As the S9 bus started to grate its way through the pebbled road, the roar of its ancient engines deafened me. An unknowing smile lit up my face. Of course. How could I forget the 5 years of riding through noise to the university? It was the same bus, the new ones they had purchased 7 years ago. Even the passengers were the same. I recognised the conductor.
A shy lad looking to learn the ropes of a government job, he had first joined the service around 2007. I had noticed him instantly; he stood out, a quiet, humble voice amidst rowdy conductors. But today, as he went about the rows of passenger seats, his brazen attitude made me realise that he had after all, become a pro. He walked towards me, a little heavy-set (as are most Bengali men), wearing the same moustache and good-boy haircut (another Bengali specialty) I had first seen him sport almost 7 years ago.
'Ticket?' He asked, betraying no signs of recognising me.
I immediately handed him a 100-rupee note, being the first in a long line of passengers to do so. If you have been to Kolkata, you know how difficult it is to get a change for Rs.100 here. It occurred to me how easily I had asked for change of 500-rupee notes from auto rickshaw drivers in Gurgaon.
'Jadavpur, toh?' He looked at me, as I handed him the note. I looked up at him and smiled. He had after all, recognised me. I sat behind the driver's seat, watching the green plains of the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass give way to luxury high-rises. The metro plan that had been on hold since 2006. The traffic jam. Everything was the same. How was it, that the conductor was in the same post for over 7 years? Didn't he want anything more from life? How was he happy?
As the bus inched towards my university, he came back with the change. I had never spoken to him before.
'Bhalo achhen? (Are you well?)', I asked him as he handed me the change.
He looked at me, surprised. Generally, passengers aboard public buses only speak to conductors to either ask for some change or to halt the bus between stations.
Embarrassed, he smiled and mumbled a, 'Ei cholche (It's going alright)', and rushed to the bus door to reprimand the passengers who were trying to get off in the middle of a traffic jam.
I got off and walked through the smoky 8B bus stand and into the crowded lane filled with food stalls, mobile recharge shops and Xerox counters. The lanes where I had spent 5 valuable years of my life. Everything was the same, even the people. There had been no change in this part of town, except in the number of food items that had increased to include more delectable fares like momos and chicken pakodas.
As their heavenly smell hung in the air interspersed with smog, I inhaled deeply. Not everyone wanted to be part of a rat race. Perhaps, the biggest ambition some had was to come home to two square meals a day and a loving family. And that was okay.
I met my friend, and to my surprise, she hadn't changed at all. Still petite and crazy, she entertained me for hours. We chatted about life, our old classmates and the university. As I boarded the returning bus from 8B, who else should be there but the driver-conductor duo from the morning! Some things never change.
As the citylights kissed the dark Kolkata sky, I realised the biggest complaint one had against this city was also perhaps, its biggest strength. Kolkata didn't have ambition, they said. And that's okay. Perhaps, it was fine just the way it was.