Public transit perils

Five in the evening is not a time to expect much from life, especially if you take the public bus to and from work.  Sanity then, is a combination of the right thoughts and actions. First, take a deep breath and push someone else to make way into the vehicle, throw an apologetic smile and tell oneself ‘C’est la vie’. Next, be ready for everything that comes your way. The bus conductor wants you to go further inside: just do it. Your bag’s poking the eye of a passenger seated on the aisle seat, apologise profusely. Your butt’s touching somebody else’s, just forget it. Be careful about the placement of your hand on the iron rod, because once you remove it, you’ll forget where you’d put it before. Most times, someone else scrambling to hold onto something will have found it. On one occasion, an unknown passenger on a bus to Bhaktapur joked, in a bus so filled with people, you will not even find your own body part to scratch and instead end up scratching somebody else. This violation of personal space on all accounts—the sweat and scent of alien bodies pressed against yours, the loud senseless music—will more often than not, get to many.

Is toiling all day long for peanuts worth this ordeal? Do I not deserve any better? On long hungry days at work, this might even lead one to question life itself. What is the purpose of life? Is this all there is to it? Work, ride the bus and die? Practical folks will try to think of doable solutions: perhaps it’s time to purchase a bike. Every bit of information, whether it be fact or hearsay on bikes will play out in their heads: costs around Rs 0.1 million or so, zero percent finance, pay half the amount now and Rs 5,000 each month, Honda’s good or maybe Yamaha looks better.

The destination arrives. It costs a minimum of Rs 15 for violating somebody else’s space and being violated. But once outside in the open air, while handing out money to the conductor you are certain that you can survive another day. Such is life; people cannot afford to lose their sanity over a bus ride.

But seven in the evening is a different story altogether. Life may be hard, but that does not mean it has to remain so two hours past office time. Then, I feel entitled to a seat.  If need be, I am ready to fight for ensuring my  Right to Sit and Right to a Seat—both rights are to be included in the  ever-pending constitution. Sitting behind the driver facing the opposite direction in Toyota Hiaces, with nothing to hold on to other than somebody else’s knees and thighs when the vehicle speeds and suddenly stops, does not count. Nor does sitting carefully beside the driver on the hot engine so that his hand does not touch you accidentally while he’s changing the gear count. The mudas in blue microbuses definitely don’t.

But a few days ago, at around 7. 30 in the evening, I got more than I was looking for.  There were so many empty seats that I just couldn’t decide where to sit. First, I took a seat towards the end of the bus beside the aisle. Then I looked around and moved to an empty seat in the last row. Finally, I settled down on a single seat in front of it. The bus was unusually silent; no music of the 80s and 90s to picture Bollywood actors jumping from one large tabla to the other, and it looked like it would be an uneventful journey. But no sooner had the vehicle reached the first intersection, that there was a loud crash. The glass window opposite the driver’s seat had fallen out without warning.  “Jaun  jaun,” the conductor said as the driver slowed down only to pick up speed and leave as if to say life must go on.

Ironically, everything else in this city seems to have moved on apart from the privately operated so- called public vehicles plying on the roads of Kathmandu. The brands of vehicles have changed but the experience of riding on them has not. Mercedes Benz buses that apparently transported the hippies from Europe in the 70s still transport people from Bhaktapur to Kathmandu. But they have multiple competitors now. There are tiny white Force Travellers that go from Balkot to Kalanki, Hiaces running from Thimi to Old Bus Park and the ever-dark and ever-crammed buses heading to Gaushala from Bhaktapur.  The routes have increased, the roads have widened,  passengers now carry phones bigger than the size of their faces, and many of them have travelled overseas but vehicle owners are keen not to let the experience of riding on the bus be any different.

‘People are stuffed into the buses like gundruk’ is a time-tested statement. It was true in the past, still relevant in the present and can be expected to stay that way in the future.  It’s a become a cliché like the conductor’s ‘pachadi janus’. There have been minor alterations in request to go inside, but none for the better. A conductor of a microbus heading to Thimi once pushed my thigh and told me “Sidha ubhinu (Stand straight)!” It shocked me to inaction, as I kept thinking if I should have slapped the guy or if I should further expand my ever-widening notion of private space to include being violated as an unwritten norm of public vehicles. People tiptoe not to step on others’ feet, men resist a shove from others not to push women ahead, parents have to ask someone else to hold their children for a while and the conductor even has a problem with the bag you’re carrying.  “Mathi rakhnus, agadi driver lai dinu, milayera boknu,” he requests or shouts depending on his mood.

If a ride in a public vehicle reveals anything, it is the value of one’s life. It amounts to pretty much nothing. Only perhaps a little more than goats, who must be absolutely terrified tied atop buses, travelling all the way from a remote village to the Valley. One might think pretty highly of oneself before stepping on the bus, but the ride discriminates against none. Each passenger shall be equally pushed against the other. In case of doubts, you can ask the ex-Foreign Minister Narayan Kaji Shrestha.

The view from inside a sarwajanik yatayat is equally enlightening. Outside, it seems as though the powers have decided to keep the potholes to employ a few people every monsoon. Build and rebuild roads to employ people taking Keynes rather too seriously. But looking at private vehicles glide past with  ample space inside while bending to see where the bus has stopped, I cannot help but remember Milton Friedman—the free market economist, who once famously said, “There is no such thing as a free lunch”. Essentially, all that the world has to offer is for those with the money. In this case, if you are still riding a bus and complaining about it (like me), you have no one but yourself to blame. It is because we, you and I, did not work hard enough as those who own vehicles that we suffer. And don’t the conductors do a fine job of pointing that out, given the slightest chance: “Bhitra janu chaina vane jharnu, yo tapainko afno gadi hoina (Get off the bus if you don’t want to go inside, you don’t own this vehicle).”

So even though our comrades might have recently begun to talk of Nepal as a capitalist society, that is hardly news for commuters like me. Even the collective lamenting about the disastrous state of public transportation has never changed things. “Hamro garjanko panima faliyeko agultoko ‘chwainn’ bhanda badi bajan chaina” (Our roar carries no more weight than the hiss of an ember thrown into water) as Bhupi Sherchan once wrote.

Such is life.

Published on July 26, 2014. The Kathmandu Post (On Saturday)

P.S If I ever plan to write another article on public vehicles in Kathmandu, I should  try doing that in Hindu says my sister. ( I’ve already written about it in Nepali about 7 years back). I think I’ll take that advice. Going by the state of affairs, nothing is likely to change anytime soon. अनि  फेरी जति चाे टी लेखे  पनि हुने केही होइन  …

public transport in Nepal Pu

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