The wheels of the bus go round and round... again

Updated: Aug 03, 2020, 13:46 IST | Meher Marfatia | Mumbai

As the COVID-19 pandemic pulls a near-extinct public transport fleet back to life, personal musings on some oft-boarded BEST buses

B route omnibus indicating Gowalia Tank on its display board and a double deck tram car sporting an Ovaltine advertisement on its front. Both images from the book History of the Bombay Electric Supply & Tramways Company, Limited, by BEST Secretary Pestonji D Mahaluxmivala. Reproduced with permission from his grandson, Dr Sam Mahaluxmivala
B route omnibus indicating Gowalia Tank on its display board and a double deck tram car sporting an Ovaltine advertisement on its front. Both images from the book History of the Bombay Electric Supply & Tramways Company, Limited, by BEST Secretary Pestonji D Mahaluxmivala. Reproduced with permission from his grandson, Dr Sam Mahaluxmivala

Meher MarfatiaTwo Marathi phrases of familiar brevity fell on my ears as a kid. "Sutte dya" and "Pudhe chalaa". Both, of course, uttered by the harangued, khaki-clad BEST bus conductor. Tired of passengers handing him currency notes, expecting tinkles of change. Or staying stubbornly glued to some mid-aisle spot, with room enough to move ahead.

Smart cards silence the "sutta" request with the metallic click of the conductor's coupon punch. The "Pudhe chalaa" refrain remains, a hissy hint of "ts" sibilant prefixing the second word, "tsalaa". Joy of joys, double decker buses have been reinstated by the pandemic that demands distance between people.

B route omnibus indicating Gowalia Tank on its display board and a double deck tram car sporting an Ovaltine advertisement on its front. Both images from the book History of the Bombay Electric Supply & Tramways Company, Limited, by BEST Secretary Pestonji D Mahaluxmivala. Reproduced with permission from his grandson, Dr Sam Mahaluxmivala

Significant dates mark the history of BEST routes, which were originally denoted by single alphabets. 1905 saw the Bombay Electric Supply & Tramway Co. established. 1907 rolled out electric trams and 1920 double decker trams. 1926 introduced single deck buses and 1937 double deckers. 1940 was when the fleet plied its first Limited (Ltd), Colaba to Mahim. 1947 municipalised the BEST. 1984 brought coupons, 1997 monthly passes, 2011 electronic ticket issuing machines.

I rode plenty of these cheery red road hogs from a 1960s childhood to years of discovering the city as a jobbing journo. Our father made very clear to my brother and I that, growing up youngest of three generations in the largish joint family, meant our Hindustan Ambassador MHN 1431—its dashboard stuck with a magnetic roundel of St Christopher, patron saint of travellers—was prioritised for the elders' use. Children had choices. Bus. Train. Walk.

BEST Secretary Pestonji D Mahaluxmivala
BEST Secretary Pestonji D Mahaluxmivala

To begin with the best. I was happiest at the weekend prospect of Bus No. 212 dropping us from home in Bandra to grandparents at Dadar Parsi Colony. Until the Reclamation really developed, we took the bus setting off from Mahim Depot. Awaiting its arrival, brother and I darted out to explore bustling Mori Road, a little lane acknowledging locally favoured fish. "Mori" was the Kolis' reference to shark.

We gawped at gypsies balanced circus-style on wires teetering at stupefying heights and admired rubber-bodied fire eaters leaping hoops. We resisted golden bhajias fried fresh at Prabhat Farsan (why fill up when Grandma's teatime treats were a highlight of our visits). We giggled when the dhunki instrument of the cotton razai-pillow vendor twanged, the target of inadvertent bowling by gully cricketer lads like spinner-to-be Ravi Shastri of Navjivan Society.

A 2004 image of commuters hanging out of a double decker bus. With the need for social distancing in view of the pandemic, the iconic buses will hit the road again. Pic/Getty Images
A 2004 image of commuters hanging out of a double decker bus. With the need for social distancing in view of the pandemic, the iconic buses will hit the road again. Pic/Getty Images

Mori Road abuts arterial Lady Jamshedji Road and Mahim Causeway. Packing a universe of delights in just the 12 halts No. 212 made to our Khodadad Circle destination, LJ Road oozed energy and entertainment. Fervent worshippers thronged its churches, dargahs and temples. Shoppers crowded Gopi Tank Market with bulging jute thelis of veggies and fruit. The street strung together the legendary cinemas Paradise, Citylight and, aspiring to the popularity of Bandra triplets Gaiety-Galaxy-Gemini, were sparkly Badal-Bijlee-Barkha, now Star City.

Whenever we disembarked halfway at House of Mats in Dinanath Wadi opposite Citylight—oddly, frequent customers buying bathmats or rugs for relatives and neighbours—we could climb again into multiple buses. The 4 Ltd was a heavily patronised option via LJ Road, with hordes jumping on along its giant 45 stops-arc from Goregaon to Flora Fountain.

Deco sculptor NG Pansare's son Kiran putting finishing touches to his father’s famous bronze statue installed at Shivaji Park in 1966. Pic Courtesy Art Deco Mumbai Trust, Pansare Family Archive
Deco sculptor NG Pansare's son Kiran putting finishing touches to his father’s famous bronze statue installed at Shivaji Park in 1966. Pic Courtesy Art Deco Mumbai Trust, Pansare Family Archive

From Bandra to Shivaji Park, where I tried swimming lessons at the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial pool, I availed of routes 81, 83, 84 and 86. In the 1980s, the same four carted me back from college at Dhobi Talao when rain-flooded tracks threw train schedules off. Sometimes, we hotfooted it to the Metro Cinema stop without a trace of monsoon mayhem. "Let's take a bus," the boyfriend would suggest. Romance pushing out practicality, I agreed in a beat. In such great company the St Xavier's-to-home stretch filled long, languorous chunks of time. More smitten than sensible, we gave convenient, speedier Limited buses a miss. All was well with the world.

Buddies and I were often done movie watching at the half dozen cinemas gloriously wrapped around college: Metro, Sterling, Capitol, New Empire, New Excelsior and Liberty named for being constructed in the year of Independence. Call it madness, it was magic. Swiftly succumbing to the silver screen riches on offer, we indulged in binge viewing. Straight from a Metro show with the music of Fame ringing in our heads, we legged it to Liberty for Feroz Khan's Qurbani, wowed by "Aap jaisa koi meri zindagi mein aaye" in the pop innocence of Nazia Hasan's voice. Crazy ideas of a third flick at Sterling were quickly quashed by sober thought of the written paper to finish for a stern English Lit professor the following day.

Pic/Sooni Taraporevala, From Her Book Home In The City, Published By HARPER Collins Publishers India, 2017
A band plays outside Metro at the 1986 premiere of the film Janbaaz. PIC/Sooni Taraporevala, from her book Home In The City, published by HarperCollins Publishers India, 2017

Neo Classical flourishes adorning its grey basalt facade, Capitol of the 1980s hadn't quite faded into oblivion. Glimpses of gilt-edged galleries, from which the elite earlier applauded swelling opera crescendos, catapulted the imagination to its grand opening in 1879 as the Victorian Gothic drama theatre Gaeity. The interiors were considered an exercise in excess, a horse-shoe-shaped formation of 880 seats gaping at 40 by 70 feet of stage sprawl. Inhabitants of Fort, we are told, preferred this posher playhouse to Grant Road's natyashala venues. I remember a conductor standing at the bus door shout to a bunch of moviegoers alighting here, "Yeh makaan saamnewala VT se purana hai." The magnificent rail terminus architect FW Stevens conceived was indeed unveiled to a rapturous public eight years after the Gaeity rose.

