My childhood was genuinely happy and for the most part carefree. I must admit though that a tyrant cast his shadow on my days throughout my school days. This tyrant was the “Bangalore Transport Service” or “BTS” as it was known then. Maybe “tyrant” is an exaggeration but I felt that my time was fettered and my life was ruled by a being that was for the most part benign but could be capricious and at times malicious and vindictive.
My earliest memories of BTS are actually pleasant. My mother’s aunt and uncle lived in Rajajinagar in Bangalore and we lived in Kumara Park. This was early to mid-1970s when Bangalore truly lived up to its then reputation of a garden city. On Sunday afternoons, we would board route number 58 or 58A from a stop near Kumara Park and then alight at the last stop which was called the “Ram Mandir”. The stop owed its name to the nearby Ram temple which was just a stone’s throw from the stop and by a happy coincidence the stop was literally at the entrance to my grand aunt’s house.
We would alight from the bus and clamber up two flights on a narrow staircase to come up to a short terrace and then to their tiny house perched like an eyrie. This was Bangalore of the 1970s where staying on the second floor (third floor in the US) meant that you stayed in one of the taller buildings in the city. We would spend a lazy winter afternoon, happily chatting with uncles and aunts, devouring delicacies conjured by my grand aunt, and listening to the gossip of the elders. At sunset, the aromas of fried onion pakoras (fritters) wafted up from the stall downstairs and my brother and I would be sent down to buy a couple of packets. When it was time to return home, we just sauntered down the stairs and found vacant seats on the bus. This was the starting point and at 9 pm or so at night, much of Bangalore was asleep.
My close encounters with BTS came in fourth grade when I switched schools and had to take a bus to school. My brother, who is five years older than me, also took the bus and I would go with him to the Shivananda Bus Stop and then catch one of several buses to Shivajinagar. We would then walk down to school, a short walk that took all of 10 minutes. It was all exciting at first and I made friends with other boys going to my school as well as to other schools. However, the buses would usually be full at peak times and we would have to push our way in to get a spot. 58 and 58A were now renumbered to 74 and 79. The buses available to us were 63, 68, 74, 79, and 93. The fares were very reasonable, 15 paise per trip. This worked out to roughly 2 cents per ride in the late seventies. The government was no doubt subsidizing the public. However, as a student, I was eligible to get a concession pass. The fare for the pass was ridiculously low, something like Rs 1.50/month which worked out to 20 cents/month!
I was considered too young to carry the pass and so my brother carried both our passes. One day, on the way to school, I had a fight with my brother. I don’t remember the reason now, but I demanded my pass and said I would return by myself that evening. To my bad luck, I misplaced the pass in school that very day. So when evening came, I found myself without a pass, without the 15 paise to pay for the ride home and a lot of pride to swallow. I started walking home, a distance of about 3 miles (4.5 Km to be exact according to Google Maps). A fair distance for a 9-year-old. The heavy school bag only added to my woes. I had walked a mile and made it past the GPO when my brother who had taken the bus home happened to see me from the bus. He was kind enough to get down at the next stop Raj Bhavan and ask me why I was walking home. We then took the next bus home and he paid my fare. I don’t think he gloated at my misfortune, he was too kind for that and I don’t remember if I got a dressing down at home for my carelessness, but from then on, my dad always made me carry some extra money for emergencies.
It was also in a BTS bus that my first act of chivalry came to naught. I had just joined the Scouts and I was on my way home after my first patrol meeting on a Saturday afternoon. I felt very grand in the scout uniform replete with stockings, garters, scarf, woggle, and beret. The bus was relatively empty and I had occupied a seat at the starting point. A lady boarded the bus at RC College. Since there were no seats available, I felt that as a newly minted scout, I had to do my good deed. So I stood up but was painfully shy to offer her the seat. She either didn’t notice the empty seat or she was not going to accept seats from young whippersnappers. So I stood there wondering whether I should occupy the seat again or wait to see if she would notice my good deed. My dilemma was resolved when a young man glided smoothly into the seat and gave me a triumphant look.
