Khaki fears

One of the perks of studying in a school close to home is that you can just walk down to it. And one of the perks of living in Chamarajpet was that you could walk down to pretty much everything. And then we moved to “faraway” Srinagar. Srinagar, so far away that there were snakes on the street, where jackals were said to howl on the banks of the Vrishabhavati that flowed behind the house. Never mind that it is only 5-6 kms from the railway station and only 2 kms from Gandhi Bazaar. When you have to walk 0.75 km to get to a bus stop and sit in a (black board) bus to get anywhere, you used to think you were living far away.

I was in the 9th Standard when we moved to Srinagar. For the next 1.5 years I used buses and autos to commute to school. And that was my initiation to the world of BMTC. And it wasn’t pretty. Buses hated students. Schools all leave at around the same time. Between 4 and 4:15 PM bus stops got crowded out by students of different schools. Drivers and conductors hated that crowd. Students come with passes and are not ticket-buying. And most annoyingly, for them, students come with huge bags dangling from their backs making it difficult for them to move around. A close friend was punched in the eye by a bus conductor and had to get admitted to Narayana Nethralaya. His father duly approached the media, and the next day we woke up to our friend’s face, swollen eye and all, gracing the City pages. The conductor was suspended, “pending inquiry”, and silently reinstated later I guess.

We were scolded, cursed, called names, pushed around – basically bullied every day as we tried to catch buses that didn’t want to be caught, sometimes waiting at traffic signals before the stop and jumping into moving buses. Buses didn’t have doors those days. We had to hang onto footboards in crowded buses.

You learned to fear the driver and the conductor, trying not to earn their attention in the first place. The only defence was friends. You learned to negotiate buses with friends, to not really care for the crew too much. The mark they left turned up much later.

As an adult you enter a bus with the same fear. You learn to be defensive when the conductor shouts in your face to go to the back even though your stop is next. You have your moments when the bus gets stopped at random places for the conductor to finish issuing tickets before a stage, and you speak out. Sometimes a few more join in. Most times, you are on your own, everyone else having fought their battles, lost and silenced to suffer.

You learn to also be careful with the staff. I once chased a 500K from Bellandur to Silk Board in a 500C after he refused to stop at the stop I was waiting at. The standard approach is to hide behind another bus while approaching the stop, overtake and scoot as the bus in front slows down. I caught the bus at Silk board, and in a moment of anger started raging at him. What are your names, I asked them, having been encouraged by BMTC’s site to complain there. “I’m Ramesh and he’s Umesh” said the conductor and laughed. As I was getting down he warned me that he knew how to keep track of people’s stops, so I better be careful with him. I have never been happier to permanently leave buses.

Having said that, most of my problems with buses have happened on the ORR side. West Bangalore has generally been peaceful for me with buses for some reason, maybe the lack of competition, and lack of Volvos makes like easier for them too. Also, there are a lot more women conductors this side of the city for some reason. I am yet to meet a badly behaved woman conductor.

And when you think Khaki, there’s the next version – Autos. I know friends who swear by them, and also friends who just can’t deal with them. I’ve oscillated regularly between the two. For every auto driver who accepted what I had when I ran out of change (surprisingly common post Nov 2016), I’ve had auto-drivers with parents in hospitals, whose meters are broken down with no money to repair, who believe that the rate per km is Rs. 26.  But the toughest part is always the negotiation. There have been those who asked for 20 more, but “seemed to agree” to a smaller rate, only to bring it up as you are paying the fare. Once you get past that, and having sent some of them on their way, you can usually have a peaceful ride. Being an adult helps here a lot. The West of the city also has a lot more autos that run on meter. Days when I used to take them regularly to get to the bus stop, some dude would not turn on the meter. When asked, he’d quote the standard meter rate and add “I’ve dropped you so many times, saar.”

The coming of the Metro meant that I could easily jettison all the khaki dealings and have a peaceful ride. Only to be confronted by them right from the point you enter the station. Have your body and bag scanned, and if the scanning machine is broken, open your bag and subject it to wider scrutiny. I was even asked to open a box of tea-bags at the station. “Illa!” I insisted. He didn’t press the issue, as he didn’t speak Kannada, and I refused to answer in Hindi. Of course, when in a hurry, I have smuggled the bag in without scanning multiple times. Wonder what we are protecting by inconveniencing people so much!

