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A city devoid of buses is beyond the imagination of today’s Calcuttans; buses belong to an era before their grandfathers were born. But there was the capital of a country that till the last fortnight had no buses; Japanese magnanimity enabled it to inaugurate its first bus service with a fleet of 10 buses. Its name is easy: just Cambodia. But its capital requires verbal acrobatics; it is called Phnom Penh. That it did without a bus service till now has no easy explanation. For it is no village; it has a population of over two million. In case someone thinks that its name is too brief for a city, it has a longer name, which translates into the place of four rivers that gives the happiness and success of Khmer Kingdom, the highest leader as well as impregnable city of the god Indra of the great kingdom. The name does embody a minor exaggeration, for it has only three rivers: Bassac and Tonle Sac rivers flow into the great Mekong here. But since the confluence looks like a cross, one can take it as a meeting of four rivers if one ignores the direction of the flow.

Even its shorter name carries a history; legend has it that in 1434, Lady Penh went to fetch water in the Tonle Sac where she found a tree trunk floating down. In its crevice she found four statuettes of the Buddha, which she took to the highest mountain in sight, all of 89 feet, and built a temple to house them. And just in case anyone is inclined to look down on the city, it has had buses for ages; they just preferred to run to other cities rather than carry passengers within the city, who were amply served by tuktuks, known as auto rickshaws in our city, apart from cyclos, which are called cycle rickshaws here, and motos, seats attached to motor cycles which were common in Delhi after the last world war.

Phnom Penh inspires doubts whether Calcutta needs buses. It has all modes of public transport that Phnom Penh managed so long with. Buses are too big; they intimidate all the smaller vehicles that populate the streets. They have to be filled; the minimum qualification of a Calcuttan bus conductor is to sing or shout as the case may be the destinations of his bus and fill it up till it can take no more. He does not push passengers into the bus as was the practice on Tokyo underground in the years after the war; as a result, his passengers hang out various limbs, and occasionally take involuntary leave of the bus. And yet, the bus service would be uneconomic without overcrowding since the local authorities are dead set against a rise in fares. Given their price-comfort preference, they should allow passengers to climb on top of buses.