Published: May 7th 2010April 24th 2010
We were in Jammu and wanted to get away from the heat, up to the old British hill station of Dalhousie. According to the Lonely Planet there was one bus a day; our hotel manager told us that it left at 8.00 a.m.. Just to be on the safe side we got to the bus station at 6.30 a.m., and were confronted by a hellish scene of total chaos. Hundreds of people milling about in all directions, ankle deep in rubbish, struggling with all kinds of oversized and bizarre luggage. Vendors, touts, hustlers, and beggars, all plying their various trades. Here and there a large pile of rags, which turned out, on closer inspection, to be a person asleep on the floor, surrounded by their worldly possessions. Dozens of buses of all kinds, colours, and states of repair, parked or moving about seemingly at random, with no indication of their destinations.
But we were not unduly perturbed by this vision of hell. We were used to it. After all, we had been in India for 6 months, and had seen a few bus stations before. And by this time we had developed an infallible plan:
1. Confirm departure time
2. Locate point of departure
3. Identify the bus
4. Fight to get on the bus.
Regarding the first step, timetables do not usually exist in Indian bus stations, so it is a matter of getting reliable advice - not always the easiest thing in India. After trying at a few likely-looking counters, we found a counter apparently dealing with interstate buses, behind which a middle-aged Sikh radiated an aura of calm reassurance. He beamed at us, confirmed the departure time of 8.00 a.m., and pointed to another counter where he said we could buy tickets.
We were not unduly perturbed to find that there was nobody behind the designated ticket counter. Based on our previous experience, we knew that tickets would only be sold after the bus had made an appearance, which was usually about 15 minutes before departure. In fact, it was not even necessary to purchase the tickets there, because these could also be purchased later on the bus. And once the bus arrived, it was much better to concentrate on getting a seat and finding space for our luggage - the tickets were a lower priority. The real significance of the ticket counter was that it provided a vital clue with respect to the second step of our plan: locate the point of departure. Based on our previous experience, the bus would usually arrive within a 50-metre radius of the ticket counter. The third step of our plan - identify the bus - would then be achieved by investigating every bus that came within this 50-metre radius, starting about half an hour before the alleged departure time. This investigation would be based on questions posed to bus passengers, anyone in the vicinity wearing a uniform, and - best of all - the bus conductor or driver. Conductors usually spoke more English than drivers, but were less easy to identify, because they did not usually wear a uniform.
We found a stategic place to sit, with a clear view of the Sikh, the ticket counter and the area where the bus was likely to arrive. About 5 metres away, a plie of rags stirred and an exceeding old, exceedingly shrivelled woman emerged from it. She sat up cross-legged, rubbed her eyes, and identified us immediately as potential benefactors. She held out an empty metal bowl in my direction.
"Bapu!" she cried out, "Bapu!"
I paid no attention, but she subsequently kept up this refrain for an extremely long time.
Meanwhile, a man in a yellow shirt came up to me. He had a small leather satchel slung over his shoulder, and there was a slightly manic look in his eyes.
"Where you going?", he said - unsurprisingly, because I get asked this question about fifty times a day.
His eyes became suddenly more manic.
"Come with me!" he tugged vigorously at my shirtsleeve.
"Dalhousie bus over here! Quick! Get luggage! Come quick, come now!"
"But our bus is at 8 o'clock." It was only 7.15.
"No, sir! 7.40 sir! This way, come quick, come now, this way sir!!" he tugged at my arm. From the expression on his face it looked to be a matter of life or death.
"Bapu! Bapu!" cried the old lady.
I turned to Tracey.
"Should we go with this guy?"
"Who is he?"
"Dunno. Some random busybody, I guess."
"You go. I'll stay with the luggage" Tracey calmly continued to write her journal.
I followed the man in the yellow shirt across the bus station. We weaved between the dozens of buses that were untidily parked or manouvering slowly about in the bus park.
"See that bus? Blue bus!?" he cried.
"OK, not that bus! Behind! Green bus. Green bus Dalhousie bus! Quick, get luggage now, come quick!!"
The green-and-white bus was still 100 metres away and moving with glacial speed towards us. I figured that if this was the right bus, then it would anyway come over closer to where we had our luggage. Or more likely, it was not our bus because this guy was an idiot.
"Thank you," I said, in my most polite voice that I reserve for potential nutters, "Thank you very much for your help, but we will just wait a little while yet."
Before he could reply I gave him the slip and returned quickly to Tracey. She was still calmly writing her journal, while a legless beggar, his trouser legs rolled up to expose his stumps, shuffled around her, trying in vain to get her attention.
"Bapu! Bapu!" cried the old lady.
A man in a tattered vest and with a toothbrush in his mouth came up to me.
"Where you going?" he said, his speech somewhat hampered by his mouthful of toothpaste.
