Travelling beneath Kolkata

THE PRESTIGIOUS TOLLYGUNGE Club, where we are staying in Kolkata, is close to a metro station. The Club’s manager recommended that we used it to reach the city centre quickly rather than taking a much slower taxi into town.

The Kolkata metro, which now has three lines, began operating in 1984.

We travelled from Mahanayak Uttam Kumar Station, which is above ground to Park Street, which is subterranean. At the ticket office each traveller is given a circular plastic counter in exchange for the fare, which depends on the distance to be travelled. At a barrier operated electrically, the counter is placed on a designated panel, and the gate opens to admit the traveller to the platforms.

The clean trains are very efficiently ventilated with an air-conditioning system. There are sections of the carriages for ladies only. Passengers were using their mobile phones in the underground stretches of the journey, which suggests that, unlike in London either broadband or WiFi is available on the train while in a tunnel.

Electronic screens provided information about the journey and the use of the trains in Bangla, English, and Hindi. Announcements made over a loudspeaker system were in Bangla and English.

The train ran smoothly and passengers seemed very calm and polite. The journey was twice as fast as if we had gone by road. Although we travelled at a quiet time of day, the train was quite full. I imagine that during rush hours, we might not have been so comfortable.

All in all, our brief experience of the metro was very satisfactory. After disembarking at Park Street station, we bravely crossed a six lane main road to reach Park Street, which we discovered has now been renamed ‘Mother Teresa Sarani’, but most people still call it by its older name.

A short bus journey in Chennai

IT WAS VERY HOT when we decided to travel from Chennai Central Railway Station to the city’s Indo-Saracenic style High Court, which is about a mile away. A policewoman told us that it was too far to walk, so we must take a bus. Following her sensible advice, we boarded a local city bus.

As with all buses in India, there was a conductor on boarf who sold tickets. On enquiring the cost, we were told that the price was 5 rupees. We asked if that was per ticket or for the two of us. The conductor replied that my ticket was 5 rupees and that on his bus women travel free of charge. Then, he gave us two fragile paper tickets. One was marked with a large ‘5’ and the other was covered with Tamil script, but no ‘5’ (except a small one in the ticket’s six digit serial number). A friend, who reads Tamil, explained that the brown ticket without the large 5 reads ‘lady’s ticket’.

After travelling one stop, we disembarked in a busy street market, and walked about a quarter of a mile to the impressive, oriental-looking Court building’s, which were constructed between 1888 and 1892, to the designs of architects JW Brassington, Henry Irwin, and JH Stephens. As we had committed no misdemeanors and had no legal work to do, we could not enter the complex of buildings.

The saying goes ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’, but during our visit to central Chennai, we discovered that there is such a thing as a free bus ride!

Two in one at South Kensington

SOUTH KENSINGTON STATION has two street entrances connected by an arcade with a glazed roof. Its subsurface ticket office and foyer gives access to three of London’s Underground Lines: Circle, District, and Piccadilly. But this has not always been the case. People standing outside the southern entrance to the arcade will notice that to its right there is a building faced with the blood red glazed terracotta tiles typical of many London Underground stations. Above the façade are the words “South Kensington Station”, but there is no public entrance to this building.

The arcade used to be the entrance to the station at which passengers could embark and disembark from trains operating on the District and Circle lines, which were part of the Metropolitan Railway. This station was opened in 1868. In 1906, a station on the Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway (now the Piccadilly line) was opened at South Kensington. Its platforms are far deeper beneath the surface than those of the District and Circle lines. Lifts inside the building with the red façade carried passengers to and from the Piccadilly line platforms. This building was then the entrance to the Piccadilly Line station, which was separate from that (with the arcade) which led to the shallower subsurface Circle and District platforms.

In the early years of the 1970s, the lifts to the Piccadilly Line were replaced by escalators. Access to these was made from the concourse that serves the District and Circle line platforms, and then the entrance via the building with the blood red façade was taken out of use. So, what had been two stations became one.

