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Real Talkies

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September 7, 2010 , , , , , , , , ,

All my life, I lived a few blocks from school. I literally jumped, skipped and hopped to school.  I heard the school bell ring and ran to school. If a friend got sick or if someone had no lunch or if a girl got her periods and needed a change of dress, I went home and got it. Most of my classmates commuted to school, they had to get up early, eat cold food in school and trek back home. The whole commuting experience was alien to me until I turned 18. That’s when I had to go to a college that was six miles from my house.

Six miles does not sound all that bad but commuting that distance in a densely populated city with set patterns of public transportation can be quite a challenge. It takes roughly 90 minutes each way.

Riding a scooter to school, though a faster alternative was not a viable option in my case.  In the 90s, my Medical school was located in a new development well outside the city limits and the travel route involved both highway and remote village roads.  The commute was particularly dangerous at night on the highway because of the high frequency of fatal collisions on the road and poor emergency response systems.  Most of the survivors of such collisions end up in my school’s teaching hospital and a few unclaimed bodies turned up as cadavers for the medical students to get acquainted with the human anatomy.  Furthermore, I was not exactly the most coordinated scooter rider. I am really skilled at colliding into stationary objects on the road – lampposts, parked cars and ditches. At times, I even manage to skid the bike on perfectly dry pavement. My intention was clearly to be a student of medicine and not a lab rat in a teaching hospital. Therefore I decided to use public buses to get to school.

Typically, I would have to switch three buses to get to school. I could walk to the second bus stop and skip one bus ride. It was about a 20-minute brisk walk. But Chennai, the city that I lived in, was not blessed with a climate suitable for even such a short walk. The city had four seasons – summer, hot summer, very hot summer and oppressively hot humid summer.  These days, it is appalling to see stores in Chennai change clothing based on seasons emulating the stores in the Western economies.  Anyways, walking 20 minutes is not the best option but I did that in the summer months. Some days my dad was kind enough to give me a ride to the second bus stop, which helped to skip the walk and the first bus ride.

Timing is everything. If I manage to arrive on time and strategically position myself in the bus stop, everything might just work out fine.  The buses in Chennai followed a schedule but this was pre-cell phone era and so no one was really following the atomic clock. The bus schedule was pretty much based on the analog wristwatch that the bus conductor wore that morning.  So you don’t quite know if the bus is yet to arrive or has gone. This was not a big deal, as most buses were extremely frequent and no one really cared about the schedule except for the coveted 29G bus.

29G was a special bus. It ran hourly thrice in the morning and thrice in the evening or something as scarce as that. But this bus took me all the way to school – a single bus ride from home to school in 35 minutes. It was a new bus service the government had started and not many people knew about it. Therefore, sighting the bus was like seeing the total solar eclipse on a cloudy day.  Like every morning I get to the bus stop and scan the place for people who typically board 29G. I don’t spot any regulars.

But, I see a middle-aged lady in her starched cotton saree waiting impatiently to cross the road and get to the bus stop. She has a large stainless steel tiffin box and stained blue plastic water bottle protruding out of her small hand woven basket. Eventually, she sprints towards the bus stop and pauses to wipe the sweat trickling down her face with a white embroidered handkerchief. She stares at her watch, scans the bus stop like I did and looks at me. I tell her I have been waiting for five minutes and have not seen the bus yet.

Like most days, I missed 29G and hence had to decide which bus to board to go to the second bus stop. I could board the occasional ladies special – where all the passengers are women but the conductor and the driver on the bus (are men). The ride is a bit more peaceful on these buses but they are few and far between. Then there are the expensive express buses. I cannot use my free government issued student fare card on those buses.

The decision was dependent on how late I was or how hot the day was or how willing I was to expend my pocket money on the bus ride and not save it for a cold glass of buttermilk or sugar cane juice later in the day.  The fare really was not that much then. To put it in perspective, Coca Cola cost 10 rupees, tender coconut water was 5 rupees, sugar cane juice was 2 and the bus fare was about 2 as well. This was when most people in my cohort got tears in their eyes when they drank Coco Cola because it was just too strong and the taste was fairly alien to their palate. This was way before Coca Cola had completely destroyed most of the local brands of soft drinks and refreshments.

Most of the time I was so broke and my only viable option was to take the frequent regular buses that stopped at every bus stop and at almost every block. First I have to board the bus. There are designated bus stops with clear signs and structures indicative of their presence. It is impossible to miss few hundred people waiting for the continuous stream of buses to get to their respective destinations. Yet, the driver decides where he would stop the bus each time. It is a game between him and the passengers. He could stop 20 feet before/after the stop, at the stop or sometimes not stop at all.

