‘Ours is a country of words. Talk. Talk. Let me rest my road against a stone.’
Vasu was off to a great start today. She was ready for office, well in advance to relish a steaming cup of chai and eat two parathas at an appreciate-each-morsel pace. On most days, breakfast was a paratha–jam roll, gobbled on the march to the bus stop. Today she had fifteen opulent minutes to reach the bus stop instead of the usual eight minutes that commanded dusty shortcuts, hasty footsteps and frantic waving to stop the bus.
If only any of that had made a difference.
The moment her feet touched the street, they assumed a brisk pace and approached the shortcut. Habit got the better of desire, and luxuriating in the walk to work was out of the question. Vasu debated if it was the nature of the familiar shortcut, the place, which summoned a strange sense of urgency. ‘You know, how Rajiv Chowk metro station necessitates a frantic bustle. Or how it is criminal to walk leisurely at the Dadar Railway Station,’ argued Vasu, addressing an imaginary audience.
‘I don’t think so,’ quipped a voice from the audience. ‘The urgency can be attributed to the need or desire to be someplace else. Once you set out to be somewhere—at the workplace by 9 am, the beach before sunrise, the park for the afternoon siesta, home before dinner—the body wears the destination that the mind has already inhabited. Why else would the experience of the sheer enormity of the sea be dwarfed by the desire to reach the island? That’s not how the sea arranges itself around the land.’
Vasu traced the voice, mapped the notion. With a perplexing lurch of her mind, the ground gave way under her feet. She stopped at the precipice, right before plunging into deep thought. She surveyed her watch and moved on. She couldn’t afford getting late. Nothing could go wrong today.
Today was the transition to her normal life. Back from a week-long vacation, Vasu banked on the promise of the daily commute to take her on the mundane road to routine city life and beyond. Commute that was not only familiar but also supposed to be better—a renewed beginning. Commute. The difference between a good and a horrible day. Nothing could go wrong today.
Except, everything did.
Years of daily commute have equipped Vasu with an arsenal of shrewd, rather strange ways of moving around. For starters, she wears clothes that do not yield readily to any description except that they look like something one would wear for a gruelling journey. One month into work and she stopped ‘dressing up’ for office; now she simply ‘gets ready’ for the commute. And hence, it is dark-coloured, normcore, worn-out cotton clothes all the way, her favourite greys and whites verboten.
She also slips in and out of the quintessential Pune get-up that carries an infected-city aesthetic—voluminous cotton scarves wrapped around the face. While the discerning locals do so to protect themselves from the scorching heat and the weight of helmets, Vasu had developed an affinity for the anonymity and uniformity it proffered.
As the months passed, Vasu’s commute got inseparably entwined with the morning routine of a few people in Viman Nagar—the origin and destination of her trips. All the people embodied a point in Vasu’s journey, the shape of their schedules providing hints to the outcome of her movements, like a living jigsaw puzzle. These relations of routines birthed a community of commuters that sprawled well beyond the boundaries of different modes of travel.
Vasu was halfway through her route to the bus stop but did not come across Sardarji today. Staying two blocks away from Vasu’s house, he usually left three to five minutes before her for his office somewhere in Viman Nagar. His bag, always carrying more than its capacity, made his gait slow and weary. Which is why Vasu almost always managed to overtake him. This possibility soon became a necessity, for Vasu realized that if she reached the bus stop a minute or two before him, she would make it just in time for the 9.05 am Bus No. 166.
Of course, it was no surprise that she did not see him today. After all, she had left earlier than usual. Untethered, she thought how easy it was to keep time with him around. She unlocked her phone every few steps to note the big numbers on the lock screen, but time remained unfamiliar.
Her feet whispered towards the bus stop in a failed attempt to balance the maddening bellow outside the Air Force Station gate. As she reached the junction nearby, her quivering footsteps crackled like dry leaves. The memory of an octogenarian on foot hit by a car a few moons ago stained that toothache of a road. She scampered forward, the cold, threatening junction jutting out behind her.
