India that defies stereotyping - A bus journey from Pune to Indore

Volvo bus

My recent trip to India was a bit like getting reunited with an old flame, and discovering that the chemistry was still there.

To this day, a large number of people living outside India believe it to be the land of snake-charmers and elephants. What I hadn’t realized was that after 15 years of living away, I too had fallen on stereotypes about India, forgetting the nuances. Making a road trip from the south to the north served to remind me why making any generalizations about India was merely an act of presumption.

I am writing about a very small section of my journey, one that lasted just one night. My wife and I had to move from Pune to Indore, to my in-law’s place. By being negligent, we’d failed to secure train reservations in advance and therefore had to look for other alternatives.

Many, many people tried to convince us to take a flight to Indore. I didn’t want to take flights, plus there wasn’t a direct connection between Pune and Indore. They wanted us to take a bus-and-taxi to Bombay, and then a flight from there to Indore. Invariably, they pointed out that the 2A fare we were looking at (2nd A/C) was very comparable to the flight charges. They all had a disbelieving look when I tried to tell them that I far preferred traveling by overnight trains.

As luck would have it, it was not a daily train, and the dates were not working out for us. After our various logistical contortions failed to pan out, we settled on taking the night bus to Indore.

While I adore trains, I am not a fan of buses. But this is a Volvo bus, they all pointed out. Nobody called it a bus, they always referred to it as a Volvo. Even buses, I learned, had social ladders. The brand of the bus apparently mattered a lot. I was curious to see what these Volvos to Indore offered.

When we got on the bus, we noticed that half the Volvo had regular seats which reclined comfortably, but the rest of it had actual bunk beds for people to lie down in. We liked the beds and asked the boy who was checking our tickets if we could pay up and upgrade. They had run out of flatbeds, so we had to travel in reclining seats. Our seats were in the front right behind the driver.

After the bus left the city, we were on NH-50, though it seemed to be just a regular road from what I could tell. Everyone without exception drove with their high-beams on. The headlights of the oncoming traffic was blinding me, and I was worried for the driver. In the US, it is considered incredibly rude to drive with the high-beam on when there is oncoming traffic in the opposite lane, but that etiquette I soon learned didn’t apply on this highway.

With my wife asleep in the seat beside me, I stared out of the window. In the darkness outside all I could see were occasional pinpoints of light from far away lamps. Assorted memories of my grandmother who had passed away three weeks earlier came to me, unbidden. I was in the middle of writing a tribute to her, and I was hoping that I would be able to recollect these memories the following day, since I wasn’t able to jot them down in the darkened bus.

I woke up when the bus stopped at a rest area (named ‘smile-post’ by someone with a penchant for puns). I was impressed by the gardens and the spotless toilets. I noticed that the area was popular with several white foreigners, presumably taking road trips. Though it was very close to midnight, practically the entire busload went off to have ‘dinner.’ We couldn’t explain why everyone was eating this late, and we wondered if the food perhaps came free with the price of the bus ticket. Even at that late hour, the temperature felt perfect while we waited in the outdoor garden for the others to return. We basked in the added joy of knowing that such pleasant weather past Christmas was simply unimaginable in Chicago.

After the dinner halt, another driver took over and the new driver drove extremely rashly, as if he wanted to reach Indore earlier than the posted time. I dropped off to sleep. The whole bus was woken up by a huge crunching sound, and the bus screeched to a halt. I had felt something right below my seat. My first thought was that we had run over someone. If not a person, then at least an animal.

While I was alarmed, the rest of the passengers seemed merely annoyed, and most went back to sleep. I got down along with a few passengers to inspect the damage. Turned out that the balancing rod of the axle, the front right axle right below our seat had snapped off. My cell phone didn’t have coverage and in it I saw that it was past 2 a.m.

There had been 3-4 employees of the bus company traveling with us all along, and now I understood their role. Calmly, and without grumbling, they started to gather tools and wires and started getting to work. I was horrified to see that they were repairing right there on the road, lying down under the bus. Each oncoming vehicle roared toward us, and screeched to a stop at the last minute before swerving off. I watched for a while, then went back into the bus and fell asleep. To my amazement, these guys tied a wire around the broken axle and got it working. It had taken two hours, but we were moving again.