My travails with BTS started when we moved houses. My parents had built a house in Sanjaynagar which at that point was well outside city limits. We were now 6 miles away from my school but for all practical purposes, we might as well have been the same distance as from the moon. While Shivananda Stores had buses from several routes plying towards Shivajinagar, there were just two routes to our area. 278 from Shivajinagar and 279 from Majestic. And there was just one bus for each route. Given the traffic in Bangalore then, if I remember correctly, the frequency was a bus every 90 minutes or so. The actual journey itself was reasonably quick but the bus waited for half an hour or so at each end. In today’s traffic, it would be a bus every 4 to 5 hours!
On the way to school, if a bus broke down and a spare was not available, then we were out of luck. We would wait at the stop, the crowd would keep swelling and then you would see people walking towards you from the starting point. They would inform us that the bus was AWOL or had broken down and we would join them, a caravan of commuters, walking on to Gangenahalli (Ganganagar now) with the hope of catching the buses coming from Hebbal or Yelhanka. The crowd would swell as we passed other bus stops, a mini Gandhian salt march of sorts.
A large crowd already waiting at the Gangenahalli bus stop was not a good omen and we would continue our walk to Mekhri circle. A distance of about 2.5 Km (1.5 miles) took us half an hour. It was at these times that we swore that “BTS” stood for “Bangalore Torture Service” and that the PHS routes (Peak Hour Service) should be referred to as “Prehistoric Services”. Keeping this in mind, on regular school days when school started at 9:05 am, I would leave home at 7:45 am and hope that the 8 am bus would show up. If there was a test in the first period, I would catch the earlier bus just to give myself some cushion. The journey back was the same. My school got over at 3:45 pm and if the 4:15 pm bus did not show up, I waited at Shivajinagar bus stop till 5:30 pm for the next bus. Just a colossal waste of time. I could be playing football or cricket but here I was watching my life drift by just waiting for a bus. It was at these times that Alistair Maclean, James Herriot, Arthur Conan Doyle, or PG Wodehouse came to my rescue. I would fish out the library book that I had just checked out from school and perch myself on the railing of the bus stand and immerse myself in the book. The bus service improved as time passed by with more buses being added.
But enough about me, let’s come to the buses themselves. BTS was part of KSRTC (Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation) and as the name indicates, it was owned by the government. There were two major terminuses, Shivajinagar Bus Stand and Kempegowda Bus Stand. The latter is named after the 16th-century chieftain who founded Bangalore. It is popularly referred to as Majestic given its proximity to a popular theater of the sixties and seventies. The buses were manufactured by Ashok Leyland and were painted Red. Route 74 that I alluded to earlier was a tandem bus from what I remember. Two buses were joined together by a pivoted joint, the bus behind was called the “trailer”. It was a novelty to sit in the front row of the second bus that was being towed and pretend to be a driver. The tandem buses were retired sometime in the mid to late seventies.
There were double-deckers too, Route150 was a double-decker. I never had the need to travel by Route 150 I wasn’t disappointed though, I got my share of traveling in double-deckers when I visited Bombay. Buses whose numbering and lettering were in black ink plied within the city while the red boards such as Route 278 were called mofussil buses and ventured outside the city limits.
The rulers of the bus were the driver and the conductor. The driver had the unenviable task of maneuvering an overloaded bus while the conductor had the job of forcing his way through a tightly packed crowd dispensing tickets. The tickets were of different denominations depending on the distance traveled. They also came in different colors. The tickets sported the Ganduberunda emblem of the Mysore Wodeyar dynasty that was later adopted as the emblem of the Karnataka state. This emblem depicts a mythical twin-headed bird. On either side of the logo was a numbered grid for the “To” and “From” stops. These were rarely punched, people often knew where they were going.
The drivers and conductors had their own personalities. Each bus had two entrances, the one in the front was reserved for women. The driver was thus for the most part surrounded by women and a benevolent driver would allow schoolgirls to stand adjacent to the engine while he kept up a running conversation with them. The driver had to drive sedately through the day avoiding cows, bicyclists, and school children in addition to the regular traffic, but at night when traffic was minimal, the drivers would step on the gas, especially on the stretch between Jayamahal and Mekhri Circle. The palace grounds, the lungs of the city, ran along the periphery of the road and a blast of cool air coming in through the windows forced the elderly to either close the window panes or don their monkey caps.
