The following is an essay based on my experience on traveling on buses in Kerala, India this summer. Natives from Kerala are known as Malayalis since they speak Malayalam.
Every morning, I waved my hand at the overcrowded bus to stop. I would barely take a step onto the vehicle before the bell rang, and the bus started to move in its impossible speed. Holding onto any railings I found, I swam through the sea of people to find a spot to stand. Each day, I paid my fare, which always had to be exact. Or else, I would find the fare-collector to be very crabby – after all, searching for change in the bag that jingles with coins galore can be extremely tedious and exhaustive, I imagine.
Next, while doing all I could to balance on what seemed to be a Knight Bus*, I listened. I listened for stories that were whispered among the people who crammed themselves into these red buses.
I listened to the tired mother telling her friend about how her daughter didn’t score so well on her exams. I listened to the school girls sharing secrets about their annoying teachers or their extremely attractive crushes. I listened to the grandmother confessing her guilt over burdening her children with her medical expenses.
Aboard the crowded red buses were also those lone passengers with no company to confide in. But even without secret keepers of their own, I could see their stories so clearly etched in their eyes. Like the middle-aged man, exhausted from toiling from dusk till dawn just so he provide for his family. Or the 20-something young woman who sighed with a hint of apprehension and wonder, what I presumed, could be about a new job or a marriage proposal.
In each red bus that I took each morning and evening, I was amazed by the stories of the everyday Malayali. These are stories that were accidentally shared to a quiet and inquisitive listener. And through these secrets that people accidently shared with me, I have learned to love the people of this city. The people who work hard and faithfully to provide for the hungry bellies at home; the people who have learned to be resourceful in this cruel and unfair world; the people that are careful to trust, but show kindness in small, quiet ways; the people that find value in honesty, respect, and diligent hard work.
The people and their stories have taught me how to be respectful to everyone, no matter what their demeanor. They have taught me that life is unfair, but complaining about it will get me no where – instead, I must command my own future and destiny.
The true essence and charm of this city is found in the everyday Malayali, the hardworking men and women who make a greater impact on society than they will ever be aware of. To any visitor who wishes to truly learn about this great city, forget the house boats and overpriced travel packages, and instead step on board the overcrowded red buses and silently study the stories of the tired, disciplined, and endearing people of the city.
So grab the exact fare amount, muster the courage to withstand the smell perspiring people, and open yourselves to the heart-wrenching stories of the everyday Malayalis traveling on red buses – there is a lot of wealth buried under the surface.
*Knight bus from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.