Taking The Bus: Madhuparna Sanyal (M. Sanyal is an Adjunct lecturer of English and a doctoral candidate at the English Department, Drew University, NJ.)

I like taking the bus, very much. It is a pleasure that is deeply embedded in my blood and my memories. Going back all the way to my childhood, it has been a very well known bit of activity, much like having a friend you have known since a very early age. I have been taking buses since I was four years old, since I was in kindergarten, in Calcutta, India. Every day, a rattling, small, red-and-brown bus would come and pick me up from the un-officially designated bus stop that was about a five minute walk away from my home. I do not, of course, really remember much about that bus – I have reconstructed it to be a red-and-brown bus. But that does no harm. I do remember walking to the bus stop every morning, sometimes with my mother, sometimes with my friend’s mother. Mothers would take turns to drop off the children going to the same kindergarten from the same row of houses on the same street. They would give each other a small break, a moment to take a breath during the rushed, breathless, unending activities of the morning that every house-wife was in charge of from about 6.00 a.m.

From the small, rattling, brown bus (it was probably rust) that took me to Sunflowers Kindergarten School, I was promoted, at the age of six, to this big, big, white-and-blue bus that would pick me up from the same bus stop, but now I traveled an hour each way to go to my ‘real’ school. It was the same routine for the next few years, till I was about nine. Every morning, I would wake up at 6.30 a.m. (after being pushed out of bed by my frantic mother), get ready in twenty minutes, have a meal of steaming hot rice and daal, which more often than not I left on my plate rather than put into my stomach, and then someone’s mother would come by, at 5 minutes to 7.00, or my mother would pick me up from the table, rush over to the house behind us, pick up the older student who used to live there, and then hurry us off to the bus stop.

The bus stop, you must realize, wasn’t really a bus stop – at least, not in the way there are designated bus stops in New Jersey. If you walked to the small row of shops at the end of our lane and turned right, you’d come to this rather large stretch of sandy land that was someone’s house-plot, except that the owner had not yet decided to build her home there. We used to call this ‘the desert.’ To my six-year- old eyes, it really seemed like a vast stretch of desert, full of mean things, like bogs and quicksand, which, if I wasn’t careful enough to remember to bypass, would suck me down into the deeps for ever. I guess the fear came from the fact that more than once, as I crossed the desert, my feet actually did sink into the light, flaky sand; I had to struggle to get myself out, and there would be a loud “swoosh” as the sand sucked itself into the hole my foot made as it pulled itself out. More than once, there were moments of panic when I didn’t feel like I had the strength to actually pull my foot out, and I would think in desperation, that the school bus would leave me behind.

Beyond the desert was the main road. On the main road, a little to the left of the end point of the desert, was a paan-and-chai shop, the kind that you would find all over the city in that day and age, but I think have largely disappeared now, under the guise of modernization of the city. The paan shop was not much more that a clumsily built wooden shack with rows and rows of wonderful, unknown, mysterious paan items, rows and rows of little clay cups, an old-fashioned radio blaring loud, raucous Hindi music, and a man in a lungi sitting in front of an eternally boiling huge tea-kettle; and protecting the shop with its tentacles and shade, was a huge, old gulmohar tree. Under the expanse of that huge tree was the bus stop. Under that tree was also a big slab of stone that someone had dragged in long ago, on which the paan and tea customers sat, protected from the incinerating heat of Calcutta summers by the leafy gulmohar, and sipped hot tea from the tiny clay cups, which you would throw forcefully afterwards to break it so that they couldn’t be re-used. It was a way to maintain hygiene, as well as to give the clay-cup makers a sustained business.

In the early morning, at 7.00 am, the tea-shop wasn’t open yet, so we could sit on the coveted stone slab and wait for the bus to come. And it would come, every morning, between 7.05 and 7.15 am, whooshing in from the turn up the road in a Harry Potteresque magic suddenness, come to a screeching stop right in front of our noses, and stand there, growling like an angry, starving tiger, waiting to eat us up in its huge, cavernous mouth. Into it we would disappear, every morning, saying goodbye to our mothers, our homes, moving into our new worlds for the next 10 hours, seeing the tree and the tea-shop become smaller and smaller, and finally disappear, as we scrambled onto the last, extended seat in the bus, with our knees on the seat, as if kneeling in prayer at church, and got what then seemed like a bird’s view of our entire world as it became a speck of dust before disappearing into obscurity.

