By Jasmine Kaur
There’s something oddly poetic about the way a bus traverses across the city, gluing us all together, if only temporarily so. Making us co-travellers, co-sweaters, co-cursers, co-hummers; collectively bummed about our sordid 9-to-5 jobs to which we owe this inescapable daily ordeal and yet grateful for the few moments of solitude that we find in those seats.
For a bus does not require you to be anyone. A clerk, a student, a plumber, a software engineer, a danseuse, a masseuse. You don’t have to be a somebody. You don’t have to be anybody. Your identity between any two points is simply that of a passenger; that’s about all you need to be. Soon enough, that’s all you want to be. For just a little while. Every day. Morning and evening. Chin resting on your bag. Hands flicking on your phone. Or if you come from a generation with less ADHD, hands simply resting on your knees.
Exchanges are clipped without being brusque. Some are even unnecessary for that matter; my tête-à-têtes with the conductors definitely are. They’re unnecessary, but not avoidable. The conductors are all middle-aged, absurdly calm, and omniscient about the city. And they’re chatty. Oh by Jove, they’re chatty. And they know exactly who to chat up.
An idle passenger. Or someone who looks lost. And since I more or less look like a combination of both all the time, I was perfect chat material and they would come to me. Unnecessary. Oddly endearing. And unavoidable. Not that I want to avoid them either. They’re the closest thing I’ve got to a knight in shining armor on the treacherously unfamiliar roads of Mumbai.
In college, we’d once learnt something called the 6 degrees of separation. The theory says that everyone is six or fewer steps away, by way of introduction from any other person in the world. So through a chain of ‘friend of a friend’ statements, you could connect two people in a maximum of 6 steps.
One look at bus dynamics in Mumbai and it’s not hard to guess why. As the red metal colossus slaloms its way through the streets of the city, you are thrust into conversation mode, either as a reluctant participant in one, or an ill-concealed voyeur to someone else’s. I can only present an adumbrated account, for it would be impossible to truly present a condensed version of what transpires when you put over 30 idle people together in a cramped space for over an hour. But at the end of it, we have all spoken more than we had planned to. And even enjoyed it perhaps. There were no names exchanged. Only stories told. And we can all be said to ‘know’ each other. In some way. Somehow. We just do.
Within a week of my first bus ride, the older conductors were patting me on the head, the younger ones were making slightly creepy but generally harmless comments about how Punjabi girls are supposed to be good looking, the aunties were offering me one end of their dupattas to cover my face with when the sun shone too bright during one of my many naps, school kids were peering at my WhatsApp conversations out of the corner of their eyes. And unlikely as it was, people were even starting to ask me (of all people) what the next stop was. I hadn’t the faintest clue. But it also told me something…
I for one would always tend to ask this question to someone who looked like they knew their way around. You can always tell a regular from the unaccustomed. And when I was asked that question not once, but a couple of times during the week, I started to wonder whether I had begun to look like a part of the milieu. Had I become a regular, a usual?
And though I would usually have to admit to them that I did not know what the next stop was or what the route of that bus was, it kind of pleased me that they thought I would. It was like a much-needed validation of my existence in that city. To be precise, of my existence on the roads of that city. Of them believing that I belonged. And of me believing it too, in turn.
Soon after that, I was more comfortable while settling into my seat. More sure about which bus I had to catch. More aware about which seats were the nicer ones and which were the best times to sleep. So much so that I was often prone to unplanned naps even at the risk of missing my stop. But I never did miss one. The conductor knew where I had to get off and he would always wake me up, chiding me with a string of Marathi homilies, fully aware that I didn’t understand a word of it. But it didn’t matter. For all he cared, I belonged. I suppose you have to let go of who you are at every moment to become what you want to be.
For 10 years, I had felt like an outsider in this city. Always too scared to hop on to a local train. Always too embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know my way around. Always feeling that the city would never really accept me. Me, prissy little North Indian me, detached from Bollywood, alienated from Marathi, abhorrent towards vada pavs and constantly besieged about my ignorance of the city. I had made myself ‘unbelong’ over the course of 10 years.
But the city had reclaimed me in a way that I soon grew to know as quintessentially Mumbaikar. Holding on to you like you do belong. Hauling you onto the bandwagon like you always did. And then finally engaging you in conversations to seal the deal and make you really really belong whether you liked it or not. And in the end you always did like it. We always like being a part of something. And if you ever stop momentarily, they just give you a rap on your head and a barrage of Marathi. Because for all they care, you belong. And you always will.
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