Wednesday 15 February 2017

Bus Route 86

This story was first published in Telegram Magazine, September 2016 issue. To read the story in the original magazine, along with several other wonderful stories and articles, please buy it here.

Bus Route 86
In the Mumbai that is today, there’s any number of ways to get from Flora Fountain (or Hutatma Chowk as it is officially known) to Mahim. Expressways have been inaugurated; flyovers constructed and even a magnificent white elephant of a Sea-link that promises to make it easy and convenient to get around the city. But in the Bombay that was, back in that summer of ‘95, when I was the Captain of the cricket team of St. Michaels School, the only feasible mode of transport was to take the winding route past Metro talkies, Opera House, Worli and Prabhadevi before finally reaching the last borough of the old city, for beyond Mahim, as anyone will tell you, Bombay ends and the ‘burbs begin.
St. Michaels had never had the funding to provide a school bus to ferry its cricket team to and from matches. So after a crushing win over Sathe Vidya Mandir on a fast-paced pitch at Azad Maidan, played on a blistering hot April morning, we the members of the St. Michaels team, with our coach in tow, were standing at the Fountain bus stop, awaiting the arrival of Bus #86.
Flora Fountain / Hutatma Chowk (present day)

The stock exchange is closed on Saturdays, as are most banks. The thoroughfare, normally bustling, was rather sparse. Both the colonial-era fountain and the more recent sculpture honouring those who had martyred themselves to the cause of separate statehood for Maharashtra glinted in the hard light of the sun, with no crowds milling about to obstruct the view. At the Bus stop itself, posters asking for votes were glued on top of the advertisement for Liril soap. The face of a singularly ugly moustachioed man glared down at us from the shoulders of the lissom model. A lady in a hijab[1] and her son were the only other people at the stop apart from the team. Sathe Vidya Mandir had long since gone home – they, at least, had the funds for a dedicated bus.
“Good win,” said Vivek, who batted at number 3.
“Early rounds are always like this,” I replied. He had only made the team this year, I had been on it a year longer and claimed superior knowledge.
“Is that our bus?” exclaimed the Loomba excitedly. Vishal ‘Loomba’ Udaykar was the team’s wicket-keeper, a position he had earned due to the fact that no one else wanted it.
“It’s an 84,” said Coach, a man in his mid-twenties who played the minor leagues on weekends and waited to be called to play Ranji Trophy for Mumbai. Those of us who had walked half-way down the road, with the aplomb of a batsman who walks half-way down a pitch to tap it with his bat, returned to the footpath.
“You just missed the 86,” said the lady in the hijab with the self-satisfied smile of one who is about to impart unpleasant news. “There won’t be another for twenty minutes.”
A collective groan followed.
“And what bus are you waiting for?” asked Coach.
“86,” she replied.
“Wait, but why didn’t she catch the one she said we…” I began, but Coach shushed me with a movement of his eyes, and before I could wonder any further, a rectangular red bus with the magic number 86 written in the window at the top rolled up to the stop, missing running over the Loomba by a matter of inches.
“Lying bi…,” began Coach, biting off the expletive, as he shepherded us onto it. The conductor and three other commuters were the only others in it, and all the victorious heroes of St. Michaels found comfortable places to sit. As was often my lot, whether due to my being Captain of the side or merely a fault in my stars, I ended up sitting next to Coach. The lady who had assured us there would be no bus forthcoming seated herself a few rows ahead of us.
“She wanted to get us to try and take another mode of transport so that we wouldn’t be occupying all the seats,” muttered Coach. “These people, I tell you…liars, the lot of them.”
Metro Talkes, in the good old days

The bus set off with a lurch, and made its way towards Metro talkies, the revered movie-hall where Hollywood blockbusters had once premiered. It was showing signs of neglect already, the art deco exterior fading, and once-proud ushers hanging around the entrance waiting for patrons who never came.
A few college students climbed on, and then the bus began to move again. It snaked languorously through Princess Street and its multitude of pharmacies, past Chira Bazaar and towards Gaiwadi, an ancient housing complex with two huge cow’s heads made of stone on each side of the entrance archway.
The bus was getting quite full as it left Opera House, where once an actual Opera theatre had existed, or so my father continues to assure me. A hub for a trade in diamonds on one side and auto parts onthe other, it seems impossible to contemplate that it could ever have hosted anything as genteel as an opera. Sometimes, though, when the light is right, usually after a light rainfall, the outlines of the buildings seem to wobble a little and ‘Shankar Mechanic’ dissolves into the stone structure it must once have been where horse-carriages carrying the memsahibs and their husbands to the opera would have been stabled for the duration of the show.
Opera House

