Journey of Three Decades

December 29, 2019 at 9:15 AMDec (Musings, Slice Of Life, Soliloquy)

Few years ago when Boya Ramanjaneyalu (48) took the Volvo test, he failed to clear it. The remaining 44 drivers who took the test and also the technicians who were to assist the evaluation there appreciated Ramanjaneyalu and regarded him as the best driver there, though he couldn’t clear the test.

“One of the tests was to identify the message that is shown in the bus while there is some internal problem in the bus,” says Ramanjaneyalu. It was this message that he couldn’t decode. “I don’t know English. That is the reason I couldn’t read it. But once someone told me what the problem shown was, I knew how to get that problem fixed. But that is not what they required,” he explains before saying, “But my owner lets me drive the Vovlo because he has faith in me.” Ramanjaneyalu has been the most trusted driver for three decades and also for three generations of owners.

“Things have changed quite a lot from the time I began,” says Ramanjaneyalu who has been a bus driver for nearly three decades now. It was at the age of 15 that he began to work in the motor industry. He began as a stand cleaner at Rayadurga in Karnataka attending to the bus shuttling between Anantapuramu in Andhra and Hiriyur in Karnataka. After a year he became the bus cleaner for the same bus and continued to work for two years before shifting to a truck as cleaner for three years. It was during his time in the truck that he picked up driving and later moved on to become the driver of the same bus of which he used to be the cleaner earlier. After two years on that route, Ramanjaneyalu shifted to the Anantapuramu-Hyderabad route, which continues to be the route in which he drives even now.

“Now a days one cannot climb the ladder the way I did from a stand cleaner to cleaner to driver,” Ramanjaneyalu says. Over the years the design, mechanism of the buses have changed so much that they have redefined the responsibilities of the driver and the cleaner, he says and goes on to explain in great detail the changes that have taken place.

The job of the cleaner earlier was to regularly grease of the machines, oil them, go under the bus and check the machines there, change the tyres and also to clean the body of the bus from outside and inside. The new buses that have now hit the road need no greasing or oiling. The mechanisms are so complex that it is difficult for anyone other than the authorised people to touch the parts of the bus. That has reduced the role of a cleaner to just washing the body of the bus. Also, because driving has become a job which needs a minimum education at least up to class ten, it has blocked the possibilities for the cleaners to learn driving while on the bus and climb up the ladder. It, he stresses, also has blocked the road now of drivers who have climbed up the ladder from being cleaners, from climbing up further and becoming Volvo drivers.

The job responsibilities of a driver also has changed because of this, says Ramnajaneyalu. He says earlier the drivers were expected to know a bit of repairing. The kind of urbanization we see today wasn’t prevalent back then and the roads would actually cut through regions with no or less human habitat. If the bus broken down anywhere in between, the bus driver had to get the problem fixed, with the help of the cleaner. But now most of the parts of the engine and machines are protected and cannot be opened without the scanner which only the company people have access to. This, Ramanjaneyalu says, has handicapped the driver, cleaner and also the other mechanics who used to attend to the mechanical problems in motors. “Earlier with consulting the owners we could assemble some of the machine parts in the bus depending on what is best suited. Now that can’t be done because it’s the company which manufactured the bus who solely have the right to not just repair the machines, if repairing is possible, but also to replace the machines. It has not just made us slaves of one manufacturer master but also has made us feel we do not belong to the bus which is we own and which we work with.”

As he explains this he says, “Earlier there used to be so many mechanic shops and garages by the roads, especially the highway. Now they have reduced to the point you can say there are none. If there is any problem you have to take the bus to the authorised garage or call them. Only they can open the machines using the scanner technology. Nobody else can. If the role of the cleaner has been reduced, the role of a mechanic has been wiped out in the onslaught of newer technologies.” Ramanjaneyalu who has closely observed how the authorized garages work says the mechanic has been reduced to a mere labourer there since there are devices to check what is wrong and what needs to be fixed. “There is no need for brain now. Only hands are enough,” he says.

Speaking about the changes that have taken place Ramanjaneyalu goes to say what the diesel prices were back when he started and what it is now, what the ticket rates were from Anantapuramu to Hyderabad then and what is it now and explaining how the roads were single roads back then and now are four lane, he says, “Back then the average speed of a bus would be 60-70 kms and now it is 90 kms but still it takes the same amount of time to reach from point A to point B.” This is largely because with time the number of vehicles has increased on the road. Also, he says, with two lane and four lane roads the cars, bikes have not just increased but also their speed since all believe it to be less dangerous with the lane system. “So we all have to be careful and that reduces the speed though the average vehicle speed has increased,” he says.