The conductor would make his way to and fro on the bus. He had three main jobs. The first was to issue tickets and he did that by calling out “Ticket, ticket, tickeeeet”. The second was to announce the stops. “JayaMahal, Vyalikaval, CIL” and so on. The third was to let the driver know when the bus could resume its journey after it had stopped and this was done by either blowing a whistle or shouting “Right, right!”. Occasionally, he also had to help the driver park the bus in reverse by a combination of blowing his whistle and thumping the rear of the bus. There were the kindly ones whom we got to know and would joke with and there were the short-tempered ones that we avoided.
For the most part, schoolboys were considered pests who had to be crammed into the bus or shoved around. We got to know the corrupt ones who would recycle tickets pocketing the fare themselves or the ones who would say they were short of change and then disappear in the front when it was time for the unfortunate victim to get off the bus. No sooner had the hapless person alighted and made his way to the front outside the bus, than the words “Right! Riiiight” would ring out and the bus would heave itself and take off. And then there were the nattily dressed conductors who no doubt took their inspiration from Shivaji Rao Gaekwad, one of their own who went on to become the cinema star Rajanikanth.
As passengers, we had an interesting relationship with the bus and by extension the driver and the conductor. If the bus was already packed and there were passengers who were alighting at the stop, the driver would either stop the bus a short distance before the stop or a short distance after. We would set off in pursuit and try to push our way in. If you were not fleet of foot, you were out of luck. There were those who perfected the art of boarding a moving bus. They would run alongside the bus and hoist themselves up. Not all attempts were successful, some gory accidents bore testimony to their failures. At the bus terminus when the bus arrived, there would be a mad scramble to get on the bus. There would be much pushing and shoving while the younger schoolboys, much like mice tried to find any available opening to bolt inside. The older folks would drop a handkerchief onto the seat from outside and would then claim the seat as their own. Skirmishes broke out when there was a dispute.
Then there were the “adjust maadi” kinds who on spying a schoolboy comfortably ensconced in a seat would lower their behind on the seat exhorting the hapless boy to “adjust”. The boy would have to scoot forward while the adult would take over the seat. As a schoolboy, I found it particularly hard to move around on the bus with my school bag. My bag was packed with books and when my stop came, I would have to push myself through the mass of humanity. The wall of flesh would part briefly but would close immediately behind me while my bag would get stuck. I would get cursed if a sharp edge poked some unfortunate soul and a couple of times the bus took off while I was still trying to extricate myself. It was then that I hit upon a brainwave. I ripped open the shorter side of my school bag and stitched the open longer side so now I had a knapsack of sorts that fit snugly and compactly behind my back. I could escape to freedom without any impediments after that!
The bus stops had a personality of their own. The Majestic Bus stand was majestic no doubt, rumors abounded that it was the largest in Asia at the time of its inauguration. That was perhaps an exaggeration but it was large. I hardly ventured to that side of the city though and it was impersonal to me. Shivajinagar on the other hand was quite non-descript but had a personality on its own. I spent several evenings there for the better part of nine years waiting for my bus. The other stops varied from pucca structures built with a roof and railing to just street-side stops. A small economy sprang up along these stops. There were vendors who sold guavas, raw mangoes, peanuts, and other snacks. Beggars parked themselves at the busier stops. They were piteous in appearance and each had their own way of begging for alms.
The names of the stops were interesting too. Some were named after landmarks such as BRV (after the theater), Ghousia Hospital, Raj Bhavan, and so on. Sometimes the name stuck even after the landmark long ceased to function or exist. Where there were no landmarks they were named after the locality as in Sanjaynagar, Jaya Mahal, and Palace Gutahalli. Busy intersections lent their name to bus stops too, 18th Cross in Malleshwaram being a prime example. Some of these landmarks can now be seen in movies from the 1970s and 1980s. The heroes of that era were common men who traveled by bus. The one’s today are ferried on choppers or drive expensive cars.
