Featured image courtesy Wikipedia

Editor’s Note: We felt this narrative was important to post in the wake of a news report of a mother and daughter losing their lives while crossing the Galle Road – and in the wake of numerous reports of road accidents involving reckless driving in Sri Lanka.

It was 5 pm. The bus travelling from Matale to Kandy arrived at the bus stop. The last two buses, which I let pass, now seemed a better choice, for if there was any space in this bus, it was on the hood. The rest of the bus was stuffed with humans up to the doorways. With some difficulty, I squeezed myself in. It was a pathetic sight; people were nearly in a pile; squashed, sweated and suffocated, some of them dangling helplessly, suspended in the air. However, one very determined man inside the bus had a very different perspective. “Mahattaya othana hira karannathuwa poddak madhata yannako, ida thiyanawane” (“Sir can you not stand in the way, and move to the middle. There’s enough space don’t you see”.) That was the conductor pushing it to the limits. I kept moving until I stood right opposite the speaker that was blasting the type of music that can make you schizophrenic. Travelling all day under such conditions can cause a man to have hallucinations, I thought; it is impossible to even think about loading that Ashok Leyland further. Leaned over to a side, like the tower of Pisa, the bus began to move.

At intervals the bus conductor would appear through arms and legs for inspection. He couldn’t stand gaps. “Nona, Methanta enna, Sir ohoma issarahata yanta”, (“Madam, move here, Sir go in front” ) he would irritatingly command. The dangers a woman, or a child might be exposed to in such tight circumstances was the least of his concerns, but the abuse is inevitable. So much harassment, so much pain, so much trauma in a closed space – all for a few extra rupees. That’s all it comes down to; a little more cash at the expense of human dignity, comfort and freedom.

Men leaning over women; young girls, trapped; drunkards, and old perverts rubbing their crotches on the shoulders of seated school girls; small boys and girls left at the mercy of strange men; right here, amidst the public. Women and children, exposed to the worst kind of exploitation and abuse all the way home. They can’t even question, because the offenders have all the excuse in the world, in a crammed bus, to make contact. It is not only the fact that they are exploited that makes their predicament wretched, but also the fact that they have to bear all this in painful silence.

The driver seemed to be making up for lost time, and had no regard whatsoever for the safety of the passengers. Somehow the fact, that he was primarily responsible for the lives of the people on the bus, seemed to have slipped his mind. Without any indication at all he would stop in the middle of the road to load passengers, and move without indication before the passengers had safely got down at the bus stop. He was everything but sensible.

Strangled by a sea of passengers the bus was roaring at deadly speed, wobbling at each turn as though to spill the passengers over. The driver was immune to road rules. In fact he had his own rule book. He would overtake at pedestrian crossings, answer his phone while going at approximately 100 miles per hour, and honk and flash the headlights at the oncoming traffic as if to say, “Ready or not here I come”.

As we were nearing Alawathugoda, on the other side of the road loomed his counterpart. Another Ashok Leyland heading to Jaffna.

Impatient as our driver was, in complete disregard of the fact that another bus at the same speed was approaching from the opposite side he decided to overtake a car.  He relied heavily on his scare tactics to drive away the oncoming red devil; he flickered the headlights, he honked and he flickered again, and again, but it refused to bow down, and kept charging forward undeterred, unafraid, and unconscious. Thus the battle began.

Our man, the conductor by this time, had literally thrown himself out the front door, frantically waving his hand at the car, as if to say, “For God’s sake – slow down!” Clenching the gear, the bus driver looked resolved. His neck stretched forward, and his eyes spitting fury, he was clearly thinking of one thing, “I’ve come too far to give up now”.

It was then, for the first time, I smelled fear. It smelled like sweat and gasoline mixed together. The entire bus was gripped with a long, loud silence. All eyes that could see the horror were transfixed on the dark red CTB bus, heading for a collision course. I positioned myself for the crash, and hoped to die an instant and peaceful death, but then, I realized I was being silly when I saw the crowd behind me. It was then it happened. A miracle. The conductor, thanks to his relentless waving, somehow succeeded in convincing the car driver, that it was a better idea to slow down, and the bus driver, seizing the opportunity, cut inside at lightening speed, while what I thought was my reaper brushed past us with a loud, ‘vrooooom’.

Did that teach the driver a lesson? No. “Nothing happened, so what’s the big deal”, was his attitude. I was wondering; had we collided, where would the conductor have been?

Thanks to the mercy of fate, we safely crossed half the distance, and as we reached Ambatenne, an old woman wearing a yellow and green printed saree boarded the bus. In her hand was a cloth bag. I saw the weight of the bag in the contracted features of her already worn out face, and curved spine. Trying to find a place to leave her bag in that mess was like trying to shove an elephant in the fridge. There just wasn’t enough space. But then I noticed a young boy, not more than 12 years old, sitting right opposite her, and next to him was probably his mother; a young lady in her mid thirties. You might like to think, that he offered his seat to the old lady. That never happened. He was as still as a Sri Lankan traffic jam. I expected the lady who was seated, being a woman herself, to offer her seat, or request the boy to give up his seat, or at least sit the boy on her lap, so that the old woman could be seated. Instead they just continued to sit there, pretending to have not noticed the old lady. It worked, because I noticed in the old woman’s eyes the desperation to make eye contact. There were young, strong, able bodied men occupying many seats, but the plight of the old lady wasn’t miserable enough to move them.

What does it take for a human being, who was once an innocent child; a child who was filled with compassion, mercy and pity, to evolve into a cold-hearted adult, who can with no remorse, or guilt sit through an entire journey, while an old woman, barely able to stand, struggles with a heavy bag filled with stuff?

Around 6.30 pm I reached my destination. It had been a long, tiring ride, and I got down from the bus with mixed emotions. Although I was relieved to have made it unscathed, the culture of ego centrism I was exposed to throughout my journey was drilling my conscience. The conductor, the bus drivers and the passengers, everyone alike, despite their different roles, spoke the same emotions. They represented a new society beyond racial, ethnic, and cultural differences; they represented a society that was unwilling to think beyond self gratification.

I can’t remember how I got home, but I remember my wife opening the door, and as I walked in I saw four tiny, feet fidgeting behind the curtain. I knew them. It’s what I wake up to every morning; my two daughters, aged four and three. I was supposed to run around the house looking for them, before I finally caught them. That’s the drill. Children are like that. They are innocent. As I kept staring at the curtain, listening to their giggles, I suddenly felt the weight of my entire progeny on my shoulders, weighing me down.

I looked at my wife and said, “Honey, we’ve got work to do. One wrong move, and an entire generation will pay for it”.