And then you hit the escalators. Depending on station, you might have a security guard shouting at you for walking up the escalators, never mind that most of the time people like to stand next to each other, block the path and even scream at those who rush past. You enter the platform, and the guards look at everyone as if they’re out to either walk around the platform or jump in front of the train. “swalpa hinde banni”, ” illi ninthokolangilla!”, “alli hogangilla!”, “photo thogalangilla!”. There are no rules as such, but hey, I can make them up and you are bound to follow. The train arrives, the doors open, and the guards go into a frenzy of orders – “horage barorige jaaga kodi!!”( leave space for those exiting, I admit, needed with our kind of etiquette), “olage hogi” and a version of “munde hogi” directed to those standing inside. Probably the only peaceful thing you can do in a metro station is exit it. No one gives a shit.

I am not even going to talk about the epitome of Khaki – the Police. There are almost never good experiences. Almost every transaction has meant a constable asking how much I earn to know how much to ask as bribe. There’s one here detailed.

The gist is basically this: If you’re going to use your own vehicle to get around, you’re going to get pissed and stressed out by those like you. If you’re going to use public transport of any kind, you’re going to get pissed and stressed out by someone in Khaki. Getting around is stressful, no matter how you want to! We just cannot communicate smoothly and make life easier for ourselves. It shows in the way we drive. And this paragraph is becoming too big for a gist.

I’ll end this with this song of Kamalagasan playing the mythical benevolent bus conductor. Also a piece of Bangalore nostalgia. Wonder why they don’t have his photos all over buses like Shankar Nag(who did the equivalent for autos) on autos, eh?

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Power to say “NO!”

He stood there in front of me, hands folded, a smile on his face. The smile a facade, the face betraying utter surrender to me. I was the alpha, the one with the money and the one who had been rendered a service, which I claimed unsatisfactory. “Sir…please…if you don’t pay my boss will make me pay from my pocket” he pleaded. There was no sign of tears, no sad stories. They had probably been all shed.

The auto ride from Ankola to Gokarna was long, slow and rickety. 300 was the amount agreed upon. I had switched autos once to this one as the first one, the owner’s auto had stopped soon after it had started and he had refused to let me go, making me wait for another of his autos to take me here. It was a long wait and I had already lost part of my cool about it. This one was running close to the end of its fuel and the nearest fuel station was closed. Driving along, Aswin had called up from Gokarna, that the hotel checkout time was up and he was being asked to vacate the room. I still hadn’t packed and asked him to hold it for as long as possible.

We were less than 10 kms from Gokarna now and I felt the auto might just make it. I was already livid about being late and Aswin having to deal with the hotel and clear my unpacked stuff out. No thought of how the driver will get back if he runs out there. It was not my problem. It was his mistake to take me in when he had no fuel. He had a choice, didn’t he?

We passed a station and the auto driver said he’ll stop. That was all the trigger needed and I let loose a volley about being wronged and ‘taken for a ride’ by them and that the hotel guy would throw my stuff out. He said nothing, giving me a look of helplessness and continued along. The auto stopped after a few sputters a quarter Km from the station. He got out with a can. “Please wait here sir…I’ll be back with the petrol.” I screamed at him again. He pleaded. I said nothing. He ran along. I knew I could just walk away from there, take another auto or just walk along. But I stood there waiting for him. After a long 10 minutes I saw him running to the auto with his can. I walked along now, a pretense about putting my foot down and running away without paying him. He emptied the can into his auto and followed me in his vehicle, begging me to get in. “please sir..please get in sir.” he pleaded. I offered him a 100 rupee note asking him to go along. I knew he wouldn’t take it. After a couple of minutes of that absurdity I got in. There was no other vehicle coming or going on that road.

This part of the journey was done in silence. Him, hoping he’d get all his money. Me, thinking about all the numerous occasions in my life when I had been soft on people and been ‘exploited’ and ‘taken for a ride’ ‘ungratefully’. The feeling of what would they do if I didn’t help that had been my weakness all along. “Am not paying him a penny over 200 this time!” I resolved and sat there seething. We reached Gokarna 15 minutes later.

“Sir, please sir..please sir” he asked me. I handed out the 200 rupees and turned my back. I walked towards Aswin who was sitting there in the lobby with both mine and his stuff, surprisingly calm. I looked back and he still stood there, all expression wiped out from his face, just looking at me. I packed my stuff in and apologised to Aswin about having him pack my stuff. “No need” he said “I just got your stuff out as-is, no packing”. I stuffed my stuff into my bag and stood up ready to leave. “Let’s go, am really hungry” said Aswin. I looked at the entrance. He was still there, looking at me. “Stay strong” I told myself as we made our way to the counter and settled the bills for the night.

His expression changed as we approached him. I glared at him, telling him again that I wasn’t going to pay him a penny more and he could go talk to his boss. ‘Sir, sir, sir’ he pleaded. I knew this was it. He showed no intention to follow us. Either I pay him now or he’d go his way to face his boss and pay the 100 that was owed.

And there as I passed I felt my hand reaching out and giving him a hundred. I walked fast without turning back.