The best way to capture the essence of a city is to take a bus through it. Aside from the view, you are also treated to a good workout session as you struggle to hold the rails and stay upright in the crowded vehicle.
I am going to board a bus in just a minute. You can come with me.
Where to? Nowhere, I’m going right up to the edge of the city and coming back to where I started from. My physics teacher would tell me that zero displacement has taken place; but I disagree, I think I’ve been moved in mind and soul.
The bus station at Majestic is crowded, and there are at least four shops on every platform selling snacks and beverages. You should get something to drink, it’s going to be a long journey.
We climb up the stairs of the vehicle and find two empty seats next to each other. The bus is free now, but it will be crowded when we are coming back.
The afternoon sun streams down on us through the window, and it feels heavenly.
The engine comes to life beneath us, purring and growling. We take a slow a turn out of the station, and we’re off.
As the bus picks up speed, the buildings painted in light pastels blur into a muddy grey. And small tin-roof houses hide in between giant glass case buildings. Standing out from the grey are the proud colours of the Karnataka flag streaming in red-yellow bunting from across trees.
People flash by, and you catch snippets of their conversation. “The government today is rampant with corruption!” “Did you give Sowmya Aunty her medicines?” And the ever present “Hello, Ola? Ellidira?” (Where are you?)
I love to eavesdrop on stranger’s conversations. It’s my guilty pleasure. I know you do it too, don’t lie to me.
Most conversations are complaints. Bengalurians face so much pressure and trouble throughout the day, and it’s not healthy to let all that simmer inside. One should release all those frustrations from time to time, just like a pressure cooker.
Listening in on conversations of your fellow citizens will leave you in wonder as to the sheer number of things that there are to complain about. Take all these conversations with a pinch of salt, or else you will surely lose faith in all humanity.
The best part about making complaints in the city is, if you state your complaint aloud to no one in particular, you will hear ten different voices agreeing with you, eager to share their daily vexations. I just love this about my city. Really brings in that we-feeling. Nammavare.
If a lady walking back from her office spontaneously exclaims “Devare, shekhe!” (Oh my god, it’s so hot!), the woman selling Avarekaalu five meters away will reply “Sakkath shekhe, alva?” (It’s really too hot isn’t it?). The bus conductor who has gotten down at the signal to buy a cup of coffee will remark “Modalu heege irathairulilla.” (Things were not like this before). The coffee-stall owner will say, “Nann fan nenne thane kettuhoyithu. Magaa helida seri maadukodthane antha. Innu maadilla.” (My fan broke down just yesterday. My son had promised me that he will fix it, but he has still not done it). The son, from inside the shop will yell back “Ayya, hogappa, nooraentu kelsagulirthave. Maadthini antha helidnalla!” (C’mon dad, I have a thousand and eight things focus on. I said that I’ll do it right!?). His mother will shout from the terrace, “Adike phoneinalli idiya, alva?” (That’s why you’re sitting with the phone now, right?) And so it goes on…
I was listening in to a very interesting conversation the other day. Two ladies were debating about whether Aadhar card should be linked with everything else. The conversation drifted off into government conspiracies and identity frauds. Anyone listening to their terrific conspiracy theories would have been scared enough to renounce their identity and move into the forest to live an ascetic’s life away from the government’s eyes. Despite all this, the one who was initially sceptical finally decided to go ahead and link it because her sister-in-law had already done it, and she was perfectly fine.
You too tell me about one of the most interesting conversations you’ve heard in your home town.
You were once in a crowded bus with a few hens and a man who was tightly holding on to a crate of eggs. He was sitting close to the door of the bus, and holding on so tightly to the crate that even if he fell off the bus, he would not let go of the crate. Surprisingly, the egg crate was not the one with the spaces for the eggs to sit snugly, it was a hollow one which allowed the eggs to rattle about freely.
