November 17, 2005


The steaming idlis at SEEPZ (Bombay) canteens were the only true ‘soft ware’ I came to fancy, with few parallels since. Fried rice and Pepsi for lunch, Idlis, Dosas, and Upma for breakfast, and the happy cheer of folks pouring out of companies that operated out of squat, gray buildings named SDF I, SDF II, and so on, rang out in a busy hum of a perpetual machine. Identity Cards hung from colourful neck straps, the names were cosmopolitan, reflecting the city makeup. Each morning as SEEPZ came into view, I couldn’t wait to get off the bus.

The place hasn’t changed much, the people have, they were bound to. SEEPZ Plus Plus is a new addition, and rose in the distance as 496 lurched and kicked dust and braked on its torturous journey through what must be one of the worst roads in all of India – the Jogeshwari link road. I cover my nose to keep out the dust. Its been over two years now that the link road is under renovation and construction. The three ‘choke points’ where bridges should have spanned the expanse, lie gaping; pillars hold up skies, green iron rods rise like claws, and thus they have lain. Roads grow painfully, a metre or so every fortnight. Travelling pain grows by miles in the same period as honking mess stretches interminably each morning and evening.

I turn my face away from the window and try and catch expressions on faces in the mass jammed in in the aisle. The conductor has stayed clear, issuing tickets from the rear of the bus, avoiding negotiating through the mass crowding the gangway. So, tickets have been passing to and fro since the bus left Kanjur Marg, giving up its last inch to accommodate yet another breathless soul who’d sprinted up to the footboard just as it left the stop opposite Huma Adlabs in Kanjur Marg.

“Ek SEEPZ dho”, said the man in light blue standing a short way off the bus-driver’s cabin, and stretching his hand the farthest he could, he passed a ten-rupee note to a person to his left whom he just about managed to reach at full stretch. The one in the cream coloured shirt took the note from him and stretched his hand to his left likewise, passing the note to a third person, in chocolate coloured shirt. “Ek SEEPZ dho,” he said before turning his face away to look out the window just past IIT Powai. The man in chocolate coloured shirt in turn passed the money to a fourth person behind me whom I couldn’t quite see in the crowd. I heard “Ek SEEPZ dho” behind me. Then it passed to the bus conductor. “Ek SEEPZ dho” again.

The conductor, a middle aged Maharastrian man, lean build, wore his uniform with the first button unbuttoned, showing white vest wet from sweating at the neck, and used his sharp voice to good effect in goading people into making space for new arrivals getting in.

“Go, go in front. There are people hanging out the door. They might get hit. Chala, pudhe chala,” he shouted out in marathi from time to time. He looked the kind who did no one any favours nor expected any in return, and wouldn’t be bothered with socializing or getting into conversation of any sort. The kind who felt strongly about morality but wouldn’t say anything about it unless in close company. He took the ten-rupee note and asked, “From which bus-stop?” It took a perplexed moment for the person to realize that no one had offered him the information, so he turned to the fellow-passenger in the chocolate coloured shirt, the one who had handed him the note, and asked him, “From which bus-stop?”

The chocolate-colour shirted guy had no clue either, and in turn asked the man who’d passed him the money, the one in the cream-coloured shirt, “From which bus-stop?”. He didn't know either, and in turn asked the one in the light blue shirt, all the way back to the lady who had requested the ticket after she had boarded the red bus, 496, from the front entrance because it was too crowded at the back. She answered, “Kanjur Marg.” And so it passed all the way back again, from light blue shirt to cream colour, then to the one in chocolate colour, and then to the fourth link, and eventually to the bus conductor, each pass was accompanied by ‘Kanjur Marg’. The BEST bus, for all its famed ruggedness, shook about then as it bumped into a pothole; the passenger load accentuated the shake. It felt like traveling in a rumbling belly whose sides may give away any moment.

“SEEPZ which gate? Main gate?,” asked the bus-conductor to the man, who turned to the one in the chocolate coloured shirt, asking, “SEEPZ which gate? Main gate?” Then it passed to the cream coloured shirt, then light blue, then the passenger, each time “SEEPZ which gate? Main gate?”

“Haan, SEEPZ main gate,” she answered, squeezed in near the front of the bus. And so it passed back again from one to another, and eventually to the bus conductor. The bus conductor reached into his leather bag, the kind that BEST bus conductors are issued, more of a pouch that hangs from their shoulder to their waist, placed the note carefully in the stack of notes, then opening the steel ticket box, he tore out a ticket, and punching it, he handed it over to the person who had given him the money, and who in turn passed it back to the one who had passed him the ten rupees; it exchanged hands all the way back to the lady in the front. She smiled a little smile as I turned to look out the window at apartments opposite Powai lake.

As the bus neared L&T Gardens, a man leaning forward near the front of the bus caught my attention. I had noticed him before. His hand was stretched out and a ten-rupee note lay between his fingers. He nudged a fellow passenger to his left, in grey shirt, and said, “Ek SEEPZ main gate dho, Panchkutir se.”