I spend so much time on mini buses commuting to and fro from work that I have time to observe the close working relationship among bus drivers, conductors and helper. They have amazing coordination as they navigate through crowded Kolkata roads. And slowly over the days and months, I have learnt that there lies an extremely finetuned method to their reckless madness. Their intricate system of shouts, thumping and tapping the side of the bus signal a variety of directions - left, right, slow, stop, half stop (which means slow down for an unscheduled stop for a favoured commuter), speed up etc.
Often close to the terminus, the driver and conductor exchange seats. By this time, the bus is almost empty and so are the roads. The bus driver leaves and the conductor drives the last few stops upto the terminus (incidentally where I too get off). He shouts instructions to the conductor, "foot on break, steady, etc". I actually know one such conductor who has now graduated to a driver! He smiled at me (now a familiar face on that route) with so much pride, seated behind the wheels instead of collecting fares. I live and learn something new everyday!!
This morning on my way to work, the switch happened a bit earlier, around the Behala Blind School with peak office time rush on the road. The driver didnot leave the bus. He came and sat with the three other passengers. The conductor took up position on the foot board while the helper took the wheels. And then came possibly the scariest twenty minutes of my life.
The helper drove like a man possessed. As if he was on a mission impossible to avert world destruction. The driver shouted instructions while the conductor beat a manic tattoo of thumps and taps guiding the helper, in between shouting at the top of his lungs - Ay aauto, laxary (private long distance buses with odd names like Debkanya) at passing vehicles, suicidal pedestrians, dogs, thelas and trams. Our pathetic screams went unheard partly due to the general ruckus (or death rattle) of the tin bus at hypersonic speed, mostly because the driver and the conductor were totally focussed on the dodge-em-car training at 200km hour in peak traffic - essential requirement of a mini bus driver.
I seriously contemplated getting off (if my weakened knees would allow) and taking an auto. On second thoughts, after my auto tumble, walking would be better. But what if another driver in training crept up behind me. Tram? No way. At places, the mad man at the wheels drove up the tram track and down while the bus lurched ominously on three wheels....
"Ladeeeeeeeeeeees", yelled the conductor which jolted me out of my daytime nightmare and I lurched to the door and ran off at olympic speed.
Did I say I live and learn? If. We. Live. that is.
PS - Now the name debkanya (daughter of god ... for those who don't know bengali), doesn't sound all that odd.