The proximity of this passenger’s armpit to my face was a rather unfortunate aspect of the commute. In many ways it posed a greater challenge than my place on the bus, which was hardly a place at all.
Unable to complete my field work in time to avoid the rush-hour crowd back to Chennai, I took on the journey of hanging on a bus at a capacity that exceeded even the most generous definitions of overcrowded. With all seats occupied and all hand rails covered by clinched hands, many passengers simply stood in aisles with the comfort of knowing that the sheer crowd would prevent a fall. As for myself, I did not stand at all.
When boarding the bus, I never made it to the aisle. In fact, I never made it past the second step. My right foot supported the majority of my body weight while my left foot dangled over the first step. I shifted a portion of my weight to the hand rail along the stairs and balanced myself by holding on to a bar just above the area where there was probably a door some time ago.
Turning my head, in efforts to reduce the potency of the smell of my neighbor’s personal order, I felt fortunate in many ways. At least I was in the door way and I had a hand rail to lean on. I glanced at the young men (and it always young men who do this) fearlessly riding the floor boards, and felt silly for having anxiety about my placement.
The smell of my neighbor was becoming unbearably strong. For a moment I considered asking one of the floorboard riders to change places with me at the next stop. The driver of the bus, hardly seemed to notice that there were people hanging from the bus, nor did he exercise any degree of caution. He turned corners at speeds up to 60 miles per hour and barely stopped for exiting passengers. There was no mercy for the elderly either. Frail men, with fleeing grey hair and walking sticks, braced themselves before jumping from the gliding bus. I felt bad for them. It just seemed wrong. While harshly judging the character of the bus driver, I wondered if my neighbor could smell his own body order.
In efforts to take my mind off of the wafting smell, I tried to concentrate on the beauty of the village landscape. Then I wondered how much it would cost to take an auto the 36km back to Chennai and if an auto would event take me. “How much am I willing to pay in order to escape this scent?” I wondered. I’ve smelled horrid things during my time in India, but this man’s arm pit was inches from my face and the scent was inescapable. It was even more overpowering than the concern that I should have had for my safety while hanging from the threshold of a bulging bus driven by a man, whom I decided it was okay to judge for his insensitively to the elderly passengers… Oh India, you have done it again….