At some point, my school arranged a bus to ferry students to my school. The bus picked us up at more or less the standard stops in the morning and dropped us off in the evening. I traveled on this bus for a couple of years before we shifted houses. This route was fun because it was filled with schoolboys. I don’t remember a conductor on this bus, I think we had to show our bus pass to the driver. There was one particular driver who stands out in my memory. His face was scarred by chickenpox and he expected pin-drop silence on the bus. Someone came up with the nickname “Chikki” (from chickenpox, but “chikki” is also a hard candy made from peanuts) for him. As the conversation picked up he would yell at us to stop talking. The conversation would carry on getting louder and someone would yell “Chikki”. He would swear, park the bus at the side of the road and come to the back yelling and swearing at all the kids. I resented him then but when I look back, I wonder why he was deputed for this shift. He obviously could not tolerate any noise and was short-tempered. Not the best temperament to drive a bus full of exuberant kids. Perhaps it was a punishment posting for him.
I had mentioned the bus pass earlier. This was obviously a bargain. I remember having to fill out a form in order to get the bus pass. The pass itself had a passport-sized picture of the pass holder, along with their name and date of birth. It had to be signed by the school authorities and then received an official stamp at the pass office. There was usually a long line when the school year started so after giving up a few times we would grit our teeth and wait for however long it took to get the pass. Later on, BTS started mobile counters, vans would travel to different parts of the city where we could get our passes done. The pass also contained the routes that the pass holder was authorized to travel. The pass allowed for a one-stop where one could alight and board alternate buses. At one point, I had selected Mekhri circle as the place where I would change my bus owing to the poor frequency of 278, the route to my house. This implied that I had to walk from Shivajinagar to my school. I did that happily for the most part.
Once I remember taking Route 13 from Shivajinagar to India Garage (the stop closest to my school). I could have paid the meager fare and I had done so in the past but I had observed other kids not pay claiming that they had a pass when they actually didn’t. So that day when the conductor asked me “Kaasa Paasa?” (Cash or Pass), I casually replied “Pass”. He demanded to see it. I was in trouble! He took a look at the pass and gave me a withering look. “Is this what your education is worth? You kids go to fancy schools, is this what they teach you?”. He pocketed the pass and walked away with me scrambling behind him offering apologies. I could feel the eyes of the other passengers boring into my back a few muttered about the corruption of youth. He refused to give me the pass at India Garage. I was panic-stricken. I had renewed my pass for six months just the previous week and if he did not return my pass, I would have to explain the situation to my Dad. He would not have begrudged the money but he would not have been pleased with my behavior. At the next stop which was the stop for Bishop Cotton’s school, much to my relief, the conductor relented and returned the pass to me with a stern warning never to repeat it again.
I haven’t forgotten the lesson and have walked straight and narrow since then. My life of juvenile crime was nipped in the bud. Today, if I’m at a traffic light at 2 am in the morning with no traffic as far as the eye can see and I’m stuck at the light for 10 minutes, I will wait the 10 minutes till the light turns green. To add to my ignominy on that fateful day, my act was witnessed by a few students from Bishop Cottons our arch-rival. Any sympathy they felt for me was no doubt overcome by the joy that a Josephite had been on the receiving end that day!
Mostly though what sticks out in my mind are the people that I met – on the bus as well as waiting for the bus. While I had to go early to the bus stop, the advantage was that there was a large group of friends who all took the same bus. We discussed the latest cricket match, the movie that was telecast on India’s sole TV channel, the popular sitcoms, politics, and really anything under the sun. There was the kindly old gentleman who became a good friend and treated me like a peer even though he was a good fifty years older than me. There was the office goer who tried to strike up polite conversations with the attractive Anglo Indian girl but didn’t seem to get much further. The pretty girl who had modeled for Hakoba saris. The infatuated school girl who made the mistake of writing a love letter to my friend and realized to her horror that the contents were no longer private. She had obviously never heard the axiom “Say it with chocolates or say it with flowers but never say it in verse”. A sentence from that letter still stands out in my mind. “If you don’t love me, let me know, I will bare it for your sake”. What a difference the spelling of one word can make especially in the minds of prurient adolescents!
