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A ride on Bombay’s vanishing double-decker buses

A double-decker bus speeds past Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. Arko Data / REUTERS
01 January, 2012

REMEMBER JACKSON MARUTI? The brand of choice for those who keep tissues in their cars? Well, looking down from the upper deck of a Bombay double-decker bus, you learn something vital: an awful lot of cars carry them. By itself, in a basket, in an ornate faux-silver box; whichever it is, easily three of every four cars around us, on a recent double-decker ride, had a box stashed on that package shelf below the rear windscreen.

Consider: could you have divined that magnificent bit of useless trivia from ground level? Naah! That’s why we can all use an occasional upper-deck excursion.

I’m reliving my youth, I am. In the 1960s, my father was GM of Bombay’s Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST), the government organisation that runs the public bus system in the city. When he teased me, I’d snap: “Won’t take you on the double-decker bus!” And we would laugh endlessly over the complaint he got as GM: “When I got myself seated on the left hand last but one seat on right flank of the upper deck, I had to immediately get up with immense pain because a pointed nail was functioning like a dagger.” Who could take that seriously? But would there even be such a complaint today? How many even see upper decks now?

Bombayites of a certain vintage, double-deckers shaped us. Sorrowfully, we’ve watched them disappear from several routes—123 along windy Marine Drive, how could you, BEST?—and drift out of our lives. They’re not yet museum pieces, but it’s a challenge to find and use them.

But challenges must be tackled.

So I’m in what we, as kids, used to call the “frontest” seat: the one right at the front of the upper deck, breeze gusting, bus swaying. I’m on BEST’s Route 122 out of Ballard Pier. I went there because BEST’s 66, Ballard Pier to Sion, used to operate double-deckers. Thought I’d travel this Route 66—get my kicks, you know—not least because when I drove another one some years ago through New Mexico, a double-decker rumbled past.

Alas! At Ballard Pier, a conductor shakes his head: “We stopped using double-deckers months ago.” In fact, he says, BEST no longer runs them on long-haul routes like 66. He suggests 122, to Churchgate, and some other shuttles downtown. Which I take, frontest every time.

It’s been years since I was here, and I have forgotten the vertiginous alarm from looking out and down. The height distorts your judgement of distance, so you imagine the bus will run over anyone, anything, in front. Like the woman pushing a cart with several naked tubelights sticking up. Tubelights! Thoughts of smashed cart and tubelight smithereens turn my stomach. I lean out to yell a warning. Blithely, she saunters on.

Moving like a clumsy caterpillar, just beyond, is another double-decker, decked up as an ad for Stardust magazine—some fetching starlet’s long thighs and ample cleavage all over its side. I run down, cross the street, just catch the Stardust bus and climb up. There, an inordinate number of women—15?—have on white earphones and stare stonily ahead. What’s this, the annual convention of the South Bombay Upper Deck Handsfree Club, Women’s Section?

At the next stop, eight women rise and file downstairs in frosty handsfree silence. I can now reach, yes, my frontest.

The crowd thins as we approach Backbay Depot, the last stop. The conductor sits down across the narrow aisle, and asks in Marathi about my scribbling. “Go to Kurla,” he says. “311 or 313 there, not sure which, is a double-decker. That’s the only other double-decker route in all of Bombay.”

That he says, even while speaking Marathi, “Bombay”—and not “Mumbai”—somehow fits this reliving of nearly sepia-toned bus memories. Nostalgia: it’s in the little things.