These six gems were within walking metres. We went still south to Colaba on No. 138, for matinees at the Regal and Strand. One morning saw us bunk, attending only the 9.30 am lecture, to catch Nicholas Meyer's powerful anti-nuke testament, The Day After. Crawling up the line as Jason Robards and John Lithgow glowered from the Regal poster, we were dismayed. Over an hour in that serpentine booking queue extending till the Yacht Club and a House Full sign flashed.

The century-old rain tree that has shaded at least three generations on the central lawn of Rustom Baug, Byculla. Pic/Alysha Khodaiji
The century-old rain tree that has shaded at least three generations on the central lawn of Rustom Baug, Byculla. Pic/Alysha Khodaiji

Disinclined to return to campus, we strolled to SP Mukherjee Chowk fronting the Museum, to jump into any of many buses. Excited going nowhere particular, we hopped on a random giant that loomed up. Revelling in the flutter-thrill of unknown streetscapes, we ignored where it would terminate, blithely saying "Last stop" while paying. We reached the Sewri cemetery. Not before sniffing masale bhaat and muthiya through Gujarati-Maharashtrian Thakurdwar, rumbling down colourful Shuklaji Street, to chimney-protruding mill compounds of Lalbaug and a stunning pink sea of flamingoes towards journey's end.

Numberless, nameless, who cared? Pointlessness was freeing. Particularly because it came on the heels of trips tending to be painfully purposeful. The worst, Route 384, ferried my mother and me from Waterfield Road, near our Hill Road residence, to Santa Cruz and onward to a clinic in then leafy Ghatkopar. For physiotherapy. Mine, not hers. The scoliotic hunch I was sprouting, needed correction with a spine brace and good physio sessions. On orthopaedic legend Dr SD Mehta's recommendation, the latter were available way north there.

Despite my loathing the regimen, those bus evenings did result in postural progress. Their tedium was what wore thin the brittle, almost-an-adolescent moods. With a cultivated air of calm, I was buried in whodunits the entire way. Engrossed by the web of convoluted characters Queen of Crime, Christie, wove into her impossibly twisted plots.

With trademark fairness, Mum compensated for the dreaded Ghatkopar routine by promising a monthly ride I chose, beyond the 212 to Dadar. Turned out, we stepped a lot into No. 63 and 66, whose major draw was the layered level. That inviting top tier tugged invitingly, to soak in a sweep of panoramas framed by breeze-bent trees within brushing inches.

Among several sights in the Byculla-Parel belt I really looked forward to seeing was Gloria Church. Its slim spires traced a lace in the sky, delicately English, brilliantly angled when gazed at from the upper level. And always the typical aromas from huge bread ovens as we drove by American Express Bakery, the business Francisco Carvalho so christened as he supplied loaves to American warships touching Bombay harbour.

Mum fatigued, me fascinated, I wanted the midtown rides to continue interminably. She sighed, "Bandra's full of churches, yet we must see spires in Byculla!" Occasionally, we broke away for a salad and stew meal cooked by her Armenian classmate living across Rustom Baug. As they chatted, I joined her friend's daughter for an amble in the adjacent zoo. From a parked van in those botanical gardens we spoon-dug Kwality ice cream, scooped in white plastic balls with blue lids. In their empty shells we kept burgeoning collections of "Binaca charm" animal miniatures which were the rage, tucked into toothpaste tube boxes.

Aamchi BEST innings shortened after graduation. Recruited a sub-editor for The Illustrated Weekly, whose offices lay within the Times of India building, I reached The Old Lady of Bori Bunder on the 9.23 am Bandra-VT train. Daily, even after getting home past midnight. But, pure pleasure it was, exiting the iconic station to cross DN Road and enter the facing Indo-Saracenic gem Gostling and Morris designed. That would be another story.

Author-publisher Meher Marfatia writes fortnightly on everything that makes her love Mumbai and adore Bombay. You can reach her at meher.marfatia@mid-day.com/www.mehermarfatia.com

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