They did not wobble now, under the bright light of the afternoon sun, and we rattled on, past the old Babulnath temple, which I have never seen the inside of, and the relatively new Jaslok Hospital, where years later I would come to grieve at the bedside of a dying relative.
Three men got aboard, one clean-shaven and two bearded, dressed in shirts and trousers, carrying cloth bags over their shoulders. The conductor approached them, clicking his ticket-punch.
“Get that thing out of my face,” said the clean-shaven one.
“Where to? Take a ticket,” he said.
“Sena Bhavan,” replied the man. “Three for Sena Bhavan. Oh hey, is that you, Golya?”
He thrust the ticket fare into the conductor’s hand and came over to where we sat, placing a hand on Coach’s back. As Coach’s eyes lit up in recognition, I felt the sense of disorientation that I am sure my readers will understand is quite natural for anyone who finds that the Cricket Coach he has hitherto been terrified of, is called Golya outside of School.
“Pakya, how are you?” asked Coach – or Golcoachya, as I would forever know him after that.
“All good, man. Going to meet the Saheb.”
“Sit down, sit down,” said Golcoachya, gesturing to me to go elsewhere. I hopped into the seat just in front before anyone else could come and occupy it. The bus was just pulling in near Lala Lajpat Rai College, which was then little more than a name to me. I would grow to rather like the place in later years, when it turned out I had a knack for passing exams when LLR was assigned as my exam centre.  Unlike other buses, 86 did not go on to Haji Ali, emerging from the other side of the college and moving on to Nehru Planetarium, the dome-shaped wonder of my – and lakhs of other kids’ – childhood.
“We’re going to win this election, aren’t we?” said Golcoachya. I could see his face reflected in the half-closed glass windowpane, and he seemed to smirk in a self-satisfied manner. He spoke in a colloquial version of Marathi, but I had no difficulty understanding him all the same.
“Should have it tied up. After the dangal[2] from two years back…our people want to teach their lot a lesson,” agreed Pakya.
“Yeah, and the blasts. We need a strong hand to deal with them. And people know who has the danda[3],” Golcoachya laughed.
“They’re gonna be scared when we take power. Damn government has been going soft on them for too long, man. Now our boys take no nonsense. We can screw them in the open once we’re in power.”

“Doordarshan,” yelled the conductor, as half the travellers made for the exit door in front. The bus slowed to a stop just before the entrance to the offices and studio of the national broadcaster. It was no longer the only channel in the country – cable had made its entry a few years ago – but was still in a position of overwhelming dominance. This was where the driver and conductor changed their shifts as well, and I settled in my seat. These changeovers could take a long time if the pair that was to take over the route was late.
“You’ll come for the speech tomorrow? There’s a rally in Agar bazaar,” said Pakya.
“No, not him. It’s too small for HIM.”
“The son?”
“No, the nephew. He’s brilliant. Doesn’t mince words, not him.”
“I’ll be there. No school tomorrow, I can come.”
“How’s work, anyway? Convent school must be paying well.”
“Yeah, money’s all right. Bunch of no-talent kids. Half of them are bloody pav-walas[4]. They say english prayers in the morning, eat meat in their dabbas[5]and try to convert the half that are not.”
“That happens doesn’t it? I knew it!”
“Yeah man, it’s shameful. All these convent schools are joined up, you know. They want to spread their rotten religion in India. They get tons of money from foreign countries and use it to print their conversion material.”
I thought about Father Roderick and his threadbare coat, the sparsely-furnished apartments at the back of the school where he lived and the diligence with which he appealed to the parishioners of Mahim to donate money to maintain the school building. I had been invited to tea with him when the team had won the regional Cricket championship earlier that year, and he had told me that we could have new bats now for playing the national championship, as the Trustees had approved the funds. The cheque he wrote when the bats arrived was drawn on his own account, though.
We had won the match today using those new bats. I had made fifty-three of the finest. I wondered where this ‘tons of money’ was coming from, and to whom it was going.
The new driver and conductor hopped on the bus, and it gave another lurch as it started.
“About time too,” grumbled the woman who had boarded with us at Fountain. “How long you fellows take, eh?”
“What’s it to you, woman?” the conductor shot back, clicking his ticket-punch.
“My boy is getting late for tuition classes?”
“Tuition classes? Does he even go to school?”
“He can read and write, which is more than your mother can say for you,” was her response. The conductor made a dismissive gesture and began to troop to the back of the bus.
“Bloody arrogant woman. Look how brave they have become,” I heard Pakya’s voice.
“Pampering, I tell you. Fifty years of pampering. Give them everything because they’re a minority. They’ve become bloated on it,” said Golcoachya.
“That’s how it goes. Anyway, they’ll be put in their place come May. I broke enough bones in the dangal to earn a promotion. Good times are ahead for us, Golya.”
“Hey, I broke more skulls than you!”
Prabhadevi dawned, with the lofty Siddhivinayak Temple’s gold-plated dome looming in the foreground. Pakya and Golcoachya stopped talking to bow their heads reverentially. Then came Agar bazaar, soon to be the site of a rally addressed by Saheb’s nephew, as I had now learned. Sena Bhavan would be next, shortly followed by Mahim.
“How’s your sister?” asked Golcoachya, his voice changed – softer, somehow.
“You keep your eyes off Chinki,” growled Pakya.
“Just asking,” this in a low, apologetic tone.
Ranade Road, on any given day
The bus ploughed into the sea of shopping-crazy humanity at Ranade Road, named for a great lawyer and reformer, now famous for saree shops and jewellery. The going was slow now, the wheels moving slower than the old men with walking sticks walking in parallel to us. Behind me, there was awkward silence. It ended when the bus finally emerged around Plaza theatre, still shut down with the burned façade, a victim of the serial bomb blasts two years before.

