I was in Coimbatore, en-route Bangalore to my home in Kerala; I was on the lookout for a quick connection home having already lost two precious hours of the weekend. As soon as I had set foot in Kovai, an agent of one of the local Private Travels had approached me, and on knowing my destination promised me a seat in a bus that he said left within the next ten minutes. The bus was already late and I didn’t have another idea to toy with. The Travel Agency had more than one agent, obviously, and the crowd gathering around that morning meant that some promises were sure to be broken.
Coimbatore was shaking dreams off and waking up to what looked like a bright sunny day. Shop owners who had hurriedly closed shop the previous night were cleaning their place before the first customers arrived. There was hardly a soul on the streets except for the occasional newspaper boy and the stray dog.
After a while the bus appeared in the distance, a good twenty minutes late. Right from the distance one could make out that the Cabin was already full. The bus ground to a stop ahead of us as many a sojourner dropped his plan - much to the chagrin of their respective agents. I decided to try my luck and took a cabin ticket – my agent definitely had his luck running for him that morning. One more desperate soul joined me.
At this point it is essential to write a few lines about ‘Cabin Travel’. In a semi-sleeper (Cabin Travel, as a practice, does not exist in Sleeper buses. Though one sure can let one's imagination draw out a desperate traveler sleeping foetus like on the floor next to the driver during a mad-rush), a cabin ticket would fetch one space enough to rest the upper part of one’s arse right under the rear end of the protruding TV, kinda back-to-back you could say. This came, of course, for the price of the regular seat. It gives one an excellent view of the hamlets, hillocks, paddy fields and palm trees that pass by – the catch being it is meant to be a play in one act. After a point, you'd rather meditate on the wonders and mysteries of nature with your eyes closed, coddled in the luxury of a cushy push-back seat with hands clasped over your tummy, than sit chin in hand, elbows poking thighs all over and your arse discovering bones that it never new existed till then. Basically, Cabin Travel, is for people who have bosses who wouldn’t let them know if they can take the weekend off from work till within hours of departure.
So there I was, standing on the foot-board, waiting for some divine intervention, tectonic or not, to shift the masses that were so precariously filling up their allotted spaces. All eyes were fixed on me and my gaze shifted from one face to another, pausing slightly to see if there was any space that could be usurped in between. As I stood there, waiting for something to happen, something did happen, to my surprise - a man got up from his seat and offered me the same! As he perched himself on the edge of an already occupied seat, much to the evident discomfort of its occupant, I, after a moments pause grabbed onto the seat that was offered, my bag thrown somewhere in the main seating area. Just for the record, the seat that was offered to me was the top of the gear-box right next to the driver - the Good Samaritan (GS), was obviously someone of importance in the scheme of things. The chap who got in after me made his way back to sit on the floor.
The GS gave me a benevolent smile and queried – “Bangalore?”, to which I replied, “hmm”. Guess I forgot to thank him then.
Tickets were paid for and the bus started its journey.
I was seated in a way that I had to turn 90 degrees to see through the windscreen, sliding myself further down in the process. My co-cabin travelers looked very distraught and the sight of me moving back and forth over the box, thereby polishing its surface, I thought caught their fancy. The seat, the edge of which the GS usurped, belonged to a teenager who wore a t-shirt that went “Nobody is Perfect…I’m Nobody” – for some reason he looked a bit more morose and grumpy than the others. Guess they contracted Cabin fever in Paradise also.
I started looking around and my eyes soon fell on my fellow travelers, the lucky ones seated on push-backs, who were catching up on dreams still undreamt of. As I let my eyes laze around the bus my vision suddenly fell on an empty seat right at the end - straight ahead of me. I quickly turned to the GS and asked him why we had a seat empty right at the back. He gave me that benevolent smile, yet again, and answered – “ Athu saar Walayar Check-postilindhu officer varum. Avarukku reserved” (It was reserved for the Road Transport Officers from Walayar Check post).
Though, at that moment, I was more concerned about getting myself a seat and was entertaining thoughts of occupying the seat till Walayar – what if they did not turn up, what if they had caught the previous bus, what if their work was delayed so that they had to catch the next bus – What the hell, I was in no mood for debates. I went back to my book. I was reading Orwell's 1984.
After a while, when the strain of reading fine-print in a moving vehicle began to tell on my eyes, I casually turned around to glance at the empty seat. To my surprise an old, frail lady was dozing off on the same. As a result of some seat adjustment that had taken place while I was engrossed in the novel, the chap who had boarded the bus along with me had got a seat for himself. He seemed quite pleased with himself, nestled in a push-back listening to his walkman. 'Wait for Walayar', I tried to justify some vague act of inaction I had committed.
As we approached Kerala it started drizzling. It was the kind that left pearly beads on the windscreen - beads with just enough water to form a drop, but not enough to overcome the surface tension and trail down. Soon the wipers were switched on. The wiper squashed the beads, mixed it with the thick layer of dust on the glass and left a wide sweeping trail that made it even more difficult to see what was coming toward.
We crossed the Kerala border sometime then and approached Walayar checkpost. The site of Kerala during monsoons had still not wiped the moroseness from the face of Mr. Perfect. As we approached the check-post, the bus started to slow down. The cleaner boy, who was coiled up on the footboard for a quick nap slowly stirred up.
The bus came to a stop at the check-post. The driver searched around and gathered few sheets of paper and put them into an already full file. After this he had a small chat with the cleaner boy, as if he were clarify what was to be done one final time. Then, as if by habit, he slid a 100 rupee note (or did I miss a few?) under the sheets of paper. The cleaner boy collected the same and made his way towards the office. After about 10 minutes, I heard voices outside the bus. Two middle aged men made their way in followed by the cleaner boy. The men carried a plastic bag filled with something I couldn’t see. They had a smile across their face and walked in as if it was their domain. They knew exactly where they had to go and made their way over luggage and cartons lying all around. I looked back through the hole in the wall. As they reached to their predestined seating location they saw that their seats were occupied. Nobody wakes up an old sleeping lady. All of a sudden two other men got up – guess they had been given the seats on the condition that if need be, they had to part what was dear to them – and offered their seats to the new travelers. The men with the plastic cover gladly accepted the offer and sat down. The stranger, who had boarded along with me, was still sleeping, quite unaware of all that was happening around him. The bus started and we moved on.
That weekend, a close friend narrated to me the troubles he was facing dealing some of the corrupt bureaucrats in the State’s public offices. How bribes were a norm than something shunned as immoral. How bribing was a part of his life and how he made officials feel indebted to him by bribing them than sprouting a grudge by turning them down. Yes, it was immoral, but that was the order of the day, or so he made me believe then. Also, some prominent Malayalam newspapers carried the following headlines –
· 8 (or so. I’ve lost count) MLAs quit ruling Congress party and join ex-Congress leader Mr. K.Karunakaran in his new formed Indira National Congress (Karunakaran) Party.
· Student activists charge the police in Calicut Medical College as a part of their protest against policy changes affecting the backward communities
· Hartal to be declared on someday the subsequent week to protest against the rising petrol, diesel prices
· National Survey rates Kerala as the least corrupt state in India
Guess, All’s well when Gods own the country.