Friday, November 07, 2008

The Omni-present Lal Dabba

Dabba - the Marathi word for a box. Colloquially though it is considered synonymous with Lunch box. The moment some one with some knowledge of Mumbai, hears or reads the term Dabba, the famous 6 sigma Dabbewale spring to mind. Their efficiency is of course a research topic, but this post is about a different Dabba - the Lal Dabba (or Red Box).

So what's the lal dabba - a colloquial term for the cheapest State Transport buses. These are literally red boxes. A look at these buses and one would feel that all the manufacturers do is pick a large tin box, cut windows into it, put it on wheels, attached the engine and steering system, nail a few seats onto it and then paint it red. The interiors are filthy and stinky as there does not seem to be any cleaning or maintenance done on those since construction. The suspension of the bus seems to be non existent and you have to have strong spine to venture on a long journey in one of these (especially given the terrain where these buses ply). The bus rattles so much during journey that one starts to wonder how it manages to remain one piece. In essence the fact that these buses are still running itself is a wonder. Not to mention that for an urbane creature like me, the first experience of this buses is quite likely to be horrible and most of the people I know would love to avoid travelling in one of these buses.

With all the negatives well etched in my mind I usually avoided travelling in the Lal Dabba. As destiny would have it, I took up engineering in a college which was in Navi Mumbai and the urban transportation from Mumbai or Thane to that place was not very well developed. The train route was circuitous and city bus transport was infrequent and crowded at best. I did start off by taking the city bus transport but soon realised that the lal dabbas also plied on the same route and they were less crowded. Reluctantly I started travelling by lal dabbas.

Joy of the Lal Dabba
Within the next year or so I discovered the joy of the Lal Dabba. Mostly I travelled in those times of the day when the Sunlight would pierce right through the windows. The metal body of the lal dabba of course would have been heated up well by then and the air (this usually happened in late afternoon) would also be warm. All this gave the feel of the oven. Gradually one starts to feel drowsy. Add to that the rattling bus (like the rocking of a cradle) gives you a perfect place to doze off to sleep. What this meant is I usually managed to get about 1 to 1.5 hours of my daily sleep quota in the lal dabba. Now I am amazed how I did that but I think there were no better alternatives and it was a little difficult getting used to it. However once I mastered the art of sleeping in the bus, it was quite relaxing and sometimes even energizing. Of course my clothes would stink with sweat (from travelling in the sun baked oven), but what the hell, what's the washing machine meant for .

A tryst with Destiny (Lal Dabba)
After college with urban work life in Software I thought I would not have to travel in the lal dabba again. Wherever I travelled there were usually more comfortable means of transport. I was so very wrong.My own new found hobby of trekking made sure that my tryst with Lal Dabba was far from over. Most of base villages for trekking spots were quite remote. The only public transportation that went there were the Lal Dabbas. Usually the terrain was such that only possible other vehicles that you could take there were the off road vehicles (like SUVs) but they come out to be expensive. So soon enough I was hooked on to the Lal Dabbas again although only on those weekends when I went out for treks.

The omni-present Lal Dabba
Over the several years of I thought the significance of the Lal Dabba was that they were the cheapest public road tranport. I always blamed the negatives and the fact that their punctuality is undependable. For most part wherever I went, there was usually no fixed time for the service. People would always give me a range of timings for the the arrival of a single bus. However couple of instances changed my opinion about the STs completely.
Once I had gone out to trek to fort called Sudhagad. The base village was a remote tribal village. To get there from Mumbai we took 3 different modes of transport (train, bus, rickshaw). The last part of the ride was so bad that we were wondering how the rickshaw even managed to go through that terrain. The village was a tribal village which looked as if it hadn't changed much since independence of India. We were wondering how the village was connected to the rest of the world (after all the rickshaw we took to the place didn't agree willingly and we had to pay the driver a premium to take us there). On inquiries we found that there was a Lal Dabba that came to the place 3 times a day. I still didn't believe how the bus could get there regularly without having a flat tyre. That was till our return from the trek, when we found ourselves hurrying so that we get to the village back in time to catch the Lal Dabba. Sure enough there was a Lal Dabba and the conductor graciously agreed to wait a few extra minutes for the slow pokes in my group to get to the village. After that we all slept like babies thanking heavens for the Lal Dabba.

The Life line called Lal Dabba
At another time in a different situation we had a huge group of 35 trekkers who had gone out for a trek to another remote destination called Harishchandragad. This place is so remote that nearest village connected by road (called pachnai) is about 2 - 2.5 hours of walk from the Fort. There is no electricity atop the fort and even the mobile signal is available only at specific spots on the top. We happened to be there in rainy season. On our way back we got down to the village in fairly quick time. As soon as we got there we figured that due to rains and consequent land slides, the road was unsafe and buses were only plying till the next village which was another 10 kms away. Reluctantly we dragged our tired legs to the next village, just in time to catch the 3 :00 pm bus to the nearest Town (or so we thought). The bus did not arrive for another hour. Some one said that the bus does not ply on Sundays. We were starting to get desperate. After all taking 35 ppl back to Mumbai from that remote village did require big vehicle and bullock carts won't do. Among the ideas floated around were walking to the closest highway (about 20 kms) or getting one tractor / bike owning villagers to give one of us a ride to the nearest town so we could rent some jeeps to haul the whole group or even staying in the village overnight so as to catch the next morning bus (the only hitch in this option was we did not have enough food nor did the village have enough shelter for 35 extra people other than the verandah of the village school) . After a lot of searching one of the guys did get a ride from the villager and was on his way to the town. The rest of us were listening carefully to any noise of a motored vehicle in hope that the Lal Dabba was still on its way. Sure enough in the next few minutes (I think around 4.30 pm) the lal Dabba made its way. The ST bus was greeted by a huge shout from all 35 people as if we had just won a battle (after all we now knew that we were making it home the same day).
Hats off to the Lal Dabbas and their drivers and conductors .. for plying buses on routes where no one else ventures. These routes may not even be economically viable. But the important thing is that these buses serve as life lines providing the remote and isolated villages connectivity with rest of the world. We say that the world is available at the touch of a button thanks to internet. However before internet there is electricity and where there is no electricity .... the Lal Dabba is still there.

* This is a post from my other blog.
The original post may be found here

1 comment:

  1. Hi,

    I'd like to feature this post in DNA's Around the Blog page. Let me know if you don't mind at aroundtheblog at dnaindia dot net ro blessymarley at gmail dot com.