By Anurag Bakhshi May. 07, 2018
The introduction of private buses in Delhi in the early ’90s introduced a new phrase in our lexicon – “staff hai”. This elegant form of goondagiri ensured that you didn’t buy a ticket for a ride. To my eternal shame and regret, the kids in my school could never pull it off – until a gutsy senior took matters into his own hands.
Growing up in Delhi in the late ’80s and ’90s, every kid had similar career aspirations and ambitions. I blame that noted seer Aamir Khan for this, who had prophesied in no uncertain terms, “Koi engineer ka kaam karega/Business mein koi apna naam karega.” Just like those guys, one thing was clear to me: I would not follow these meaningless conventions. I would not be a conformist, for just like Martin Luther King or Antara Mali, I too had a dream. Main Staff Ban-na Chahta Tha.
But before that, a brief history of millennial Delhi.
In 1992, the Delhi Government sold permits to private transporters to start running buses on many routes, after a long-drawn out strike by the employees of Delhi Transport Corporation. Almost overnight, thousands of red-coloured buses hit the streets – and public transport, and dreams of kids like me, would never be the same again.
This private fleet was called Redline buses, a name which, in a demonstration that fate can have a twisted sense of humour, became prophetic. For these buses rode roughshod over any man, woman, child, or beast that happened to be in their way (their way = 30 feet on either side of the road).
Of course, these were competitive times. Dozens of buses were running on the same route, and each wanted to pick up as many passengers as possible, resulting in The Fast and the Furious: Dilli Se Hoon Behn**** edition. Thankfully, the government realised the mess that it had gotten the poor people of Delhi into, and took drastic measures for the protection of its citizens… by ordering all the buses to be painted blue. That solved the problem, obviously, because the buses were now called Blueline.
Just as the conductor reached the last step, he looked behind into the bus, and shouted, “Aa jao bhai neeche sab ke sab, bula raha hai launda!”.
The introduction of private buses, however, also introduced a new term into Dilliwalas’ lexicon – “staff”. During the monopoly days of the DTC, school and university students used to feel like Gods, for they had the option of going to any DTC depot, and getting a monthly/quarterly bus pass made. The amount they paid for a monthly pass was the princely sum of ₹12.50. The University Special (or U-Special) used to be like a sanitised DTC school bus, where ramblings about lectures, masala coke, and Chacha ke Chole Bhature could be overheard. The “seedha” students were more than happy with it, but the adrenaline junkies – that even now makes up more than half of Delhi’s student population – thought otherwise. They wanted to ride the Redline/Blueline, but their bus pass was not valid on these private buses.
This would obviously not do, and so, somewhere, in a small corner of the city, in a Redline bus, a group of heroes decided to rebel. They refused to buy a ticket from the burly and gruff conductor, and just said: “Staff hai!” When the conductor politely disagreed with them, they promptly did what rebels against authority have always done: They bashed up the conductor and shattered all the windows of the bus.
Thi isn’t merely regular Dilli behaviour, as imagined by the rest of the country. You have to understand the times we operated in.
Back in the day, the lengths to which students went to get a laugh or two, was limited to rubbing off the “ma” from the “mahilaein” marking next to seats reserved for women. Mithun Chakraborty enthusiasts would jump out just as the bus came to a halt near Gargi or Lady Shriram College to check out the opposite sex with the kind of finesse that can only come from repeat viewings of Kasam Paida Karne Waale Ki. Borderline harassment aside, refusing to pay for a ticket upped their game by a fair bit. This sort of mass rebellion had never been witnessed before.
Like all great student movements, this too spread like wildfire. If you were a student, and could get away without buying a ticket, you were seen as a “made man”, like in Goodfellas or The Sopranos (not that any Delhi kids had seen either).
School kids like me and my friends idolised made men, while middle-class uncles on the bus “tch-tch”-ed at them. You became a hero, a star, one who didn’t give a damn about anything, and could get away with bloody murder if you wanted.
There were some schools whose students managed to break into this elite club, but to my eternal shame and regret, my school was not one of them. We used to board the 160 route number Redline, every afternoon at 1.45 pm. I’d look wistfully at bearded students in shabby school uniforms, their shirts out of their pants, get on to the bus, and use the magic words. But whenever anyone from our school tried to emulate those stars, the conductor and his cronies started laughing uncontrollably, and just told him to pay up or get off.
Until one day, Amit decided to take matters into his own hands.
Amit was two years our senior, a Class XI student. Tall, well-built, and surrounded by a gang of similar friends, he was the closest we had to a “made man” in school. We all looked up to him, and hung on to his every word: Tales of how he bashed up five goons single-handedly when they just looked at his “girlfriend” or gang-wars involving the use of deadly weapons like a knife hidden inside the sole of his shoe.
I’m not sure what led to Amit’s act of defiance that day. One afternoon, Amit and one of his friends got on to the bus as usual. The conductor asked them for the ticket as usual. But what was unusual was Amit’s response: He said no.
The conductor could not believe his ears, so he asked again, and got the exact same response. The conductor got up now, and shouted at the driver to stop the bus. “Ab dekhiyo Amit iski kya haalat karta hai,” I gleefully whispered to my friend. My dream was soon going to come true after all.
The bus stopped, and the conductor was now standing almost chest to chest with Amit. This was going to be a tremendous face-off. Then, out of nowhere, two friends of the conductor were standing with him. And before Amit and his friend could say or do anything, they had been unceremoniously pushed out of the bus. The bus sped away. All we could see from the back window was Amit shaking his fist at the conductor, and shouting dire threats about what he’d do tomorrow.
I will not say that I was not disappointed, but I consoled myself by thinking that maybe events took Amit by surprise. He was sure to come well-prepared the next day.
Sure enough, the following afternoon, Amit and about ten of his friends showed up at the school’s bus-stop. They were not carrying any weapons, but I guessed that those would be concealed like the knife in the sole of Amit’s shoe.
I could barely rein in my excitement for fireworks to start. Today would be the day when our school would finally get its due, and we’d all turn from boys to men. We’d finally become staff!
But you know what they say about the best-laid plans.
The bus was right on time, and Amit and his friends immediately surrounded it. Amit grabbed the collar of the conductor from the window, and said menacingly, “Tu neeche utar, phir dikhaata hoon main kaun hoon.” The conductor demurred, but not for long, for Amit’s grip was tightening by the second. Finally, the conductor gave in, and started coming down the steps of the bus. The battle was won.
But just as the conductor reached the last step, he looked behind into the bus, and shouted, “Aa jao bhai neeche sab ke sab, bula raha hai launda!”
The conductor had not come unprepared. Some 10-12 grown men, straight out of a Gurgaon akhaada, got down behind him. They’d have been enough for our guys, but each one of them was also carrying a hockey stick. I’m sure you know what happened next, but I realised two things:
1. Ram Gopal Verma was a genius. The sound of a hockey stick hitting flesh was EXACTLY how it sounded in his masterpiece Shiva; and
2. My dream of becoming staff was dead forever.
P.S.: Actually, I did become staff, but only for about two weeks after my XIIth when I joined Rajdhani College briefly. Alas, I later took admission into College of Business Studies in “Jamna Paar”. On our very first day in college, our seniors imparted these pearls of wisdom: The day you’re feeling low, try using the word “staff” on the bus conductor. His unfettered laughter will blow away the darkest of clouds and brighten up the rest of your day.
After spending almost a decade and a half in the media & entertainment Industry, Anurag decided to withdraw gracefully from the rat race, and enter the world of words by becoming a full-time writer. He now writes a short story a day on his blog, https://jagahdilmein.wordpress.com.