Fourteen years ago, I felt the blazing, punishing, Delhi heat as soon as I came out of my office at 5 o’clock and proceeded towards the bus stop as I did every day back then.
I waited for bus number 864 at the Janak Puri Community Centre stop with a few other people. Among them was a young lady in her mid-20s, oblivious to me, listening to music with earphones connected to her mobile. Though I saw her every day at the stop, we never spoke to each other.
After 10–15 minutes, the bus arrived. I got on and the woman did too, and, as she normally did, settled herself in the front row.
The bus waited for 10–15 minutes—usual for the Blueline private buses.
‘Passengers ko ane dijiye (Let all the passengers arrive),’ the conductor said.
Sometimes people got annoyed at the wait. Passengers often expressed their displeasure by saying, ‘Ab kya logo ko ghar se bula ke layoge? (Will you go from door to door and ask people to board your bus?)’
The engine started and the bus had barely moved an inch when the mobile phone of the bus-driver beeped, and it stopped.
‘What’s the matter?’ I almost screamed.
The driver spoke to somebody over the phone, while the conductor motioned for us to remain seated. After a few minutes went by like this, I leaned over to the woman in the front row: ‘Why isn’t the bus moving?’
‘Probably a CNG issue.’ She responded.
‘I thought the problem was sorted out.’ The lady at the back seat joined us. An elderly man popped up behind us—‘The Supreme Court passed an order that all buses, autos would change to compressed natural gas (CNG) by 31 March this year.’ ‘How many can afford this conversion to CNG? So many buses have gone off the roads.’ The man continued excitedly, feeling pleased about the fact that his words had gathered our attention.
‘But the Supreme Court has given some concession I think,’ I intervened in a bid to prove that I wasn’t totally ignorant of what was going on in the city.
‘Yes. Only for those who have placed orders for the conversion or new CNG vehicles...’ The woman next to me said.
‘Everybody get off—the bus won’t go!’ The conductor declared all of a sudden, putting an end to all the speculation.
‘Why?’ I demanded an answer.
‘Buses are being overturned. A few kilometers from here, we’re hearing that a bus was set on fire a few minutes ago. Make your own arrangements. We won’t go.’ He retorted in a thunderous voice.
‘Let’s take an auto.’ everyone started saying to no one in particular.
Delhi was a highly polluted city during the 90s and during that decade it was ranked fourth among the 41 most-polluted cities in the world. Over 60% of the air pollution in Delhi was due to vehicles, diesel vehicles being the worst contributors. The air pollution definitely affected the health and efficiency of citizens. I clearly remember that on busy roads, I would find my eyes burning with dust as black smoke poured from the backs of buses and trucks.
So, as the story goes, Mr M.C. Mehta, a lawyer and head of a local NGO, filed a public interest litigation in the early 90s before the Supreme Court invoking the fundamental constitutional rights of the citizens against the failure of the state government to protect Delhi’s environment. And as we all knew, it worked.
But shifting the diesel vehicles to CNG seemed to be a daunting task at that time. The most important reason why was the high cost involved in conversion. The majority of the buses in Delhi were run by private operators, who were not willing to go in for the big investment.
As the number of buses declined drastically, thousands of commuters were stranded on the roads, waiting for hours together for the few packed buses in order to reach their destinations, which was no less than a nightmare. Angry, frustrated commuters started damaging the buses and some of these were also set on fire by them. Taxi and auto-rickshaw owners along with bus operators went on strikes at frequent intervals during that period.
We got down from the bus. Delhi was always unsafe for women on their own, and it was better to travel in a group. Contrary to my shy nature, I moved forward and introduced myself to them. I came to know that the woman in the front was Mitali and both of us stayed in South Extension. Simran was the other woman and stayed in Vikas Puri and was visiting her sister who lived in Kalkaji. We’d decided that we’d take an auto till South Extension. and then Simran could hire another one for Kalkaji.
We tried looking for a ride; none of the auto-drivers were willing to go—one said, ‘It’s risky to go to South Delhi right now.’
Time was running by.
After about 15–20 minutes, all of us getting a little more anxious with every passing minute, we got an auto.