"You take taxi! Come!" he tugged at my sleeve.
"Two thousand rupees only. Special price."
"No thankyou. We'll take the bus."
The man spat copiously on the floor and over his bare feet.
"Why you want bus? Bus not good for foreigner. No seat, no good. Taxi comfort, super de luxe, lovely jubbly!"
"We take the bus for 150 rupees. No taxi, no problem, no taxi, lovely jubbly."
He stared at me in disbelief, rolled his eyes, spat on his feet, sighed, shrugged, and walked away, muttering and brushing his teeth.
Meanwhile the green-and-white bus was reversing into a space not far away from us. And there alongside it was the man in the yellow shirt. He was waving his arms wildly, alternately shouting and blowing on a small whistle, but nobody seemed to pay him any attention.
"I think I've sussed that guy out" I said to Tracey.
"What guy?" said Tracey, continuing to write in her journal.
"That guy in the yellow shirt. He's a fantasist. When he was a boy he wanted to be a bus conductor, but his parents forced him to become an IT manager or an air-conditioner salesman. Now they are dead and he hangs out here every day with his leather satchel and blows his whistle and tries to put people on the wrong buses. What a saddo."
We both laughed. But suddenly the man was there again at my side, tugging at my sleeve.
"Come quick now! Get luggage! Dalhousie bus go now!!"
"No thankyou. Our bus is at 8 o'clock. We'll wait here." I said, with as much finality as I could muster.
This time the man was crestfallen. His face crumpled, and he walked slowly away.
I glanced again at the ticket counter. Still no one there - must be at least 15 minutes to go, then. I walked alongside the green-and-white bus - might as well check it out with the driver. But as I reached the front of the bus, the bus pulled away. I looked at my watch - it was 7.30. Oh well, that could not have been our bus anyway, much too early. I walked back to Tracey. Suddenly she closed her journal firmly and looked up. There was that familiar steely look in her eyes that meant that her patience was at an end.
"I'm going to ask the Sikh again" she said.
I stayed by the luggage. After a minute I looked over towards the Sikh. There he was behind the counter, still radiating his aura of calm reassurance. But no sign of Tracey. I scanned around the bus station - no Tracey anywhere.
"Bapu! Bapu!" suddenly the old woman's cries took on a sinister tone. What did she know?
I tried to suppress a slight fluttering of panic. OK, so here I am in Jammu bus station, a place where the British Foreign Office advises us not to be, sitting here with four rucksacks, and Tracey has disappeared. Of course there will be a logical explanation, there always is. For instance, she has been kidnapped. Or gone to the loo. My speculations were interrupted by Tracey's sudden re-appearance. She was flushed and breathless.
"Quick!" she cried, "Our bus has gone!"
"It just left- we can still catch it!"
We grabbed our rucksacks and staggered across the bus park. Apparently the Sikh had sent her off with one of his minions to find the bus - that explained her brief disappearance.
"Its a green bus" she said.
"Bapu! Bapu!" the old woman's cries receded into the distance. Suddenly, briefly, I wished that I had given her something.
We caught up with a green bus at the exit of the bus park.
"No - not that one!" cried Tracey "Our one is only green in places."
I saw a green-and-white bus about 100 metres down the road, moving slowly away in a traffic jam. I summoned up my last resources of energy. I reached the rear door of the bus just as it was flung open. There in the doorway stood the man in the yellow shirt.
Time stood still. I stared at the man in disbelief. Was this really happening? Was this a nightmare or some bizarre conspiracy?
"Dalhousie?" I spluttered.
"Yes yes come quick!!"
He grabbed my arm and hauled me aboard as the bus moved forward. The sleeve of my shirt caught on the doorcatch and ripped. Tracey jumped on behind me.
I still didn't get it. I struggled up the gangway of the bus, falling over all the luggage that was blocking it, although the bus was only half full.
"Dalhousie?" I yelled at the driver above the dreadful noise of the engine. He turned, scowled, and nodded ambiguously.
As we sat exhausted at the back of the bus, the truth slowly dawned on me. Our infallible plan was fallible. The Sikh was the weak link. It was the Sikh's fault. The Sikh and my own stupidity. The man in the yellow shirt really was the bus conductor, a kindly and well-meaning man who had repeatedly made every effort to help us, but I had treated him like a village idiot. I had been in India too long, it gets you like this after a while. I must get back to Europe, that parallel universe where the normal laws of physics and mathematical logic apply, where bus stations have timetables, where buses have numbers, where bus conductors wear a uniform. India was making me crazy. And as for my gross misjudgement of the man in the yellow shirt, well, as the Marquis de Sade said, or was it Groucho Marx: "In the lunatic asylum, the doctor is the only one who everybody thinks is crazy."