In India, the bus drivers are cowboys—pure renegade. They have to be. Between cities and towns, from the Indian Ocean to the Bay of Bengal, there’s only the blacktop circus of the chaotic unknown. Two lanes (if they’ve bothered to mark them at all) that run from here to there and there to here, jam-packed with man-powered cycles, mopeds and motorcycles, cars, buses, lorries, and trucks marked Siva or Ganesh. Women drape saris across the road to dry, sadhus beg for rupees to make devotion feel less like starvation, children sell mangoes and bananas, people live and die, and the world goes mad before you as you try to finish your exhale.
I left Pondicherry for Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu on a Wednesday morning. I wanted to see the great mountain Arunachala, the footprint of Lord Shiva, home to both Sri Ramana Maharshi’s famed ashram and a saint who’s lived atop the mountain for fifteen years. They say he’s hovered on his haunches the whole fifteen and subsisted on just buttermilk shuttled up the hill by his devotees (there are all kinds of rumors here, devotional gossip if you will, one even that the revered Guru Sai Baba in Puttaparthi stands four feet tall and is a hermaphrodite).
I spent an afternoon at the Samadhi in Ramana’s temple. That evening I tried to coax the man at the email stand into letting me use his computers. For some reason, his services weren’t to be bought by me. At night I dreamt of Nazi hideouts and great European destruction, and in the morning I boarded a bus for Bangalore. But in between, there was the usual: incessant harassment from the heaving and sighing bus-stand population—children, and women carrying children, and men with knees that bend backward, and sadhus, and untouchables—people with centuries-old souls but no cash, people selling bits of fried dough in sacks.
“They smile at you with those beautiful smiles,” Rosie told me, just days before, “but they all want something. You can’t trust a single Indian.” I met Rosie at the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry. She was a 51-year-old woman from Germany who’d devoted her life to spirituality and come to India more than a decade previous. She looked seventy. She spent six hours a day in silent meditation. She subsisted on simple meals of dosas and daal. She’d renounced luxury long ago and owned nothing beyond her sleeping quilt and a few pots for cooking. She couldn’t trust a single Indian.
Maybe it’s because I pouted on the bus when the only seat was near the back and next to a man who had already commandeered the majority of the floor space with his woven plastic sacks. Maybe it’s because I’m a white woman and was traveling alone, both of which are almost unheard of on a government bus in southern India (there were no other white women in the bus depot, and I saw no women traveling alone). Maybe it’s because my bags were big and there just wasn’t anywhere to put them. Maybe the ticket vendor was trying to be nice to me. Or maybe, just maybe, he wanted to put me up front so that everyone could watch me squirm.
“You,” the ticket man pointed at me. “Sit at the front!”
When those guys speak, you listen. People shake their heads and shake their heads and shake their heads when others ask them to move aside so families can sit together, but when the ticket man barks out his orders, they just gather their belongings without a word and they go. I moved. I took my things, and I went to the very front of the bus.
On my first day in India, I’d taken a bus from Chennai to Pondicherry. It was a five-hour ride and I’d sat almost all the way to the rear. From back there, I could hear a symphony of horns, but I could see almost nothing. Then one day, while staying in Pondicherry, I went to Auroville for the day on the back of a scooter belonging to a young man I’d met. Auroville is fourteen kilometers away, six on the main road. And along that road I witnessed something that approximated Bosch’s Last Judgment, the central pane, a madness unfathomable in Technicolor. The dodging and swaying of the buses as they barreled down on cars and people and bicycles made me promise if I ever rode a bus again, I would ride at the back—to take refuge in the myth of Occidentalism, an ignorance well-nurtured.
Needless to say, when I was ordered to the front of the bus, I lacked enthusiasm. There would be no way to ignore the road ahead from that position. And it was there that I first saw him: the cowboy. He was roughly my age but older in the eyes, dark skinned and slick with the 9 a. m. sweat of India in monsoon season. He swaggered through the station, parting the sea of saris and kurtas with his gait, his army cap perched loosely atop his shorn skull. I watched him walk and I shuddered. I wouldn’t want to meet that guy in a dark alley, I thought. And then he stared into the windscreen of my bus. He chewed a wad of betel between his lips and spit a stream of red onto the ground, expertly missing people with his trajectory. In some filthy way, I found him attractive.
I watched him exchange words with a man in the booth. He found his way to the door opposite me (oh my God, don’t get on this bus, please don’t open that door), and he got in, staring me down, his brow furrowed in cool disgust. Then I understood. The cowboy was our driver. I tapped on the windscreen before me to be sure it was glass. I wondered what it would feel like to go through it. He glared at me. I quickly turned away and slumped into ready position, sans seat belt, sans T-bar lap restraint, for another five-hour movie of live terror. Just once I turned around, looking to commiserate or hoping there was someone to share the burden of my fear, and all the toothless women behind me just smiled and shook their heads from up to side to down to side in that Indian way that could mean yes and could mean no and could mean: You’re in for the fright of a lifetime, my child; put your prayers with the saints.
