The Bus Conductor by Dalip Kaur Tiwana
Dr. Dalip Kaur Tiwana (4 May 1935–31 January 2020) is recognised as one of the most consequential Punjabi authors who substantially contributed to the development of modern Punjabi literature. Prior to her death, she published twenty-seven novels, seven collections of short stories as well as a literary biography. Tiwana was also a distinguished academic. She was the first woman in the region to obtain a Ph.D. from Punjab University in 1963. She joined the Punjabi University at Patiala from which she retired as a Dean as well as a Professor of Punjabi. Dr. Tiwana garnered innumerable regional as well as national awards within India, including the prestigious Sahitya Akademi Award and the Padma Shri, India’s fourth largest civilian honor. She surrendered her Padma Shri in 2015 expressing “Solidarity with other writers who are protesting against the increasing cultural intolerance in our society and politics and the threat to free speech and creative freedom.”
The Bus Conductor
The lady doctor, Polly, had been transferred from Nabhe to Patiala. Her family members were trying to get the transfer rescinded. That is why, instead of taking a house and living in Patiala, she got permission from the senior doctor to come from Nabhe every morning by bus and return in the evening.
She felt ill at ease because of the shivering sound of the idling buses, the heat, the sweat, the crowds, the ludicrous indolence of the conductors, and the rude banter. Thinking to herself, “But this is just a matter of days,” she suffered it all. On the days when Jit was on duty for that bus, she would feel a bit comfortable because that conductor seemed to be good natured.
One day, a man asked Jit, “Where does that girl with the bag work?”
Jit said discretely as he was handing over the ticket, “Aho sir! She is a lady doctor. A very senior lady doctor. People say that her salary is a full three hundred rupees.”
“Sir, these days women are earning more than men. That’s why men are no longer the boss,” said the man as he sat down on a seat nearby.
“Sir, no matter what they earn, girls of a good household still must lower their eyes when they speak…and this lady doctor, I go to Patiala all the time and by god, she doesn’t even speak…,” said the Sardar who was sitting behind while gazing towards Polly.
“By god! I also….” He stopped mid-sentence when Jit, while handing the ticket to this dandy in a pink shirt, glowered at him and said, “So, brother. Do you want to go? Or should I toss you off the bus now?”
“Conductor Sir. I didn’t anything. Why are you getting angry like this?”
While Jit was handing the ticket over to Polly, she began to give him the ten she took out.
“I don’t have any change. Forget about it and pay in full tomorrow.” Having said this, Jit moved on.
Ahead, there was elderly woman who also took out a ten. “Ma’am, I don’t have change. The entire fare is 10.5 annas and you take out such a large note and hand it to me? Fine. Go and get change and then come back,” Jit said in a rather stern voice.
“Young man! In that time, the bus will have left and it’s urgent that I go. You can return the rest of the money to me in Patiala,” the elderly woman begged of him.
“Fine, ma’am. Sit down,” he said as he began to cut her a ticket.
Polly was thinking about the hospital, all of the patients, the medicines, the nurses, and the various duties as the bus left behind Rakhra, then Kalyan and then Rony and neared the Chungu toll booth.
Jit told the driver, “Yaar! Today drive towards this blue building right here.”
The passengers who were travelling to the gurdwara grumbled a bit, but by now the bus had turned and was once more on the direct route. Near the Flower Cinema the conductor rang the bell to stop the bus, opened the door, and began to tell Polly, “You get down here, the hospital will be nearby.”
Polly got down quickly. She even forgot to say thank you. She thought to herself, “That poor fellow is such a nice conductor.”
By the time she reached the bus station that evening to begin her journey home, the bus was already full. With great difficulty she waited 45 minutes for another bus. A bus conductor, with his shirt unbuttoned, passed her three times while mumbling the song from the film Awaara. He gave an anna to a female beggar to get rid of her for some time. She didn’t know why, but people were staring at her wide-eyed.
The next day, it happened by chance, that when she reached the Nabha bus station, the buses were already full, and Jit was turning away additional passengers without a ticket. Jit approached her and said, “You can pick up the bag on the front seat and sit down. I saved a seat for you.”
Polly passed by several gawking passengers and sat down. Jit immediately rang the bell for the bus to move forward.
“This conductor is so good-natured,” Polly thought to herself.
As the delays in getting her posting to Nabha stretched over time, she became depressed. The sound of the idling buses and fears of the bus leaving were constantly on her mind. Whenever she was forced to sit next to a fat passenger, her nice clothes would get wrinkled, and the stench of sweat would make her dizzy.
Then one day when she was about to give money for her ticket, Jit said, “No madam, forget about it,” and moved ahead.
“No sir, please take the money,” Polly emphatically requested.
“What difference will it make whether I take your money or not?” he asked. He walked further ahead and began to give a ticket to someone.
Polly, feeling self-conscious from the argument, sat down quietly but throughout the journey she was wondering why the conductor didn’t take money from her. She did not like it at all. For someone earning Rs. 300 what is the value 10.5 annas?
The next day she intentionally left five minutes late, thinking, “Today I won’t go on the Pipal Bus. Instead, I’ll take the Pepsu Roadways Bus. What nonsense is this that he won’t take the money!”
She was stupefied to see that the driver had started the bus and was standing yelling at the conductor.
“Oye! I am just coming. Why are you yelling? Why do want to leave so early? Is it about to rain?” Jit said, while walking very, very slowly.
“Are we going to the next station or not? You’re taking your sweet time getting here,” the driver said.
“Get over here, Madam and take the front seat, and open the window,” Jit said to Polly.
“How can the bus leave without Madam?” mumbled a clerk in the back who took the bus from Nabhe to Patiala every day.
Jit glared at him. Everyone fell silent. The bus left. Polly took out the money but despite her repeated attempts, Jit refused to take it. Polly became very angry. “Jit is making me a part of this scam…But why is he neither charging me nor giving me a ticket?… Still, this is defrauding the company…” She was thinking this just as the bus stopped and a ticket-checker boarded. When he was checking the tickets of the other passengers, Polly broke out in a nervous sweat.
“How humiliating it is that I don’t have a ticket…. I will tell him that the conductor didn’t give me a ticket even though I asked for one,” she thought. “But what will the poor man say? No. I will tell him that I forgot. But no. How can I lie,” she debated with herself.
Then the checker approached her.
As soon as he said, “Madam…ticket,” Jit, taking a ticket out of his pocket, called out, “She…. she…This woman is my sister. I have her ticket.”
Seeing the ticket, the checker glanced at the conductor whose pants were threadbare at the knees and whose khaki uniform was worn at the elbows. Then, he looked over the woman in the expensive sari. He smiled with his eyes.
Jit became flustered. The checker quickly got down from the bus.
Polly, surprised and worried, was thinking that perhaps this man, who earns a paltry Rs. 60 per month, didn’t eat during the day so that he could pay for my entire fare.
In the hospital, she kept thinking about this. She felt so uneasy about it.
In the evening when she reached the station, Jit was sad as he slowly made his way towards her.
“My older sister also studied medicine in Lahore…and she died there during the riots of partition. The rest of my family perished too. I somehow managed to make it here alive. How could I even think about studying when I could barely feed myself? Then I became a conductor. When I saw your bag and stethoscope, I remembered Amarjit…and…and….” Then he choked up.
Polly was very distraught. She didn’t know how to respond.
Meanwhile, the bus came. He quickly walked towards it and Polly kept on watching him walk away with affection in her moist eyes.
(Translated and published with permission from the Punjabi publisher at https://punjabistories.com. Link to the Punjabi story: https://punjabistories.com/tag/bus-conductor-by-dalip-kaur-tiwana/)