This story was originally written in February 2020.
“Kyu chacha, when is the next motor to Bamori?”, said I. “This one leaves in an hour for Rahatgarh, get down at the tig-adda”, said the middle aged man, his face untouched by any expression. To him, I was just another Savari and what had to start in an hour, just another trip to the those villages around - another to his thousands of trips on the same weary road.
He had a dusty red t-shirt with a faded print on the front. I am sure he never cared about what was printed. His belly, very visible through the t shirt, suggested that the t-shirt wasn’t his own, maybe he got it from someone. It could be his own too, we have the samosa and kachori to blame then.
Chacha’s bus makes a full loop through many villages around Sagar and Rahatgarh. Sagar and Rahatgarh are about 40 km apart. On this road which itself is not more than a few meters wide, Chacha would need to take half the bus off the road if another bus or tractor comes from the opposite side. But he’s confident, he has done it thousands of times. He knows exactly how much space is just enough for a tractor with a trolley seating a Baraat pass through and safely reach the bride’s place.
These buses are actually old and long retired buses somehow being made to work, another engineering marvel from rural India. The speedometer is broken. It is stuck at thirty probably from the time this bus was serving in election duty in the now state of Chattisgarh. She has seen a lot. No one knows her origins. No one cares probably. When thunders struck and heavens poured upon their wrath, when election parties worried whether they would be able to get the voting machines safely to the offices, she was there for them. She had her time too, when she was young, she would be decorated and carried Baraats to nearby villages. She also used to take Bamori’s primary school kids for their yearly picnic to a Mela in Sagar. The kids loved her too, seeing her they knew time for Mela is close. On the way back, they’d stop at Gujarati Namkeen and buy sweets and mixture for their home and for the way. She is now well past her youth and this day job is all she has. The kids have grown up too, maybe they have forgotten that this old and broken bus once brought smiles to their faces.
The seat covers are not all of the same design, I am not surprised, not all seat covers need to be replaced at the same time. Occasionally, some unfortunate seats are met by savaris who believe in speeding up nature’s process of degradation. They make their contribution by taking out some extra sponge from the little hole, or by marking with a ballpoint autograph that they once ruled upon this territory for a few hours. Such seats need to have more sponge filled in much before the usual. These seats also get to change their covers much more often than others. Some seats are forgotten, like the one at the right corner in the last row. It’s no one’s choice. It is usually filled in when no other seat is empty. There are times when you may want to take this corner. It is when you travel to the last stop from Sagar and want to doze off without any disturbance. The sun is your only disturbance. In the summers, it gets hot, but the biggest annoyance is when the bus changes direction, the rays could come straight on your face, believe me it’s noticeable even when you are asleep because the face temperature rises. So you wake up, adjust a bit, five more minutes and alas the sun is back at your face, or maybe this time your elbow has started burning.
Since I was an hour early, I got a seat easily. More importantly a window seat of my choice. It looked cleaner than the others, and the cover appeared new. So I took it, beginners luck I must accept. The sun was blocked by the bus standing next to us, and I had enough time to plug in my earphones. I was all set to not care about anything, and not look around for the next two hours.
As time of departure came closer, crowd rushed in. In no time, all the seats were full and we had people standing all around. The bus started, the sun came right at my face and we were already racing down the road. Soon we were out of Sagar’s crowded streets. The road got narrower, with some space on both sides. There were fields on both sides, and a few huts far off taking care of their fields.
Our bus has had a long relationship with this road. In the summers during the afternoon, she was his only friend. They talked for hours, then she told him stories of the villages and the people, about the things her passengers talked about. He being the more experienced one, shared stories of far off jungles, rivers and mountains where he laid silent and where the bus never went. It was a common consensus among the vehicles that the road was mean. He was narrow and was not easy to navigate. He had no lights with him to show the way at night, and would become slippery on the days of rain. Our bus, being his friend, never agreed to this. To her, he showed the way and supported her with her day job. Without him, no-one would have had a job!
By the time, I managed to find a position to get the sun off me and doze off, the conductor was there for the ticket. I paid him and he signed a ticket for me. He was getting into the crowd at the back, asking for change and that they had increased the fare recently. Some people argued about this fare change, but eventually gave up and paid. I’d say everyone except for one in the last corner.
When the conductor reached the last corner, he shook the lazy old man at the corner who, used to being woken up like this, with no surprise, carefully took out five ten rupee notes from his kurta’s front pocket. He counted again and passed on the conductor. He didn’t look much different from the rest. But his clothing was enough to narrate the story of his poverty, which probably was also making him look older than he was. The conductor didn’t give him the ticket yet, and casually asked for ten more due to the fare increase. Next few minutes went into an argument with the conductor, the conductor kept demanding for ten more and continued with giving tickets to others. The man stayed firm that he had paid a reasonable price for the ticket and could pay no more. The bus kept making some stops while this was happening and I remained immersed in the music.
Suddenly, the bus stopped in the middle of nowhere. Interested, I turned the music down, looked towards the epicentre of activity - the last row. So in the previous fifteen minutes, while I was wondering what the bus and the road would be talking about, while I was so much into these songs, and while I was looking outside the window trying to get away from the huge crowd, the old man had not given up on his ten. He was asked to get down the bus in the middle of nowhere, and he, instead of giving up, decided to get down. As he stood on the road side and the bus readied to move on, the conductor gave him a final chance. His firm tone was now trembling but the words didn’t change. It was a no again.
I looked out of the window at his face. The clouds covered the sun, maybe to give this man some shade. The world had already been sunny to him. Was he too constrained on his budgets that an extra ten would have ruined it all? A thought of helping him came up, maybe I could pay for him and let him in. By the time, I could get it all sink into my senses, we had started moving. We accelerated for a few seconds, and we stopped again. Driver Chacha shouted, “Ask the Buddhha to get back, let’s drop him today. We won’t let him in from tomorrow.” The conductor got down and waved at the man who was now at a distance to come in.
It was this little sweetness I had to see which was going to keep memories of this ride alive for several years. The next half an hour passed quickly and I was already at the Rahatgarh tig-adda where I had to get down. An auto-rickshaw was waiting, he shouted “Bamori, das das rupaiya”, and I joined him on the front seat. The back seat was already full.
The bus continued on the journey, with all those faces never to be seen again. Maybe the bus is still out there, or maybe she got put off service. She dropped so many of us to our destinations, some of us never got to see her again. But then this is the story of all these rural miracles.