Sunday, February 6, 2011

Here we go

The Metro is the newest form of public transport in India, still out of reach of most Indians, not because of cost, but because of its scarcity, Metro lines being restricted to very few cities & very few routes. Like everything new that is introduced to our country, we have embraced its use, never forgetting that most of us would not bat an eyelid if we had to sit in a bullock cart to get to our homes from the Metro station, if that was the only mode of transport available. As it is we have to take the "shared auto" and that's not a huge difference.

Before I go further on this post, let me clarify that "overloading" was never a bad word in the world of Indian transport. We're so many of us, and when we gotta go, we gotta go and no lack of transport is going to stop us!

In fact about 30 years ago the Delhi Transport Corporation which ran the only mass public transport in the city came up with the brilliant idea that an ordinary DTC bus could be converted into a Luxury DTC bus by merely increasing the fares to 3 times. This would result in less people getting onto the bus, so the lucky souls who did could have the "luxury of breathing without discomfort". Either the passengers were conned into getting on by the unassuming exterior- which was a carbon copy of the non- luxury fellow, or they just couldn't get into the bus which went ahead and decided they would forgo half a kilo of onions the next week (an odd fellow would have won the lottery recently, but was not brave enough to get into a taxi or an auto rikshaw, the drivers of which were considered more dreadful than the dacoits of the Chambal). Once a cynical guy who belonged to the former species refused to pay the exaggerated fare and argued that the bus had no curtains, no air-conditioning & no fancy seats, so why was it called a Luxury bus?  The conductor solemnly replied, in a tone that brooked no further argument, that this was a luxury bus, "Because the ticket was a Rupee."

All the way back about half a century ago or more, "bus number 11" or our two legs were considered good enough to get anywhere. Back in our village a senior IAS officer would think nothing of walking to & from his office 25 km away in Delhi. Younger men, who offered to keep him company would be gently told, "Son, you wont be able to keep up with me". When one needed to transport luggage, one collared one's neighbour who would pile it onto his bicycle & spend half a day walking with one to the railway or bus station.

Then along came my generation, pseudo villagers who grew up in the city and would, much to the disgust of the robust villager, fall down & threaten to die after 8.23 km. Alternative transport had to be arranged for us weaklings and so we traveled in horse carts, bullock carts and on bicycle carriers up to the bus stand, only to get into an over crowded bus. Till the advent of the Car.

Let me clarify, the Car existed everywhere in the world. It had been seen and it's existence was not doubted in the village, but it took a brave man with a stick, such as my father, to bring his car to his village. He had to stop every 500m once he had entered the village, to chase away children (waving the aforementioned stick) who were hell bent on committing suicide by slipping under the wheels. Not that that is what they has set out to do, they were merely chasing the car in an attempt to touch it, a chance that they got only once in a few months. This was never a difficult task, considering the lack of roads usually reduced the speed of the car to walking speeds sometimes and the suicidal kids could be even as little as 3 years old.

A lot has changed since then, but across the country one can see a vast range of means of transport, some very old but still very much in use. To all the foreigners who have been told by funny Indian expatriates & amusing net friends that we go to school by "Elephant", I'd say, Believe it.

A friend once picked up an American lady from the Airport on her very first trip to India. "Would you believe it," he later groaned, "in the very first 15 minutes of her arrival to the capital of India, we saw a Camel and an Elephant on the road!" See? She witnessed this with her own eyes, who are we to tell her any different?  But if she was adventurous enough, we could take her on even more exciting rides. After all, what sense of achievement does a person who goes down the Niagara Falls in a barrel feel as compared to a Mumbai local train commuter who manages to extricate himself at the station he planned to, eh?