From Kolkata to London

The face of London’s Transport system has changed a great deal since my time in this city.

When I first arrived here, fresh faced from the flight from Kolkata, the 80s were in full swing and a layer of grime lay like a film over the entire city.

It was hardly the healthiest of times. When I arrived in London, I was reaching my late twenties and starting to collect a small tire of flesh around my midriff.

In India, I had been a vegetarian. Living with my parents and my two younger brothers, we had eaten wholesome food in large quantities. Coupled with the excessive amount of cricket that we played throughout those long balmy evenings, those bounteous meals kept us healthy and sickness free. I’d left home in order to find myself a decent education and a career. My parents were under no illusion as to how hard that might be, for an Indian-bred man, with no formal qualifications or experience. However, they’d somehow managed to get the money together over the course of a few years and were eager to let their son see something of the world.

During the 70s and 80s, large numbers of Asian people were looking to move to England.

Many countries, still shaken by their newly acquired independence, were now gripped by civil conflicts and wars, leaving swathes of young men and women looking for work. As such, during this period of time, the number of immigrants from places such as India, Sri Lanka and Pakistan were huge. One could look on this huge migration of people as a dilution of English culture, or you could see it as a natural consequence of three centuries of Colonial rule. English culture had become so ingrained with the lives of those living under their rule, that many people from Asian cultures looked on to their ex-colonists almost as guardians.

That’s certainly how I viewed her Majesty’s Government upon my arrival at Heathrow Airport.

I’d been born just a handful of years after the British retreat from India; what they left in their wake, besides countless white, Imperialistic buildings, infrastructure and hundreds of miles of train lines, was a power vacuum that led to countless inter-caste struggles. My parents were great fans of the British, despite growing up as essentially second-class citizens, they still felt that the country had benefited from the Colonial forces. All I knew was that they had built the hospitals, schools and cricket pitches where, previously, there were none.

They were the white men who had come to our country centuries before, in order to take our resources and exploit the people living there.

But they had also given me the buildings and structure that had provided me with an education and countless hours of precious memories. So when I arrived in London, I was a mixed bag of emotions. On the one hand, I was humbled by the flight (which had been my first) and the glittering airport, far grander than any we had in India. On the other I was a little surprised by the scruffiness, the garish lights and scowling faces. The vision of England that my parents had shared with me was one, full of well-dressed aristocrats and business men. The one that was presented to me was a surprisingly diverse melting pot of races and classes.

Thirty years later and I’m still here. Driving busses was never the career that my parents envisioned, but it’s allowed me to build a life in my adoptive country.

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Circling the City

There can be a million things that go through your head on a daily basis when you’re driving the busses.

Obviously driving the bus is the main thing. Mostly.

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Although the routes we drive on can change from week to week, we can often find ourselves riding the same circuit for several days in a year.

It’s an odd thing, to brush up next to so many people on a daily basis but not really know any of them, beyond their face, where they get on and where they get off. Somehow I feel like I know them. I’m told that this is a common phenomena in bus drivers who are early on in their careers, that it will fade with time and soon the faces will all appear the same. I’m not sure if that’s an alternative I prefer.

Many people have commented that driving a bus must be a lonely experience. That I must miss human interaction. As if the little cab I work in is towering hundreds of metres above the city, instead of rolling through the heart of it. The opposite is in fact true. Driving through and around the centre of London, I’m surrounded by thousands, probably millions of people. Far from being separated from them, I’m an intrinsic part of the city, a vital cog in the machine. It might seem like an old fashioned, or even dark way of seeing life here, but it’s something that comforts me.

Whilst I spend the hours of the day drifting around the city, nodding to fellow drivers, accepting fares, starting, stopping,  I feel like I’m a part of something greater. Our city is always bustling and busy – thousands of us, like ants, crawling across the pavements and roads. We might be crossing and intersecting at strange points, but we are all working towards the same goal. All thrust in the same direction, purposefully striding forward as one.

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I’ve spoken to other bus drivers about this sensation and, once more, I’m treated with the same look and condescending line. All this will pass, soon you’ll be just like us. That feeling of unification will turn to bitter loneliness. I’m not sure if that feeling will come.

Yes, the early mornings can be just as punishing as the late nights. When the Winter days come in, the nights can simply feel that they stretch on for weeks, months. If I were a trucker, rolling along deserted highways in the States, with nothing but the radio to keep me company, then perhaps the darkness would take my sanity. Endless blackness might seem like a daunting prospect, but the nights are never totally dark.

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London never experiences total blackness. There is always a light on somewhere. The streetlights wink perpetually, a window is illuminated as a man rises early in the morning, thousands of white screens glow and reflect off tired faces. How can you feel alone in a place such as this?

The darkness and bitterness that grips some of the people in my occupation is not a consequence of their work environment. This disillusionment emanates from within themselves, it is a product of their warped perception of the city. They feel insignificant, a small speck that is being swarmed and surrounded by an uncaring mass.

I am one of many reasons that this city keeps moving and I am proud to do it.

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