We had just shifted homes from the city to suburbia circa 1994, making the daily commute to the same school a very early morning affair. As a school kid, early mornings were mostly reserved to sprawling in the bed when not involved in cricket practice or waking up for diwali; so this came as a rude shock to a very blissful existence. Till then school buses were multi-hued of blue, brown, beige and green to be looked at from a distance with wonder at the infinite number of very heavy school bags protruding from every conceivable angle.
The first day was quite a revelation, having for the first time got into a bus for going to school at the unearthly hour of 0650 in the morning. A lot of sleepy faces and many more kept occupying the seats till the seats could hold no more. The not so sleepy faces that hopped into the bus much much later had to make do with whatever seats were available or to be quite correct whatever space was available for self and the bag. The bus took a huge detour nearly criss-crossing the school twice before finally making a grand entry, so kids who lived farthest like me had a distinct advantage of choosing the grandest seats. A big consolation, getting a choice seat when most others were barely awake.
Considering the odd hour, it was quite odd, extremely odd that a majority of us kids never slept on the way to school. Maybe it was the sheer adrenalin rush of looking at things whizz past or decibel levels that could put a Led Zeppelin concert to shame. Another interesting phenomenon that happened nearly always was –the homework. Kids and homework generally don’t go hand in hand, especially if it were boys with a lot of time to spare. I doubt any schoolboy in his right frame of mind with enough time to spare would waste it in completing arcane homework, when the same could be copied from somebody that too in the school bus in an hour and half. (And the time utilized to bicycle listlessly; watch TV; play cricket, football; break window panes; break something; fight, quarrel or do what schoolboys in general do). Now that was an art which required great levels of concentration, great hand eye co-ordination of the kind which opening batsmen in a WACA pitch are required to posses; quick reflexes to match the needs of immediate stabilization for a ride sprinkled with bumps, sudden swerves and screeching halts. It was a very common sight to see schoolbags, notebooks and lunch boxes flying around with kids attached to them from one end to another whenever the bus stopped or tried desperately to. Guys with no such talents had to face ignominy at the hands of the teacher, so often great champions emerged out both hands raised, with a smug air of satisfaction of having gallivanted about the previous evening and also completed arduous tasks like homework. The spectators, fanfare, confetti, the podium and the laurel wreath were of course very inconspicuous by their absence.
Exams were when the bus driver had a little piece of mind with a majority of the kids cramming every bit of information till the last minute. Coming back from school meant circumnavigating half the city all over again before reaching home. But then that delight didn’t last for more than two years as I had to shift over to the town bus as circumnavigation lost its charm and classes, special classes and very special classes for the Board Exams became a regular feature.
The town bus saga also began at an early hour of 0700 hrs IST but was a little more interesting with the bus ambling around the countryside, gathering speed and along with it a mélange of people; workers armed with their spades, pickaxes, tobacco and betel leaves heading for an early day; early office goers with their handbags, shouldered bags and lunch; children heading for school; vendors carting their wares and daily fresh provisions; farmers with their produce to the weekly shanty; the odd pious pujari in white heading to his temple and favourite God; students heading for college, all rocking to deafening Tamil film music blaring out from speakers located at the most inconceivable places. The music largely depended on the mood swings of the driver-conductor duo ranging from yesteryear celluloid hits to Rajni songs, sentimental theatrical takes on life songs, just hit the bottle songs, dancing around the tree songs, running around the tree songs or some religious song just to add that bit of faith in their day to day lives and penitence for the previous day’s drinking binge. Things were no different either; kids being pitch forked ahead into baskets of vegetables, last minute homework, penultimate minute studies sprinkled with generous unsolicited advice from some unknown mathematical genius who had the rules of trigonometry embedded into a micro chip in his forty odd year old brain ready to be thrown at unassuming school students. (He much later bore a great resemblance to the Colombian knife thrower in the Antonio Banderas movie- The Desperado; dressed in a white veshti, his forehead smeared with three white stripes of ash, armed to the teeth with his theorems, axioms, proofs which could be thrown at ease like the stilettos and a X standard Maths text book for reloading when required)
It was always a secure feeling traveling in the bus; (regardless of whether it was the school bus or the city bus sorry town bus) you were cocksure that nothing could happen to you as the bus plowed around the roads. If it were the school bus, pedestrians, passers by always gave it a wide berth for they sympathized with a driver who had to haul a hundred odd kids prone to fighting, squealing and crying on a daily basis. The city/town bus was also given a great deal of respect simply because of the ability of the drivers to squeeze the bus through the smallest of by lanes, streets at great speeds like a mad bull and also primarily to avoid oneself to be covered by fresh betel stains.
A streak of independence manifests itself in a boy in the form of a bicycle. The bicycle had always been a part of growing up but it had to come into the picture sometime when going to school some fourteen kilometers away weaving through non-existent roads, tank bunds, broken bridges across broken streams, school traffic and city traffic. And so it did in a very unceremonious way till it became a daily affair. The bicycle meant more time, more time to get up in the morning and watch the early morning NBA play-offs while unhurriedly finishing off breakfast. Homework by then had become a more serious threat to life and existence requiring more than one and half hours and hence was religiously completed the day before.
Ten years down the line the school buses resemble some kind of strange apparition in white (best seen in movies with eerie lighting and a candle to the background music of repeated howls of a very lonely hungry animal of the canine species or a lady at that) that appears in the road like a misguided missile with a manic behavioral disorder. Guess nothing much has changed except for the macabre colour.