MUMBAI’S iconic double-decker bus had its last ride recently. When you think of the city that inspires you to dream big, many images flash by — the city that never sleeps, Bollywood, packed suburban trains and last but not least, the red double-decker BEST bus. The buses dated back to the days of the Raj. It’s as if the British wanted to recreate a slice of London in Bombay. The yesteryear bird’s eye-view photograph of Flora Fountain, from one of the high-rises, with the double-decker buses crawling about like ants, is almost a replica of London’s Piccadilly Circus. Years later, on a visit to London, the double-deckers didn’t appear overly fancy. It was as if you had already ‘been there and done that’ in Bombay.
Double-decker buses were a part of our childhood days. For less than 25 paise, still termed ‘chaar aana’, we could travel from Sion to King’s Circle. A short walk took us to school. We retraced the path in the evening. Only certain buses were double-deckers. We looked for them, even if it meant a longer waiting time.
Bus number 9 was the favourite. It started from Colaba, at the southern tip of the city, and snaked its way to Antop Hill. The moment it arrived, we immediately raced to the top tier. No self-respecting schoolboy sat on the bottom tier. With enthusiasm overflowing in those adolescent legs, we covered two steps at a time on that tiny staircase till we reached the top floor. And once there, we made a dash for the two front seats.
Unlike the other seats that had windows to the sides, the front seat was special. It had two windows, well, in front! It was like sitting on top of a fort — a vantage point that gave you a panoramic view. We didn’t have to do anything to bide our time. We simply observed people and places and kept ourselves amused till our destination arrived.
The top floor did not permit standees. Perhaps, there was the worry that the bus would become top-heavy and turn turtle! For the bus conductors, it meant double duty — they had to go up the stairs repeatedly to issue tickets. Rains and Bombay went hand in hand. Every monsoon, the same areas would get flooded. The double-decker was our resolute caretaker. We were certain, given its gigantic size, that it could plough through the swirling floodwaters with ease.
From time to time, someone would visit Bombay, and we would show them around the city, especially the popular tourist spots — Gateway of India, Malabar Hill, Juhu Beach and Elephanta Caves. But we took special pride in showing off one attraction that had the Bombay stamp. It was a monument on the move — the red double-decker bus!
I remember number 9, the top deck, sitting on those green-coloured seats, en route to the inter-school match. A cricket kit by the side with the handle of the bat jutting out. The destination — Azad Maidan. And the heart beating with one singular dream — to be the next Gavaskar!
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