There were the college Romeos with rolled-up shirt sleeves who strutted around trying to impress the college girls. Families dressed in their finest on the way to a wedding jostled elbows with villagers on their way to the market. The pleasant surprise of meeting an old friend who happened to be taking your bus route to visit someone. The bus itself was a cacophony of languages. Kannada, English, and Tamil with an occasional smattering of Hindi. My friend Nagraj who is visually impaired but whose sense of hearing was so heightened that he could report on conversations the girls were having in the front of the bus. John, a friendly student from Kenya who studied BSc at my college and was an excellent soccer player. The burly French student was reticent but swore under his breath when the bus was crowded or the bus was late.
The perfect stranger who struck up a conversation and asked how much salary my dad made. When I replied truthfully that I didn’t know, he wore a hurt and pained expression for the rest of the journey. There were the shady characters who pushed their way to the front hoping to be as close to the ladies’ section as possible. Then there were the foot-boarders who hung on the steps refusing to climb into the bus. These fell into two camps. For those who were “footboarders” under duress, the bus would be so packed that it would list to one side and people hung desperately from the door. Others were “footboarders” out of choice, they liked the wind rushing through their hair. They also performed the civic duty of assisting the latecomers who ran alongside the moving bus as they tried to board it.
“Atmanirbhar” or “Self Reliance” is the mantra coined by the current Prime Minister of India. We lived it way back then. When the bus stalled or stopped, all the able-bodied passengers got down to push the bus while an officious type poked his head out of the window and shouted instructions. On the other hand, BTS buses were also the first to suffer when there were riots. Mobs would burn buses or pelt them with stones. I never understood the logic of that, they were depleting an already scarce resource. But then again, mobs are not governed by logic.
Covid has found me working from home now but when I would drive in to work every day, I would find kids waiting for the school bus on my street. Each one was lost in their phone oblivious to everyone else. My daughter spoke to her friend on the bus and that probably stopped once she got her phone. It reminds me of the stark contrast from my childhood. I had a set of friends who accompanied me from school to Shivajinagar and they then took their own route home. I had a set of friends at the bus stop, not necessarily traveling my route but their stops were adjacent to mine. Then there were the friends on the bus. Not all of these traveled to my area, some of them got off at stops along the way. And last but not least the friends at the bus stop near my house. I met a wide variety of people of all ages and socio-economic backgrounds. I was comfortable with them and could carry on lengthy conversations in more than language.
Did I say my life was ruled by a tyrant? I think I am mistaken, looking back, those were some of the happiest memories of my childhood. I think my experiences have been softened over time and I remember only the good parts. In fact, all my memories of bus journeys in Bangalore are of sun-drenched days while all my memories of traveling to Mysore to my University are mostly of dull drab rainy days. You can tell my frame of mind just by those memories. I’m still in touch with my friends who commuted with me over forty years ago.
I have happy memories of returning home on Saturday afternoons with live fish in plastic bags while fellow passengers asked me a multitude of questions that I was happy to answer. Walking to school by passing Parade Ground, crossing MG road, and then walking on Museum Road on cold Saturday mornings in January while the sunlight streamed through the trees throwing dappled shadows on the road. Every now and then, dried leaves were piled into the circular BCC cement dustbin at the intersection of Church Street and Museum Road and were burned. The smoke formed a light haze and the smell of burning leaves hung in the air. There was the desperate cramming for my ICSE exams on the bus and later returning home happily bearing my transcript when it arrived a few months later. I started my journey in BTS as a young boy in 4th grade and finished it as a Pre-University student much more sure of myself. These bookended some of the happiest years of my life.
BTS, people joked in Kannada stood for “Bittrey Tirgha Sigalla”. If you let it go, you won’t get it again. I wish someone had told me that about my childhood, I might have savored my journey even more.
The featured image is the cover of the inimitable Paul Fernades’s book “Bangalore – Swinging in the 70s”. I’m a huge Paul Fernandes fan and have his books, prints, and other sundry items such as coasters and coffee mugs at home.