Two years of having to get around on my own in Delhi has given me enough ammunition to launch on a tirade against its transport. Sure enough, the metro looks swanky, the buses, cheerful but when the doors slide shut, one must prepare for combat. While living in Kolkata, I had never quite become a veteran of public transport. Although the metro was frequented, buses were avoided like the plague. When I moved away from home two years ago (because MA in Delhi University seemed more appealing than continuing in Calcutta University), I had to leave behind a sizeable shoe closet and an abhorrence of crowded buses. Delhi’s low-floor, green and red DTC buses were easy on the eye after the shabby monstrosities that people in Kolkata call ‘mini-buses’.
Nothing good lasts forever. After a futile, fly-ridden, thirty-minute wait at the bus stop for the air-conditioned red bus, I settled for the green, non-A/C 764, which ploughs from Najafgarh to Nehru Place – one of the longer routes and therefore the subject of much public complaint. My landlady had forewarned me about crowded buses and had advised me to take one of the ‘Ladies Seats’. As it turned out, there was no such thing. Even if one manages to claw one’s way past the scrum in front of the ticket-collector, one would find the men firmly seated in these so-called Ladies Seats. The younger women squeeze their way to the front of the bus, preferring a place by the door than a brawl with a law-breaking and very often, leering man. It is not unknown, though, for the voluble Punjabi housewife to haul a man off her seat but it takes a certain expertise to growl, “Uthiye! Ye ladies seat hai!”. I don’t have that expertise. Or didn’t.
A survey conducted by The Indian Express reveals that 82% of Delhi’s female residents deem buses the most unsafe form of public transport. This is not a demand for men to change their spots – they’re not about to whilst other women (the chairperson for the National Commission for Women, for example) have their backs by citing inappropriate attire as the cause for molestation. The fact is, that, there just aren’t enough buses to cart the population back and forth without it resulting in the trampling of shoes and dignity. Brimming buses seldom deter people from attempting to board the vehicle. There is a solidarity that exists between the Boarded and the Boarders. Even if there simply isn’t place for a single other toe to step into the bus, when the doors slide open, at least a dozen people (nearly always men) will try to compress themselves in. The Boarded by the door, will cheerfully cling to the Boarders attempting to gain a foothold, preventing them from falling under the wheels, until the bus begins to resemble a chicken coop. The women, on the other hand, are frequently told to disembark if they can’t handle being crowded upon. The thronging multitude is excuse enough for groping fingers, roving palms and apologies in the form of indifferent shrugs.
A woman in Delhi learns to set aside good manners or grow alter egos who can, with Aunt-Agathaesque intimidation, crush the insolent male passenger like a miserable Wooster. Manners, drilled into us in convent schools, have no place in this city.
From a city where bus- conductors cry ‘Aaste! Leddies!’ (Slow down! Ladies!), to a city where it is sport for bus- drivers to race away from bus-stops when old people and women bid them to pause for a few seconds more so they can catch up, I am learning to vanquish this particular fiend. More patriarchal than any other form of public transport, the Delhi Bus is a brute to be conquered every day.
(Ramona Sen has just completed her masters in English from Delhi University. She is only a recent migrant to the capital from Kolkata and is learning to make it on her own. From her battles against the city, she gains perspective on urban life. She will be penning these reflections in the hope that someone will sit up and take notice.)