Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXVII No. 20, February 1-15, 2018

Has anything changed in Madras?

I notice that the queue system is one thing that has not so far caught the fancy of Madras citizens. It is not that they don’t try. At every bus stop, particularly during peak hours, you see patient lines of people, displaying that slightly sanctimonious expression typical of those who are conscious of doing their duty. The sense of calm and orderliness is truly impressive, till the first bus is sighted. Then panic takes over.

Might is right and, after all, who is the conductor to challenge this time-honoured axiom? Secure inside the bus, he watches with disillusioned eyes the melee outside. In Madras, all are equal in the eyes of the law and the bus system. Women and old people are violently pushed aside. No one has the patience to pay heed to howling children. At first you see only a score of waving hands, straining forward to get a secure hold on the iron railings. Then the bodies attached to them heave into view, desperately trying to pull themselves up. Presently the conductor decides that everyone concerned has had a fair chance to fight and prove his worth. He blows the whistle and the bus starts.

What never ceases to surprise me is that the people left behind, looking considerably the worse for wear and muttering imprecations at the bus system, suddenly regain their civic sense and proceed dutifully to form a new line. Their optimism is matched only by their capacity to delude themselves. For at the appearance of the next bus, the drama is again enacted.

* * *

The people who really deserve your sympathies, however, are those who have managed to get on the bus. Their troubles have only just started. One suspects that the Madras bus transport authorities adopt a somewhat fatalistic attitude towards overcrowding. The numbers of buses plying are obviously insufficient. There are inordinate delays at every stop, what with all that fighting going on, and it would be a miracle if the buses kept to the schedule. The buses themselves are not capacious – the narrow streets rule out double-deckers. And in these circumstances, who should blame who for overcrowding?

Riding a bus in Madras during peak hours is an exercise comparable to swimming. Almost every muscle in your body gets its fair share of work. The straps overhead are in a sorry state, and in any case there are not enough of them for all the people standing to hang on to. Often you are overwhelmed by a sense of weightlessness – till a jerk of the bus suddenly precipitates you into someone’s lap. In the argument that ensues, the conductor politely intervenes and gives you a taste of the “bhai-bhai” principal of living. If he is asked, probably he will advise you to conserve your energy. At the end of the ride, there is still another battle awaiting you. You have to fight your way out through a crowd anxious to get in – but in this case, of course, the law of gravity is a great help.

Recently, I understand, an agitation has been launched to protest against an increase in bus fares. (Ed: Yes, even then!). People, who have the leisure and inclination to do such things, have collected thousands of signatures and organised hunger-strikes. Inevitably there is politics behind all this, but I think the citizens have good reason to grumble. Travelling inconveniently is threatening to become too costly for many people in Madras.

* * *

A casual shower quickly empties the streets of pedestrians. People stand pressed against the walls of shops or crowd under projecting balconies, trying to look unconcerned and surveying the scene with an air of expectation, as though they are only waiting there to see a VIP pass. Some, with an adventurous turn of mind, dash out of cover, only to bump into people walking along with an “I knew it” expression on their face. Some others, perhaps pressed by a previous appointment, drape a handkerchief round their heads and cross the street with great dignity, taking unusually long steps but determined not to be seen running.

Rain in Madras, as can be expected, brings about a most welcome relief from the heat – but it also seems to release almost before the day is out new generations of mosquitoes who go about their business with an enthusiasm typical of youth. Almost every lane (which, quite understandably, is not shown on a tourist map) is an ideal breeding ground for them. When rain-water puddles dry up, leaking water pipes quickly replace the loss. And everywhere there are rubbish heaps left undisturbed for so long that after a rare cleaning-up operation (perhaps provoked by angry letters to the press) the people of the locality have a vague sense of loss, as through some familiar landmarks have been demolished. The Corporation, of course, employs sweepers. Unfortunately, their appearance is almost as seasonal as that of the rains and they are most noticeably active just before Diwali. In a day or two, they do an admirable job of tidying up the streets (thereby belying their own claim that the Corporation does not employ enough sweepers) and promptly line up at your house for the customary baksheesh. Generally, after a short argument, you pay them – for after all you are fairly safe for another twelve months.

It is a favourite saying amongst the citizens of Madras that, round the year, they have three types of weather: hot hotter and hottest. Perhaps that is the reason the rains always seem to catch them quite unprepared. Official forecasts, as anywhere else, are read only for entertainment, and almost everyone makes predictions of their own, based on instinct or on vague memories of what it had been like last year. But Madras weather, quite undemocratically it would seem, always disagrees with the majority view.


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