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A journey on a state transport bus in Satara district, Maharashtra

That India is a land of diversity is an often repeated cliche.

The spectrum found on any parameter – wealth, lifestyle, mentality, cultural beliefs to name a few – covers such a wide range, that in a lifetime of experiencing India it is impossible to absorb the entire rainbow presented by its people. So broad is this spectrum that even an Indian Indophile like myself, is constantly surprised and delighted with the next new experience.

The key in finding all these experiences, is that I have had to push myself out and plant myself into the thick of the uncertain unknown world out there. Because it is unlikely that all the wonderful people in the world are going to coming to visit me at my home in my own comfort zone!

And once out there, armed with only an open mind, specks of soul-touching experiences have come flying at me, captivating me and holding me in awe!

And so in one such attempt to escape from the limiting walls of my comfort zone I decided to take a state transport bus into interior rural Maharashtra (the state in which Bombay lies) just for the sake of the journey – there was no destination in mind at all. It would be a round trip journey. To the town bus stand and back on the next bus.

In India, you can move from town A to place B in many ways. We have the private airlines, an extensive government-owned railway network, expensive bus networks – both private Volvos in which you can sleep on a bed in your journey and really inexpensive state government b uses, and finally private car operators. Trains have an incredible reach, but beyond the stations they service there are innumerable villages – and these are all serviced by state transport (ST) buses. At incredibly low prices.

If the options are all available for a route, the state transport buses are the simplest from of transport and therefore the cheapest. And because they are cheap, they are at the bottom of the preference chain of the ‘aspiration’ driven Indian lower-middle income class, of which I was a part as I grew up. As my financial life got better and we moved higher up in income brackets, the lowest level of facilities in India moved further and further away from me, unknowingly. Not just facilities, but the whole ocean of people and experiences were becoming unavailable to me….

The day this disgusting and claustrophobia-causing realisation hit me, I decided that in order to stay ‘alive’, and in order to remain a growing organism, it was essential for me to take deliberate plunges into all the other layers of life surrounding me, as often as I could. Otherwise staying within a rarefied elite layer within a homogeneous group of people – whom I did not necessarily share all values with –  stagnation and slow mental death would be my destiny.

And so, in one such attempt to escape the social prisons in my mind, I took an ST bus into Satara district in Maharashtra.

The Maharashtrian villagers of Satara district speak a unique dialect of Marathi – an accent that is extremely endearing. Large built strong village men with befitting large moustaches accompanied by women in 9-yard saris and large powder bindi. Majority of the people there work in the fields and live an agrarian life.

The men wore white long shirt-kurtas that are unique to this region, along with either a mulmul dhoti or extra-wide tailored pajamas. Unlike in other parts of the world, in Maharashtra pajamas are used outdoors and during the day. In the variant worn here, each leg can have a circumference of about 3 feet!  Men must always cover their heads – in some parts ta white turban is the norm while in others the Gandhi cap  is popular. As a result of this must-have garment, it is common to see little boys scampering around the village, totally naked except for the white cap on their head!

Women wear 9 yard saris and a blouse made of a unique fish-weave material – with silk and cotton woven together on a narrow loom. The fabric always has a border in a contrasting color that makes the pieces look stunning! Will post pictures in a few weeks.

So in this rural land, the ST bus starts. Uncrowded. The bus takes on exactly the number of people that can be accommodated on seats. What – no standees? No packing the bus till there is an overflow onto the roof? No. Everyone sat comofrtably. There would be another bus for additional travellers. And each bus would only take seated passengers. And I thought rural India would be less organised than urban India??? My first surprise!!

I was a bit wary, as I had no experience with village folk and the stories that we hear growing up in mega cities is that everyone  poor or from a different class of life is out to mug you and steal your money or molest you or find some way to take advantage of you. And so I sat, wary of everyone around, clutching at my bag for security. A woman traveling alone – in rural India – on an ST bus …this was clearly an invitation for disaster. Reality provided the anti climax to the tales that I had heard while growing up…. My co-travellers were gentle, kind and respectful people from the district. They were caring and open and smiling happy people content in their own lives. There was nothing in my life that was better or more than all that they had in their own lives. There was nothing about me or my life  that they envied or wanted. What??? Wasn’t my urban financially superior life supposed to be closer to heaven than the rural life that is made out to be downtrodden and disadvantaged by the capitalist media of the world? My second delightful surprise! Obviously the sources of all the impressions I carried – the  elders and the media – had never been to rural India! I found them to be the contented and well-adjusted and bonded and warm human beings.

Looked out and noticed the sugar cane fields ….fields that I was told are home to rats and snakes! From the corner of my eye I noticed the bus conductor and mentally got ready to pay for the ticket.

The tickets on the bus are sold by a conductor who travels along with the bus,  goes from person to person and vends tickets. This brings me to the third delightful surprise that I received on this journey – the experience that has stuck in my mind and has made me write this out 3 years after the event occurred.

The bus conductor in a khaki uniform turned out to be a lady. A young lady in her mid-twenties! Vending tickets to strangers! In rural India!!

Indians who are self-appointed India-bashers say that India can never progress or develop. They are blind not only to all the technological and financial parameters of progress, but also to Nobel-lauereate Amartya Sen’s parameters of development. He defines development as ‘freedoms’.

I was stunned by her presence and couldn’t help asking her all kinds of questions about her work. Did she have any problems working among strangers? Did she feel safe? Had she ever had any gender biased problems? And she answered all these calmly – but her manner suggested that she felt I was from some underprivileged world that caused me dream up such bizarre questions and have such gender based apprehensions.

This woman conductor –  confident in her work role and in her position, as a woman conductor in a remote district in Maharashtra has been an amazing eye-opener for me and affirms my love for the great Indian village life!!

Travel has really opened my mind!!


feb 28, 2011

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