Fifty-five Passengers Only: K Saraswathi Amma


The conductor managed to free one hand and blow the whistle. The bus began to move. Many who had earlier advanced rightful claims were now reduced to begging. There were folks who had to reach weddings before the auspicious hour; also people whose very families were in danger of being thrown out bag and baggage if they didn’t reach the court on time and win the case.

But the conductor said in a firm voice, “The Circular arrived day before yesterday. It’s not even been two days, just two days. And the next bus will start just forty-five minutes later.”

“Yes, yes,” a hero who had managed to get inside yelled, “just that your time and our time aren’t the same! Like the time of gods and mortals!”

The disappointed travellers stood where they were, looking sadly at the moving bus. On its back, the sign ‘Only 55 passengers’ was painted in big white letters. When the difficulties of travel were raised as a public issue – when questions were raised in the Legislature even – instead of increasing the number of buses, the authorities responded by limiting the number of passengers allowed in the bus! A punitive response, that is.

The jolting experienced at the journey’s commencement had the effect of bringing a certain order to the passengers’ sitting and standing and shoving. The conductor slowly raised his foot from the step and placed it carefully inside the bus, as if he were embarking on a task that required both presence of mind and physical stamina.

His action produced a reaction from the passengers. It grew stronger as he moved forward.

Many received kicks and blows but things were such that they could not even bend down and touch the place where it hurt. Because it was not even possible to cry out aloud, many remained as silent as yogis who had mastered their senses.

Continuing to gift each other further blows and kicks, the passengers began to fumble for their fares.

An old man imprisoned in a fortress of four or five shoulder-ed bodies held out a crumpled five-rupee-note to the conductor, but he said, “Keep to yourself the trick to get some change! Give me the exact fare, karnor!”

“Ok, will do, no need to call me karnor,” grumbled the old man. “I have nephews in places bigger than yours. Why not call me ammavan?”

The conductor was irritated first, but then he remembered that in these southern parts, all senior men are called ammavan – Uncle. Back where he came from, that mode of address was rooted not in age but in kinship.

Before he could reply, loud cries of “Stop, please stop,” rent the air inside the bus. The conductor blew his whistle and broke into an angry tirade, “Stop indeed! You think this is a shuttle bus? Those who couldn’t walk just three short miles have crawled in here! Yes, won’t your feet wear out if you walk …”

He couldn’t complete that because of a massive shove from the front part of the bus. It told him that a woman was trying to get off; many of the passengers who were standing were trying to get off to make way for her.

In spite of that the woman moved forward with great effort, breathless, as she made her way through the crowd. Looking as though she had achieved something great, and breathing now, she said, “Now I have to walk back a furlong! When I told you to stop…” She sounded like she was complaining to herself.

“I should listen?” Taking this opportunity to continue selling tickets, the conductor said. “If you yell from there, it takes many more throats to echo it here so that I can hear?”

These early-journey rituals were repeated many times; the main difference was that no one was kept out.

The bus kept running. The conductor moved ahead with minor quarrels over change and counterfeit coins.

With even greater planning and mental preparation, he moved towards the women’s side.

Seeing him, an elderly woman – a poor village woman clad in a smudged rouka and a mundu and a towel on her shoulder – begged him, “My dear son, can’t bear this crowding and the heat. The eyes and nose are getting steam-cooked! I can stand up if that helps, just need some space. Please seat this girl somehow. She’s ten months pregnant. What if her belly takes the blows? Looks like she may give birth any moment!”

“How am I responsible for that?”  The conductor sensed that there were no men accompanying them and saw a chance to entertain the other passengers, “I am seeing her for the first time.”

The old woman didn’t catch the joke. The pain in her mind was greater than the pain that racked her daughter’s body.  It was impossible for others to make out if the daughter got the joke either. The face of that young girl, not past sixteen, was already contorted in agony. Noticing the mother’s grief-stricken anxiety, the girl’s piteous state, and the derisive laughter of the others, a young woman – from her looks and age and the weight of the books she carried, a teacher or student – said, “I’ll get up. That should make it more comfortable.”

She stood up. The conductor looked piercingly at the mother and daughter who were the cause of this discomfort. “Can’t you just stay back at home if things are far gone? What a nuisance?”

In response, the woman tried to narrate her history. They had borrowed money for the wedding and the ornaments to marry this girl, and the wedding was actually well-beyond their means. That man took advantage of her extreme youth and cheated her of all her gold.  When all of it was gone, he just disappeared. After that his family began to harass her. Fear-stricken, she revealed nothing. But when the family refused to accept her pregnancy, she sent a secret message to her mother.  She wanted to bring her back without any of the usual rituals but others didn’t like that. In the end, the mother fought with others at home, fetched her daughter, and was now taking her to the Women’s Hospital. The hospitals here don’t care for the poor. The mother however knew the Big Missy – the senior lady doctor – at the hospital there since infancy. If they managed to make it to that hospital somehow, there was hope.

And then, turning to the woman who had helped, she gifted a piece of advice, “My dear daughter, can one trust any of these devils these days? They walk around looking all shiny; but deep inside they are all evil, pure venom!”

The conductor who was preparing a funny response to that, suddenly found himself pulled back sharply by a Tamil woman of nearly fifty. Surprised that the delicate race could be so self-assured, he turned to her.

That woman who was covered with gold ornaments, as though the gold had been melted and cooled to form plates, filled her seat.  She handed him one and a half rupees as the fare. There was a man and a young girl sitting on either side of her.  The conductor asked her, “Is this whole amount for your fare? The half-ticket included?”

