I passed by a bus stop this rainy morning in Bengaluru and there was a tall, young woman in denim dungarees, long-sleeved white T-shirt, glasses, a white hairband and a serious expression. I admired the outfit and thought of what a good visual the women at the bus stop made. If you have a dull party at your home, please show this picture and add that women in Karnataka now ride buses free and oh my friend, popcorn and alcohol will totally not be necessary. Did you know that so many people you know are economists, urban planners and have PhDs in urban mass transit systems? Did you know that these people also despise freebies? Which is why the men are very concerned that Karnataka’s economy will be wrecked by a bunch of women travelling for free for no good reason.
Me, I know nothing about economics even though I have an undergraduate degree in it. My feelings about the Karnataka economy or the Indian economy can be summarised in sab maya hai (everything is illusion). But I do follow with great interest the dozens of smooth-talking young and middle-aged men who run large companies into the ground and are then somehow okay. Companies go bust, folks are scammed, moustaches get one more ayyo IPO and somehow the world carries on.
Last week, I saw a news item saying that ₹500 notes worth ₹88,032.5 crore are… missing. An amazing fact unearthed by another increasingly rare artefact—an RTI (right to information) activist who is alive. I am not here to say what about the ₹88,000 crore, dudebros who are concerned that women are wasting Karnataka’s economy. That would be rude. Instead, I am saying, thank you dudebros for explaining to me that ₹88,000 crore don’t matter. Not even in the Keynesian long run when we will all be so dead. Even in the week the news broke, the nation is not rocked, no one is shook, sab maya hai.
So please let L not pay ₹10 each way to work every week day to cook in four houses. Please let her also not pay ₹76 one way to visit her granddaughter in Kolar every second weekend. Please let K, the speech therapist from Idukki, Kerala, also travel to work without establishing domicile.
K’s mother was a nurse who travelled to Kuwait to work and put three children through college in Kerala. K’s mother was the one who suggested she study speech therapy. K would like to get married and live in green, forest-filled Idukki. Her sister, who is studying to be a CA, wants to go abroad, where she can just hop to a grocery store or, better still, order from an app without being judged for not cooking.
All this is not possible if the decisions about public transit and women’s mobility are made by moustaches who are so concerned about the national and domestic economy. I recently began watching the 2022 Malayalam movie Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey. The scene in which Jaya (played by Darshana Rajendran) is eavesdropping on her parents, her useless brother and her uncle deciding whether it is practical for her to go to college in Thiruvananthapuram even though she has a scholarship…it made me scream silently and switch off the TV. I just couldn’t take it.
Just weeks later, when the new Karnataka government announced the free bus travel for women scheme, I still didn’t have the good sense to connect the dots. The aforementioned L pointed out that the free intercity bus tickets would remove the barriers at least for some families in sending their brainy daughters to other towns to study. “They can come home whenever they like from the hostel, no?”
L’s long-term acquaintance, H, is, like her, in her early 40s, with children, grandchildren and no husband. They have done the grind not quite together but with awareness of each other in the same neighbourhood. H told me that the first difficult thing she learnt to do as a Telugu-speaking woman new in Bengaluru—barely out of her teens, with three children and a husband who abandoned her after they arrived in the city—was to learn how to ride the bus to the homes she cleaned in. She has since put all three girls through college.
Her youngest went with colleagues from work to Guruvayoor in Kerala and liked it enough to say that is where she would like to get married, far from the relatives. H took the trip out of state for the first time since she arrived in Karnataka, braved the strange rice and water and lived to tell the tale of the destination wedding. She learnt to cycle in the pandemic because her daughters insisted. She has since ditched the bus for everyday travel.
The weather in my strange, wonderful, tortured, tortuous city is bike- and bus- and walk-friendly. It is better weather for bikes than Paris, which, under the leadership of its mayor Anne Hidalgo, has made bicycles and public transit the norm. Paris is working steadily towards a complete ban on gas-powered cars by 2030. Apparently, it has a popular bicycle school run by a woman where most students are first- or second-generation immigrant women.
The way the jungle likes being eaten, that is how Bengaluru has adapted to cars. Mostly not. And anyone can see how more bikes and more buses and more walking would make it so much less tortured and tortuous. More women going where they want for work and pleasure would be more matchy-matchy for Bengaluru than the bros.
In this emotional moment, I am determined to speak Hindi, as determined as an edtech bro looking for his next round. Bus karo, Karnataka, so that our ambitions are less maya and more jaya jaya hey.
Nisha Susan is the editor of the webzine The Ladies Finger and author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories.