Everyday road nightmares

If you’re asked, What is the densest material on earth, what would be your answer? Most having an inclination towards Science would be tempted to say: Chengdeite (a naturally occurring mineral, a combination of iridium and iron.)

That’s exactly where yours truly doesn’t like to go with those who believe in science and science only. If you were to trust me – and there’s no reason other than me being a journalist, why you should not – the densest material on Planet Earth has to be the microbuses of Kathmandu. These vehicles, which appear more like vans than buses, generally contain the entire universe within themselves. You have to take a ride in one of them to really get a feel of it.

It’s a lifeline for Kathmandu if you prefer public transport to personal one (or if you can’t afford one!) Yet you feel that your life is sucked out when you travel in it. The sheer number of people who can be contained in one microbus is amazing. Like a black hole, it consumes almost anything that comes in its vicinity. A vehicle with fitted seats for 12-13 can almost include hundreds. And in nine out of 10 trips, you’re likely to find your fellow neighbor’s hand in your pockets. A polite inquiry into the cause of such generosity would get you an equally polite answer, like, “Ah! It’s yours? I thought I was scratching my … (unmentionables).” True manifestation of the Biblical verse: ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.’

Admittedly, the statistical analysis in the above lines isn’t open to challenge (for the fear it can be proven wrong). At the same time, a Kathmandu tour on this vehicle is so delightful; you would start looking for opportunities to retroactively boycotting all your previous commute in safer and more glamorous automobiles in countries beyond the Nepali boundary.

Photo courtesy: Bijay Gajmer
Photo courtesy: Bijay Gajmer

The people in these microyatra (short trip) add to the charm of travel. Though short, you learn the lesson no school has ever taught you. Yours truly, in a recent such opportunity, had a lesson of a lifetime.

The microbus, carrying some 30-40 people – give or take a dozen – was on its way to Budhanilkantha, the heavenly place where Lord Bishnu has been found sleeping on serpents (due to lack of government subsidy on mattresses). It would be important here to mention that traffic rules (unwritten, to my knowledge) don’t permit these microbuses to keep their doors open, no matter how many people are micro-residing in it. As a matter of fact, the microbus staff – who is normally spotted with half his body out of the window – failed to keep the door closed. It’s debatable whether he was being merciful to the people clinging on to the vehicle or was taking pleasure in observing the effect of dust on his passengers. The open door prompted a man in blue – fondly called a traffic cop – to order the motor to stop. It came to halt with a screech (not that it was speeding, but the screech sound emanated due to loose parts of the automobile). The traffic police, driven by the call of duty, demanded the driver to produce his driving license. And that created a ruckus within the swollen vehicle.

The passengers, who were complaining about the behavior of driver and his ally just a moment earlier, started complaining about the traffic police. The noise of ‘police are corrupt,’ ‘why can’t you let us live in peace?’ and ‘why is he wasting our precious time?’ gained such tempo that the capped man lost his nerve. He stopped arguing with the driver and respectfully returned his license and meekly said, “Sorry.”

The bus moved, as the passengers congratulated each other on rescuing the ‘victims.’ And the conductor started shouting at the passengers for not sitting properly, hurling obscenities. A kilometer or so later, the microbus was hurled into a fuel station, to get its fill. The driver and the his ally, already cooled off after lambasting those who were in the bus, started chatting with the tank-fillers. It took them a good 15 minutes to get their ‘fill’ of fuel and chat before they were ready to move.

The passengers did not complain of ‘wasting precious time.’ Yours truly kept wondering about where this ‘microyatra’ would end!

PS: This write-up appeared in the weekend edition of Republica, The Week, on 21 March, 2014

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