The speed slowed down considerably. I don’t think the driver were pushing it beyond 40 kmph. We had only covered half the total distance. It was clear that we would be several hours late. The bus glided on.

In early morning, the bus was going past a series of small, no-name villages. I remember one empty village. In its entirety, it must have had around twenty tiny whitewashed houses. There was a tea-stall, a place to make calls (“PCO STD ISD” painted in black on yellow). In that pleasant stupor that glancing out of windows induces, I saw something that suddenly jarred me back to reality. I noticed a pink sign nailed to a tree. The small sign, less than one square foot simply said, “JAVA J2EE class” in big bold letters. Somewhere near this village, someone was offering classes in this rather esoteric software proficiency. The reason I had been jolted awake was that for years, I had been recruiting people looking for this exact skill. My company paid a good salary to programmers who can develop software code in Java using J2EE. (Java II Enterprise Edition, in case you were curious.) And there, in that absolutely remote village in interior MP, people were learning Java. To me, the truth and magnitude of India gearing up to be a software giant finally sunk home.

And that sign, that pink sign tacked on to the tree, became for me a metaphor for the all of India’s potential. I made a mental note to tell my colleagues in the IT department that there were people in MP, in the heartland of India, who were waiting to take their jobs if they didn’t deliver. I was seeing firsthand the miracle of supply being created to meet demand.

For an impromptu breakfast, the bus stopped at a newly opened small roadside restaurant. The whole bus surprised the two employees and started ordering. I took a little of everything that they had to offer – Poha, katchori, tea for Rupal and a cup of coffee for me. How much, I asked him. 3+3+3+6 for the coffee, he said. 15 Rupees, saab. I experienced another jolt of ‘Wow, how inexpensive,’ and reminded myself once more not to convert everything into dollars.

We came to a large bridge over a river with dark blue-green water flowing below us. I didn’t know it then, but later from a map, I learned that this was Narmada. Right in the middle of the bridge, the bus came to a stop, and the driver opened the door. Above the driver, adorning a framed picture of the goddess Saraswati, there was a garland of fresh white flowers that had made the trip with us right from Pune. The driver reverently took off the garland, handed it to one of the bus boys, who dutifully flung it over the bridge into the waters below. I noticed all the bus employees making various gestures of prayer with their hands. The whole thing must have lasted only 30 seconds, and then bus moved on. All conversation resumed. Though I am not particularly pious, these exhibitions of piety always have an effect on me. That was the reason that several years ago, I went to the maha kumbh mela, to witness for myself the unquestioning faith that millions have.

From time to time, to the side of the road, we would see people walking at a fast clip. They were carrying a stick placed flat on their shoulders, from the ends of which hung two mud pots filled with water. Some of the water spilled with each step. ‘Who are these people?’ someone asked the driver. ‘Oh, they are pilgrims. Some Seths on kavad yatra,’ he said. ‘They are walking all the way to Ujjain.’ ‘Will they reach Ujjain today?’ ‘Maybe today, maybe tomorrow.’ Kavad yatra From their shorts, their fair-skin and flabby bodies, from the shiny wrist-watches and white sneakers on their feet, I could tell that they weren’t ordinary pilgrims. These were folks who were well off, undertaking the yatra to demonstrate their piety to their gods and to their neighbors, perhaps to thank the gods for favors bestowed, perhaps making the pilgrimage as some kind of atonement.

Eventually, the sparse shrubbery gave way to buildings, people and traffic. Our Volvo pulled aside. We had reached Indore. Just as we collected our bags, we were surrounded by half a dozen auto-rickshaw-wallahs, vying to take us into town.

In expensive Volvo buses that predictably broke down, in J2EE signs nailed to trees in desolate villages, in throwing a garland of flowers reverently off a bridge into the flowing waters, in rich Seths taking a kavad yatra, in all of these little details, the India that defied stereotyping was very much there. It was me who had moved away.

Ram Prasad
February 2007

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