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Sunday, March 16, 2014

Learning to Fly: School Bus Adventures in Delhi


I spent most of my younger years in New Delhi, India. I lived with my family on the campus at IIT Delhi and attended Modern School, Vasant Vihar. The campus where we lived was like a walled city within a city. School buses weren't allowed inside the campus. So, in order to catch their respective school buses, kids had to walk from their homes to the campus gates, of which there were three or four. This could easily be up to a half mile walk. On occasion, I missed the school bus and had to take the public transport bus. Delhi's public transport system is known as the Delhi Transport Corporation or DTC.

As anyone who has lived in Delhi would know, taking the DTC bus is an adventure and a test of fitness. During rush hour (i.e. when I missed my school bus in the mornings), DTC buses don't quite stop at designated stops. Rather they merely slow down because while they must let off passengers they don't quite have room to let on more passengers. Therefore, those who need to get off must do so with great skill and determination, running for a few steps upon getting off to keep from falling due to inertia. And they must do so while taking care not to wipe out by stepping into a pot hole or on to a banana peel.


And while the bus slows down to let off passengers, those who have sufficient confidence in their abilities (or a desperate urgency) try to run and hop onto the moving bus. And getting on the bus isn't as simple as it might sound. Recall that the bus is full. Passengers are bulging out of both the front exit and the back entrance, neither of which have doors (see picture above). Therefore, a passenger wishing to get onto the bus must first use one hand to secure a grip on something -- a handle bar, a window, or even another sturdy passenger. Second, the passenger must now quickly secure a foot hold, ideally on the exit or entrance steps but occasionally on another passenger's unsuspecting foot.

These rush hour rides were great exercise and an excellent opportunity to travel ticket-less because the destination would typically arrive before one could wrestle one's way to the bus conductor comfortably seated in the back of the bus.

Anyway, I digress. Back to the school bus. I remember that sometime in the middle grades we had a Sikh bus driver. I, too, was born into a Sikh family. So, the driver might have been partial to me. Anyway, he used let me sit next to him on the engine cover, which used to get pretty hot (so one needed motivation to sit on it). And, as you will discover, I had a certain motivation. At some point I mustered up enough courage to ask him if he would let me shift the gear for him -- just once. To my surprise the driver turned out to be quite a sport and played along. Slowly I graduated to shifting gears for him all the way to school (several miles). He would, of course, press his foot down on the clutch and I would try my best to time the actual gear shift with his clutch work. The engine cover used to be hot as hell, which was tolerable during winters (our school uniform required shorts until grade 10) but sucked during summers. The stick shift was this large apparatus (about as big as a baseball bat) that I could barely maneuver. Every once in a while I'd screw up and cause the transmission system to let out embarrassingly loud grunts and roars. The driver would smile and bail me out. I can only hope that I didn't do any great harm to the transmission system during these adventures. But I had fun and the driver was an absolute darling for humoring me and providing me with my first ever driving lessons, albeit rather unconventional ones.