It was the smiling nod of auto-wale bhaiya, another morning staple, which brought her to the sunny side of the mundane routine. It was also a reminder of her recent move to splurging more on auto rides, a consequence of her waning faith in buses. And yet, here she was again, hoping to bus it to office for reasons dimly understood by her. Perhaps, buses are her default. Perhaps, it is the coexistence of different worlds that a bus enables or plain affordability. She will never know.
She pushed past her thoughts, clueless about what she was moving towards. She suddenly realized that she couldn’t spot the bus stop—a stain-ful steel shelter with shiny car advertisements and smudged bus numbers. Disappointed as she was at the disappearance of the bus stop, she had no reason to be disoriented. In the span of two years, while the Viman Nagar bus stop has been a lot of things—a makeshift sunshade, the space in front of a fruit vendor, the huge banyan tree—for Vasu, it has always meant one thing: the place where Ajoba stands.
All these seasons, Vasu has seen Ajoba standing at the bus stop like a mountain amidst a forever-changing cityscape. Always clad in white kurta-pajamas and a Gandhi topi, his face is a net of wrinkles veiled by a faint smile.
When Vasu could not find the bus stop, she frantically searched for Ajoba and his milk canisters. She located him sitting on the footpath, already wearing the day’s labour on his body. Besides him sat two huge aluminium cans with patterns of dried milk like the lines in a drip painting.
‘Bus geli ka?’ Vasu asked, panting.
‘Naahi,’ responded Ajoba in wrinkles.
Reassured, Vasu sat next to him and scanned the surroundings for evidence of other changes in the city while she’d been away. Zilch. Everything unfairly the same, save the bus stop. Other commuters had reached the new bus stop with raised eyebrows and mild questions, and stood there with the acceptance of yet another rupture.
A moment of silence. A vast murmur. Commute on some days is music; on other days, it’s noise. ‘What will it be today?’ Vasu wondered as she mentally conditioned herself for the onward journey. Time hobbled to the strange tune of the movement. Vasu distracted herself by idly scrolling on the phone. Every app, every tab was hectic with the news of a virus. Vasu put away the phone and returned to staring in the direction of the bus.
A truck, two wheelers, cars, two wheelers, more two wheelers, auto, cars, two wheelers, ghanta gadi, auto, two wheelers, two wheelers, two wheelers. All raced past the waiting commuters, adding to the assault of rush hour, reinforcing their immobility and eclipsing the value of their time. As the waiting time entered its twenty-first minute, the hope of boarding the 9.05 am bus took the colour of disbelief. Vasu derided herself for nursing the foolish hope that leaving early could make a difference.
What followed was a silent calculus: ‘200 rupees for a straight trip to office in an auto? No, no, that will mean 170 rupees more than a bus ride for just one side of the journey. Oh, wait! Is auto-wale bhaiya still there? A metered auto ride along the Bombay Sappers route often comes to only 150. Shoot! He ain’t there. How about an auto till the Railway Station and then another bus? It would be ideal to wait for another twenty minutes for a bus till the Railway Station and perhaps take an auto from there. God, that will take so much time! Let me start walking towards the Viman Nagar BRT stop. I’ll easily find a bus till the Railway Station or the Corporation, albeit crowded, within five minutes of reaching the stop. But, it’ll take twenty-five minutes to reach there. Why did I have to carry the laptop today? Let’s just wait …’
The next bus arrived on time, but it was already too late for Vasu. She felt crushed under the weight of her own choice to commute by bus just because she was working for their improvement. Days like these are a rude shock to the futility of her work, the humiliation of the inability to improve things gnawing away at her confidence. ‘Can I really expect the hollowness of the public transport system in the city to be addressed by filling it with faith or nostalgia?’ she wondered.
Vasu managed to board the bus just in the nick of time. She paid the exact amount for the fare and waded to the front through the knot of unseasoned commuters rummaging for chutta. She turned to look at the people around her—their furrowed brows displaying the real-time performance of the buses, their heads hanging over the loss of hours spent waiting. The air inside the bus was thick with resentment and massive questions; the bus chugged down the road eschewing explanation.
A stop before hers, Vasu saw Ajoba leaving with the same unfazed composure that he usually adorns. This broke her resolute hopelessness. When the bus pulled up at the Railway Station, she deboarded and disappeared into the sea of commuters. She didn’t even wish to think about the second leg of her journey.
