Zen and the Art of Riding a North Indian Bus

Zen and the Art of Riding a North Indian Bus

And you thought you knew about bus rides?!

After a few months of avid roaming around the North of India, I can now say that I have probably spent quite a few days on all sorts of busses. I remember my maiden voyage – cramped into a local bus constantly being briefed by my friend that the worst is yet to come. With an apprehensive smile, he told me to “imagine it’s a free roller coaster ride”.  The fact that his knuckles were turning white as he grasped the blemished steel railings in front of us, betrayed the cheery disposition. I sensed that this twisted optimism perhaps served more to calm his own nerves than mine. He knew very well how some drivers have a deep rooted, demonstrably suicidal flirtation with the impossibilities of the road. I would soon come to learn it too.

There appears to be a competition between busses and trucks. When the journey seems to become a little too ordinary for the taste of the drivers, they have to spice things up a bit.  This occurs by overtaking trucks or other busses with the width of a hair to spare, on an impossibly narrow and blind turn. Every time this happens and there is no collision, I feel like a small miracle has happened.

Skill, apathy or supernatural powers?

My stubborn hypothesis is that these drivers are born without an inkling of a capacity for experiencing fear. I am convinced that this absence of fear must be the primary factor which propels a person down the career path of steering an ancient rattling TATA bus up and down the winding foothills of the Himalayas on a daily basis. The driver’s recklessness can be totally infuriating, scary and amusing.  It can even become inspiring after a few hours of contemplating the miniscule space between the wheel and the edge of the road. This gap is sometimes so small that I convinced myself several times that a slight slip will instantly lead to the void at the end of the abyss, or, to put it simply: Sudden Death.  Another contribution to my silent bursts of existential despair is the fact that I can be nowhere else, except for that seat on the bus. I have absolutely no control over the situation. This lack of control, and the ultimate surrender to fate, can drive you crazy or set you free. It was a renewed, urgent and visceral lesson in trust.

May the gods be with you: Every bus is protected by at least one deity and a lot of kitsch.

Most vehicles in India are decorated extensively. They are adorned with colourful plastic flowers, strings of multi-coloured neon lights, elaborately embroidered fabrics or even peacock feathers, whatever the particular aesthetic of its owner may be.  Apart from the general décor, it is ubiquitous to have a designated space for the deities.   It generally contains a framed picture or a statuette of a few gods – complete with a little incense holder. Tiny portable puja (ritual prayer) shrines.

At some point I seriously started to contemplate if the drivers have some supernatural skill – do they drive with telepathy? Or on good Karma? There came a point where I was convinced that this was not only possible, but entirely plausible – and if this was the case, may the Gods be ever in our favour. Why not? The air in India is infused with the mysterious, irrational and absurd. Most things seem to function beyond the scope of logic and reason. I couldn’t help but wonder if in this regard, it is better to be approximately right than precisely wrong.

Sit with the discomfort!

One day I was on a particularly long, bumpy and terrifying ride. Quite sleep deprived, I was simultaneously envious and in awe of those who managed to maintain a deep sleep through the radical twists and turns of the bus. I could no longer motivate myself to continue with my mantra of reassurance, which goes something along the lines of ‘the driver and bus has definitely done this journey countless times, we will make it, I will be fine’.  You can only reassure yourself so many times. It was raining, the road was wet and suffered from dramatic erosion. My nerves were wrecked. My interior monologue had somewhat shifted: “Today I might die, today is the day - I am going to die!”. The waves of pure fear and tension I was experiencing was exhausting, but persistent.  Countless hours of this mental state can really test a person. When the bus finally arrived, I was very tempted to fall to the ground and kiss it, eternally grateful for its solid stability. I never wanted to do a journey like that again, but I had to, and I did.

From fear to Zen: Stay relaxed, because somehow you will make it.

Somewhere along the road something changed. I had a lot of time to think about my way of thinking.  One of my most profound teachers and mentors once taught me to “sit with the discomfort”. While it is never pleasant in the moment, discomfort is one of the sincerest ways of learning and growing. Remembering her words, I sat with the discomfort. As soon as I made my peace with it, it subsided substantially. My worries waned and my humour returned, to my great relief.  I began to enjoy the teasing of fate, the rapid corners, the impossible overtakes. Most of all – the incredible views of the massive, awe-inspiring mountains.  I no longer had a tiny heart attack every time something impossible was about to happen – because I had learned to trust. I could finally concentrate more on the magnificent views, and the lives and universes of the people in the places we passed through. There is such an abundance to get lost in. What a cruel, crazy, beautiful world.

For a long while I wanted to go somewhere specific in order to practice meditation and calm my typically overactive mind. After a sufficient number of insane journeys on the roads of Himachal Pradesh, I no longer felt the need to do so. Facing your potential death on such a constant basis has a way of calming the soul. I had unintentionally achieved a state of Zen, which I paradoxically found much more amusing, playful and rewarding than intentionally trying to do so.

Subsequently, I saw this process of fear converting into calm in quite a few of my travel companions, including my sister. We later came to joke that you can dedicate some weeks to meditation in a remote and quiet place, or sit through a few long journeys on a crazy, loud, colourful, intergalactic Indian bus. The results in mental resilience are definitely similar. The latter certainly takes itself less seriously, and is by far more exciting.

Marleen is a friend, second brain and emotional consultant of mine. She is an amazing anthropologist, talking and writing in the most picturous language. This is why I love to give her some space on this blog. Marleen came from South Africa, has spent some time with me in Germany and our ways met again in India for a while.

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