Doing our BEST

Aug 07, 2013, 01:40 IST | Fatema Pittalwala

Much maligned, the BEST nevertheless does a sturdy job of ferrying the city's commuters and travellers from points a, b, c and all the way to z -- wherever they want to go. En route, it's a mix of bumps, jumps and colourful language as driver, conductor and passengers all survive the trial. But you know what? We like the BEST buses. And we're not saying that just because it's BEST Day today, August 7. Here, let's tell you what we mean...

What we like:
>> You get a lot of exercise. Arms are strengthened by hanging on to the straps and poles. You can do mini-Pilates during rush hour, as you twist and stretch to reach the front of the bus, or let others pass in the crowded aisle. And worry not about unwanted touching. No one dares.

Illustration/Amit Bandre

>> If you catch a bus that is nearing the end of its route, nearing the depot, or it is late in the evening, you have a good chance of collecting a sheaf of 10-rupee notes as the conductor unloads his takings. Change is always welcome!

>> BEST drivers are nice to elderly people, pregnant women, and women accompanying children. They all get to embark from the front door. And the driver will wait till they are well in and seated or safely standing, before moving off.

Old is gold: BEST (Bombay Electric Supply and Transport Company) was originally The Bombay Tramway Company Limited, formally set up in 1873

>> The generally courteous, though of course no-nonsense, demeanour of BEST drivers (and most conductors) is one thing we find hasn’t changed. Though the days of soda-water-bottom glasses have gone, and drivers now sport slightly snazzier looks.

>> You’ll see lots of slice-of-life views from a bus as it passes through the streets and lanes of ever-alive Mumbai. Sometimes you will see those views inside the bus too, if a spot of drama erupts! In fact, we know of a real-life romance that began and flourished in a bus, and continues to this day.

>> Travelling by bus is much, much cheaper than taking a cab. And given the condition of the city’s traffic, you may get there at the same time in the bus!

>> One cheap thrill is to catch a double-decker bus, nab a seat on the upper deck right in front, and pretend you’re the king of the road. It’s a great view, too.

>> Finally, consider this -- BEST buses carry more than 40 lakh commuters every day. It’s a staggering number, and we can’t help but marvel at the system.

Not so liked:
>> There are chances of bruising due to violent jerks as the bus grinds to a stop and lurches off again. Hold on tight!
>> And yes, there are BEST drivers and conductors who act like jerks!
>> If the bus stop is next to a puddle, you have no choice but to disembark and step into it. Time, tide and BEST drivers don’t wait for anyone!
>> You can’t eat in a bus, as you can in a train. Well, you can try… but your sandwich may land in your neighbour’s handbag at the next signal.
>> Some of us are too scared to board a BEST bus!
-- With inputs from Vidya Heble

A bus bond
BEST bus drivers and conductors are a quintessential part of Mumbai’s fabric. The skills involved in ringing the bell, dodging rash bikers and negotiating potholes are what make them stand apart. Young or old, each one of them has their unique style, without which our bus rides will not be as exciting as they are.

Reliving memories: Driver Mohan Kale and conductor Nandkumar Raskar love the BEST, in spite of rude passengers. Pic/Datta Kumbhar

Fascinated by driving, in 1987, after a tough selection process in which only six drivers were selected out of 100, Anandrao Sadashiv Kadam (53), got a job as a driver and joined the BEST services. He says, “Since my childhood I always wanted to be a driver. The only reason I wanted to be a BEST driver was because I wanted to interact with people.

Captivated: Since his youth, Anandrao Sadashiv Kadam always wanted to drive a BEST bus. Pic/Datta Kumbhar 

In any other sector, interaction with people is almost zero.” But lately public interaction hasn’t been too pleasant for Kadam. “Now passengers take their work and family-life frustration out on me. At first I use to get angry and maybe retaliate, but now it doesn’t bother me that much. If there is an accident, the driver is always blamed. Now we don’t have the support of the public so it’s better to be quiet and continue driving.”

Mohan Kale (39), who is relatively new and has been a bus driver for eight years, says, “As a driver I know, I have to deal with the bad roads and traffic.

“But my major concern while driving are the pedestrians. Once at Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, as the signal turned green, I turned right. I started driving and saw that two people from two opposite sides of the road are walking towards each other. When they saw my bus they realized that they were walking into the middle of the road and a bus was about drive towards them.

