There was a time when the fistfighty Easter Railways seemed a remote and déclassé way of commuting, fit only for the scrappy working classes who shrieked, shrilled, scratched and swore their way between stations, venting pent-up rage at life, the universe, and everything. The People Like Us travelling in it were conservative suburban folk, who eyed our skirts and snickered every time we spoke to each other in English. So, not really People Like Us. The boy-clusters took us especially personally, and avenged the gross injustice of our obvious cultural difference by placing themselves in our vicinity, and making loud obnoxious taunts about our snobbery and presumed airheaded bitchery.
The sardine-packed Cal Metro was better than that. Even the clearly low-class types were in tune with city-living. So while well-dressed uncles and gutka-spewing bhaiyyas pawed us equally, and tried to peek down our necklines through the gauzy haze of our dupattas, they held their tongues about the scandal of our sleeveless blouses and scalloped backs.
But metros didn’t go everywhere. They certainly didn’t come anywhere near my house. A great chunk of my waking hours, therefore, were spent bouncing on the hard, torn seats of Route 230 and 234, as they chugged sluggishly through the knee-deep traffic of Calcutta’s smoky, pollution-thick streets. Either that, or standing sandwiched between layeres of sweaty men and women, breathing stale air. (The former of that sweaty lot often brought along tented anatomy, eager to make friends).
In hollow hope of reprieve, I frequently added minutes to my already excruciating four-hour commute by going back to terminal bus-stops. Boarding from terminal stops, even at peak hours, significantly raises one’s chances of getting a seat. And seats significantly lower one’s chances of (a) entertaining the manly desires of our fellowmen, and (b) muscle damage, since one has to hold desperately on to people and things as the buses lurch, swerve, race each other, and break abruptly at red lights with loud squeals of tyres.
And thus were autorickshaws my favourite mode of transport.
Back then, autos were rickety and belched thick black smoke, and could only be kicked to life by vigorously pumping the started handle. This handle being under the driver’s seat, the person next to the driver had to be something of a Jack in the Box, jumping off at the end of every red light so the driver could bend sideways and ‘estart’ the beast again. For a Young Person, this was rather fun. But what I loved most about autos was that my school, and all the places I was shoved off for private tuition to, were unreachable by them. Autos were my taste of freedom.
Sometimes, I’d ride them on lazy weekend afternoons, trundling northwards and leaving the city defiantly behind. I’d go a certain distance, maybe drink a coconut water, have phuchka, and then come back home. For a mid-teen by herself, it was quite an adventure. But the best auto rides were late on weekday evenings, when I was a little grimy zombie with aching limbs, from lugging a heavy bookbag all over the baked city for thirteen straight hours.
Stale and dead from the school/tuition nexus of evil, I would get off the jam-packed claustrophobic at the last big junction before my stop (this place was the confluence of several auto routes). At that point, I had probably been in that particular hot tin cage for an hour. I would get off it, step away from the traffic, and take a gulp of fresh, open air (even if it was laced with petrol fumes). Then I would wipe my face, neck and arms with an inadequate hanky, moist and blackened from my day in the sweltering city. Then, very slowly, as if I had all the time in the world and hadn’t been frantically rushing since 6AM, I would crick my neck and gently rotate my shoulders, trying to breathe life back into the exhausted shell. And then, feeling human again, I would crawl into the next auto in line, corner the corner seat, and be whisked straight past the laggardly, overflowing buses, with sullen, defeated people in their belly.
True, the filthy, cool night air bathing my face would leave it dark and greasy, giving me pimples, clogged nostrils and lank hair.
But after every strong burst breaking on my face, I would inexplicably be reminded of the soothing baritone from the then-current Raymond’s ad: “Feels like heaven, doesn’t it?”