Thursday, May 19, 2005

Assertive action

The hotter is gets, the more inclined I am spend to spend greater amounts on transport. With the promise of air-conditioning, a reclining cushioned seat and ample legroom, I purchased a ticket with Messieurs Sri Balaji Travels and promised to return at eight o'clock the following morning to take seat number 11a on the Bangalore-Chennai express-deluxe coach.

I arrived at the appointed place just twenty minutes late, after a couple of cups of sweet milky tea. There is no point arriving on time for anything in this country. Except trains, which have the habit of departing on time but arriving late. After forty-five minutes more and a few more teas, I was fidgeting. Mr Balaji sensed my concern.

'Bus one hour late.'

'Umm, yep, I figured as much.'

'You want breakfast?'

After the hour had passed, I stood up, took my nose out of my new novel and went over for question time.

'When is bus coming?' [I possess the ludicrous habit of speaking in broken English to Indians].


'What time?'

'You want breakfast?'

At some point a young urchin brushed past me and handed a crumpled ticket to Mr Balaji. The latter inspected it, returned it, and promptly asked to see my own. This he did not return. He told me to follow the grubby kid who would escort me to my bus.

'You told me to come here. Bus pick up from here, no?'

'You follow him now.'

'I don't have a ticket. You have it.'

'Possible. You follow him.'

Something was wrong. I didn't like this.

As we crossed the street and into the bowels of the bus station, I worked out what was going on. I took the ticket out of the urchin's hands, and asked him where my bus was.

'Ten o'clock.'

'This is my ticket? I had bus for eight o'clock. Where is bus?'

He pointed, as all Indians do in response to such a question, in a general direction away from both of us. Briefly, I imagined what would happened if I pummelled his head into the nearby concrete pylon until he was but a bleeding pulp. Then I imagined life inside an Indian prison. I'm sure the food's not that good.

Examining the ticket, I noticed that it was issued by the State Transit Authority, was for a different bus number and seat number. At least it appeared to be bound for Chennai.

The price marked on this ticket was one third what I had passed over to Mr Balaji. Too tired to argue with the kid, I sent him off with a disparaging look and peered around for the bus that would take me to my destination. When I evenutally discovered it, and its delapidated state, I immediately found the resolve to pay a quick return visit to Balaji and Co.

I wanted a cushioned luxury-express experience and I was getting rust and battered metal.
I stayed calm. Very Zen.

'What the ...?'

'Bus cancelled.'

'Why didn't you tell me that? I was sitting here for almost two hours.'

'Bus will leave at ten.'

'Ummm, look at price.'He glanced, though he was about to learn something new, and smiled, like this was acceptable and ordinary behaviour when dealing with people.

'No problem, bus at ten.' My patience expired.

I requested that he return the difference of the cost of the two tickets, since the vehicle I was to travel on did not resemble the one on the poster on the office wall, the one I had expected.
Mr Balaji gave me a big white smile. I gave him a dark withering scowl with a vague hint of menace.

Along came the 'others'. Indians involved in the tourism industry speak bad English until there's a discussion over cash. Suddenly they become fluent. They operate in groups.

Laughing at the pettiness of it all, and with a slight mania in my tone, I peppered my insults with good humour and told them that they would all burn in Hell if they didn't return my cash now. It was comic. I shouted 'You criminals, you bad people' a few times at the top of my voice from the front of the store, until they were throwing banknotes at me to move on.

Can you believe it? I made a profit. In India.

I cross the street, gave the excess cash to a beggar who must have thought I was the nicest young man in town, and hopped on the next bus to Madras.

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