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Don't slow down on your way to getting to your destination. You are on a bus or on a train. And what you see may not be what you want to get into ( WYS N WYWGI !). Don't get entangled. Stay clear. It's easy for all of us to naturally follow this approach that we have cultivated as a practical necessity. 


These challenges arise when we are in public places or on public transport. A different kind of trespass happens in that shared space that belongs to everyone and no one at the same time. 


Recently I witnessed two incidents of brutish behaviour on BEST buses in Mumbai. In the first, a young upstart picked up a misunderstanding with the conductor and after an angry verbal exchange, caught him by the collar. They were trading blows, or at least the conductor was forced to ward him off and restrain him. There wasn't much instant intervention from others on the bus, though one or two tried to pull the assailant back. 


As the commotion came to my notice, and I was seated some three rows to the front, my first reaction was, "Whatever be the background to this, a man in uniform on duty is by law protected from assault. So the attacker is doing something illegal." If that man had a problem, he needed to have sought other means of redressal as he clearly violated a standing law. 


Due to his ill-informed course of action, the bus came to a halt ( it was also quite near a major bus depot) and when they ( followed by everyone else, as evidently the bus couldn't be going anywhere anytime soon) got off, a couple of BEST employees gave the attacker a couple of slaps for his impudence in challenging their colleague. He was escorted to a police station outside which the bus had happened to come to a halt. 


Now that guy must have really gotten so angry to not consider that he was staging this `hot-blooded' action exactly 30 metres from a bus depot and a police station. Maybe he went into a very foul mood suddenly and maybe he didn't do such things often.


Overall, it was an affront to our sense of a system and order and the larger interest. The passengers had to get off the bus and find ways to continue their journey. 


What happened less than a fortnight later and again on a BEST bus has made me wonder whether there is a new variant of "road rage" that is on the rise.


This time, when the bus had halted due to traffic congestion, a burly man stepped on and hauled out a passenger who was on the foot-board and attacked him for spitting betel on his clothes from the bus. The passenger who was also a thick-set chap could be seen warding off the blows and trying to deny having done any such thing. 


Moments later, they both marched up the entrance and the assailant shouted that the actual culprit must step off the bus and that he had parked his bike across so that the bus couldn't move further until then. He shouted this challenge twice, and the first-accused ( passenger who had turned follower ) scowled at everyone to support this. 


The other passengers were asked to identify the culprit and hand him over, and the two glowered menacingly at everyone else who were just heading home tired at 8:10 p.m. 


Now, someone was acutely frustrated at having his shiny new shirt stained by this callous act from a bus window. Yet, this single-minded focus on "my shirt" did seem over-blown. 


There's congested traffic, a moderately crowded bus, the anonymity of the crowd, and still this man wanted to personally mete out his justice to the wrongdoer. 


For some reason, it felt wrong even if he had suffered a loss and was understandably enraged. It took a well-built and ready type to get up from a rear seat and shout abuse at the two for daring to threaten to hold up the entire bus. On actually being challenged back, there was only some exchange of vulgar noise which didn't lead to physical combat. 


I wondered for a moment if this had been a ruse to divert the attention of the passengers. Maybe some quick petty theft had been conducted. 


While I had shown no alacrity to intervene, I also noticed that  pretty much everyone else had the same approach. For one, there was the ambiguity in each case - possibly the person causing the disruption had a legitimate grouse. Secondly, these incidents erupted quickly so an average passenger would take time to figure out the situation and deploy themselves whereas an angered person was `already in action'. 


But I am somewhat worried about the other possible inferences which also have a chance of being true. A hard-set "turn the other way" attitude or a kind of urban fatigue.


While quarrels and disputes of a private nature may be hard to settle or help with, there ought to be in everyone's mind a sense of `public order' which has to be maintained. The dignity of the public space is affronted when an out-of-control individual decides to disrupt a public system ( at the time of its serving about sixty other people) in a disproportionate response to vent his grievance. This is the very reason why trains have a caution plate next to the red emergency stop-chain in every coach. Sadly, the respect for the "many" was completely missing in both the cases I have just described. 


Neither offender seemed rich or important. There was a belligerent trait and an underlying desperation. However, a countering collective response to the disruption, and to restrain the offensive behaviour was missing. The offenders in both cases had no patience or inclination to explain their problem or seek any support for redressal, they were intent on perpetrating physical punishment on the person they were angry with. 


Was it the time of day - in both cases around 8-9 p.m. - compounded by the toll of the slow commute, that couldn't evoke even a feeble reaction from the passengers?


A useful arrangement to curtail such incidents would be to have a hotline phone number painted in the bus. Where the nearest Bus Marshals can rush in during such commotion.  But even for that, there'd have to be some initiative shown by passengers. It's not something that can be left to the driver and the conductor. 


Decorum in public spaces is not a superficial thing. It's something which we do not notice when it's in good upkeep. And when there are frequent and unseemly disruptions and violations, it's an unhealthy sign. An irate customer yelling in a private business's lobby is one thing, his throwing a chair is another. Even then, those are not public places like a railway platform or a traffic crossing or a bus are. Somehow this scale of disrespect towards the many and in a public space feels nearly like the country's flag is being treated with disregard. 


Whatever fragile order is in place now has come about after a lot of effort and from multiple civilising influences. It's possible that we all start to turn conservative after forty ( ! ) and do not wish to be indifferent or impassive when we see brutishness and not enough counter-measures to curb it. 


Respect for spaces can also be about who we send to a Central Hall, and watch in televised proceedings. It's about finding it necessary to maintain a level of dignity and sanctity in such a space. When some spaces have been defiled and desecrated over time by various offending occupants, it becomes a challenge to restore the hygiene standards and thereby the citizens' respect for those spaces. If it is neglected, the stench of stale fragments from the stampede for the loaves and fishes of office becomes overpowering. 


But a clean-up starts with the faith that something of considerable value will be salvaged by removing the stains. While that motorcyclist wanting to hold up a bus about his paan-stained shirt was in the wrong, that he was worked-up over it should be understandable. Perhaps we need to feel about our collective spaces as acutely as he felt about his shiny new shirt.