Giggles broke out from the sides. The woman pointed to the girl sitting next to her. She argued that her granddaughter was not even twelve and was highly aided in this by her deep-throated voice.

He felt certain that it was impossible to win the argument. The man next to her was seated, bent down with a very serious expression on his face. With the adeptness of a seasoned woman-watcher, he stared at the girl for a while, making her cringe with shame, and thus extracted the worth of the half-ticket not taken. His satisfaction looked satisfactory to the woman too. After that he stretched out to tap the man’s shoulder and asked him, “How are you related to this woman?”

The man raised his head. He had long, curled hair that fell to his shoulders, wore a muslin shirt opened to the chest to show off the chain, had a gold-chain wrist-watch, and a ladies’ umbrella thrust down at his feet.  His face looked like that of an experienced rowdy. He barked at the conductor, “Don’t you dare behave with me as if you were the king of the bus! Do I look like a Tamilian?”

The conductor wanted to say yes, but concern for his own health stopped him. But by staring at his ornaments one by one, he said just that, and spoke only after it was communicated. “Aren’t you a man? Why can’t you stand? Here, look.”

He glanced towards what the conductor was pointing to. He said seen earlier the sign, ‘Please offer your seats to ladies.’ He replied quite nonchalantly. “All this writing is pointless. It’s written outside that only fifty-five persons may be permitted. How many are here right now?”

Someone suppressed a laugh and cried out, “Not fifty-five yet. It’s reached 54.99 now. Let’s hope it stays that way till we reach! One doesn’t know when this .99 will turn into 1.”

This time not many caught the joke so the laughter wasn’t too much.  The pregnant girl did not know that she was the butt of that percentage joke. Not because she was ignorant but because she was not fully conscious.

“In any case don’t take what’s written outside seriously,” another person chipped in. “Can’t you see, right above your head, ‘Don’t leave an inch of land fallow’?”

Many turned their eyes to the bus-ceiling in surprise.  That was a slogan from the Grow More Food Campaign some years back. Nothing of it except this slogan survived now.

The gold-chain man was still seated. He also started on a critique of the injunction to rise. “Which uncouth fellow wrote that there? Have you seen women seated first before the banana-leaves in any respectable feast? Even in our homes, do we give them comforts first in any matter? Will they dare to ask? Those who are happy with the leavings from men’s plates there – for them here’s a new-fangled reform! Build a fence using policemen, get the women to sit first; men can sit only when all others are seated! Even if seated, if a woman gets in, you have to get up! Not for nothing has Kali advanced and now there is no rain and no harvest on time!”

“Stop speechifying and get up,” said the conductor in a voice of authority. “Save the reasoning and justification for home.”

The passenger got up – looking daggers at the conductor.

“Here, there is space here,” the conductor invited the young woman who had got up for the pregnant girl, “Please move a bit, Ammayi,” he told the Tamil woman.

“So she has become your Ammayi?” The gold-chain man had his revenge. “That’s why he was so keen to know the girl’s exact age! The mother’s got a free son-in-law, paid no dowry!”

Everyone liked that joke and there was a burst of laughter inside. Even the young woman who had covered her mouth with the book, laughed.

The conductor could not make out anything – except that he was a laughing stock now. In the southern parts, though ammavan can denote any senior man, ammayi can mean only your wife’s mother!  He didn’t know that and was seriously irked. Leaping at the man who had made fun of him, he …

That is, he didn’t actually leap. That was not possible in the bus which was so crowded that one couldn’t move even a finger. But the way his body swung, people got the impression that he leapt.

The bus was in terrible disarray now; all kinds of vague sounds filled it. “The belly, ayyo, the belly,” somebody shouted. Some seated passengers leapt to their feet and that led others to occupy those seats which in turn aggravated the pushing and shoving endlessly.

Suddenly the bus halted. The conductor felt that his omniscient authority inside the bus was being challenged from all sides. Ready to shout at the driver, he craned his neck above the heads and saw the driver standing up looking terrified. In a voice amplified by terror, he was shouting, “Everybody get off the bus right now! Great danger ahead … quick, quick!”

Not bothering to find out what, the passengers quickly exited fearing for their lives. They thought that the machine had failed and that it might even burst into flames. The conductor thought the same. People escaped bruising arm and leg, breaking their umbrellas and tearing their clothes.

When he got to know what the matter actually was, the conductor was even more horrified. He felt it was his duty to provide privacy inside the bus, as good as what one would have inside a room. The driver and he began to draw down the window-blinds quickly.

Not noticing any great danger, the passengers stood around dumbstruck. When he finished taking a good look at all of them gathered around, the rowdy-looking man with a penchant for ladies’ finery hit upon the matter. Among those who had got down, the girl with the contorted face and her mother were missing. Someone said, “.99 is now taking shape as a whole 1.” Looking at the conductor, he said slowly, “There should be some counting when passengers are let in. No use preaching the rule and norm. Great good luck that this is birth, not death.”

Without much delay, the cry of an infant coming into contact with the earth for the very first time sounded from inside the bus.  The passengers looked at each other. None of them felt then that this transformation of a transport vehicle into a maternity room was a fabulous thing. But even those who were making a fuss about getting back to the road were silent.  They all felt at least a pang of sorrow in their hearts, as though they too were complicit in this dreadful happening.

After some time, the conductor appeared with an apologetic face and said, “A little more patience, please! The bus has to go back a few miles. We will be back after leaving them at the hospital.”

No one uttered a word. Only the gold-chain man cried aloud, “Even if it takes a bit more time, please get the bus washed properly!”


(Ambathanjuper Matram, 1948)



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