Well now, what can I say? It is an annoying experience to be caught in a traffic jam. There’s dust, there’s smoke, and there are fumes and vapours, blaring horns, angry engines, whining motors, swears and curses, heat, sweat and impatience. Have you ever been in a cattle drive that has stampeded? I most surely have not; that sort of experience is confined to those who inhabit the Prairie and the Pampas and the Downs, but I will take the liberty to draw comparisons – we are in the middle of a cattle drive where the swirling dust has been replaced by hot engine exhaust, wild eyed steers for impatient, desperate steer’ers and curved bobbing horns for blaring, bawling…horns.
Look there now. There is a senseless lorry driver trying to turn his truck around in a U turn in a narrow train level crossing, and equally (if not more) senseless people in and on their own modes of transport closing in on the lorry’s turning space, killing every chance of him accomplishing his feat.
So now all are in one hell of a jam!
I am sitting in a public transport bus, one of those huge gargantuan things that lumber along the streets of my city, and get spat upon by smaller vehicles because they are basically road hogs. They are old, creaky and smell of metal and Rexene, polished day in and day out by the sweat of a thousand commuters. Their windows work fine, but between the black, rubbery insulation that allows the glass to slide open or shut, there is very often old and dried vomit, the result of someone’s bus sickness. Then there is the intense smell of incense and jasmine, not just from the garland around the picture of battery lighted Gods, but from all ladies that commute along with their male counterparts each and every day.
Now I am lucky I suppose. I am nowhere near the dried vomit windows, but rather right up by the great front window of the bus, in the driver’s cabin, a place only the fortunate ones get. The road ahead, or rather (since I can’t lay my eyes on even an inch of it) what I hope is the road ahead, is quite narrow. Ahead, beyond this turbulent sea of traffic is the lorry and the cars and bikes and auto-rickshaws, and there is a lot of noise and blaring horns, exhaust smoke and madness. There are cars and busses and other trivia in front of us and at the side of us, and all of them don’t look one bit happy. Behind, my fellow passengers are doggedly fanning themselves with newspapers and sweaty hankies. The heat is awful, and so are the swirling dust and smoke and petrol and diesel vapours. There is one traveller with a large forehead and small, peevish eyes staring out of her window, oblivious to the dried vomit, mumbling some sort of commentary to her neighbour about the deplorable situation outside. There is a young lady here, standing beside me who has stifled a yawn for maybe the tenth time or even the hundredth; she looks so exhausted. A baby wails plaintively from the interiors of the bus and another takes its cue and bawls out aloud, arousing the passengers near and around to feigned concern. A man jumps off the bus; it’s stationary anyway and manoeuvres through the traffic on my left, deciding I suppose, and sensibly too that it is much faster to walk.
Three quarters of the road is blocked with traffic going my way, leaving only a narrow strip of road along my right for the oncoming vehicles. I tell myself with a sigh and a wry smile that we are in for a bigger and tighter jam if that bus up there, just behind the uncomfortable lorry, inches its way into the strip of road. But no! And happily too, the bus cannot move. The demented driver in the lorry has still not turned his monster around and a car driver leans out and swears at that thick-headed man.
Traffic is still piling up on my right, so much that even the strip of road that was hitherto generously left for the oncoming traffic is mercilessly blocked by vehicles, all going my own way. The driver of my bus looks down his great window at the milling motorcycles and cars and slowly shakes his head.
He is an old man, filled in every bone with patience, and he leans nonchalantly on his large steering wheel, watching the idiotic scene unfolding before us. All the experience of being caught in similar jams in the past, all the stampedes of cattle with the horns has made him something of a stoic, and in the face of this utterly foolish, milling mess, all he does is put off the urge to light a smoke. I say that because there is a pack of ‘beedies’ (thin, small, cheap cigars) and a box of matches in his shiny, black hands, and he’s been fondling them between his fingers ever since this mess began.
There is hardly any room for the oncoming vehicles now and in the heat of all of this, along comes one young and extremely angry policeman, swearing loudly in the sweltering heat. A bark or a yell at the erring motorcycles blocking the road, hogging it so greedily, makes them cut through any available loophole, rather than taste the bite of the young copper’s flying fists. The road clears a bit, but the bigger vehicles, cars and cabs do not move; they cannot move and they are rained upon by a storm of vitriolic oaths from that simply disgusted and awfully angry policeman. The hopeless truck meanwhile has straightened out and now is ahead of us, but we still don’t move. Here on our right the oncoming traffic moves at snail’s pace, in single file. On our side, our three columns of traffic begin to move, well…neck to neck, and we sway back and forth as our old driver alternates his foot on the brake, clutch and accelerator pedals. Way up ahead of us much the same thing has happened I suppose; the oncoming traffic has three columns of packed transportation as well, allowing our convoy a thin strip to of road to go through.
So we move, s..l..o..w..l..y, like a herd of steers minus the hooves and the tails, through a boiling pot of groaning, darting vehicles...I say ‘darting’ because when the drivers and the riders find a space ahead of them, they dart quickly into it and stamp their breaks. Thirty minutes and we have moved only about ten feet. But then we must thank God for small mercies. We have moved. Ten feet closer to home. It’s slow work, but I have never read about cattle drives being easy. I suppose if you ask any cowboy, he’d tell you.
The driver’s patient and I have become patient. If I cannot walk home like that man half an hour ago, then I must hold my peace and wait. Not so with the rest behind us. They are restless, hot, bored and angry. I can hear one immensely fat one grumble softly to another fat one beside her that if our bus hadn’t made the previous stop (and picked up a crowd of home bound folk) then we would not have been in this mess! Our driver hears the long grumble, but doesn’t turn upon the duo. He only continues to rock us back and forth and inch us along.
So, finally we make it to two columns of traffic and then to one column and I wouldn’t want to start commenting on the looks of those hundreds of faces in the three columns of whining, groaning and roaring traffic moving in the opposite direction. The small eyed woman with the large forehead has brighter commentary to give her neighbour and the young, sleepy thing has stopped yawning. The babies have fallen asleep and the man who stepped off the bus must have reached home already. The fat, grumbling duo is now discussing some marriage plans and it’s an animated conversation.
We make a break and the narrow strip ahead of us opens out onto endless road. Congratulations! Mr. Driver, I think. We are now in the lead. Let all the cattle behind us bite our dust! But then his face is like granite. There is not one twitch of emotion or elation or anything. He knows that it ain’t over till it’s over. As we pass along, the commuters sat in busses going in the opposite on our right, and lodged tightly in the smoky trinity of practically stationary traffic watch us enviously, and it certainly feels somewhat comforting that we are ready to roll. All is open now. The narrow strip of road is just enough to take our bus through. We have made it! I want to tell the driver this, but I know that for him this is not an important victory. And I’ll tell you why.
He slams on his break and our bus screeches to a halt, flinging us forward with a jerk. The heavy twosome pitch forward, swing on the bar above, trying to keep their balance. One succeeds but the other lands beside the driver and she looks up at him indignantly. He calmly asks her to lift herself up, and retrieves his hand which is almost pulverized under her bulk. The baby begins to wail again and the small eyed woman leans forward in interest. The commentary commences, but she is not one bit happy. From the column of traffic flanking our bus, a driver cuts his mini lorry from the oncoming three lines and curves out right (his right I mean) into our narrow lane. Too late he realises his mistake and our driver once again leans nonchalantly against the steering wheel.
He lights up his ‘beedi’ and shuts off his engine to wait.
Yippee yai yay!