The lessons I learnt, and smells I sniffed in India’s public transport

By Bhoot Jolokia

We are a funny lot in this country. There are way too many people cramped together, some living in squalor and some in opulence. For a country teeming with humanity, mechanical chariots are required in abundance to carry them to and fro. Whilst buses are a common means of transport, different states have their own unique systems of public transport; Delhi has the metro, Mumbai has the local, whilst Guwahati has city buses. The public transport system of a city is akin to its beating heart.

The public transport in this country is encumbered by the constant comings and goings of a huge mass of humanity. If it were alive, it would have become a hunchback by now.

On Personal Space and Lack Thereof

The poor and the middle class learn from a young age about the importance of space here. Their lives are spent jostling for space. Every inch has to be fought for in public transport. Bus Fares are cheap and the owners take it upon themselves to fill them up to the very brim. If the capacity of a bus is 40 then be sure that the conductor will pick up 60 people. The same logic applies smaller public vehicles like sumos, travellers, and taxis. Recently, I crossed the Brahmaputra River on a ferry and even there I was sitting cramped, trying to find comfort in every bit of extra inch of space that I could ferret for myself.

public transport


Everyone in public transports expect you to adjust. You learn humility if you travel regularly through public transport of any kind. Your past affiliations do not matter in that cramped space, your religion does not matter, your linguistic identity does not matter, your education does not matter, and your caste does not matter. These are the factors that we use to create divisions amongst ourselves in society, and we thrive in these divisions. We need our identities, and we will forcefully carve one out where it does not exist. It is just human nature to seek identity and find comfort amongst fellow humans having a similar outlook. All of this goes for a toss in public transport. Here, you have to adjust. Your prejudices do not matter here and neither do your preferences. You are just another money making mass of flesh for the conductor of that private vehicle; nothing else. Everyone adjusts, someone moves a feet, someone moves a bag, and someone moves their butt, and they adjust.

Perfumes, sweat, and farts mingle together to create a peculiar smell inside public transports. We are probably immune to it by now in lieu of adjusting to it with time.

Whenever I board a public vehicle, the dirt and grime repulses me but I endure it. I sit, observe, and listen to people. It is almost a space where worlds collide. People from different religions sit together, they interact. People of different castes sit together and they interact. For the course of that cramped and uncomfortable journey, people give up their prejudices and certain core facets of their identities. Everyone fights together for inches of space. A dirty, moth eaten seat is the Holy Grail in public transports.

I was contemplating all this while sitting on an overly cramped bus home. Moving an inch of your body was an arduous task; thankfully, I had seat as the passenger next to me vomited his guts out. The conductor calmly threw some water on the windows, some passengers grumbled, and the bus laboriously moved on.

I wish I could detach my prejudices just like I do for those hours in cramped public transport. Perhaps, we only let go of our prejudices when it is absolutely necessary otherwise we use them as fuel to keep us going; to find meaning in our mundane lives.

To Read more on Travel By Public Transport Click here.

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