A shiny red bus with a Mercedes logo was enough to attract me to a journey from Patna to Ranchi and back. The same sight now makes me jittery about travelling in a bus again.
The hype behind the inter-state Mercedes buses had reached its peak on May 18, when I decided to ignore the tried-and-tested trains to Ranchi for a joyride in air-conditioned (AC) buses being run by Bihar State Road Transport Corporation (BSRTC) in private-public partnership with Hyderabad-based Girish Infrastructures.
I was hoping to sleep in the comfort of the bus and wake up early next morning to find myself in Ranchi. The bus, however, ensured I did not miss the entire journey sleeping in my seat.
At 10.15pm on May 19, I boarded a Mercedes bus to Ranchi, some 340km from the state capital. The bus started on time and was supposed to reach Ranchi by 5.30-6am.
Though things looked impressive initially, I heard the first compliant when a passenger could not recharge his cellphone.
“They have these plug-ins for charging mobiles but these don’t seem to be working,” said a passenger.
My seat also had a socket but, like the others, this one too did not have any power supply.
“It seems these are just for show,” said the passenger in disgust.
I was not bothered as my phone was fully charged. The journey still seemed perfect when the bus stopped for dinner at a roadside restaurant on the Jehanabad-Gaya Road for half-an-hour.
At 5am, I woke up to find the bus parked near a valley. Half asleep then, I decided to ignore whatever the problem was.
Two hours later, I woke up again to find the bus still stationary. This delay alarmed me a little.
The passenger on the next seat informed me that the bus had got a flat tyre and was stranded at the Chutupalu Valley, some 40km from Ranchi.
I alighted the bus to check the reason for the delay. The scene in front of me stunned me. The driver and the conductor were perspiring profusely, trying to replace a tyre of the bus with a small jack.
“It’s such a huge bus, how can you bring such a small jack,” a passenger asked the driver who didn’t have any answer.
Another half-an-hour had passed before a passenger decided to seek help from workers at a construction site near the road. He left with the driver and returned with a bigger jack.
By then the traffic along the valley had opened again and a handful of passengers decided to board the other passenger vehicles going towards Ranchi.
“There is no point waiting here. Ranchi is at just a short distance from this place,” one of the passengers said and boarded a four-wheeler.
Some patient passengers like me, however, waited till the bus was ready to run again by 8am.
I chose to ignore this delay but had no idea that my return journey will be an ultimate test of patience.
On May 20, I reached the bus stand at 7am. My ticket read that the bus would leave Ranchi at 7.15am sharp.
To my surprise, the bus, again a Mercedes, reached the bus stand from Patna with passengers at 7.15am.
“Give us 10 minutes. The bus will be cleaned and made ready for the next journey,” an official at the Ranchi office said. The 10 minutes ended two hours and 45 minutes later.
When the bus did not arrive till 9.30am, I shouted at the official, following which the truth was revealed. “The AC of the bus is not working and the repair will take some time,” the official said.
The bus arrived 10 minutes later. “Is the AC working?” I asked the driver, Murari.
“No, it is not working properly. We will stop at Ramgarh and get it checked,” he said.
The bus finally started at 10am with passengers wiping their sweat and praying for an early repair of the AC.
If plying on schedule, it would have reached Patna by 2.30pm.
But at 1pm, the bus was still parked at a petrol pump in Ramgarh with two mechanics trying to fix the snag.
“There is no gas and the AC cannot work without it,” one of the mechanics said.
The driver and the mechanics disappeared and returned an hour later with the necessary equipment. It took them another hour to fix the AC. The passengers, many of them women, had to stand in the sun as the bus had become smelly and suffocating.
We breathed a sigh of relief when the bus started again but the reprieve lasted only a few hours. “Something is wrong with the bus. It is making a lot of noise and the refilled gas is smelling. We have complained to the driver but he is in no mood to check,” a passenger said.
Harried pleas from hungry passengers for a stopover at a restaurant were also turned down by the driver. “The bus will stop only after we reach Gaya,” Murari said in a stern voice. I asked the conductor about the problem. He said: “The AC conked off last night near Jehanabad. The passengers had a difficult time the entire night.”
Finally, the bus, whose AC conked off again mid-way, reached Patna around 7.30pm. It was a journey to remember but for all the wrong reasons.