Plaza Cinema, back then

“I’ll see you tomorrow then,” said Golcoachya.
“Yeah, meet you at the bus stop,” said Pakya. “You’ll like his speech. Tells it like it is, man. Chala, bye!”
As he stepped into the aisle, I felt a tap on my shoulder. Golcoachya gestured to me to come back to the seat next to him, and I did so, having no reason to do otherwise.
“Old friend of mine. Same colony,” he said, patting my shoulder. I shrank from his touch.
Bus #86 took the left turn into Lady Jamshedji Road. It would be ten minutes more to reach Mahim and the sanctuary of the school.
“You all right?” he asked. “Sleepy, huh?”
“Yes, sleepy. Hard match,” I said, agreeing with him, and closed my eyes.
And though I did, I could still see through my shut eyelids. I could see Metro Talkies turned into a multiplex, its charm gone and its screens reduced to showing prancing poppets. I could see Gaiwadi remain much the same, but the cows on its arches were to take on a different shape, bigger, more menacing, and become the weapons with which the Pakya’s and Golcoachya’s of the world attacked their fellow men. I could see Opera House suffer a fire and re-invent itself as a hub for selling computer parts, powering the march of a new, IT-enabled India. I could see the ideals of Nehru, and the spirit of scientific enquiry his Planetarium embodied lost in grandiose claims of ancient knowledge. I could see Doordarshan being mismanaged, sinking into obscurity, deluged by shouting news anchors and wailing soap operas, leaving only a memory of better days.
I saw all this and more. And at the back of it all, I could see my Bombay become Mumbai, a place where decency would die of a cancer, just as my uncle would, where Azad Maidan would see desecration of the symbols of freedom, where two cousins would fight over a poisonous political legacy and drive themselves into oblivion, where Temples would grow ever larger and libraries ever smaller, where bridges between places and hearts would be replaced by flyovers, allowing the privileged to ignore those left below.
But what I could not see was any glimmer of hope. Not for Bombay, and not for Golcoachya’s hopeless love for Pakya’s sister, which would end in a three-inch column buried on Page five of the Time of India, about a fight between two friends, Prakash Joshi and Aditya Golekar, ending in the maiming of the former and the death of the latter.

Bus Route 86 is real. Broadly speaking, it does follow the route described above. Also real were the events and implications of the period from December 1992 to March 1993.
Any person interested in perusing more about the riots that ripped apart the fabric of Mumbai in 1992-93 may peruse the text of the Justice Srikrishna report, the outcome of a judicial enquiry committee that was not accepted by the Shiv Sena - BJP government, which was in power then the report was released.

It is available here:
Part 1
Part 2

[1] Headscarf covering the hair and neck but leaving the face exposed.
[3]Cudgel / Stick
[4]Literally, ‘bread-eaters’, a pejorative term for Christians common in Mumbai


  1. This was more hard hitting than any of my stories are or ever will be. Because this is more fact than fiction.

    Our beloved city, and its people are the protagonists. Our beloved city, and its people, the antagonists.

    I shall read the full report too. I am sure it will be an eye opener for me. Thank you for sharing the links.

    1. Thank you, Ravi. Your encouragement is what gave me the confidence to write something like this in the first place.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Every single time I read this, I feel a chill run down my spine. I've tried to wonder, time and again, why this piece remains amongst the best stuff that I've read from any contemporary Indian writer. Is it the way you take up a faux-humourous approach, building up to an intense crescendo? Or is it the little details, like the cheque for the bats drawn on the Father's account? Maybe it has something to do with how you make the city itself the protagonist of the story, acquaint the reader with its nuances, give a sneak peek of how it used to be, before painting a dark, forbidding picture of what it has and continue to become. Or maybe it is none of these. Maybe it is just a plain, heartfelt yearning of someone who has seen his city slip into a downward spiral he cannot arrest. Truly wonderful stuff, mate.

  4. This was beautifully written, nice work! I lived in Mahim and studied in SMHS from K through 10th, this brought back some memories.

  5. Nostalgia ... for old places, for better times. Hard-hitting, angst-ridden, hopeless nostalgia. This story is about everything I want to shout out every moment .... thank you for this, Percy. Superb. The toughest thing to watch in the last few years has been the casual -ism's displayed so casually by friends and family. The justifications. I too shirk inside ... from their thoughts...seeing the good -isms (liberalism, secularism, scientific temperament) shrinking. The temples grow and the libraries shrink.

  6. It was thought provoking what you have written above. I arrived here in 2006 and by then it had already turned into Mumbai from Bombay. Yet, in last 11 years I have seen the city and its people change even further. But I suppose it is true for every city in the world. Irrespective of the reasons, the urban landscape is becoming hopeless and insensitive.

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