“Don’t teach me. Don’t try to patronize. Tell me a story so that I may learn.”
Two years ago, I met a friend, a prolific reader, who happened to utter these words in a casual conversation. He was talking of an author whose style he considered rather didactic. It must have stirred something deep in me, for I remember his words, and the lesson, clearly.
And so I will clothe my message in a story. A real one.
The year I joined college, Delhi government woke up to the traffic chaos faced by residents of Palam and Dwarka. Then, Palam was bustling with life and business, and Dwarka had been freshly dug for the coveted metro. Property hawks were, as always, the first to milk the fattened cow, and before we knew, our modest property had become Delhi’s latest desire. Resultant – habitation in Dwarka soared; cow sheds were replaced by buildings and private vehicles zoomed on the roads hitherto dominated by buses.
What the property dealers inadvertently forgot to mention was that the road to this new-found paradise was fraught with a bottleneck called Palam-Railway Crossing. On an average day, when the barricades were up, it took me an hour and half to travel 17 kms to college. And when luck was not smiling on you, the time taken to cover the same distance could range anywhere between 2 to 3.5 hours. It was not people’s stupidity that amazed me. I mean, if it takes discipline to save time and streamline traffic, it must be taking stupidity to clog either of the level crossing thinking that cars will grow wings. But what did amaze me was traffic police’s utter apathy to the situation. The bedlam of confusion, delay and rampant indiscipline could have been fixed by road dividers on either side. And guess what, even today there is none.
I was one among the many middle-class commuters who waited every day for the perennially crowded bus route number 764. Starting from Najafgarh, the bus was usually full by the time I boarded. Of the very few struggles I had to make in life, travelling in the over-crowded and autocratically-run 764 has definitely been one. A sigh of relief escapes me every time the memory comes back. Most of it is a blur now.
But there is one journey in that bus I will never forget. The day after Diwali 2002.
I had been a Diwali enthusiast since childhood. Crackers thrilled me. The deafening sound, the glaring flashes, the risk of the game…I looked forward to Diwali with a tingling itch. Unabashedly, I burned crackers, the louder the better, with my brother as my partner-in-crime. Until that day.
That day, two trains went past the Palam crossing. In what felt like an eternity. An infernal eternity of desperation.
From the moment I stepped out of my home that day, I smelled the burning wrath of the previous night. I took the bus, as usual, and it was bearable by the time I reached Palam. When the driver finally put out the engine for what was to be an hour long wait, little did I know what awaited me. The first symptom was the itching in eyes. I could see my bloodshot eyes in the reflection of window panes. I put on my shades in a weather where the sun was blinded by earth’s smog. Then came the grimy sweating. Yes, in the cold of November, I remember sweating profusely, to my toes, with unease clawing at my throat. The real problem began when I thought I would suffocate and die. In the traffic blockade of nearly 2 kilometers, my lungs bursting and protesting against ingesting the deadly smoke, my knees buckling under the sudden vulnerability of biology, where could have I run to? What could have I done?
I remember a fellow passenger taking mercy and sharing his seat with me. I survived the morning without passing out. And I saw, around me, a swarm of cars. With windows neatly pulled up. The hum of engines indicating the air-conditioning inside.
Suspended particulate matter, which reach the deepest recesses of human lungs, are present at the level of 200 on a normal day. Post Diwali, this figure multiplies by six.
But of course, those sitting inside cars don’t realize this. I speak for those on the other side of the fence. Please, have mercy.