The crowded bus lurches down the Bangalore street with its cargo of weary workers, full of going-home urgency. Outside, the air is heavy with impending tropical rain. The jacaranda trees lining the road are sprayed with flowers the delicate color of twilight. Inside, the fragrance of jasmine on the women’s hair blends with the smoke from stubs of incense burning by the driver’s seat, creating a strangely prayerful scent in the hot, metallic interiors.
The bus is divided into two segments, the one in front reserved for the ladies. This is indicated by a drawing of a woman near a window; she is so beautiful that I’m sure she would have caused a minor riot among the men folk (relegated to the back) had she come to life and chosen to board the bus herself.
There is an old lady who squats near the entrance of the bus, holding a bag close to herself and constantly asking questions in rapid Kannada of the women she is closest to. Occasionally she talks to the bus conductor, who stands on the step of the bus in an attitude of unnecessary machismo. What if he should fall off? But apparently he is so accustomed to this semi-Tarzan routine that he is as nonchalant as they come. The bus driver engages him in conversation too, shouting over the rattling diesel noises of the engine.
Some of the women who are standing hand over their bags to the ones who are sitting. This is done with a wordless gesture, a simple handing-over unmarked by pleasantries. (It is evidently the norm in most buses I’ve traveled on in this city.) Sometimes the giver and the taker exchange a smile, but mostly not. Everyone looks strangely pallid in the dim, unflattering lighting inside the bus, and besides, we’ve all had a full working day; outside, the honkers carry on honking, making a few of us wince.
Another bus, similarly loaded, comes up alongside ours and stops at the traffic light. We then notice a group of young girls sitting at a window seat, close to our driver. One of them seems to be gesturing towards a girl who is sitting in the seat ahead of where I am standing. The other bus pulls ahead and the gesturing girl is lost to sight. The traffic is thick and intense, and our bus driver is expertly maneuvering between three wheelers, bicycles, pedestrians, and a gaggle of cars.
Then the other bus pulls alongside again, and this time the girl who gestured yells across at our bus that one of our passengers has forgotten her umbrella on the second bus. Everyone turns to look at the girl she is pointing at. Umbrella girl rises uncertainly, a bit self conscious. The passengers on the window side of our bus reach across their hands in an attempt to get the umbrella being offered through the window of the other bus, but don’t succeed as it surges ahead.
We think the umbrella may not be retrieved at all; the other bus is considerably further ahead. Meanwhile, our driver has been apprised of the situation by our conductor, who has stopped swinging from the step and is now looking to throw himself into the adventure of returning the elusive umbrella to its owner. She looks a bit forlorn at the thought of having to forgo a perfectly good umbrella. Maybe it is new.
For the third and final time, the two buses pull up close alongside. Our driver reaches across, and with the finesse of a polo player making a fine hook shot, grabs the umbrella and passes it over to the conductor in one smooth motion. While he gets back to negotiating the traffic again, the hugely grinning conductor restores it to its owner. All our co-passengers have been following the drama and, at this denouement, look around and smile. There is an air of sudden camaraderie; intimacy, even. Maybe the lighting in the bus is not so unflattering, after all?
The old lady near the step cackles her approval and compliments the two men, who are now beaming with newfound (or perhaps long-lost) chivalry. The other ladies look at the smiling girl with her umbrella and smile back. Outside, it has started to rain in a fine, misty drizzle that looks like a spray of needles in the streetlights. The rain will turn the streets into slush and cause puddles that will make the ladies lift their sarees and step gingerly around the pooled, muddy water. But suddenly, no one looks like they seem to mind. Or at least, they seem to mind a little less.