May 31, 2001

Cinderfella

Travelling Late

I’m a Mediterranean kinda guy. I have black, curly hair, love olives, red wine and cheese and I know more about Greek and Roman mythology than about Indian epics. And I wake up about four hours after India does. Which can be a bit of a problem when one lives in Mumbai.

A gracious Providence has surrounded me with people who understand: bosses who permit me to start my day a few hours after everyone else; clients who considerately ask only for afternoon or evening meetings; friends for whom my tardiness is the provider of many witty one liners (and they think nothing of calling me at 2 a.m. because I’m the only one guaranteed to be “both awake and alone” at that hour); girlfriends who... come to think of it, there haven’t been that many. Hmm. Wonder why?

My awry biological clock, a pathological dislike of crowds and a strong parsimonious streak, have, while ensuring that I have a laughable social life, made me something of an expert on getting home in the wee hours, on the cheap.

So, last trains, last buses... they have become my lifeline, ferrying me back from the magazine offices and ad agencies that have underpaid me over the years, rocketing up the silent length of this stretched out city to my bed. But I write here of buses. And ’tis not because I love trains less, but that I love buses more.

Trains I use when I travel, not when I commute. There’s romance in the sound and rhythm of a train chugging through the night, long deep whistle blowing, strange stations with different local flavours of sweet tea and terrible coffee.

Trains get me home faster in this city, but when I look out between stations, my eyes pass over the same things they would have seen at more respectable times, only darker. And the stations are lonely enough to break your heart.

In a local bus, however, things change in the night.

As you wait for them, you have company. A bus stop is a fraction of the size of a railway station, so you’re in closer proximity to your travelling companions.

Beside you, mill workers stand silently, tired, second-shift men with blank eyes. Next to them, boy-men in black trousers and white shirts smoke cigarettes, laughing as they dissect the evening’s happenings at the five-star hotel they work in. Perched on the railings a pair of college kids self-consciously hold hands, whispering to each other, and you can bet they’re not talking about the late show they just didn’t watch. Off to the side, two waitresses from a ladies’ bar (they always travel in pairs), chatter like exotic tropical birds, ignoring with practised ease the male eyes that strip them of their gaudy plumage. Drooping against the slim metal pillars of the bus stop, a young couple, a sleeping toddler in his arms, hers weighed down with a large bag, balance the temptation of the taxi that waits invitingly a few feet away against the straightjacket of the monthly budget.

And a bus arrives, its engine sound unrecognisable from its peak-hour grumbling and muttering of stifled oaths at squawking gaggles of white Maruti 800s. Now it roars impatiently, complaining about the length of time you’re taking to get in.

The bus is in motion now, and the engine shrieks and bellows, like a class of adolescent schoolboys, voices breaking, greeting the last bell of the last period of the last day of term. It races joyously through the night, double rings from the conductor chivvying it past deserted bus stops, hurdling speed-breakers, vaulting potholes, its rattling windows joining the raucous symphony of loose rivets, while a solo horn raises its voice above the din to tell the world to getoutofthewayNOW!

Don’t fall asleep – unless you’re a regular whom the conductor will wake up. It’s your stop now. Move to the front of the bus, and quickly. The bus slows, you’re expected to jump off, not impede its progress by waiting for it to come to a complete halt. And as your feet touch the ground, it speeds away, making rude jokes to itself about your lack of atheleticism.

And you wish you had one measly glass slipper to throw at the baying mongrels that serenade your slow trudge home.

And when it’s really, really late? Heck, just hang around and keep doing whatever it is that’s kept you away from home till now. In just a few hours, the city will wake up again. Way before the sun comes up, there’ll be the first trains, the first buses...

Published in the Times of India's Mumbai edition, Snaphot, 31st May 2001.
Snapshot was a weekly column that aimed to "capture that quintessentially Mumbai state of mind." Sadly, TOI discontinued it.



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