Yet another morning, a day unlike any other.
Jayant was leaving his house for his village Zari in Parbhani district, more prepared and concerned than all his previous trips combined.
He had been packing for a week in advance, for nothing important or trivial could be missed. Vipin, his grandson, called him everyday, explaining where all the important (or trivial) things were kept. ‘You left early just so you don’t have to help me,’ Jayant exclaimed on the phone the night before. ‘Am I not helping?’ asked Vipin.
Everytime Jayant complained of Vipin’s absence, he was quickly reminded how it could have been avoided if only he’d acceded to Vipin’s demand for a motorbike. ‘I can understand being needed equally urgently here and there, but you cannot expect me to be actually present in both places at the same time,’ Vipin remarked. ‘You know I could’ve made more frequent journeys if …,’ he added. ‘Yeah, yeah, I know what’ll follow,’ Jayant cut him short.
‘There’s plenty of work here Baba,’ claimed a distant voice. ‘Not that he’s making any jot of a difference,’ Vipin’s mother added, taking the phone from him. ‘Everyone in the village has been saying it’s best to avoid going to the city; we’re so relieved you don’t have to be there with everything so uncertain,’ she said matter-of-factly. ‘We cannot wait to see you, Ajobaaaa,’ shrieked his granddaughter. Jayant talked to her at length, asking about the preparations for her wedding before he went off to sleep. Draining its energy, percent by percent, the phone eavesdropped on Jayant’s dreams.
Like every morning, Jayant was at the Yerwada bus stop at 6 am sharp. Today he was waiting for the 162 to Koregaon Bhima and not the 166 to Viman Nagar; his regular aluminium milk cans had been replaced by the equally heavy potli of cloth and food. But the wait at the bus stop, which rarely extends beyond an hour, was brewing to a distasteful three hours. The appeal to go back home by every other masked person rushing past him was making the wait more and more rancid. If only he had the reaction time and an unsheathed face to convey that he was in fact up to nothing else but that.
Jayant was steadfast in his belief that some bus would show up. If not the 162 then the 159 or the 166 or the 257, maybe an ‘inter-city’ or even a ‘traveller’. In a society where essential public services are left to fend for themselves, it is not uncommon to find people’s faith keeping them afloat.
What was making Jayant reconsider, however, was the uncitylike goings-on. ‘Isn’t two people at the bus stop on a weekday at a demanding morning hour uncharacteristic? The junction nearby is only ever hectic with honks and feet, and today it’s unfussy and spare,’ he thought. ‘And where are Ashiq, Milind and Ashwin?’ He had not seen any of them on their way to the construction site. Jayant’s attention shifted to Balasaheb’s memorial at the junction. ‘How come I have never noticed its details before,’ he wondered. ‘Ek, don, teen …,’ he started counting the beads of Saheb’s rudraksha mala, and with it the number of hours it would take him now to reach Zari.
An approaching shared auto broke his silent counting. He deemed it best, given the day’s oddities, to take the auto till Viman Nagar and board a bus from there. A newly prominent area of the city, Jayant has known Viman Nagar since the time it was more green than glass. He used to deliver milk to a mithai shop there and a few houses behind it. Soon the place became a jumble of unnamed bricks and concrete, and Jayant knew that a few months’ down the line these would transform into the memorized addresses of potential customers. He’d immediately bought another buffalo.
In the last fifteen years, Jayant had moved from delivering doodh to delivering milk, from fixed orders decided a day in advance to taking orders on the phone, from changing between three modes and two PMT buses to a direct PMPML bus. Though he had to carry twice as heavy milk cans in double shifts, the relative ease of commute before the damned peak hour made it all possible. When his route got a dedicated lane for buses, Jayant could finish the two shifts and reach his house in Yerwada as early as 10 am. It worked so well that he stopped serving the Deccan area, which was better paying but a difficult commute away. However, after a little over a year, the bus lane became a metro construction lane. Jayant had been struggling to make ends meet ever since as he was forced to stop the second shift. He was hopeful that this nervous rush would also lead to something better, much to the dismay of Vipin who considered it highly unlikely that Jayant would be allowed to use the metro or that he could afford it in the long run. Possibilities and arguments that became a footnote to Vipin’s insistence on buying a two-wheeler.
