I do not know whether what I am about to say hence pertains to my Kolkata only or to every other city in this country where buses ply, but for some reason, these monstrous vehicles have the word ‘Pilot’ printed by the side of the driver’s seat (or should I say “pilot’s seat?”). Since time immemorial, this little glitch in the transportation cum aviation universe has pestered me and although I have performed a fair amount of research (because the thought of conducting an exhaustive research pesters me more), I have not got any definitive answer. The first answer came from my mother. I asked her this very question many years ago, when I was a naive little boy (the naivety has never left me). Even the bounty of wisdom that my mother possessed did not have a concrete answer to this, and she said something along the lines of “Perhaps it is because the definition of pilot extends to someone who guides and well, the bus driver is also obviously guiding the vehicle” and “Why don’t you use your brain to address matters that are actually of importance, like school work?”. The latter was of course not related to my question but what good is an Indian mother if she doesn’t bring up your academics every now and then.
Anyway, a quick Google search revealed that this inscription of ‘pilot’ has been used on trucks and in buses of a few places apart from Kolkata. There was another wild claim from another source. It was written by a Bengali, and he said that most Bengalis are a sensitive bunch, and the thought of ‘driver’ isn’t a very picturesque one and ‘pilot’ on the other hand sounds elite and important; clearly elevated in comparison to a driver who must remain grounded. Another source said that it had something to do with the manufacturer and something along those lines and even this seemed plausible to me.
But whatever be the origins of the ‘pilot’ for the bus and the bus driver and whatever it means now, it doesn’t matter. My interpretation of it doesn’t anyway. What does matter is how the bus driver chooses to interpret it. And the Lord knows that that interpretation is very off-putting and risks the sanctity of humanity.
Bus drivers are under the misconception that they are truly pilots, the ones that belong in the sky. And while that may be true, they seldom realize that the vehicles they operate, are very much meant to be planted to the ground.
Such is not the case, and I have come to terms with that in the last few days even though I have lived here and have boarded buses in the past. Perhaps my slightly more sobering experiences in Chennai have opened up new gateways of shock back home.
The bus rampages through the street with seemingly no regard for law or human life, within the metal enclosure or otherwise. The bus driver though, however chaotic he may be, is a jigsaw with a missing piece without the bus conductor.
Now it is easy to understand the meaning of ‘conductor’ here, it can signify nothing apart from the electric personalities of people practicing said profession. In all honesty it is a beautiful sight; the way the conductor organizes notes of currency between his fingers like so, forming a makeshift fan of sorts. What I find even more remarkable is how I find myself swaying in haphazard directions at the whim of the bus; while the conductor retains balance expertly; motionless and exhibiting no signs of inertia. It does not matter how big or strong you are; you are the slave of the bus when you are within it. But not the conductor. He is like the cockroach which can survive nuclear winter, we are the seemingly more complex and advanced creatures and yet we will perish.
The disdain of the pilot and the conductor towards, well, everything, is rivaled only by the Napoleon complex of the auto-driver, who has to satisfy himself with such a small vehicle. It is a funny sight which many encounter; the auto trying to overtake the bus and getting yelled at by the conductor; whose profanities can make sailors wince.
Yet in spite of all the recklessness and the apparent peril, buses are a blessing. It is true that they may make ‘The City of Joy’ seem like ‘The City of Jeopardy’ at times but in a time where the fares of all modes of transportation are increasing, buses in Kolkata still remain quite cheap. It is indeed a respite for many and I feel privileged that I can sit (mostly stand) and make such quirky observations.
If you think about it, the bus is a perfect testament to human grit and perseverance; the driver a man who is deterred by almost no external agent until he reaches his goal (stopping to pick up passengers is also a part of his goal of course).