Those days all the Chennai Metro buses where painted with green and off-white stripes. When a large rectangular mass of green and off-white stripes appears on the horizon, everyone in the bus stop perk up and strain to see the number on the white board over the large windshield. The ones with better vision are lucky, because after seeing the numbers sonner and they get 30 extra seconds to decide where to position themselves to improve their chances of boarding the bus.  My vision was terrible and hence my strategy was as good as a coin toss.

On a few lucky days, I am the first at the entrance. Drones of people embark and disembark the bus through the two entrances in no particular order. The goal is to get in and out of the bus before the conductor blows the godforsaken whistle and the bus begins to move. People still continue to board the moving bus.

Inside the bus,  I manage to pull out my free bus pass and the conductor punches a hole to mark my free government permitted ride to school for the day. It is almost impossible to explain how crowded the bus gets. The closest analogy I can give is, it feels like sardines packed in a can.  I am swept into the bus and get jammed in the middle. I am suspended in that space. My body is in physical contact with several bodies at various points inside that tight packed space. It is like I have been mapped in the cosmos.

The Chennai Metro bus is a social space; one that is  similar to a school, hospital, church, sports club, gym or dance studio. There are certain set of unwritten rules for engagement and obligations to fulfill. By default there are more assigned seats for men than women, generally women sit in the right side of the bus and men on the left. When the bus is crowded a man has to vacate a designated woman’s seat but the converse is not true.

If a woman or a really old man is getting on a moving bus, then more than a few concerned citizens will bang on the steel bus and it will screech to a halt to allow them to get in. If it is just a bunch of guys they would just have to hang for dear life on the windows bars and somehow swing and get their feet on the steps of the bus or just cling to the bus. They still have to pay their fare for the bus ride, as it is gets them to their destination faster than if they run or walk.

If a man is hanging outside, then it is your duty as a passenger who is secure inside the bus to grab their belongings – backpack, lunch bag, etc and keep it secure. If you get off the bus before the guy does, pass it on to someone else for safekeeping. A woman, no matter how agile or skilled is not supposed to hang onto the window or stand on the steps of a moving bus. For some weird reason a able bodied woman is more of a societal liability than a handicapped man. Therefore, again the dutiful citizens in the bus tell the woman to get to safety.

If there is a dispute on the bus, which happens often, people try to resolve it in the bus. Everyone tries to de-escalate the conflict and negotiate with the warring parties and help them come to an agreement. If not the bus will be driven to the closest police station and that is an unnecessary detour for most people and is not worth their time.

The driver and conductor usually work as a team. I do not know this for sure but most of the buses seem to have a set pair. Over the years, I became friendly with them. I always address them Conductor and Driver and they call me “amma” (which roughly translates to “lady”). If they don’t see me for a week, they ask if everything is ok. If there is a seat they motion me to take it. If a guy on the bus teases me, they stand up for me. I am sure there might have been girls who fell in love with the good looking conductor or the conductor had special feelings for a belle and he wanted to tell her much more than just talk tickets and effective space management on the bus.

People have to buy tickets from a conductor who is typically perched in one corner of the bus. His back is positioned against a pole; he strikes a perfect balance so that he can stand without falling over and dispenses tickets at an inhuman pace. Everybody participates in this ritual. Before I realize, I am in an assembly line of people, money is passed to the conductor to purchase tickets. Unlike buses in the west, the conductor is a physical person with a leather bag – that holds change, assortment of tickets and a note pad. He performs like a mathematical genius and processes request for tickets from all four directions and carries out complicated computations for multiple ticket requests for different destination.

The conductor receives the Rupee bill, mentally calculates the exact change he owes and hands it back to the passenger (through the virtual assembly line) and moves on to the next transaction. It is fascinating to watch his hands interact with other hands. When a distant voice demands tickets, his hands take the money, rips the ticket from an assortment of colored tickets printed on poor quality paper with dark grey ink. He pulls out the appropriate change and hands it back.  Apart from all the ticket dispensing and cash management tasks, he shouts out the upcoming stop, asks people to move along and reminds them periodically that they have to purchase their tickets.

Inside the bus, I continue to pass money and tickets from either side. Sometimes I forget which ticket needs to go where and to whom. But there is always one alert citizen in the virtual assembly line who knows everything and the ticket dispute gets sorted and goes to the right person. People continue to nudge and ask me to move further along. They look at me accusingly as if I was greedy and was occupying the space meant for five people.  After being told a dozen times, I breathe in and exhale deeply, as if that would make me skinny. I shift my weight whichever way possible to give them a few millimeters of space. I cannot move my feet because at this point only 2/3rds of it is in contact with the floor of the bus; the rest is up in air to avoid hurting the toes beneath them. This is the perfect setting for creepy men to feel, touch, and explore the female anatomy and intrude private space and conveniently blame it on the overcrowded bus. So I am always looking out for space of any kind where I can be a safe distance from this unwanted male attention.

