20 August 2008

Lost in Transaction: Gurgaon to Karol Bagh

“Well I’ll be damned!”

As I stood on a dusty, excessively pot-holed road with equally dusty and pot-holed vistas on either side, I couldn’t think of anything else to say. I was damned…

Let me start from the beginning. My prospects hadn’t been so damning then; indeed, things had been on a roll and there was every chance that the mission on which I was about to embark would end in naught but victory and satiation.

Yes, I had been confident that I would make it safely, if not comfortably, to Karol Bagh from Gurgaon.

After a year’s experience of shuttling around town in Delhi’s notorious buses, I had acquired the air of a seasoned traveller. I had been there, done that. The very route which I usually took from home to North Campus was a circuitous one, slowly traversing two urban villages and the dreadful Azadpur Mandi. Only Bluelines plied on this narrow, bumpy and serpentine route and jams were not rare occurrences. Yet, I had seen it all off, had emerged with my body and, more importantly, my sanity intact. I had passed the test; I was now an established traveller.

With so much experience in my kitty, taking the straight road from Gurgaon to Delhi seemed child’s play to me. The expressway was smooth, the inter-state bus frequency tolerable, the luggage on my shoulders light- what more could a seasoned traveller like me have needed?


In a case fit for demonstration of Murphy’s inexorable Law, everything which could’ve gone wrong did go wrong.

To begin with, just as I reached the bus stop at IFFCO Chowk the monsoon clouds which had till then been promising good weather parted to reveal a merciless Sun. The breeze stopped in its track and suddenly things began to look different.

Now, all those poor souls who have taken the Delhi bus from Gurgaon’s IFFCO Chowk know that it’s a harsh, hostile place. There is no bus stop on the Delhi side of the road, no tree to give its blessed shade to the hapless people awaiting their tryst with destiny. In mid-summer May the place is hell; in humid, sunny July, it’s worse than hell.

Fifteen minutes in that worse-than-hell were enough to not just drench me with sweat but also make me impatient with frustration. All the buses which had appeared till now were the Dhaula Kuan ones, the people standing there could not tell when last a Karol Bagh bus had been sighted. All of this combined with the humidity was threatening to unhinge me; I yearned for some action, for something to happen, to escape this torture by any means.

I boarded the next Dhaula Kuana bus.

So far, so good. “What if the bus ends at DK”, I thought, “I can easily take another to KB from there.” The fact that I did not know of any bus which would take me from DK to KB did not bother me- humanity was still alive and there would surely be some Good Samaritan amongst the teeming crows at DK to help me out. True this was an inconvenience, but it was far better than being stranded there waiting for Godot. I was off now and would reach the Promised Land in due time.

In due time.

At DK I was astonished by the size of the crowd. Teeming multitudes, waves upon waves of all types of humanity, boarding and de-boarding buses, going this way and that. My Solitary Man self shrank back at the prospect which lay before me. Yet, there was no turning back (literally, because the people behind me were almost pushing me out of the bus in their hurry to get off) and steeling my heart a la Livingston, I plunged myself into that dark jungle of humanity.

By now there was a conflict within myself. Should I approach any one of my fellow beings and ask them for guidance or should I trust in my own heart. The Solitary Man allied with the Seasoned Traveller cum Explorer. I chose the latter. I boarded a bus which I believed would take me to Karol Bagh.

No, please don’t condemn me outright as either hopelessly egoistical or insufferably idiotic. Its not as if I acted just on impulse; no, in deciding to board a 729 which had just come in I was influenced my three considerations, the first being that I had noticed several times while waiting for the Gurgaon bus at the junction of Ridge Road and Pusa Road a bus destined to the Kapashera border, the second being that this bus which had just come in had Kapashera boldly printed across one half of the board and the third, and most influential, being the bus conductor’s assurance that the bus went where I wanted to go.

May he rot in hell!

All those even remotely acquainted with the ways of Delhi’s Blueline-wallahs know that most of them stop at major fare change points to scoop in sawaris. Our bus-wallah was no different. He too stopped contently and let his minion the Conductor act as a vociferous shepherd to the stray flock of passengers in the human cesspool of Dhaula Kuana.

What a stop it was!

