Barely a month ago, for the very first time in my 10 years in Mumbai, I got the upper-deck front seat of a BEST Routemaster.
The red double-decker bus was almost empty — it was the day Raj Thackeray was arrested by the police on charges of inciting violence against north Indians. The city was tense and crestfallen. Taxi drivers, mostly north Indians, refused to drive to my office in Dadar, the pulse of Mumbai’s Marathi manoos.
Time travel: (clockwise from above) Visitors Atul Keni and his son, Varad, looking at the replica of a double-decker tram from the 1920s; BEST buses were modelled on London’s double-deckers; a ticket-issuing machine from the British era, with a dial system; and a tram from the pre-independence era, when it was drawn by horses. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
The burly titan screeched to a halt in front of the bus stop and picked me up. The conductor was kind — I was climbing with a limp due to an ankle injury, and he ensured the bus didn’t start moving before I sat down.
The bus trundled through Mahim, turned to the Lokmanya Tilak Bridge and, in 20 minutes, reached Dadar (East), which wore an eerie look. Shop shutters were down, the few people on the street looked glum, and policemen were talking into their wireless walkie-talkies. I always wanted to sit up there and see Mumbai pass by me, but this just wasn’t the day.
Yet, being next to the grim driver manoeuvring his giant hand gear and steering wheel was a strangely comforting experience — it felt as if I was protected from stone pelters and rowdy mobs.
I was transported to the days when, convinced that I was going to be mauled to death on a local train, I decided to travel only in BEST buses — route nos. 84, 86, 133, 1 and 159 are still very familiar. The BEST bus was a dependable, punctual and safe Mumbai staple (don’t forget the thrill of blocking all cars behind and next to you and taking elephantine strides ahead; and of course, not having to feel bumps from yawning potholes as you do in your Honda City). No wonder then that a young man by the name of Jarvik Panday, a member of the BEST buses fan club, condemned the plans of the BEST authorities to do away with the double-deckers, in a Hindustan Times news report in April 2007.
The BEST office now says that there are no plans to scrap the Routemasters, modelled on London’s double-deckers. The official figure of the number of double-deckers plying in Mumbai is 171.
But when, in the last week of October, a young man from Patna opened fire from the upper deck of a double-decker at the police in Kurla, it seemed as if the red giants were not immune to modern-day perils.
It was time to revisit the BEST story.
I first dialled the number of Uttam Khobragade, general manager of the Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport Undertaking’s (BEST). “What’s your response to this incident? Are we actually going to see CCTV cameras installed in BEST buses now?” I asked. The manager’s outburst over the telephone took me by surprise: “You tell me. How on earth do you expect us to frisk millions of commuters? It’s impossible!” He denied what the local newspapers had reported the day after the freak incident: After disabled-friendly buses, ads on closed-circuit TVs and buses that run on biodiesel, the BEST authorities’ next big plan is to step up the process of installing CCTV cameras inside one of Mumbai’s safest modes of transport.
A few days after Diwali, I took a trip to the Anik Bus Depot in Wadala, where the BEST Transport Museum is located. Little known to Mumbaikars, this museum preserves rare memorabilia and titbits about the colourful — colonial and post-colonial — history of BEST. Although only 15 years old, the walls and floors of the spacious, two-room museum look as aged as the engine, bus and tram replicas, badges and photographs, some of which date back to the early 1920s. It was one of those rare days, the intrepid guide later told me, when he had walked more than two visitors through the museum at the same time.
Atul Keni, a resident of Chunabhatti, was visiting with his son Varad. Keni, a loyal BEST commuter, had heard of the museum all his life in Mumbai, but until now, when his son had instructions from his school to visit it, hadn’t actually made the 10-minute trip from his home.
Sanjay Chaulkar, a BEST employee for 16 years, and guide and sole staffer of the BEST Transport Museum, is a man who goes about his business with dire purposefulness. He knows the history of each piece by heart, and he doesn’t smile even as he narrates quirky facts: A heavy, steel ticket issue machine installed by the British authorities in the 1930s kept track of every ticket purchased through a dial system, but the machine was scrapped after some Indian conductors started reversing the dials to steal a share of the ticket money; on 16 May 1986, Bal Thackeray forced BEST to replace the Hindi numerals that indicated prices on the tickets with Marathi numerals, and two years later, even the issuing number was changed to Marathi numerals.
Vintage engine: The chassis of a double-decker bus from the 1940s. Abhijit Bhatlekar / Mint
Chaulkar took us through an engine replica of one of the earliest double-deckers — of the kind that transport superintendent of Travancore E.G. Salter imported for what is now Thiruvananthapuram in 1937, and which was also simultaneously introduced in Mumbai. “The handbrake of this bus was better than the brakes that exist in today’s buses,” he insisted. He explained, through a bus stop model, where it once stood and what the same stop looks like now. He told us about the bunk sightseeing service, wherein a 10-seater car could be hired for Re1 a day in 1928. We cringed at the tram replicas, the first vehicles of The Bombay Tramway Co. Ltd (which became the BEST Undertaking in 1947) which were first drawn on tracks by horses!
Chaulkar doesn’t come to the museum often, because he also doubles up as its curator. “I go to the depots and try and look for new things,” the bespectacled man told us before we left.
BEST has a staff of 39,000 workers and 3,715 buses are on the streets every day. Chaulkar is a small man with a big task in this organization. “There’s no separate fund to preserve the museum,” Khobragade had told me. Last year, they requested the state government for a change of venue, but the transport department is yet to respond to the request.
The freak incident involving the young man from Patna didn’t really matter. The BEST bus has survived Mumbai’s lowest ebbs since 1947, and is one of the city’s treasures — rich in history, experimentation and innovation.
On my way out, at the depot, I met a group of drivers getting ready for their evening shifts. One of them looked at my notebook and asked, “Patrakar? (Journalist?)” “Yes,” I said, “I am writing about the Transport Museum.” He was befuddled — did such a thing actually exist inside the depot that he reports to every day?
The BEST Transport Museum is open from Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm. Entry is free.