The day I turned nine, which was in January, and thus a convenient time for my mother to start the new regulation, (it being the very beginning of the year,) my parents declared that I was old enough to go to the bus-stop by myself, and that my mother would no longer take me to it in the mornings, nor pick me up from the stop in the afternoons, when the cavernous tiger-mouth spit me out. I was quite appalled at this sudden expectation of adult behavior. There was no sense of thrill that first week, or month, no feeling of adventure, of a new-found independence, or of the thrill of striking off on my own into what had till then been protected land – protected by the presence of reassuring adults. There was only fear, of being sucked up by the desert, of being kidnapped by the man with the big sack, against which, as far as my memory could take me, all children were periodically and frighteningly warned. There were men out there with bag sacks, on the lookout for young children who didn’t take care, and at every chance they got, they swooped down on the unsuspecting child, stuffed her (or him) into the sack, and they were never heard from ever again. This sequence of events was vindicated by the evening news at 7.30 p.m., when during the last section of the news, there would be a slide-show, pictures of children who had been lost or gone missing (which meant the same, really), and if any news of them could be had, to please contact the local police department. The slide-show of those missing children, ranging from the ages of three to sixteen and beyond, always made me wonder, what really happened to them. As far as I know, none of them were ever found, for that news was not broadcast. So, with the memory of big men with bigger sacks lurking in the corners, waiting to get me, my journey to and from the bus-stand wasn’t filled with the thrill of freedom one would otherwise imagine me to have felt.

It was only by the time I had done ‘the walk’ by myself for more than a year that the joys of independence finally began to sink into me. Every morning, I could escape, unlike Ma, who, like the princess in the castle, seemed to be trapped in the house. I never figured out that she actually could go out after I left early in the morning, perhaps to Haatibagan to have a few hours of pleasurable shopping and freedom, or very, very, very rarely, to a movie with a few friends and co-housewives. As far as I was concerned, Ma was always stuck at home, like all the housewives up and down the street (except Mrs. Bannerjee, two houses over and across the street from us, who was the only working woman I knew until I entered college.) Being able to leave the house made me feel free, even if it was only into the clutches of my school. Every morning, I opened the big wooden main door, and the big iron-grill outer door, and the smaller iron gate that spilled you outside onto the street, and I walked away, while my mother stood at the iron grill door, waving goodbye. Clichéd as it might sound, more than once, I imagined her to be a prisoner, stuck behind the iron bars, while I was free, able to walk in and out of the house as I pleased, until, of course, I turned thirteen or fourteen. Then, everything changed.

But that is another story. This story is about bus-rides and bus stops. And all that happens in between.

One of the most vivid memories I have of going to get my school bus is related to the very purpose of going to school. To become educated. To get to know things. To learn how to spell. The funny thing was, as far as I can remember, for the first 8 years of my actual school life, between 4 and 12 years of age, I learned more at home, from Ma, than I actually learned in school. Sure, I learned the basics of addition and multiplication, and sure, I learned how to spell in Bangla and in English, but what I was exposed to in the class-room, I actually imbibed at home, during homework, supervised by Ma. She would sit with me, go over the stuff done in school, and explain over and over the hows and whys and whats. I haven’t still been able to figure out the logistics of homework. If we went to school to learn, and spent 8 hours of our day at school, learning, why were we given more things to learn at home? Why did homework ever exist? The point of a school is to teach, the point of a home is to be allowed to play. At least, that is how the simple dualistic picture wanted to make itself sensible to me. And yet, during my entire school life, my schooling did not end at school. Homework was an extension of schooling, and done by people who had gone to school and college themselves, gotten degrees, but not to become professional teachers, but mothers, who, as far as I am concerned, had to be professional ‘everythings’ during those first 10 years of our lives. They were the doctors, the teachers, the psychologists, the shrinks, the parents, the principle. If Ma were to be offered a job at a school tomorrow, she would get the job done with flying colors, I think. But, going back to the my initial train of thought, one of my most vivid memories of going off to get the bus involves getting prepared for a spelling test that was hanging like a death-threat over my head one morning. As I walked away from the iron gate, I panicked, because I couldn’t remember how to spell ‘engineer,’ and yelled out my query at Ma from the street about how to spell it. Ma, who had sat and worked with me for hours the night before, getting me prepared for the test, and was standing at the door like always, yelled back, “Remember to spell engine. E-n-g-i-n-e. and add an –er- to it.” And off I walked to the gulmohar tree, muttering under my breath, ‘e-n-g-i-n-e’ and add –er,’ ‘e-n-g-i-n-e’ and add –er’…

I have never made a mistake in spelling ‘engineer’ ever again. I still add an ‘er’ to ‘engine’, and it works every time. Like magic. Like all the other bits and pieces of magic that were gifted to me during those precious years of childhood, before the desert had shrunk and become the small sandy patch that it really was, before even that was eaten up by the greedy realtor who bought out the piece of land and built an ugly edifice onto it, erasing a big chunk of my childhood for ever, before the paan and tea shop disappeared, and before my entire existence picked itself up and moved itself to the suburbs of New Jersey.

