My daily morning sights are replete with certain constant imageries and upon reflection, I realized, the most predominant among them is the sight of adolescent children making their way to their schools in school buses, vans, and all other means of private transport. It made me take a peek back to my school going-days nearly three decades back, when life was all about a toughening process right from the time you are able to stand on your feet without tottering.
Hence if I were to ask my school friends now, how they rode the way from their homes to school, I know what the answers would be...some would say they came by school bus , some might've had their parents dropping them off, some would've just walked, the hostlers merely crossed the road. But in those times there was a larger group who rode the public buses to school.
I belonged to the last group. Not through choice, but by default.
The school buses, in the late 70s and early 80s, were meant only for the city folks, and Trivandrum city limit was around 6-7 kilometres from our school, the Holy Angels. Since Pongummoodu, where I used to live, was then a remote corner in the countryside, I had no choice but to depend upon the public transport. There were four of us from Pongummoodu, besides three of my other friends, who also took the same route home, and so we all ended up in one bus usually.
Those bus rides were most enlightening, in the sense that they helped us get an overview of "the big world," with its fill of a multitude of personalities, outside our immutable, peaceful school campus.
I pause for my mind to complete its reconnoitering process before I wheel out the list of my "bus buddies" those days. There were students from other schools in their characterless uniforms. Then there was the slightly older college going group, a colourful throng who had matured out of uniforms into casual wear.
The harried men and women who worked in the various offices in and around the city formed another group by the similarity of the general air about them. One could easily identify them from the rest of the crowd, through their frequent anxious glances at their wrist watches, as each overcrowded bus roared past them without condescending to stop.
The "appi hippies", the roadside Romeos, who rarely rode the buses, but usually hung around bus stops just for the pure joy of subjecting every female form, of suitable age group, to their microscopic scrutiny and comment, were often regarded by us as a tolerable minority of the crowd around our bus stops, when compared to the dreaded “nerds,” with their perverted minds. These were never out there for their viewing delight, but had an even more malicious intent; they were out there, for a "feel!"
There were also the fisher monger ladies with their raw local dialect and baskets laden with their wares travelling in the buses, during peak hours, which I am sure one would find it difficult to believe in these times!
We soon learned to deal with this motley, by adopting different tactics to tackle each group...
A stiff competition existed among the students, be it school or college goers, to board buses, a situation compounded by the bus drivers who, I think, detested the sight of this huge crowd. So they either stopped a few meters short or a few meters ahead of the proper bus stop, leaving us to complete our daily exercise by running after them, for at least, on our lucky days, for half an hour! I wonder whether those drivers had some telepathic communication, for they alternated so effectively, as if upon cue, to stop short and ahead.
And once we did manage to reach the doorway of a bus, there followed a battle in which we used every piece of the armour at hand, the most important among them being our school bags, to cleave a way among the aspiring crowd and into the bus. We had mastered this art of forced entry to such perfection that the office goers had to bow before our might and make way for us, despite their adult status and larger, stronger frames! I tell you, these principles I learned has stood by me to this age, to help me board any bus quickly, by beating the crowd, much to the amazement of my family!
Inside the bus, it was a circus, and I think we were akin to those trapeze players. There was so much balancing to do. It was extremely difficult while one is standing on a tip toe and the bus driver chooses to ride the bus with his foot not on the clutch, but on the break. We dare not lose our balance no matter how widely the bus lurched, for if we did, we were in danger of being pawed upon by the "nerds", who were the last to board the bus and who would always position themselves right in the midst of the crowd, waiting precisely for such fallen opportunities.
Now when I think back, I can easily spot one among us, one of my friends, whom even the most irresolute of those degenerates shunned.
She was like a formidable giant, towering above the rest of us with her statuesque appearance. She didn’t think it uncomely to warn us of lurking dangers in her pleasing yet stentorian voice. She had a "bird's eye" view of the bus as she stood tall in the milieu. Her sharp eyes were always on the lookout for these miscreants whom she could sniff out from the crowds. I can still hear her voice as she calls out aloud for all and sundry to hear "bum scratching guys have entered the bus. Girls, on your guard!" We were all immensely grateful for her warnings.
Another group whose ire we seemed to provoke was the fisher women. They had no patience for our outlandish pinafores, our shoe-clad feet and our relentless chatter in English. If we even unknowingly bumped against them in the melee, they used to let out steam, in the most vituperative manner, for quite some time. In those days, being publically censured and being a cynosure of all eyes were too appalling to bear.
In reality, the "appi hippies" were a tame lot. They were of no harm at all. But if Dracula had incisors, these guys used their unflinching stare, to suck away from a distance, the last drop of blood flowing through our veins. We were always rather clumsy and stiff until we crossed away from their line of vision.
Even though hardships abounded, those bus rides were never monotonous. Each ride was peppered with some amusing/interesting anecdote. But for me these rides mostly presented opportunities to observe the sights, sounds and even smells of the places flashing by: some palatial houses, riotous blooms, beautiful trees, a smelly river like the Parvathi Puthanaar by Kannammoola and Pattoor, sombre graveyards, teeming humanity around Medical College and General Hospital and many more, which when I think back now, binds the city close to my heart.
My son never rode a public bus to school. Will he have such a rich repertoire of memories associated with his journeys to school and of the city he grew up in?
For that matter, did any of my friends, other than we the bus riders, have anything so multifarious to recall, something so integral to their growing up years, which unintentionally taught us a valuable lesson or helped us develop a code that stood by us years later, at different turns in our life?
I doubt it.