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BEST: Our red Cadillac

The BEST bus has been an icon of middle-class romance and mobility in Mumbai for nearly a century. It is now in the red, and a city bleeds

Miniatures of trams and buses on display at the BEST Museum in Mumbai. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Miniatures of trams and buses on display at the BEST Museum in Mumbai. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

It was the 1970s. Artist Sudarshan Shetty, just a schoolboy, would spend the afternoons riding the upper level of a double-decker bus from Sion to Flora Fountain when it wasn’t tilting to one side with office-going crowds. When he was older, and people asked how he would go home, he’d say he was taking his “red Cadillac", a fond reference to the Bombay Electric Supply and Transport Company (BEST, the “B" changing to “Brihanmumbai" in 1995) bus.

A decade earlier, two “articulated" elephantine trailor-hitched double-decker buses built by Ashok Leyland and Mahindra Owen—BEST had introduced 10—used to be parked behind the Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Colaba. The buses, Nos.70 and 74, would wind down to Mahim via Tulsi Pipe Road, running more or less parallel to the railway tracks. Deepak Rao, a historian and retired Mumbai police officer, describes No.74 as “the most romantic bus in the fleet".

He may be a little prejudiced, of course, for that was the time he was wooing his then girlfriend and now wife of more than 60 years, Bhanu Rao. After milkshakes at what used to be the King Edward restaurant, a hot spot of the day, they would walk down Marine Drive, and rush to the upper deck to grab the front seat for the ride to her home in Mahim. “The driver’s cabin was separate from the trailer, so he couldn’t see what was going on, affording couples much privacy. It offered a bird’s-eye view of the city," says Rao. The ticket was 10 naye paise. Within a decade the unwieldy buses were discontinued; the Raos were married by then.

Go back even earlier to the 1950s, when author Kiran Nagarkar would ride the buses with the lettered bus routes, As, Bs and Cs, which predated the modern numbering system. He misses the double-deckers “desperately" because they were “marvellous, especially if you had a girlfriend".

Behram Dubash and Rustam Antia, BEST commuters for over five decades. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Behram Dubash and Rustam Antia, BEST commuters for over five decades. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Unlike its more abrasive counterparts in other metros, the BEST bus has been a symbol of both the struggle and romance of Mumbai’s middle class. When Amol Palekar wooed Vidya Sinha in Basu Chatterjee’s Chhoti Si Baat (1976), the bus too became a conveyor of the cheek-by-jowl coexistence the city imposed, its rising loneliness, and the interplay of gender in an emerging modernity.

Palekar came into Hindi cinema in the 1970s, a space already ruled by the Kapoors, Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna, Jeetendra and Dharmendra. He would point out in an interview: “Until Rajnigandha, a Hindi film hero was someone who had never travelled by local transport and never worked in an office." It was perhaps only fitting, then, that parallel cinema was wheeled in on a BEST.

A double-decker from Churchgate to Malad was also witness to the birth of Bimal Roy Productions in 1952. Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Roy and a few others were returning after watching Akira Kurosawa’s Rashōmon at the Eros theatre. Stunned by it, they decided on that journey that it was the kind of cinema they wanted to make together.

Beth Watkins, an American blogger of patterns in Indian film, spots the BEST in the song Janu Meri Jaan in Shaan (1980). In it, she notes, the bus becomes a complement to an earlier scene when Bachchan and Shashi Kapoor are trading flowery phrases over an object of beauty. While Kapoor is talking of his romantic interest, Bachchan, it turns out, is referring to his car. “Putting a song in literal motion is a fun strategy. The women on the bus have some power as the audience for the men’s song, because they’re sitting on the upper level. The bus isn’t moving any faster than the men’s bicycle, and by the end the heroes take control of the bus and, thus, the romantic pursuit," Watkins says.

The supporting stardom of the bus continued in films from Ardh Satya (1983) and Muqaddar Ka Sikander (1978) to Ghajini (2008) an OK Kanmani (2015).

For incoming migrants who settled into community enclaves—wadis, kudds and chawls—the BEST commute overrode regional differences. We are all in this together, the red bus conveyed; both the pains and pleasures of city life. In Nagarkar’s classic novel Ravan And Eddie, the opening chapter sums up every humble joy that Mumbai had to deliver to a worker: “Parvati’s son bounced excitedly in her arms. Yes yes yes, he wanted to play with Victor, see the dog scratch himself, watch the game of kabbadi kabbadi, get on to a double-decker bus and sit at the very front with the wind in his eyes and hair. He stretched out his arms and leapt." Indeed, in that seat, didn’t we all?

This great levelling contributed to the idea of Mumbai as a city where every dream was valid. White-collar executives rode next to mill workers, and students next to teachers. M.K. Sharma was known to take the bus to work for 30 years, well into his days as vice-president at Hindustan Lever Ltd (now Hindustan Unilever Ltd). Now, as executive chairman of ICICI Bank, he continues to take the BEST from time to time. “It connects me with the common man, and has offered me invaluable insights. It starts the conversation," he says.

Vidya Sinha riding a bus in a still from ‘Choti Si Baat’.

Russi Antia, a 64-year-old electrical consultant who lives at Nana Chowk and owns a fleet of cars, has been taking the bus since he was a student at Cathedral School in the 1950s. “The school had commissioned BEST to run as school buses for us, and it was the only place where both boys and girls, who then attended separate buildings, mingled," says Antia. In college, when meter down on the taxi was 6 annas, it just made more sense to meet friends on a ticket of 10 naye paise, saving what little pocket money they had for a Coca-Cola (25 paise) and a chicken roll (8 annas). “We would charge to the top of the bus, to fire a pea-shooter at people on the street," he says, chuckling. He sometimes takes taxis now, for he finds the bus wait-times less dependable.

