rest of my journey to complete and I had to return to Bangalore in the same condition with which I had started. 

 In between my short sprints, when I had nothing to do, but to look at the sparse grounds of the bus stand, I saw a family of 6 swines - I assume a male and a female and 4 of its litter, arriving from somewhere round the corner amidst the howling and barking of a local hound pack. They scurried here and there scavenging for food and some of the kids went astray promptly to be chastened by a gnarling dog followed by a romping mother - father duo. This took some good 20 - 30 minutes of my time and I had only less than 3 hours to kill. 

Another 15 minutes of absolute boredom felt like I was floating in vacuum and was being sucked into a black hole of resolute nothingness and all of a sudden, I was jolted out of my reverie by the sight of a greatly disheveled man with matted hair and teeth that looked like he brushed with charcoal. It was an alms seeker - a beggar. While I was shocked at the sight, I was also at his mercy, since there was no other soul in sight & I had to part with some loose change to get him off my back. I discounted the incident as a common sight across most of Indian bus stands. 

At a far corner of the bus stand, I saw a small shanty, may be belonging to a family of nomads or a family of daily wage laborers. I assumed the woman was preparing the morning breakfast for the family, at the sight of smoke arising from a cauldron. I saw from a distance, but quite well, 2 small children playing with each other with a used tyre and a stick. The mother was obviously more concerned about the porridge getting cooked. The man of the house, was perhaps still asleep or had already left for work, since I could not see him for the good 3.5 hours I waited there. What shook my trust in the system was the extreme downgraded condition in which they were living. Their shanty was next to a dump yard big enough for a small town, on a fenced off vacant space by the side of the bus stand. The swine family, that I mentioned earlier, would often run about in dangerously close proximity to the children. What was unacceptable to me to even watch from a distance, was a way of life for this family. 

This region in Maharashtra lies in the famous sugar belt of the state, dotted by several dozens of factories set up by local businessmen and politicians of both the ruling and the opposition parties. While these people make hay by making millions of rupees by crushing the cane and making sweet sugar from it, the people continue to live like destitutes in their own land. The one bus stand that serves as a link to a dozen villages and town nearby was in tatters and people bore the brunt of the hot sun, the swarms of flies, the haggardly beggars,  rowdy packs of dogs, the scavenging swines and the filth present everywhere, while waiting for that one bus. I swore to myself that I would never return to this place, no matter what and to my great dismay I observed that the next place was no better than the first. 

These overwhelming conditions I witnessed in just one of the bus stands of modern India for in fact quite a short time, made me realize that all is not well and I was just crazy to think that we are taking giant strides towards becoming an economic super power. I truly believe to this day, had I spent some more time in that god forsaken place, I would surely be questioning myself about my sanity. 

We are all truly blessed to be leading a life of comfort and safety. To be able to share a laugh or two with our friends. To have a doting family. To be able to partake clean food and a nice - warm place to live in, that we call home. 

Do not Spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for. 

- Epicurus, Greek Philosopher, BC 341 - 270

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