Good roads have given a boost to rash driving in the opinion of Ramanjaneyalu. He says earlier the tyres used to be good to be able to run in bad roads. With good roads the quality of tyres has reduced. It is the same with the body of the buses, he says. Earlier an accident would cause some dent on the body but now they get crushed. “It is all because of the light bodies,” he stresses and points that the number of deaths in accidents has increased than before now. The number of accidents has also increased because of the improved road conditions. “People believe that if the road is good, then one can drive however one wants. But that is not the case. You need to know where the curves are, at which point the vehicle population increases or decreases and other things. Now people own cars and decide to drive through the route which earlier they used to go by bus. Now this not just increases the number of vehicles on road but also runs a risk of greater accidents because they are not familiar with the roads. Also personal vehicle gives a confidence and thrill with which they rash drive. All of this leads to more accidents,” elaborates Ramanjaneyalu. But, he says, accidents do not cause traffic jams these days because of the lane system. Earlier when there used to be single roads, an accident would cause jams for vehicles travelling both sides, Ramanjaneyalu says and points that there are cranes every 50 km stretch which comes to help and the number of connectivity to call ambulance also has increased over the years.

The roads, as Ramanjaneyaly observes, have made life easier not just by increasing connectivity but also by providing business opportunities for many. “When I began driving there weren’t much Dhabahas by the road but now there are plenty. Also wherever the roads go there the town develops. These Dhabas and increasing petrol stations etc. provide employment,” he says and adds, “Earlier there used to be the fear of thieves on the road. But urbanization and increased street lights in the four lanes have reduced the fear of being robbed.”

The coming of roads and widening of roads have also caused disturbance observes Ramanjaneyalu. “Hundreds of years old trees were brought down, small canals and rivulets were buried. Farming lands were run over,” he explains. “Also, the roads have come in the way of the wild animals,” he says and tells how at night sometime the bus has to be stopped because some wild animals are crossing the road, sometimes also because some of these animals are sleeping on the road, because the roads are warm. “The vehicle movement, us honking all disturbs them, I am sure,” says Ramanjaneyalu and points at Kerala and Mysore region not permitting road widening because of its sensitivity towards forest animals.

Like the bus, the roads, the role of driver and cleaner even the passengers have undergone a huge change according to Ramanjaneyalu. The night-bus passengers earlier would invest full faith in the driver. But nowadays they not just keep enquiring which road he would take and also give him suggestions based on their reading of Google maps, he says and also mentions about the increasing demand of the passengers for water bottle, movies etc in the bus. “Earlier the safety besides the roads was not much ensured so most of the passengers would go for recess where we used to stop. But now they demand for the bus to be stopped wherever they find the necessity,” says Ramanjaneyalu and adds, “This is also true about women these days.”

“In the last ten years we have slowly seen single women travelling in night buses,” tells Ramanjanayealu and goes on to explain how initially they were a bit hesitant but the women would say the responsibility was on themselves and not the bus employees. “Earlier women travelled only with the family. Even a couple wouldn’t travel in the bus if the rest of the bus would be consisting only of male passengers. From there we have reached here today,” he says. But he also points at the parents or the male family members who come to drop these women travelling alone in the bus. “They take our phone numbers and check who and all are there in the bus etc.” This, he observes, doenst happen with male passengers travelling alone.

The increase in the travel of women, he says, also compelled the bus to shift the places they would stop for dinner and recess. “We had ensure there is a functional wash room for the women,” he says and adds, “With only men we need not think so much as we are all used to urinating in the open.”

Ramanjaneyalu says there have been occasions when some men have tried to misbehave with the women in the bus and the driver and conductor have to be alert to all of this. Once, he remembers, a man had to be tied and then handed over to the police. With women traveling more the kind of movies that are shown in the buses has also undergone a change, says Ramanjaneyalu. “Fight films are not preferred by women. We need to play family films,” he explains. The shift began with women demanding change in the films and music, he remembers.