The man kept up a constant stream of abuses towards the bus driver for rattling his eggs over potholes, and the driver went on saying, to anyone who would listen, that only the most foolish person would bring eggs on a bus in this fashion. Every stop, the man would count how many eggs were smashed, and the more that were smashed, the angrier he would get, until he finally got off the bus, taking with him the unpleasant stench of raw eggs.
We can’t talk about conversation without talking about small-talk. The number one question is “Oota aytha?” (You had lunch?). It can even be ‘nashta’, ‘tiffin’ or ‘coffee’ depending on the time of the day, and which part of the city you’re from. Even if you have not eaten, you have to answer yes. The next question will invariably be “Yen oota?” (What did you eat?). “Have you eaten?” carries the same amount of affection as “I love you”.
You ask me to tell you more about the essence of Bengaluru.
I don’t know where to start, so I tell you about the city through my senses.
Bengaluru tastes like groundnuts mixed with bhel rolled up in a newspaper cone, and sometimes it tastes like hot, watery tea. Or coffee. Strong.
The city smells like exhaust smoke and sweat. I’ve also been told that it smells like fresh hope and new opportunities.
You see dogs hesitantly following you whenever you turn back, see cats and mice darting silently under broken pavements.
Bengaluru feels like belongingness. And a bit like loneliness.
The bus slows down in the traffic at the signal, and you can hear sellers advertising their products, their voices are a distant recurring melody among the symphony of honks and swear words. “Toma-ato! Muvattu rupayi toma-a-to!” (thirty rupee/kg tomato). These vendors have such melodious voices. They should definitely apply for Indian Idol.
You know those lo-fi tracks? The one with the background music and rain sounds? I would like to make a mix like that someday, with the sounds of the city. Morning, afternoon and evening versions. The morning version would sound like trucks being unloaded and shops opening up, with religious chants in the background. Maybe there would be some chickens and cows as well. The afternoon version would sound like busy lunch orders and lunch-time chatter. And the main backing track for this would be the heavy rave-dose sizzle you hear in hotels. The evening version would be calm and lazy, with birds and dogs. But not sparrows, because we have driven most of them away.
Stop signals are so lovely, because you can let go of the hand rails if you were standing, and you can finally drink your water with dignity. Unless you are in a hurry, in which case you hate red lights and start having fantasies about picking the bus up and placing it on the next road like a giant chess knight.
Did you know that traffic-light signals are sound activated? No, really, I’m not pulling your leg. Why else do you think drivers honk at the red light? To make it change faster, of course!
As we travel on, I point out to you the various statues, buildings and temples. You tell me that you’ll come back later and visit them, I tell you that I too will come with you, but I know that as soon as we get back home, we’re going to forget all about it. That’s how city life is. We say, ‘Let’s do this sometime’ but we actually mean to say, ‘It’s nice to entertain the thought of doing this, and I will remember these plans that we made at some point in the future, and feel wistful about it.’
The biggest and most widespread white-lie city-dwellers say to each other is “Bartivi” (We will come to your home). Don’t you agree?
You ask me about some of Bengaluru’s specialties; you want to take home something for your family. I suggest to you Sandalwood products, and various chutney powders. Chanapatna toys and Coorg coffee are also good gifts to take home, but they are quite far from Bengaluru. You could try Google to see if any stores in the city sell them.
Don’t forget to take Mysore Pak, Dharwad Peda and Karadantu laddoos. I show you pictures of various regional sweets on my phone and describe how they are made to you. You laugh and say that you already feel full just listening to me.
Sometimes, I pretend to be an impostor. If I were an alien dressed as a human, I wonder how I would I talk and behave so that I could fit in.
Then, I feel awed how easily people accept me as an ordinary part of society. Am I really an average human? Am I really just another inconspicuous person in the sprawling city? Am I forgettable? Oh! The anonymity.
I have learnt over the years, that in a city like Bengaluru, you shouldn’t be hesitant to claim your identity. You need to learn when to push back, and when to step aside. If you try to be too polite, you will be eaten up. Eaten up by the sea of people, eaten up by the white noise. You lose yourself, but you can also find yourself.