But instead of getting off the road, they walked right into the middle, and hugged each other. I guess they got scared. But then they just stood there hugging each other, in the middle of the road, for at least 10 minutes!” Working as a conductor for 13 years, Nandkumar Raskar (43) says that working with people is not rosy, but it does have a flip side to it.

He recalls, “Passengers are very rude at times, they forget that we also have feelings. But then there are a few passengers who will stand up for you. There is a senior citizen who travels regularly one of my routes; he will always wish me good morning and give me a chocolate every day. This small gesture makes my day. When you are on the same route you get to see so many familiar faces.

“You end up making friends and forging new relationships. I’ve witnessed love bloom between two passengers, and seen old classmates bump into each other. The flip side of working in public transport is amazing.”

Train versus bus
We love our local trains probably more passionately than we do our buses. And each side has its supporters and detractors. Let's take a look at the pros and cons of each…
>> Trains are faster. But the bus gets you to your precise destination, or very near it. From the train station there’s a good chance you have to walk a fair bit to your destination… or, ahem, take a bus there.

>> There is almost always a bus that goes where you want to go. If you’re not sure, you can ask the conductor if the bus goes to your intended destination. Not so easy to do that on a train, although there is the fact that you will have about 27 fellow passengers all yelling instructions on how to find your way there.

>> The train driver (motorman) doesn’t know who you are and won’t wait for you to get on or off. But the bus driver, though he may be in a perennial hurry, will wait until both your feet are off the bus before he roars away.

>> Train passengers are friendlier… until you usurp a “reserved” seat. Regular train commuters have their marked-out compartments and seats, and they’re fiercer than territorial tomcats about them. In buses, it’s only the “ladies seats” that carry this danger. Kidding!

>> Barring disruptions due to rain or riots, you usually don't have to wait long for a train. But you could end up waiting up to 30 minutes for a bus. And then take a cab in desperation, only to find the bus you wanted, following you.

>> Pitch the train’s horn against the BEST one… they’re both impressive, imperious and commanding. But the BEST horn can clear a road and make people scurry faster than any traffic policeman could. Hear a BEST horn, there is only one thing to do -- leap out of the way.

Remember these?
The BEST bus tickets with blue, green, grey, red and orange print are nothing less than collector’s items now. These tickets, the metal box slung across the conductor’s shoulder, and the click-click of the punch that marked them, are not forgotten but definitely missed.

That's the ticket! Saifuddin Kirmani collected the BEST bus tickets for over two years. Pic/Bipin Kokate

“The tickets were always bright and colourful and I always admired the way the conductors used to cut the ticket with the little clipper. Earlier, I thought it was a nail cutter!” says second year MSc IT student, Saifuddin Kirmani (23) who collected old BEST bus tickets. Like many Mumbaikars, Kirmani does not like the new printed tickets and felt the old bus tickets were a trademark design. He says, “If you look at the new tickets, they look like the bills from a grocery shop.

“It does not excite me at all. The older ones were colourful and unique. If I had that with me, anyone would know that I have travelled in the bus.”

Moving to Mumbai from Kuwait, Kirmani started collecting bus tickets since he was in the 11th grade. “I needed a hobby when I shifted here and I used the bus to go everywhere. Instead of throwing them away, I just started collecting them. Later, I came across a box in my college which said that if you collected a considerable amount of bus tickets, it would help fund an underprivileged child’s education. But after some time, I could not find the box anywhere, and I continued collecting.”

Though the frequency of his bus travel has reduced, Kirmani reminisces, “Bus was the most cost-effective way of travel.

It was always a joyride. But now, after I got my own bike, travelling by the bus seems like a task. From getting on a bus to getting off, you need to put in a lot of effort. Buses today are also not pocket-friendly and with the bad road conditions, I prefer my bike rather than a rollercoaster ride in the bus.”

While the BEST may have felt the need to modernize transportation, Mumbaikars do miss the humble colourful tickets. Bus conductors no longer punch holes in the tickets and no longer do they feel the need to gather the passenger’s attention, with the ‘click’ of a clipper. The only thing familiar is the phrase, pudhe chala!  

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