And then we were off. Why did the ticket man make me sit at the front? Swaying and weaving out of town, the blast of our horn like a megaphone to my ears, an inch past a cycle on the left, a high-speed chicane through the barriers meant to slow, a certain head-on, both of my eyes closed, horns from every direction and a wild swaying turn that sends the bus on a rocker, we’ve got yaw and roll, pass an ox-drawn cart, another near head-on, through a town with young Brahmin racing through the road; we crowd a motorcycle into the dirt, sail around corners marked “Dangerous,” the crunch of drying husks spread across the road waist-deep, a foray into the dirt, and we slam through a gap in the pavement, picking up speed, it’s looking open now, I have both eyes open, and fuck, there’s a cow in the road, slamming on the brakes and skidding to a slow as the cow swings its head to the side, throwing gears, grinding the engine, another near head-on, again the yaw and roll, and then a slowdown, there’s a dead man in the road, he’s surrounded by stones so that no one drives over the body again, we’re an inch from a child’s head, a foot from an oncoming bus, all of this to the roar of the engine and the steady blare of the horn . . . Lord Krishna on the windshield, protect us from the cowboy . . . am I ready to face death without fear?
Just past the midpoint of our journey, the bus lurched over a pitted, dusty curb into a roadside stop.
“How much you pay for that?” the ticket man asked, indicating the MP3 player in my hand. I wondered if I should tell him the truth. Did he want to know if it was valuable enough to steal from me? Could I trust a single Indian?
“About 10,000 rupees,” I finally said. “Maybe less. It’s a year old, and they get cheaper every year.” The working-class Indian earns between 2,000 and 5,000 rupees per month.
He nodded, fingered the thing, and wanted to have a listen. I handed it over, and he showed it to the cowboy, who continued to glare at me. The ticket man had a listen, then handed it back, smiling at me. And I thought of Rosie. “Those beautiful smiles,” she told me.
“We stop here for half-hour,” he said. I’d needed to pee since we left the station.
“Is there a toilet?” I asked.
“Right over there.” He pointed about 200 meters into the distance, to a small building set aside from the vending stands and phone booth.
“It’s okay if I leave all this here?” I asked, indicating my North Face duffel at my feet and the backpack that housed my passport and plane ticket, my Nikon F3 with several lenses, my Canon S400 digital, the MP3 player, my wallet.
“Sure,” he smiled. And I got up.
I walked to the bathroom slowly. My feet were dusty in the sandals I’d bought back in Pondicherry. Buses continued to pull in, escorting clouds of dirt into the lot. And eventually, when I turned back to look, I couldn’t see my bus behind the rest at all.
Inside my stall was a hole in the ground. I squatted there with one hand holding up parts of the salwar-kameez I wore, and one hand gripping my pants so my clothes wouldn’t mop up the sludge at my feet. I was at least two hours from Bangalore. I had only the equivalent of about $20 in my pockets. The rest was on that bus.
I remembered Rosie laughing in the dining room of the ashram with the others. She was the first person who spoke to me. She’d introduced me to the man across the road who rented bicycles. She’s even the person who showed me where to get clothes made. So when she asked me if I wanted to come back with her to Tiruvannamalai, I agreed. She’d been living there at the base of Arunachala for several years. She said she would show me the town, that I could stay with her, and that we would share the cost of the taxi from Pondicherry. But surprisingly, when we arrived there, she was too tired to show me around. And she’d neglected to mention that there was nowhere else to sleep in her house but the single bedroll that belonged to her. I would have to buy a room in the ashram down the road. “I’m sure there will be space,” she’d said. “You can just walk over there.” The one thing she did stay true to was the taxi cost. That, we split.
I dripped dry over the hole in the ground and headed back out of the bathroom toward the bus. I couldn’t see it ahead of me. I wasn’t even sure I’d recognize it if I did. I thought about how I’d get to Bangalore if that bus was gone. Even the phone number of my friends who lived there was in my bag. I had nothing on me. The battered rear end of what appeared to be my green bus emerged from behind another. I looked inside. No one was there but one wide-eyed child without a smile. He stood on a seat watching my return.
I meandered up the steps of the rear door and walked forward to my front-row seat. What if my things were gone? What would I say? Who would I blame? At the base of the windscreen, my bag was still there. I unzipped it and pushed my hands around inside. My cameras were there. And then also my passport and my wallet.
Just then a call rang out, children and grandmothers ran for our bus, the ticket man climbed in, the driver climbed in. The jerk of the starter and the jolt of motion set us back onto the road. The cowboy occasionally stole a furtive glance at me, eyebrows still furrowed in what appeared to be anger. He smoked with his hand over the top of his cigarette, elbow raised high in the air, as if to conceal it from God.
We dodged and weaved through another 100 kilometers and eventually fought the traffic into Bangalore, arriving at the main terminal in a light rain. For most of the drive, the ticket man sat on the hump that covered the engine, between the driver’s and passenger seats. Through the thick air of the empty bus, I could see one silver tooth glinting in his mouth.
When we came to a stop, he asked me, “Were you comfortable here?”
“In this seat.” He indicated mine.
I nodded, and then realized why he’d been sitting on the engine. “Is this your seat?” I asked.
“Yes.” He continued to smile. “But it’s okay. You were comfortable.”
For five hours the ticket man had stood in the aisle as we swayed and dodged, or sat on the hump, so that I could sit alone. He spared me the burden of having an entire family piled against me.
“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you for the seat.”
The ticket man did the up and down and side to side thing with his head, which also sometimes means: no problem.
I started toward the exit. The cowboy eked out several hurried words in Tamil to the ticket man. The ticket man turned to me.
“He wants to know if you like India,” he asked. The cowboy finally cracked a beautiful smile from the front. One silver tooth glinted at me across the thick air of the now-empty bus.
I smiled back. “Yes,” I told them. “I like India.”