You can read much more about South Kensington in my book “Beyond Marylebone and Mayfair: Exploring West London” (see: https://www.amazon.co.uk/BEYOND-MARYLEBONE-MAYFAIR-EXPLORING-LONDON/dp/B0B7CR679W/)

An old bus evokes memories

SEEING A VINTAGE London bus today (20th of March 2022) brought back some memories from the early 1960s.  In those days, my best friend was the son of a medical doctor who worked for London Transport. Nick and I were about 10 years old when we became keen bus spotters. This involved loitering in the open-air bus station at Golders Green station with pencils and notebooks at the ready. As buses arrived in the forecourt, we noted down their serial numbers, which are visible on the sides of the bus or, in some older models, on their engine covers. These differed from the vehicles’ registration numbers. The serial numbers of different models of bus consisted of 1 to 3 letters and up to four numerals, e.g., RF 645 or RLH 24. Routemaster buses, which were replacing older models in the 1960s had serial numbers that began with ‘RM’ or in the case of the extended versions ‘RML’. The double-decker RMs were gradually replacing their predecessors, the RT models (which were in use in London from 1939 to 1979). Although we recorded every bus that passed us, certain examples, e.g., RT5 and RM1, were rare and exciting observations. The two of us and my friend’s younger brother formed the short-lived ‘OBC’, the Omnibus Club, of which we were the only members.

Now in 2022, long after the OBC disbanded, the Routemasters have largely disappeared from London, having been replaced by newer models. So, it was with some surprise that I spotted a RT bus in pristine condition parked in Notting Hill Gate today. For those bus spotters reading this, the vehicle bore the serial number RT1705. It was carrying the route number 28, with its destination board showing “Golders Green”. Today, route 28 still exists, but no longer runs from Chelsea to Golders Green (via Notting Hill Gate and West Hampstead) as it did in the ‘60s. In those days I had a friend who lived in Notting Hill Gate and used to visit him from Golders Green, using that bus route. Today, the same journey can be made using a bus on route 328.

The RT, which I saw today, was being used for private hire. As we were about to travel to West Hampstead, my wife asked the driver if he was going there later. He said he was, but he was not insured to take passengers who were not members of the party which had hired the bus. That was a pity, but as a former bus spotter, who gave up the hobby many decades ago, I was excited to see an RT still working on a London street,

Lost property

When we visited the museum at the Harrapan archeological site at Dholavira in Kutch (part of Gujarat, India), we found that there was a sale of guides to various historical sited in India, all published by the Archaeological Survey of India. With the exception of a couple of volumes that were printed in Hindi, we bought one of each, about 18 in all and at radically reduced prices.

After a couple of days in Dholavira, staying at the very overpriced Rann Resort, we travelled to Bhuj, where we stayed before taking a bus to Ahmedabad.

The air conditioned bus, which was not particularly comfortable, took eight hours. It was a part of the fleet of Gujarat State Road Transport (GSRTC). I was very tired when we pulled into the central bus station at Geetamandir in Ahmedabad, and disembarked with our several pieces of luggage.

Several hours later when we were comfortably settled into our hotel, I realised that I had left my cloth bag, containing my collection of books acquired in Dholavira, on the bus. My wife, who is fluent in the Gujarati language, suggested that we return to the bus station to try to recover the bag of books. I agreed, but felt that there was little chance of success.

We were directed to a booth where GSRTC officials in charge of controlling the bus service to and from Bhuj sat. My wife explained the problem and immediately the official began tapping on his keyboard. A screen marked “journey report” appeared. From this, the official was able to get the telephone number of the conductor who had been on our bus. He was off duty and our bus was on its way back to Bhuj. However, he provided the phone number of his colleague, ‘X’, who was now the conductor on ‘our’ bus that was returning to Bhuj.

We rang X, who soon found the book bag on the luggage rack close to where we had been sitting. He told my wife, in Gujarati, that he would be retutning on a bus that would arrive at Ahmedabad central bus station at about 5 pm the next day, and would bring us the bag of books. This sounded promising, but you never can tell what might or might not happen.

As we were setting off for the bus station the next afternoon, X rang us to tell us when he expected to reach it and where we should wait for him. At a few minutes before 5 pm, the bus on which we had travelled the day before pulled into the Geetamandir bus station. Soon X was walking towards us, holding our cloth bag filled with books. My admiration of GSRTC increased immensely.

We offered X some confectionery as a small token of our gratitude. He refused it twice, saying that recovering lost property is part of his duty. When we said that he should give the gift to his family, he accepted it.

Often Asian folk traditionally refuse an offer two or three times out of politeness before accepting. In the case of conductor X, I do not believe it was politeness that he did not accept our small gift immediately. Instead, he was behaving professionally and correctly.