In about two minutes the bus was full with passengers, in five it was jam-packed with loads of them, in ten it was over-flowing with them, in fifteen it had become a serious contender against the Black Hole of Calcutta. All this time the Conductor kept on shoving more people inside, assuring those at the doors to get in, shouting to those in the middle to give space. Call it positive thinking or call it sheer perversity, but it’s a quality unique to bus conductors to create illusions about space. They’ll keep on telling you to move in, move in, damn it move in thorha aur till people are so close to each other that it’ll be obscene if I elaborated more upon the degree of closeness. All of them are inclined to think of their bus as the Knight Bus, a structure capable of magical bewildering of the dimensions- there’s always some more space in the middle, it’s always khali down the aisle…

These last fifteen minutes in the 729 had been far worse than those spent on IFFCO Chowk and I had almost decided to de-board when the conductor, now convinced that no more people could be got in by any amount of devious manipulations of bodies, called out to the driver, the ustad, to start. By now it had become exceedingly hot and asphyxiating and people had started shouting out for mercy and divine retribution, so the sudden movement was a welcome change. With a bang which would put Chitty to eternal shame, the bus lunged forward and started once again on the road which went forever on and on…

Reasoning that KB was not far from where I was, I purchased a ticket of the lowest denomination- the three rupee one. As the bus turned and entered the Ridge, I, displaying moves which would put many a Rakhi Sawant to shame, started inching forward towards the exit door: after all, the distance was but miniscule and in a crowded bus like that it’s always better to be at the door when your stand comes. After a ten minute long gruelling struggle at the prospect of which I would’ve readily baulked had there not been the inspiring force of freedom and fresh air forcing me forwards, when I did manage to reach the third seat from the door I unceremoniously pushed aside the arm of a man to eagerly look out for some familiar sign. What I found horrified me.

We were opposite RML Hospital.

I was dumbfounded. All I could do was to stare out helplessly as the conductor shrieked to all RML-wallahs to de-board. I couldn’t believe this, my first instinct was to then and there get out of that accursed bus: I had almost stepped forward to step out when something inside told me to stay. The area was wholly unfamiliar to me and the bus stop looked lonely. “Perhaps the bus takes some sort of long cut to Karol Bagh”, I told myself, “If that be the case, then I should stay to my post and wait and watch. In any case, I’ve parted with three precious rupees and getting down will only result in more ill-advised karcha.”

Had I but followed the promptings of my heart! Had I not been such a Scrooge!

Assured with that flawless piece of logical analysis and deduction, I stayed on. The bus now turned into an area unknown to me even by name and went along roads which I never before had taken. With each passing minute my anxiety grew and I had once again decided to de-board at the next stop when I saw the rotund figure of the Grand Post Office come in sight. To my strained heart it was as the oasis is to the desert traveller. There was a way from the GPO to Karol Bagh, I knew that there was. The mystery seemed all but solved now. I chided myself for being my mother. I had been impatient; this must serve forevermore as a lesson in patience. A jam on the road ahead was visible, but arguing in the temperance of all worldly things, I braced myself to overcome that final hurdle with forbearance and lo and behold arrive at my destination.

We humans have a marvellous capacity for self-delusion. Even after half an hour in that wretched traffic jam and out of that on to Parliament Street, I still believed that the bus would take me to KB.

And why not, when there are others to contribute to our myths as well. The turn into Parliament Street saw me once again question myself and in desperation I asked the man standing next to me whether the bus went or passes through Karol Bagh.

May he too rot in hell!

As the bus passed alongside Outer Circle, I could not help feeling triumphant. Yes, triumphant. I was sure, cock-sure, that the bus was going to turn into Panchkuian and then go to Karol Bagh. “What if it did not enter Pusa Road from the Ridge?” I told my sceptical part, “Many buses have variations in routes and it seems that this is just one of them.”

Oh had it been that! Had it been that!

From Outer Circle to Minto Bridge, from Minto Bridge to New Delhi Station.

New Delhi Station. That was it. That was where the Sceptic rose in furious revolt. I could stand it longer. I had suffered innumerable privations in the course of the last two hours: had been shoved and pushed, been subject to immense body odour and other earthly smells, grazed by other men’s private parts…I could take it no longer. I had to find out-for sure this time-whether or not this bus was going to Karol Bagh. I made my way to a middle-aged Jat who was boasting to all around him his knowledge of Delhi’s buses and in general behaving very much like an animate bus-Bradshaw and asked him this simple question: “Excuse me, kya yai bus Karol Bagh jayegee?”

The look of incredulity on his ruddy face gave me my answer.

In between loud exclamations of surprise and pity at beholding such a pitiable specimen of the human race, he managed to confirm what then I already knew. Never in mortal human history had this route passed through anyplace near Karol Bagh.

That really was it. I pushed and shoved and excused and made my way to the door and got down at the first stop on which the bus happened to halt.

That was where I damned myself...