Last week, I got in touch with my English professor in college after ages. I read, re-read and proof-read my mail atleast five times before sending it to him. (he was my English professor after all). At the end of the mail, I had written, “Do you still live near Padma?” And smiled… and a little later, laughed out loud.
Well, for the casual reader, living near Padma would mean ‘living some place near where Padma lived’… But no, Padma is the name of a bus-stop in Cochin. Hop onto a city bus and do not be surprised by people telling the conductor, “Oru Padma’ or ‘Oru Menaka’ (One Padma, One Menaka)… Nothing scandalous here, folks! We’re merely asking for tickets to the Padma stop or the Menaka stop… And why do we have stops with women’s names? Simple… because most of them are names of theatres as well… And we’re a cinema-friendly people, you see! If you travelled the straight M.G. Road route, you could stop at either Deepa, Kavitha, Shenoy’s or Padma. Oh! I forgot Jose… that is Jos Junction and home to Jose Textiles and the like. If you took the circuitous scenic route via the Children’s Park and the Jetty, you can keep your date with Menaka at Marine Drive.
This post, though is not about bus-stops being an ode to the fairer sex. It’s about the buses themselves. I travelled to school (that is about 3km away) by cycle-rickshaw (waving at all passers-by) until the third grade, until it was decided that I was grown-up to accompany the other neighbourhood children to school by the city bus. Early mornings saw me and my friend leave for school at the unearthly hour of eight so that we missed the early morning rush and reached school at 8.20 (school actually began at 9.15am). Evenings were however a nightmare, when you had hop onto a bus from the Boat Jetty stop and be in close proximity with hundreds, jostling and pushing, for it was indeed survival of the fittest. But it was fun… And much of my personality has been shaped in these buses. If a friend got a seat, all our bags were piled onto her lap like a mountain… We were the classic pile-ons! And at other times, we’d practice the glare effect… glare and stare till those sitting on the seats reserved for ladies were shamed into getting up. We laughed, joked and after exams, debated over the answers and the marks. So much so one of the boys from the neighbouring school after we entered college on spotting me said, “Hey, I will never forget you! You used to discuss the paper loudly on the bus after exams!” Well, I was quite infamous that way!
So eight years passed by in this fashion. One must note that Cochin buses can be rightly called ‘killer buses’. Traveling on one is an exercise in patience, balance and agility. Most buses are manned by two conductors (who gave out the tickets), one driver and two people who stood on the steps, also known as kili (now, why would anyone call them a bird (kili in Malayalam and Tamizh is bird) is beyond my imagination. The kilis were real exhort’ionists’ who would bang the doors and say ‘Potte, potte’ (Go, go!) so loudly that any driver would develop a killer instinct. Most drivers had two roving eyes, one to keep on the girls sitting on the side ladies’ seat and one, supposedly on the road.
College was mostly bus-free since it was just a 20-minute walk away that I simply loved. And while attending university in Nagpur, I often went by the city bus reserved for the campus. A month after joining my course, a guy came and sat next to me. Before I could practise my ‘glare effect’ on him, I realised that Maharashtra does not practice gender segregation in buses. When I did not respond to his smile, he just said, “Aap mujhe nahin jaante? Main aapke class mein hoon!” (you don’t know me? I am in your class!). So much for my powers of observation!
I had to again resort to city buses when I started working. Ten kilometres sometimes took an hour or two. This was because there were very few buses to Mattancherry. I don’t know whether the ratio is still 8:1. We’d be forced to wave to our friends in eight Fort Cochin buses before one to Mattancherry came along, overflowing with humanity. And when you went over that part on the old Mattancherry bridge (the one that once up on a time, could be opened up in the middle to let barges pass) and the bus jiggled, you prayed that what hopefully stood between you and the backwaters below would be British ingenuity.
I don’t travel that often in Cochin buses on vacation. My pampered and ageing Muscat heart cannot simply withstand the killer instincts of the drivers. So, I was pleasantly surprised this June, after a photoshoot at Fort Cochin beach to be dropped at the bus-stop by my friend Sivaram. I had wanted to take an auto and Sivaram countered with, “Are you mad to travel 15 km by auto.” And then a shiny Volvo AC bus came along. “Go in this,” he said. I got in and instantly fell in love… Plush seats… the cool AC and no ‘kilis’, just a conductor and a driver. I got into conversation with a couple of Bengali tourists (I showed them the way to Angamaly (near the airport) using Google Maps on our Android phones), saw a foreigner reading Paulo Coelho and best of all, reached home in 25 minutes flat for just 26 rupees.
If this is the changing face of Cochin and its buses, I’m simply lovin’ it!