Posted by: cochinblogger | December 3, 2010

True Tales of Indian Life: All Strangers Are Kin

If you see an animal running, you can be certain something is chasing it. On the city roads, however, humans set a scorching pace — without anyone chasing them. They seem to think they are running towards something, but I’m convinced they’re really running away from some invisible pursuer.

Road rage is common. On the streets of Cochin, two-wheelers and private buses are traditional enemies. Arguments between two-wheeler drivers and bus drivers are common. Often, the real culprit is neither driver but the shameful condition of the roads.

Sometimes, these arguments explode into violence with terrifying suddenness. I was traveling in a private bus one morning when after a similar exchange of words between a two-wheeler driver and the bus conductor, the former entered the bus, seized the conductor by the throat, and pinned him to the wall of the bus. He then kept the clenched fist of the other hand threateningly poised inches from the terrified conductor’s nose. He finally relented, and no blood was spilled.

Sometimes, an accident occurs, as shown below. Here, the scooterist was fortunate to escape unscathed.

I travel by bus whenever I can. Tempers fray easily in crowded buses. I carry two bulky bags to work: one holds my lunch bag and odds and ends, and the other bag has my camera and lenses. It’s tricky to manuever inside a crowded bus with two bulky bags on one’s shoulder, but I’ve got it down to a fine art.

One day, however, when I was climbing up the steps of the bus, one of my bags hit the elbow of a commuter sitting next to the steps. It was a light blow, but the owner of the elbow took it off the rail it had been resting on. I deemed the contact too mild for an apology, and in any case, the upsurge from beneath swept me up and away. I finally came to rest across the aisle opposite the man my bag had struck . The moment for saying sorry had passed. The man’s eyes were on me; it was a penetrating gaze. I squirmed and waited for the inevitable explosion.

The man suddenly got up and offered me his seat, saying it must be tough to travel in a bus with two bags. I was dumbfounded for a moment, before thanking him profusely and sinking gratefully into the vacated seat.

Another day, another crowded bus. A seat had just been vacated, and I dived for it at the same time as another standee. In such situations, I can sometimes use my lunch bag to good effect as a barrier; that is just what I did on this occasion. As I sank into the seat, my competitor, stymied, looked daggers at me. If looks could have killed …

The conductor came on his rounds, and the standee, who looked like a manual laborer, fished some change from his pocket to pay for his ticket. A five-rupee coin slipped from his fingers and landed at my feet. The press of the throng was such that only I, sitting down and therefore closer to the floor, could reach the coin, which was in any case lying at my feet. The standee looked at me. Our eyes met briefly.

I reached forward, picked up the coin, and pressed it to his palm.

One of the oldest extant Arabic poems (see The Travels Of Ibn Battutah, Ed. Tim Mackintosh-Smith, Foreword) says it best: all strangers are kin.



  1. very true…i ve also experienced similar occassions on buses- especially diving for seats and bearing with the killer looks. Also the callousness of those who drive on our roads. I like the way you’ve ended it- strangers as kin. ….cool

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