Now, when I leave my home, it is a home that I call my own. There is a key that is all mine, and a door that I close on myself and lock up behind me, and walk off. Now, I make a short trip, most of the time, from the entrance with a glass screen-door, to my car parked right outside. I do not ever look back to wave goodbye to Ma standing behind the iron grill door, waving to me with a smile on her face, her hair streaked with sweat and masala from cooking that began at 6.30 in the morning. I do not have Ma, or Baba, or Maya, the young girl who has been in our family for the last thirteen years, running after me to the bus stand, waving the water bottle or the packed lunch that I had forgotten to put into my school bag. Now, when I get to my car and realize I have forgotten my lunch or water bottle, more often than not, I curse beneath my breath, say ‘**** it,’ get into my car and drive off, because now, unlike then, there is no one to bother about me but myself.

On the days when my car is broken down, I have to make a 15 minute walk to the nearest bus stop. The big, big blue-and-white buses, (very different, yet so similar, from the white-and-blue buses that would take me to school so many years before,) air conditioned in the summer, and heated in the winter, come at specific times, and if you’ve missed one, you have to wait for an hour. Now, I don’t just get up and rush to the last seat at the back of the bus to claim ownership of the bird’s eye view, but I pleasantly say ‘howdy’ to the driver, and I sit next to a window, with a portable CD player and earphones stuck into my ear, desperately looking out, away from the faces of other people on the bus. I find a great deal of pleasure looking out the window and seeing the beautiful, green land roll by, with its undulating surface, its richness, and its white canopy in the winter that is a different bit of magic. I love riding buses in this country. Looking out the window of a moving bus gives me a well known, comforting feeling of freedom, of movement, of safety, of things spinning by, trees and houses and poles and cars and people, and of me trying to hold onto all of this by the fistfuls, holding out my hands and trying to grab life to my soul as it rushes by me.

My bus rides now are very different. I do not any longer look back as I lock my apartment and walk away from my home to catch the bus. I do not any longer stand under the gulmohar tree, waiting for the monster of a bus come to take my away, deep into its cavernous mouth. All the fears, and thrills, ghosts and goblins, bogs and quicksands of my childhood imagination have left my rational, adult world, but I still have to ride the bus in order to get where I need to go, and I still have to put my trust in other people. All my life, people have steered me safely through traffic jams and potholes and cows on narrow streets and around large, lumbering SUVs which do not know where their tail lights end and the road begins. All my life, I have had people carefully driving me through trials and tribulations, nasty spelling tests and terrifying degree exams. At different times, in different places, in different forms, people have carried me through, given me bus rides so that I could make it to wherever I was (am) going. Ma gave me over to all these other people when she thought I was ready, and since then, I have moved on to ride many different buses and face the world bravely. She no longer holds my hand and walks me to the bus stop every morning; I no longer turn back and wave at her, standing at the door, looking out for me, as I trudge off into the big bad world by myself. Instead, I have learned to look back as I get down from the bus in New Jersey, and have a smile on my face, and say goodbye to the bus driver, thanking her for safely depositing me to my new destinations. Every now and then, I try to turn back and wave at all the other people who have come after Ma, and have kept on looking out for me. In the meanwhile, with the innocence of childhood having been replaced by a sad but much valued adult awareness of all that is precious in life (Robert Blake was quite the astute gentleman poet), I have learned to love the time spent during every single bus ride I take, marveling at the oldness and the newness of the joy of a bus ride that is interfused like squashed peanut butter and jelly on a sandwich, distinct yet in-distinct, unable to be defined without each other. Every bus ride is old, because I do the same thing, but every bus ride is new, because there is something special about it that has never happened before. Every time, the moving on is old, for the roads are known, and I know that if I look back, I will see my mother waving back at me. But every time, the moving on is new, in some unseen, silent way, so that one day when I look back, she isn’t there any more to wave at me. Riding the bus, I keep my eyes peeled, looking out for the little bits of magic I have learned as an adult to look out for, that as a child I took for granted, like looking back and finding a reassuring smile that was always there. I have learned to find the magic-ness of simply being alive and being part of a new day, of seeing the same people every day, of cherishing the old bus ride that is new every time, and different every time. The joy of taking the bus, I have learned, is like the joy of looking back and seeing my mother standing at the iron grill door, waving at me, reassuring, confident, proud, wistful, encouraging me to move on, and get to where I am going, and above everything, loving: a breathtakingly beautiful memory whose presence I can find in everything I see around me, if only I am willing to look for it.



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