Jayant reached Viman Nagar around the same time at which he would usually make his homeward journey after the milk delivery. He sat on the unusually deserted footpath where the old bus stop used to be. He could not tell the surprising from the shocking anymore. His buoyant curiosity bedecked the dull, tall Air Force Station gate, a few metres ahead of the turn from which the buses arrive. Jayant was harbouring an inexplicable hope of seeing the woman-in-a-hurry bumbling down the road. Of the dozen reasons he had imagined to justify her constant hurry, he failed to grant any a conclusionary power. Her sprint to the bus stop was always devoid of punctuations. There was always an undiminished sense of urgency trailing her. She seemed at peace only inside the bus, and even then it felt she was both inside and outside.
Jayant could also never pinpoint the reason for her unfailingly choosing a bus. He regarded the bus a relic, only used by people of a different era. The days she didn’t take the bus, she would ask him if he wanted to be dropped till Yerwada, forgetting that autos did not have enough room for milk cans. There were no milk cans today. But Jayant wasn’t headed towards Yerwada either. He longed to see just one familiar face to feel some semblance of normalcy on this otherwise strange day.
The air was noisier than the ground. After waiting for another two hours in vain, Jayant started walking towards Wagholi. The vast silence that reigned over the city hit him as much as the unseasonably hot weather. He stopped for a mouthful of bhakri and a hint of rest. Before he could lie down, he felt hundreds of eyes on him. On the road beside him was a bus roaring in his direction, cutting across the bare landscape, its passengers filling every inch of space and clinging on to the straps, poles and shoulders. No number plate, no destination. One look at the driver and Jayant knew that he wasn’t going to let on more passengers. Jayant pulled out his frail arms to stop the bus, and then stood in the middle of the road. He clambered aboard from the rear door to avoid the ire of the driver.
Upon reaching Koregaon Bhima in the evening, Jayant decided to call it a day. He met a group that was also headed towards Ahmednagar in a government-run bus scheduled for early morning the next day. Relieved, he shared the remaining bhakri with them, readying himself, like the others, for an essential journey back home. He borrowed a phone to tell his family not to worry and that he would be with them the next day. The group parked itself nose to tail down the unforgiving highway, which was soon writhing to the rhythm of their sleep.
At 9.30 pm Jayant woke up to chaos on the road and people running and packing their bags. The confusion froze him. He kept his feet firmly on the ground to feel the earthquake. Maybe the tremors were over. He collected his potli and started chasing the tail light of a truck, a light towards home, all the way.
Starting tomorrow, the nation will be locked down.
Jayant is lying down on a narrow patch of sulking coarse grass along an ominously still State Highway. His clammy Gandhi topi is folded and stationed on his forehead like a futile dressing on a cut too deep. Inches away from his sore feet are a pale gamchha, a soiled mask, an empty water bottle and a few other lifeless articles strewn all over the ground. Is that all he carried or is that the aftermath of a loot, nobody knows.
Vasu has been reading about the curtailment of all kinds of movement from the agitated comfort of her 1 BHK house. Stalked by the echoes of everyday processions in the city, composed of countless finished and unfinished journeys like hers, she is now counting her stagnating steps in the briskly receding places. Her mind is unwillingly invested in conjuring up images of the new normal; snatches of the future in a running montage of familiar everyday faces—nariyal paani wale bhaiya, the woman conductor of Bus No. 166, the security guard, Raout Uncle, auto-wale bhaiya, the man at the samosa chai tapri—are all quivering in uncertainty and disappearing into a limbo. Of all these distant intimacies, which inadvertently make their way to Vasu, is one recurring face. Ajoba’s.
Vasu gets cold feet.
Isolated in their miscarried journeys and faceless places, it’s the end of a world for Vasu and Jayant.
Swati Pathak is a Pune-based urban practitioner and sustainable mobility activist. She documents streets @weloiter and tweets @holywalkamoly.
Cover illustration by Shiraz Husain.
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