Route 32 was reaching its destination, platform C3 at Bangalore’s Shivaji Nagar bus terminal. Keshavamurthy manouvererd the reasonably new red 2006 Ashok Leyland Viking SLF in the crowded city traffic. The power steering made it easier to swing the big bus around the narrow street corners. He had to squeeze past the waiting auto rickshaws that came as close to the terminus as possible. Their drivers waited to pounce on commuters, particularly those who looked affluent, looked like out-of-towners or were carrying luggage. Passengers scurried across the road like ants rushing to catch their departing buses caring little for their own safety.
Keshavamurthy braked to a halt. Years of practice had made him stop at virtually the same place. He had done the same thing so many times a day, for so many days in a week, for so many weeks in a month, for so many months in a year, for so many years now.
He looked around. There were the others who used that same platform. Route 20 to Jayanagar IX Block, 37 A to Munneswara Block, 37E to Girinagar etc. He remembered with a faint smile, the old days when he had just started as a Driver in Bangalore’s BTS. He was proud of the Bangalore Transport Service. He had almost beaten up a college student once when he heard him call it “Bloody Terrible Service”. But he was much younger himself then and there is hot blood when young. Starting as a junior driver he had been assigned a rural route. 330 D to Doddakannahalli. At that time it really was a “halli” a village, surrounded by fields and barren land. He remembered the struggle with the poor roads and the dust. Recently one of the younger drivers told him” Anna, you won’t recognize that area now. There are so many companies, Wipro and many others, big apartments, heavy car traffic etc”.
The other drivers did not envy him his new bus. Keshavanna was a senior driver now. Why, next month (not that anybody in the world cared) he would complete 15 years, yes, 15 years on Route 32 (Shivaji Nagar to NR Colony). Those he had seen as kids going to school were now young men and women. Many still used his bus.
Many didn’t recognize him but he recognized many of them. That Rama (these were names he gave them, what their real names were he seldom knew) for example, had started as a village bumpkin. Today he was talking on a cell phone in a strange way. One passenger had called it an American accent. Not that it mattered to Keshavamurthy. Soumya was married now. She came in his bus a few days in a month to visit her old parents in Basavanagudi. He remembered her parents setting out almost every day looking for a groom for her. He had heard she was an engineer now and had gone abroad many times. Lakshmi Amma had taken VRS from her bank. He remembered her as being very social minded. Scolding men who tried to occupy the very few seats “reserved” for ladies. She was much older now. Seldom came other than the short trip to Gandhi Bazaar to buy fruits and vegetables. In a sense, he “knew “thousands- many in reality, many others in his mind.
As he drove along for his next trip, he remembered the familiar sights. Of course, things had changed over the years. Traffic increased by the day. He sometimes felt extremely tired when he reached home but never showed this to his wife and his daughter. At 49 he thought he had been a good husband and a good father. His only child, the apple of his eye, was his daughter Shyamala. After her Diploma in SJP she was studying in final year in the evening course at BMS College of Engineering. During the day she worked in a small IT company as a Trainee.
He prided himself on his driving capabilities despite all the pressures. He had a clean record and was recognized as being one of the best drivers in the service. On last Year’s Republic Day, he had been given a citation by the General Manager himself.
As he turned towards 4th Cross he saw the house which he had been seeing for so many years now. As usual the window was open and as he drove past he could see the photos of the Gods, a “must” in every traditional Hindu household. There was a photo of Lord Ganesha flanked by Goddess Lakshmi, Goddess of Wealth and Saraswati, Goddess of Wisdom. From his height in the driver’s seat he could get a clear view. He prayed to them every day, each and every time his bus passed by that way. It came on his left on the way from Shivaji Nagar to NR Colony – not on the way back. Today too he sent a silent prayer as he did many times a day.
The house itself had undergone change over the years. A separate portion had been built upstairs. The garden had vanished. Where earlier there were bicycles and a Luna moped, now stood two motorcycles and a Scooty. The old man was now retired. The children had grown up. The old lady still bustled about. Keshavanna felt that the girl must have got married. The boy must have gone abroad. He had not been seen for years. Some young people stayed upstairs. Possibly as paying guests- something which was becoming quite common these days.
But the years had not changed the window or the photos of the Gods. Keshav remembered praying to them when Shyamala got admission to her diploma. He remembered offering thanks when he had recovered after a particularly bad bout of jaundice. He remembered thanking the Gods after his wife’s operation. He did not even know these people but he knew the sight through their window, perhaps better than they did.
Days went by, months went by. Keshav continued to drive thousands of commuters each day. Shivaji Nagar to N R Colony. From N R Colony to Shivaji Nagar. Students, office goers, vegetable vendors, small business men. People going to school, to work, to hospitals, to churches, to mosques. People going to meet friends, relatives, associates. Big people. Small people. Fat people. Thin people. Short people who found it hard to hold the strap way above their heads. Tall people who had to bend their heads to stand in the bus. Talkative people who engaged him in conversation” Hello. Have you had tiffin?” Silent people who never said a word though they saw him every day. People who spoke with their eyes. With gratitude, impatience, irritation, happiness.
Some months later, one morning he was shocked to find the windows closed in that house. He felt like braking and checking up but obviously he could not do that. In the next trip he slowed the big bus and had a good look. My God, he thought, the window was closed. The door seemed to be locked. The next day it was the same. It continued that way for a week.
Old habits die hard. He missed the fleeting prayer made several times a day as he drove past. He felt like going there when off duty to check but thought that may be a mad thing to do. He didn’t share this with any one. Not even his wife or his daughter.
One day he could not bear it any more, he told Muniappa, his friend and conductor. He was telling him of his habit of many years when Veeranna, their Supervisor came up.”Keshavanna, you are being transferred with immediate effect” he said. “Congratulations! You are being given a more prestigious route. You will be going to Route 2 Special. Volvo AC from JP Nagar 6th Phase to Subash Nagar “. He still used the old name for the Main Bangalore Bus Station. “Tomorrow at 10 report to Main Office at Double Road for the orientation program for Volvo drivers”.
Keshavamurthy went home that evening with mixed feelings. He found there was an air of excitement in the house. His wife was making some special sweet which she rarely made. He had seldom seen her look so happy. He saw the excitement in his daughter’s eyes. Her old friends had come to see her. Something was up. “Appa, today a big MNC IT company came to our campus” she said . “I have been selected to join as Software Engineer. I will be getting more than double my salary; I may even go abroad in 1 or 2 years. My friends say it is a wonderful company to join.”
Later that night, he told his wife about his transfer and how much he would miss Route 32. A thought occurred to him. Who knew? One window may have closed. Another may have opened.