I always look forward to bus trips because busses are places where the usual segregation of life in the United States is broken down, at least a little and for a short time. Riding to New York by Peter Pan bus, one is likely to encounter a broad cross-section of the East Coast population—students going home from college, people who don’t drive and can’t contemplate flying, people for whom this is the least expensive or the least stressful way to travel (plane travel being a nightmare these days, not to mention its enormous carbon footprint), people of color, immigrants from just about everywhere in the world—and a Babel of different accents and languages.
I had just boarded the early-morning bus for New York City and was looking forward to a quiet, relaxing ride, snoozing and watching the world whoosh by in soft focus through half-closed eyes. From the somnolent state of my fellow passengers, it looked as if almost everyone else had the same plan. After he had taken all our tickets and closed the doors, the mild-mannered driver introduced himself, welcomed us aboard, and launched into his obligatory spiel, pointing out the toilet at the back, reminding us that there was to be no smoking, and explaining at some length the rules about cell phone use on the bus: it was to be kept to a bare minimum, and reserved only for emergencies and quick messages such as informing someone of one’s time of arrival. All cell phone conversations were to be kept to no more than three minutes and conducted in a low voice out of courtesy to the other passengers. Fine by me.
Our driver eased himself into his seat, checked his mirrors, and started the engine. Barely a minute had passed before a distinctly unmodulated voice blared through the compartment, braying a hearty greeting from somewhere behind me (I had arrived extra-early to secure a window seat near the front). The person at the other end answered, it seemed, giving our fellow-passenger the opportunity to deliver his message that the bus was on its way and that he would be arriving in New York City at such-and-such a time. Presumably he did deliver the message but, alas, he went on to deliver a good deal more, and as a monologue, judging by the paucity of pauses at our end to allow his respondent to get a word in edgewise. When he finally ended the call, I breathed a sigh of relief and hoped that now I could return to my reverie. But no, it seemed that the same man had a second urgent message to deliver, which he proceeded to discharge at the same volume as the first. Again it seemed that the message was unnecessarily long, and involved the person at the other end remaining almost entirely mute, since there wasn’t much space between our passenger’s power serves for return shots from his invisible interlocutor. After this second call, there was little respite before he began again, and now it appeared that he was systematically making his way through his entire address book. I found myself getting worked up into a state akin to road rage, longing to let loose on him with every fibre of my being, but held myself in check for two very personal reasons.
The first reason had to do with my nature. Ever since I was a child, I had abhorred a vacuum in a conversation. At school, if my teacher asked a question and no-one raised their hand immediately, I felt compelled to raise mine and break the awkward silence. If I was attending a lecture and no-one asked the speaker a question during the Q&A period, I felt that it was my personal responsibility to come up with one. But over the years I have learned that sometimes a spell of silence provides the necessary soil for deep thought; not only will more intelligent questions be forthcoming if people are given time to formulate their thoughts but, if given more time, shyer students or audience members will be more likely to screw up the courage to speak. So it was on the Peter Pan bus that morning. I felt that it was my bounden duty to speak, and yet I suspected that I would be better off keeping my counsel, even if by speaking up I would be giving voice to the thoughts of half my fellow-passengers.
The second reason I held back from giving the man a piece of my mind had to do with a sense of loyalty. For our garrulous fellow-passenger was not speaking in English, but in an Indian language, most probably Punjabi. Although I hadn’t yet seen his face, I knew he was not only a fellow-Indian, but a fellow-immigrant. This knowledge inspired a host of conflicting feelings, including irritation, shame, and embarrassment, but also sympathy and protectiveness. I know how important it is for immigrants to keep in touch with family, and for this, the phone is not just a convenience, but a lifeline. The irritation of the other people on the bus was palpable, as I could just feel them thinking how annoying it was that “these foreigners” came to their country and not only failed to abide by the norms of civilized behavior but didn’t even bother to learn or to speak “our language.” It was clear to me that the general irritation was all the greater because the offending passenger was not speaking in English, and that made me want to spring to his defence, even as I itched to put a gag on him.
I knew how much non-English-speaking immigrants in the United States long to speak their mother tongues, but I also knew that little annoys native English-speaking Americans more than foreigners flaunting their languages in public. How much more so in an enclosed space, where everyone was forced to listen to it! As a fellow-Indian American I burned with embarrassment at my compatriot’s behavior and with shame that it was giving a bad name to our shared ethnicity in the eyes (and ringing ears) of the other passengers. For me, the general irritation was compounded by the fact that the fellow clearly assumed that no one else on the bus could understand a word he was saying, as he rambled on with impunity, feeling free to talk about personal matters and to chaff the person at the other end of the line in an intimate fashion. If I could have understood everything, it might have been mildly entertaining to listen in to this private conversation (if such a one-way monologue can be called a conversation), and if it had been an Indian language I didn’t know at all I could have screened it out, but in this case I grasped the nature of our friend’s relationship with the hapless recipient of his call, got the general drift, and understood words and phrases here and there, which kept me in a perpetual state of agitation.
Finally I could take it no longer: I needed to put a stop to this fellow’s bad behavior. But, given my (probably misplaced) sense of loyalty, I also needed to do so in a way that would not publicly embarrass him. I was uncharacteristically shy to speak up, but finally screwed up my courage to do so. I got up to use the bathroom at the back of the bus, and on the way down the aisle, located the offending party, still blithely rattling on, seemingly oblivious to his surroundings. On the way back, I paused at his seat, leaned over as unobtrusively as possible, and quietly asked him, in Hindi, if he could just keep it down. Then, without allowing time for an exchange or even making eye contact, I hurried back to my seat, not without having had the satisfaction of taking in his utter, gobsmacked, amazement as he realized that I might have been taking in everything he had been saying the whole time.
It worked! I succeeded in shaming him into silence for the rest of the journey. Satisfied that I had done the right thing, both by my fellow-passengers and my fellow-immigrant, I was finally able to kick back and enjoy my long-awaited snooze cruise.
[For two more bus stories, see TMA 58. Southbound.]