A few hours earlier, we had been shown various interesting features by a guardian in the Jumma Masjid in Ahmedabad. When he had finished, we handed him some Rupees, expecting that he was probably poorly paid, if at all. We were most impressed when he refused the money, which would have been useful for him, and, instead, showed us which charity collection box in which to put it. Like X, the bus conductor, this fellow in the Masjid was too dignified to accept a tip for what he felt it was his duty to do.

Postscript.
The Asian habit of refusing three times can backfire when practised in Europe. A friend of ours of Middle Eastern upbringing became a junior doctor in an English hospital. After a few weeks, he asked an Egyptian colleague how to obtain a cup of tea.
“Simple,” the Egyptian said, “just get it from the lady who pushes the tea trolley around.”
Our friend replied: “Yes, she brings her trolley to me and she offers me a cup and I refuse. And then without even asking me a second or third time, she pushes the trolley away. So, I don’t get a cup of tea.”

Heading west

WE SHOULD NEVER have booked to travel on the 945 am Gujarat State Road Transport Company’s (GSRTC) bus from Ahmedabad to Mandvi in Kutch. The distance between the two towns is about 390 kilometres. According to Google maps, the journey should take seven hours by car. Allowing for stops en-route, a bus should take no more than an hour longer. The 945 bus from Ahmedabad took eleven and a quarter hours, with no more than a total of an hour stoppng at various bus stations along the way. Why, you may wonder, did our bus take so long despite the fact that we encountered no traffic traffic congestion at all and we were not involved in any accidents.

The first three hours of the journey, our bus travelled through small towns in the great plain of Gujarat that were far from the direct and shortest route. Many of these places, such as Lakhatar and Surendranagar contain stretches of largely intact historic city walls. After visiting these places in what was effectively a huge detour, we rejoined the direct highway at Dhranghadra. We had travelled a little under 100 kilometres from Ahmedabad in three hours.

At Surendranagar, the driver and conductor left the bus and were replaced by a new crew. The new driver spent more time chatting to the conductor who was sitting to his left and behind him. Most of the time, the driver had his head turned away from the road to see the conductor. He would take frequent brief glances at the road ahead in between his lengthier glances at the conductor. Despite this seeming lack of concentration on the road, he drove well, something that cannot be said of many of the other road users. Some of the overtaking I observed was just short of suicidal.

For a while, we drove along the very good 6 lane highway barely making any stops to pick up or drop off passengers. We had a ten minute break near Halvad, just long enough to buy some snacks and to use the toilets.

Soon after re-joining the motorway, the bus, which was moving quite fast, was overtaken by a Royal Enfield motorcycle. It was being driven by a young man and a largish lady was sitting side saddle behind him. The cyclist was sounding his horn repeatedly, more than necessary, and the lady was smiling sweetly at our bus. I thought that she was just having fun, but as the bike passed the front of our bus, it swerved in front of it. The bus slowed down and stopped and the smiling lady climbed on board and purchased a ticket. She told us that she had seen our bus leaving from Halvad and chased after it unsuccessfully. The young man had offered to take her on his bike and then chase after the bus that he wanted to catch.

We crossed over the Surajbari river bridge, and entered the former kingdom of Kutch, now part of the State of Gujarat. For several kilometres we drove through an estuarine area with acres of saltpans punctuated by tall white pyramids of freshly harvested sea salt. This area is one of India’s most important salt producers.

The highway, from which, amazingly, we had not yet deviated, was heavily used by large trucks. The flat countryside was filled with industrial plants, some quite large with chimneys belching clouds of smoke which were stirred up into interesting shapes by the strong prevailing wind.

As the sun began sinking into the hazy (polluted?) sky on the western horizon, we pulled into Gandidham. This city, established just after 1947, is built on land donated by the Maharao of Kutch, the last ruler of the Princely State of Kutch. The city became home to many Sindhi Hindus who had fled during the Partition from nearby Sindh when it became incorporated into the newly formed Pakistan. Gandidham is not far from the port of Kandla, about which you can learn much more from my book “Travels through Gujarat, Daman and Diu” (published in India by pothi.com as “Gujarat Unwrapped”). I guessed that the heavy truck presence was because of the industrialisation of this part of Kutch and activities at Kandla.