We keep each other silent company until it’s time to get down, and you have to gently awaken the aunty who has fallen asleep on your shoulder. We clamber down at the stop furthest from the heart of the city and wait for the next bus that’s completing the same circuit.
This time, we don’t get to sit down. There’s that arm workout I promised you.
There are so many different types of busses these days, the old-fashioned blue and white, the slightly better orange ones, the modern green ones with working LED displays, the total-blue air-conditioned Volvo ones in which the fare is higher than regular, and the sparkling-purple electric busses which feel like a luxury parlour.
The newer the model of bus is, the lesser seats it has. I think the bus manufacturers too are getting on with the exercise program.
Some busses have seats that face backwards. Whatever happens, do not sit on these. Some old uncle from the back will cast his eyes on you. The moment you make accidental eye-contact, his face will break into that creepy-uncle smile and he will be determined to make you uncomfortable for the rest of the ride.
People in Bengaluru really like their small change. Shopkeepers never give you change in coins if it is more than five rupees, and bus conductors are very reluctant to share that horde of coins that jangles in their bag. “Aahn, change elli, change kodi maa. Aivattu rupaiya togondu naan een madali?” (“Yes, where is the change? Give change, maa. What will I do with your fifty-rupee note?”)
I hoard coins too. Right now, I have an assortment of around twenty coins in a secure compartment in my bag. But I won’t tell that to our conductor. Instead, I will pay for our tickets in notes so I can pocket a five-rupee coin to add to my treasures.
We are on a highway now, and there is no dearth of billboards fighting for our momentary attention. There is also a poster stuck on the inside of the bus which promises to solve marriage, career, love, money, exam and sexual problems through astrological solutions.
When I was younger, I used to think that vehicles tyres are black because they used to pick up the black colour from the tar roads, and that is why tar roads turned grey overtime. There is a street called ‘Avenue Road’, which sounds like an inception plot. There is also a road called ‘Race-course Road’. That doesn’t mean that you can race on that road; it means that the road runs along a race course.
Night falls curiously. First, it’s just a hint of that cool darkness, informing you that evening has arrived. The sky dims little by little until you look around and realize that it’s suddenly night.
The street lights come on, and the neon lights of the storefronts start to flash and change colour. Vehicles morph into insects, crawling all over the city roads.
I’ve heard that Bengaluru never sleeps. You tell me you’ve seen this while traveling from the airport at two A.M.
There’s something really interesting that happens in the night. On a two-way road, the tail-lights of the numerous vehicles in front of us shine red, and the headlights on the other side of the road are completely white. And if you squint your eyes just so, the lights turn into glowing circles that paint the black canvas of the road like streaks of neon paint. This effect is especially beautiful on flyovers with wide lanes.
The city is a labyrinth of roads, underpasses and flyovers. Our bus weaves under and over the grid of the city, and we watch the cityscape in awe.
The city feels so surreal in the night, maybe we’re in the kingdom of the clouds, and the conductor is actually an angel in disguise. Maybe this bus is going to extend rocket jets and zoom off into space like in the ‘Magic School Bus’ series.
However, we don’t end up in any sort of ethereal realm. Majestic bus station will have to do.
We’ve come back to where we started from, and we reluctantly get down and stretch. I don’t want the journey to end, but I must bid you goodbye here, for I have another bus to catch before the night catches up with me.
I really enjoyed spending the day with you. You did too? I’m glad!
Let’s explore Metro tomorrow, if you’d like to. We can spend the next two months visiting every metro station one by one. No, I haven’t seen more than six or seven of them. I have a metro-map taped to my cupboard, and I really want to start crossing places off the list.
Do you have everything on you? Your phone? Wallet? ID? Just check once.
Okay? Okay then, reach home safely, and don’t forget to text me when you get back. Seri na? (Okay, right?)
You don’t know what could happen on the way… It’s a city after all. Alva?