“Once we played a particular film to which a man travelling with his daughter raised objection. So we changed the film. He was going to drop his daughter to her college. On his way back, he requested us to play that very film to which he had raised objection during onward journey,” recollects Ramnajaneyalu. When asked how come he was requesting for the same film, he remembers, the man said, “This is the only time I can enjoy. Neither my daughter is with me nor my wife. No responsibility now. So let me enjoy.”

When the night sleeper buses started it was a new phenomenon and quickly it gained popularity, remembers Ramanjaneyalu. With these sleeper buses he says he got to know how young unmarried couples were travelling in the buses to get some private space and private time. “The buses have dim light, sleeper coaches have curtains and there is movement too,” he begins to say with a mushy smile. But in no time says, “They would face police raids if they took a hotel room. Home in a conservative society as ours is not available for privacy. What are they supposed to do? If this gave them some space, they would use it.” After the bus stops for dinner the cleaner goes and checks if every passenger has boarded the bus. That is when for the first time Ramanjaneyalu discovered the bus being used by unmarried couples for private space. When asked if anytime the co-passengers raised objection to anything of this sort Ramanjaneyalu says, “There have been such instances. I have then requested the couples to not be too noisy. Other times the co-passengers have passed comments and the couples have heard it and tried to make themself not audible.” During all of this Ramanjaneyalu knew one thing for sure, he says. It is that the couple shouldn’t be dropped down in the middle of the road nor should they be allowed to be shamed by the co-passengers.

Ramanjaneyalu also has observed parents booking two seats for their daughter and her female friend in the bus and following the bus for some distance. But in a different stop two boys who have booked two seats would board and one of the girls would shift with one of the boys. These are students studying in a different city. He also says how some girls would get down in a stop before theirs to meet someone and then either go home or hostel depending on which way are they travelling. “The parents of girls take our numbers and call us to enquire if their daughter was dropped at the right bus station,” he says.

Between all these interesting anecdotes Ramanjaneyalu also has a horrifying story to share. A girl was once travelling alone. “That particular bus was a bit strangely designed. The last row had two seats and the rest were sleepers,” he recollects. “The girl was sitting and two boys were in the sleeper next to her. The girl initially borrowed a magazine they were reading. Later the boys offered her some soft drink consuming which she felt dizzy. So the boys offered the sleeper to her and both of them took the seats,” tells Ramanjaneyalu and goes to say when the bus reached the shed the cleaner found the girl naked in the last sleeper. The soft drinks must have had some intoxicant, suspects Ramanjaneyalu. The girl was assaulted. “The parents went to the police but did not complain fearing their reputation. They knew the police officers so the police came and asked for the booking list. Back then no bus would take the details of the passengers. So it was difficult to track down those men,” narrates Ramanjaneyalu. The girl, he says, did face further harassment in police station when she was told that she is responsible for what happened for she trusted strangers and accepted the soft drink they offered.

Other than the regular route that he drives Ramanjaneyalu occasionally drives to other states if the bus is booked by a college or group for long trips. That has made him visit several states in the south. But outside this he has also driven heavy motors in the north states also. He is proud about having driven in so many states of India and driven successfully without any accident or hassle.

On asked what the most memorable journey is for him he recollects driving to Goa on a college trip. It was a bus full of girls who were in their final year college. “They all wanted to have as much fun as possible because they were in their final year,” he says. He remembers how they bought him cothes and alcohol during that trip and made him feel like he was one among them. The shine in his eyes cannot be missed as he says he was happy to be treated with such affection. Explaining how beautiful the sea appeared to him and how he danced in Goa quite hesitantly he says, “Some of the girls in that trip became very friendly and asked me to make love to them.” He remembers them telling him, “In a few months or in a year our parents will get us married to someone they find good for us and our lives will be tied to theirs. Hence we want to live to the fullest here the way we wish to.” So, when asked to make love to them, Ramanjaneyalu agreed.

There is respect in his eyes not just for the girls in the Goa trip but also for all the girls he earlier spoke of, the one who asked him to change the film, the girl who got down from the bus a stop earlier to meet her boyfriend, the girl who boarded the bus with her partner for some private space. The respect is totally non-judgmental.

After recollecting the Goa trip Ramajaneyalu said, “Women these days are not being determined by their marriage. They have become very strong, bold and independent now. In some years the world will be ruled by women.”

(Conversation held on 22 Nov 2018. Special thanks to Sandeep Nayani)

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