Monday, September 15, 2008

License bekaa?

The Regional Transport Officers' coven (Karnataka chapter) has decreed in their wisdom that a valid passport is not proof of citizenship, let alone birth. You ask what higher proof of identity there is. Well, apparently, your school leaving certificate is more important than your passport. More important maybe than the fact that you were not only born but are alive and present to prove it. In spite of the fact that the piece of paper has not been invulnerable to corruption. Perhaps the left hand of the Indian Government should consider an orientation programme for the right hand.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Knight Bus

The air-conditioned, well-sprung, pain-free bus service is officially called Vajra Vahini – apparently it means hi-tech bus – no doubt in honour of the BPO salaries that created the niche for it. It is also listed as the Red Bus in the complex filing systems of the Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation. But it's known and revered on the street simply as "the Volvo".

Tickets cost three times more than the regular. For that, you have the privilege of cushioned seats, civilised handrails for the occasions when you need to stand briefly, scrupulously clean interiors, blindingly polite drivers and conductors. They're always in a good mood because they're not yet blasé about being in Business Class. The drivers' arrogant handling of the automatic foreign machine and the conductors' carefully casual wielding of the electronic ticket dispenser are touching. And the pride is infectious.

It's the sort of bus service where you say good morning to the driver when you get in and thank him when you leave. It's the sort of journey where you take out your iPod or laptop and sit back in the certainty that you will arrive on time, your high heels intact, not a hair out of place. You might emerge from a musical daydream to notice that traffic is backed up on the bridge ahead but it never occurs to you that you might be late because of it. Strangely, you never are. The "chosen one" attitude of the driver and conductor seems to work in mysterious ways.

On the other end of the public transport food chain are the private buses, by and large just piles of highly coloured scrap metal held together by grease and willpower. The equally greasy purveyors of the service hustle for custom at every stop, as good humoured about their lot as the Volvo lords with theirs. The fare is so low that the only seat you're likely to find is a precarious perch on the noisy engine and you might be sharing that with a clutch of live chickens. If you're misguided enough to take out your iPod, you'll spend most of your journey satisfying the curiosity of your fellow passengers.

The utterly ragged flower-seller sitting next to me suddenly produced a mobile phone and made a business-like call. When she was done she looked thoughtfully at the laptop bag and asked me if I was "IT". I admitted that yes, I did belong to that bizarrely jet-lagged tribe. I then confirmed that yes it is morning in America when it's night here. She wanted to know how long this had been going on. I did not feel up to a geography lesson so I blamed it on the British. She came, inevitably, to whether there was a husband waiting at home. And opened her basket to offer me the last remnants of her day – a small circlet of tuberoses - to wear for him. Yes I'd gone for the advisable rather than the truthful.

This is why I sometimes deliberately leave the sanitised, climate-controlled IT corridor – to reassure myself that India is still outside, a little bruised, browning at the edges but still fragrant. The local time is 9:30 pm. The outside temperature is 23 degrees. Celsius.

I think maybe I also do it as an acknowledgement of a time when Whitefield was not economically viable for the government and it was the private buses that filled the bloody great gaps. Not only were they more frequent but their service continued late into the night, long after the official "last bus" had gone – essential when you're a trainee in an ad agency.

The Volvo passed us somewhere on the home stretch. By then the fragrance of India had given me a raging headache.

The Knight Bus

Friday, September 05, 2008

In the lee of the jihad

The evening breathes deeper. The air grows still. The setting sun floats lightly on the water. All along the pier the tiny abras are quiet. On the other shore, the large dhows stir comfortably. Silence soothes the glass facades of the office blocks across the creek. No tourist cruises or merchant barges mar the last minutes before Iftar. In this pocket of time, the world becomes what it should be. Voices are gentle. Hearts are untroubled. Minds are reflective. When the muezzin calls and the single canon shot announces the end of day, the weathered men in the wooden boats will lay out their fruit and invite anyone passing to share the breaking of the fast. At street corners and in convenience stores, there will be free pastries and water for all. All across the city, the tables will fill up and the darkening sky will be sweetened by the convivial fragrance of shisha.

Last year was my ninth Ramadan in the Middle East and the magic of the holy month was still as fresh as the first one. In the hospitable lands, God was a kind stranger with a pot of coffee and a bowl of dates, religion was the liberal curiosity of children.

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