It was at Kandla where we received information that made our hearts sink. The conductor told us that from Gandidham onwards, it was going to take us another three hours to reach Mandvi. Instead of taking a direct route, our bus had to visit numerous villages to drop off and pick up passengers. He explained that being a state run bus, this service is like a lifeline; it is almost the only way that people could travel between these places by public transport. We trundled through the darkness, stopping here and there. I felt sorry for the driver because many other road users travel along the unlit country roads either without lights or with only dim front lights switched on. Of course, cattle and other animals, who routinely share the road with human traffic, are completely without lighting.

All along our route, we saw animals on the road. Cattle and goats are routinely herded along or across roads of all sorts, even the high speed six lane highways. If my knowledge of ornithology was less rudimentary, I would have been able to describe the rich variety of birds that we saw along our route.

In the road lit up by the lights on our bus, I saw a dog which was lying dead at the side of the road. Another dog, maybe a companion of the dead one, was standing close by looking at it sadly or maybe disbelievingly. It was a tragic sight.

Some weeks earlier we were on a car in Hyderabad when I noticed that drivers were making sudden manoeuvres to avoid something lying in the middle of the road. It was a cat that had been knocked down. Lying on its side, its legs were moving frantically in the air as if it were trying to run away. This fleeting image of an animal in the throes of death affected me greatly. I can still see that poor creature in my mind’s eye.

Eventually, we crossed the River Rukmavati and drove along the riverside next to substantial remains of the impressive wall that used to surround the city of Mandvi. We disembarked at the almost deserted modern bus station. While we waited for the car that was going to collect us, a cow wandered past us investigating bits of rubbish on the floor, hoping to find something worth eating.

Though tiring and exceptionally lengthy, our bus journey through the flat countryside between Ahmedabad and Mandvi was far from dull. Our fellow passengers ranged from westernized Gujaratis in European style clothing to rustic looking folk: women wearing saris and salwar kameez, and men attired in very baggy trousers that resembled dhotis and turbans or headscarves. Mobile phones kept ringing and there were many loud conversations. Outside the bus, we saw many vignettes of small town and village life through the filthy windows of our trusty bus.

Next time we visit Kutch from Ahmedabad, we will follow the advice of our GSRTC bus conductor:
“Go by private bus”.

Buggy battles

Buggy

 

All public transport buses in London have dedicated areas for buggies (baby strollers, push-chairs etc.) Other passengers need to, or are made to feel that they need to, move out of the way so that a buggy can be parked in the designated area.  So far so good. Many child carers use their childrens. buggies as shopping trolleys, often overloaded with bags of merchandise. Often, the child or children being transported in the buggies are removed from them during the bus journey and then occupy a passener seat. The empty buggies then simply take up space that could be used by other passengers on a crowded vehicle.

Now, there are clear signs by the designated ‘buggy area’ that state quite clearly that the area is also for use by persons confined to wheelchairs. These signs also make it very clear that wheelchair users have priority over buggies in the special area on the bus.

Clashes, often quite uncivil, occur if too many carers pushing buggies are competing for the the limited space available for buggies and wheelchairs. Or, even worse, battles can break out between whelchair users who want to board a bus and buggy owners, who are already on board the bus. Both the child carers and the wheelchair-bound  people can often behave quite unpleasantly. Unlike the wheelchair occupant, almost all baby buggies can be folded up and placed in the luggage area that is available on every bus.

Yesterday, it was a sunny afternoon and I was travelling in a bus past Swiss Cottage in north west London. The buggy/wheelchair area was occupied by two baby buggies and a folded buggy was in the luggage area. We stopped at a bus stop where a man in a wheelchair was waiting. He wanted to board the bus, but the owners of the buggies occupying the designated area would neither fold their buggies nor leave the bus to make space for the priority user, the wheel chair user. The bus driver had to get out to sort out the stand-off. He wanted the buggy users to disembark, but they would not budge. In the end, the wheel chair bound fellow behaved decently, saying he would wait for the next bus.

In my opinion, both wheelchair passengers and buggy pushers can easily manage to wait  (especially when the weather is good) until a bus arrives with sufficient space. After all, the wheelchair user is sitting and waiting as is the buggy borne child, who is often far too big and independently mobile to be confined to a buggy. What do you think, dear reader?

 

 

Picture from: https://www.britax-roemer.co.uk/pushchairs/strollers