The bus fare is not standard; it varies as the bus goes through marked zones and therefore it is important that everyone who has boarded the bus get their tickets before the bus crosses those zones. So, apart from the scheduled stops, the bus makes a few unplanned zonal stops to make sure the conductor catches up with his chores. These stops are much longer than a scheduled stop.  The bus is suspended precariously, leaning overly to the left because of the weight of all the bodies hanging from the two entrances and the windows. The pull toward the inevitable center of the earth is strong but the bus seems to stand defying the laws of gravity.

Such stops feel incredibly awful. The air is still and I start to notice an amalgam of odors emanating from folks standing around me – different fragrances of talcum powders (sandalwood, lavender), turmeric, the jasmine flowers on the ladies’ braided hair, the dry fish in the fish vendors basket, food in people’s lunch boxes and of course the less inviting bad odors as well. I just orient my face toward the more pleasant odors. The place becomes a furnace in no time; sweat trickles down my face and down the back of my spine; soon I am drenched in sweat. The conductor asks if everyone has bought the tickets and then he blows the whistle. The bus begins to move slowly and the breeze, though hot, feels heavenly.

I disengage myself from the social obligations in the bus and begin planning for my descent from the bus, five stops or so before I have to disembark. I begin moving towards an exit. This is usually a difficult decision to make. You want the quickest, least painful, easiest and the surest exit. So I move my body, almost tango- like, with reference to the other body parts around me-legs, hands and torso and I move closer and closer to exit.

Once I get off, the noise on the street and the strong polluted air hit me hard. I walk a few blocks to my second bus stop, to repeat the same process all over again to get to my third and final stop – my college. I wonder if it was better in the bus or outside. How do I sanitize myself after such a trip? I have always wondered why we have not had an epidemic of some ridiculously contagious disease spread like wild fire in Chennai. The bus is the perfect medium for disease propagation. Some days, it is extremely hard for me to ingest food in school after such terrible bus rides. As a student of medicine, I have become so tuned to all the pathogens floating around and my paranoia for communicable disease is rather acute. But my hunger pangs are far more powerful than paranoia and always prevail.

Once in school, I would run a few blocks to get to my department building. Wash my face and freshen up. Then I pull out my pressed and starched, clean white lab coat. I don my lab coat and my name badge and enter the main hospital building. Able-bodied individuals and students are not permitted to use the elevator that is manned by an attendant. I have not yet done any favors for him therefore I go up and down the stairs of a 7 storey building more than a few dozen times every day. Looking back after all these years, I wonder how I survived the three-hour daily commute and eight hour school days, which was especially intense during the final two years. I guess there is a reason why we Indians don’t engage in extreme sport. Every day life is challenging enough.


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Aaaah! Reminded me of good old times when I would take PP25 to visit Jana (my then girl friend now my wife). Somehow when I do visit Madras once every 3 – 4 years, I don’t see that “Old Madras” any more. Do I miss it?…hmmm no ..will it be nice to have it…the selfish in me says “Yes”.


Chicago Newborn Photographer

September 14, 2010

superb graphics, gorgeous

frank bailey

October 2, 2010

Thank you Frank.


October 2, 2010

This is really nice Chithra. It takes me back to my own experiences in the town of Nakuru – Kenya. We traveled to school , not in buses but famous cars we nicknamed ” face me’s”. The cars were meant to carry6 passangers on either side facing each other, but somehow they always managed to squeeze 8-7 passangers on either side. Students could ride on half price if … i almost said stood… but it was actually stooping on the corridor of the cars. The ” genius” touts went a head to make you face the door of car… (and so you travelled backwards… hehe) somehow this was supposed to create room more passangers. The brave kids would preffer to hang at the door with the conductor ! goshh and to think that in the recent past the country was implementing not only wearing of seat belts for passangers, but reserving a seat for the conductor / tout… you cant help but marvel at how far weve came as far as transport is conserned.

Thanks for the story.


December 30, 2012

1 notes

  1. 29G Memoir – An expatiate’s nostalgic recollection of commuting by bus in Chennai, India | Transport Gooru reblogged this and added:

    […] 29G Memoir – An expatiate’s nostalgic recollection of commuting by bus in Chennai, India Posted by transportgooru on September 7, 2010 in Uncategorized | Subscribe (Source:  RealTalkies) […]

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