The more those who succeeded took the bus, the more possible they made it for others who hoped to live out their dreams. Actor Mithun Chakraborty would take bus No.85 to Dadar, changing to the 165 for Famous Studios. Actor Tina Munim would take a double-decker from Jai Hind college to her home in Santacruz. Actor Om Puri, who lived in Andheri, would take the 4 Ltd to Fort until 1982, when he shot to fame in Aakrosh. Along with Naseeruddin Shah, who was also a struggling actor then, he would take the 211 and 214 from Bandra station to Pali Hill to meet producers to seek work. In Delhi, entitled conductors would take their seats, so it amazed and inspired Puri that BEST conductors would stand on their feet all day.

Sudarshan Shetty’s public installation at the Maker Maxity building at the Bandra-Kurla Complex, Mumbai. Photo: Kedar Bhat/Mint

Actor Sunil Dutt worked as a “shop recorder" in BEST’s supply department, enrolling himself in Jai Hind college till he was spotted by an ad agency to host the Radio Ceylon show, Lipton Ke Sitaare. Comedian Johnny Walker, real name Badruddin Jamaluddin Kazi, was a BEST conductor who performed to amuse his passengers. When Balraj Sahni was writing the script of Baazi (1951), he used to take the bus to his film shoots—and introduced Kazi to director Guru Dutt.

Walker would write in the newsletter BEST Varta, in Marathi: “I remember well, I began my work at the Dadar depot in 1942. In the beginning, my badge number was 16. It would change to 1266. My first salary was Rs40. But expenses were not so high, so we lived a good life on this.... There was admirable discipline in BEST. Whether our uniforms were up to the mark or not, would be checked..."

The discipline continues. Training at the Dindoshi Centre ensures drivers and conductors are never drunk or chewing paan, are aware of body odour and broken buttons on uniforms—and includes ways to respond if a woman complains of harassment. The buses are brightly lit to ensure women passengers feel safe. A quasi-judicial system has been set up to respond to complaints. The 1 Ltd route runs the length of the city late into the night, and “ladies first" buses, where women get priority in boarding, ply on 28 routes.

BEST open-upper-deck buses have also been used in victory parades—for instance, after the 2007 T20 cricket World Cup win, or the 2016 parade for Olympic medallist P.V. Sindhu.

In all, 3,800 buses run on more than 500 routes, with a staff of around 41,000.

Their symbolism as middle-class icons has also made the buses easy targets. BEST buses have been burnt, pelted with stones and blown up in terror attacks (in December 2002 and August 2003). Whether Mumbai is ambitious or angry, BEST has borne the brunt.

Its current falling apart, too, is symbolic. Nagarkar says: “After a recent trip, I thought it is not just the bus being dismantled, but I as traveller as well. Not merely metaphorically, but physically." A hand-rest disintegrated, leaving stubs that injured him. Nagarkar is angry at the wrong choices, bad coaches and financial mismanagement BEST has been subjected to. “It takes a special kind of insanity to invest in a coastal road which will be used by less than 2.5% of the population, while refusing to invest in the transport used by the 95%, the rest of us. Why should it die?" he says.

Deep in the red, BEST couldn’t pay employees salaries in February. In 2003, when the Electricity Act came into effect, it prevented the loss-making transport arm from leaning on its electricity arm for survival. Court battles led to a pile-up of arrears. BEST now faces a budget deficit of around Rs590 crore. Routes, allowances and subsidies are being frozen. Routes are being cancelled and buses sold.

BEST is also facing the onslaught of the new app-based taxi services and shared rides. Unlike many transport corporations, BEST is not subsidized by the BMC. It is fighting for survival.

“It must change, it must adapt, it must grow," says Milind Oke, 54, a senior executive at a textile company. He grew up in the BEST residential quarters in Wadala and supports the push for dedicated lanes and bus redesign that is under consideration.

The employee network is still closely knit, in residential colonies, on WhatsApp groups and culture clubs. And BEST itself has also encouraged employees to grow in different directions. It has produced novelists and dramatists, actors like Prashant Damle, once a BEST typist, and Sharad Ponkshe, a former mechanic, television actor Madhavi Juvekar, and athletes like Sheetal Shukla. Suresh Shelar, a class IV employee, took the best short film prize at the Indian International Film Festival of South Africa in 2014. An electrical engineer, 40-year-old classical singer Mrinal Thakurdesai, moved to BEST from a private company because of the support for employee talent.

The freedom has given them all a stake in BEST’s fate.

Rajendra Aklekar, a transport historian and an author, says Mumbai’s public transport is skewed. “Almost the entire population depends on the local trains that are run by the Central government. The only rightful public transport that Mumbai can call its own are the BEST buses. They are there when the trains are down, in a crisis or (during) festivals. They run at their own pace and are not always efficient, but they are always there. BEST will continue to remain the city’s own and rightful public transport, till the Metro network run by the state government comes into place."

BEST hopes it can adapt and win back the love.

But there has been resistance to the changes it wants to usher in. When the artist Shetty sought out the original craftsmen of BEST to create his prescient 10-tonne sculpture, the Flying Bus (2012), now parked at the Bandra-Kurla Complex, he found them matter-of-fact about the new era. He believes letting go is vital. Like oral traditions and Hindustani classical music, “things survive because they are open", he says.

BEST must be allowed to change. This is why museums don’t work here, he says—freezing in time is a Western canon, not Indian. No wonder the BEST museum in the Anik depot rarely gets visitors.

Shetty’s paradoxical winged bus with no commuters is at once heavy and light. It is caught between all it has stood for and reinvention, dislocated but purposeful—BEST, it conveys, is aching to take off again.

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