‘Bhaiya, South Extension!’ I said in a half-commanding, half-pleading tone with an air of hesitation.
‘There is so much turmoil. Don’t you know?’ He paused for a moment and then resumed, ‘I’ll try to take you to the Dhaula Kuan bus stop.’
‘It’s fine with us,’ Mitali said.
‘How much?’ I asked mustering some courage, dreading that he might quote a fare on the higher side.
‘What?’ My jaws dropped.
At the time the rate was 50 rupees from Janak Puri Community Centre to Dhaula Kuan.
Mitali looked at me in the eye with a stern expression and commenced, ‘We’ll share.’
The driver turned around and said, ‘I won’t take a single penny if I’m not able to drop you safely at Dhaula Kuan.’
We started off.
It was 6.30 p.m. and the sky was preparing to change its attire from dull-orange to violet—it would be dark soon.
The driver took shortcuts and assured us that we’d reach Dhaula Kuan within no time. Usually, it took around half-an-hour to forty minutes to reach there by bus. We expected that it would be sooner than that, without knowing that it would be the longest stretch that we’d ever cross in our lives.
The auto rushed from a wide lane to a narrow one—and slowed as he went around a turn.
‘Why are you taking passengers?’ A hoarse male voice suddenly broke in. It came from the side, from a driver who’d parked at the corner of the road.
‘There’s a lot of chaos and confusion out here. They’ve declared an auto strike,’ the other driver told us.
The auto-drivers were known for declaring such type of unannounced strikes. We never had the courage to ask whether there was a valid reason behind their strike—on the day the reason was the violent protests from the commuters of Delhi.
I mentally thanked our driver for helping us, but could not trust him fully. There was this fear lurking all the time that something else would get unfolded at a critical moment—a trust that seemed to be built on sand and lost without trace whenever the waves of doubt surged in.
We kept quiet for a little while. As we kept driving, we noticed that fewer and fewer vehicles of any kind were sharing the road with us—I couldn’t help but think: if something happens, should I save myself or also try to save the others? It’s not the kind of thought you have every day.
After a while the auto stopped. My gaze shifted from the auto-driver to a large iron gate in the narrow lane which was being closed and a guard was about to lock it.
‘Please allow us to go,’ our driver pleaded with the guard.
‘No. You better find some other route.’ The guard said quickly as he turned back to close the gate.
Our driver sighed, turned the auto around, and pushed forward.
‘I can’t believe this government, that they would let it get to this point—these leaders are never bothered about the common man,’ Mitali commented.
‘They’re sitting in AC rooms, travelling by government vehicles, enjoying z-category security. How’ll they know about the difficulties faced by the common man?’ the auto-driver interposed as he buzzed down the road.
‘Now what are we going to do? Get stuck in the middle of nowhere?’ Mitali said.
‘We’ll try the other lane.’ The driver said positively, trying to enliven our dampened spirits. His face was determined and we could see him thinking hard about what to do next.
We came out of the narrow lane and after proceeding forward in a wide one, the auto took a turn to a by-lane. We tried several alley ways and saw that all the gates were shut tightly and everybody refused to let us pass.
It was like a birthday cake—The closing of the gates was like someone blowing out the candles one by one, extinguishing hope that we actually headed home.
The auto-driver spoke occasionally assuring us that he’ll try some other lane and we’d make it to the main road very soon. Again his cool appearance, over-friendly attitude and unnecessary polite behaviour raised a worry—whether it was his genuine concern towards us or a dirty motive behind all that he was doing.
It was getting dark outside and the dim street lights couldn’t relieve me of the sinking feeling. There were several news flashes in those days which reported of incidents where women had trusted strangers and landed up in trouble, the culprits being mostly involved in human trafficking. Even if we had anticipated something of that sort, jumping off the vehicle would only lead to a further helpless state, but with broken limbs.
I remembered God for the first time in the entire day and prayed for all three of us.
After hovering for some time in the narrow lanes, we reached the main road where we found ourselves in midst of a sudden flood of private cars—traffic slowed to a crawl, impatient drivers honking, agitated heads peeping out of their vehicles… the streets were chaos. Our driver somehow managed to go ahead in midst of the traffic jam, driving on the pavement most of the time, and weaving around motorcycles and scooters like they were traffic cones.
‘Why is this road empty when that one’s so full?’ We asked the auto-driver with a sinking feeling on reaching a deserted road.
He shook his head—he didn’t know.
A smell of burnt rubber shot into the air. Suddenly, our eyes lodged on a burning bus at the side of the road. In the twilight, the orangish-red flames were extra bright, in that way things at dusk take on a surreal edge to them.
The lashing fire enveloped the sides of the bus, and a cloud of dark, dense smoke was rising up into the sky.
This was something from CNN International, not something you actually see with your own eyes. I could feel the two women gripping my arm as hard as they could; their nails almost digging into my skin.
Yes, I could see it, but I couldn’t believe it.
A few terrified people were running helter-skelter calling for the fire brigade.
We heard the siren of a police van coming from a distance.
‘Let’s get out of here.’ The auto-driver said suddenly and shifted quickly to a side lane.
Two hours had passed since we started but we were still in Janak Puri.
‘We’ll make it.’ I said, trying to relieve ourselves from the fear.
Simran and Mitali averted their eyes from me. Fear is contagious and we didn’t want it to get transferred to the driver.
The unfamiliar heaviness which I’d suppressed beneath an outward calm came surging up in the form of tears that streamed from my eyes. I never imagined that I would witness something of that sort. I could actually feel the pain that people went through whenever riots broke out and also, the mental shock and turmoil on seeing things put on fire. Thousands of people got affected from riots, bomb blasts—all manmade calamities—and the impact would be passed on to their families who would suffer endlessly for ages.
‘We’ll find a way. Don’t worry.’ I tried to utter a word of comfort and wiped my eyes unnoticed.
I tried to keep my calm and so did Mitali and Simran.
There was no way we could get to know the latest information about the situation in that part of Delhi. Among the four of us (including the driver), only Mitali had a mobile phone and without an Internet connection. In those days, not everyone had mobile phones and the concept of a Net connection on the phone was brand new. Imagine a world without mobile phones, Internet, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp. It would have certainly saved us time and reduced our anxiety if we had got to know at least something from the news websites about the roads and where exactly the blockages were, and why. On second thought, maybe it would have had the opposite effect.
We crossed Hari Nagar, Naraina and at last reached the Ridge area near Dhaula Kuan. A few people were waiting on one side of the lonely road.
‘We’ve reached the Dhaula Kuan stop.’ The auto-driver announced. I could feel a sense of relief in his voice.
‘But this doesn’t seem to be a bus stop.’ Mitali said.
‘I’m afraid I won’t be able to go any further. I’m yet to get a CNG for my auto.’
We didn’t notice earlier that so long we had been travelling by a non-CNG auto. As per the Supreme Court’s order, only CNG autos were allowed in Delhi.
‘You’ll get a bus from here.’ He said.
We paid him without going into any further argument. We waited and waited, which seemed to be something like an endless wait. After may be 25–30 minutes, we saw a bus at a distance.
Luckily, the overcrowded bus was going to South Delhi.
We crammed ourselves on and the bus pulled away. As I looked out of the moving bus window, I noticed our auto-driver, in the dim light, waving good bye at the three of us. He had waited off to the side that whole time to make sure we got on the bus.Not sure whether it was his eyes or mine that seemed to be moist with tears. I waived back to him until he faded into the distance and darkness engulfed the isolated stretch.
I recalled with gratitude what he told me about 3 hours ago when we hired his auto.
‘I won’t take a single penny if I’m not able to drop you safely at Dhaula Kuan.’
We reached South Extension bus stop after another 30 to 40 minutes. Simran hired an auto for Kalkaji from there. Mitali and I walked down to our houses. The media covered the chaos in the city and the kinds of incidents that happened to us and many more commuters on that day. The newspapers and news channels were filled with images of people travelling on the roofs of buses and mobbing around bus stops.
It was a ride I take every day, but that time it was different. That day, it happened to come right at the moment that Delhi was going through its growing pains, when it ealized that doing something about the environment was not an agenda item that could just be pushed off to some undefined future again and again. It was a shock to our system, but for me personally, it was a lesson in the courage of humanity in more ways than one.