What do you think of when you interact with one of the conductors on a Bengaluru Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) bus? Do you view them merely as people who issue tickets on the bus? Many commuters who travel often by bus probably think of them as people they need to haggle with to get their change back; because of course, our conductors are change making machines!

How many of us bother to look at these people as humans like us? Not many of us do - so believes Jayalakshmi, a BMTC bus conductor.

A bus ride from Hessarghatta to Kalyanagar, takes about an hour and a half. And so begins Jayalakshmi's day at 6.30am. “I was trained to be a driver, but since I didn’t get that job, I settled for less and became a conductor,” she says. Her male friends, who know how passionate she is about driving, let her drive short distances inside the bus depot when the passengers are not aboard.

Jaylakshmi awaits for passengers to board the bus. Pic: Niveadha Nanjundeswaran

For the past five years, Jayalakshmi has travelled for almost every day from Kalyan Nagar to Jambusavari Dinne; a bus route that everyday commuters refer to as ‘K6-Route’. “It is an easy job,” she says.

“I love meeting and interacting with people every day, but there are not many who talk much,” she reflects. She says for the most part it is a gossip-free job—one of the things that she likes about it. “It’s true that colleagues aren’t very close, but we talk to each other whenever we take a break between trips.” Since she works for eight hours a day, she believes it is best to be nice to everyone and have a good day instead of picking fights.

“Once we set out for the day’s work, the driver and I have breakfast, usually two dosas, in a small cart next to where we park the bus after a trip. Some bring it from home, but if I cook in the morning, I’ll be late for my job,” she says. The passengers who commute on the next trip never fail to ask them questions about why they are late. To them, she says she retorts in good humour, “What if we don’t eat and the driver crashes?”

Financial independence, a big motivator

So what pushed her to becoming a conductor? She drops her voice into a whisper and says, “I took it up after my husband died, to keep my family afloat. I was in my early 30s then. I was a house-wife until then.” After working from 6.30 am to 3 pm, she heads home to her family. “Staying at home reminds me of my husband, so I sometimes prefer working,” she adds.

“I got married when I was only 16-years-old. After my husband died, another man asked me to marry him and leave my children. A woman’s world is her husband and children. I wasn’t going to marry some man out of desperation to keep myself alive,” she says. That’s what drove her to take up a job. Given a choice based on her qualifications, she chose to be a BMTC conductor, rather than a garment factory worker.

Jayalakshmi says that her initial days on the job motivated her all the more. “I was constantly teased by some of my male colleagues; they kept telling me that I wouldn’t be able to do a job like this. That’s when I told myself that I wanted to accomplish something in my life. I wanted to be independent,” she says with confidence radiating from every pore. It wasn’t only her colleagues, but also some of the passengers who would taunt her, “They would ask: Is there no one to look after you all at home? Why are you working?”, she says, annoyed at the mere recollection of it.

“I know this job will not give me gold and riches, but it will definitely get us by,” she says smiling. “I could never have any complains against it.” Ask her about incentives given to her and her family by the government, and she says, “I’m not aware of anything. Even if they did give us something like that our higher-ups would take it. But I am content so long as I get my salary on time.”

Jayalakshmi lives with her son and daughter. What makes her all the more special is that she is a second year arts student, like her daughter. “I am studying BA in Economics, History and Political Science, through correspondence,” she says proudly before adding, “I’m writing my second year exams this June, I have to go home and study after work.” She is fond of reading and that is exactly what she does in her free time. “I wanted to be in the police task force when I was younger,” she mulls, “but we did not have the money required to study to become something like that”.

When asked what she does on her day off, she laughs and says, “I clean my house. Isn’t that what every woman does?” Her weekly off is a Monday, and the job allows her to take paid sick-leaves as well. On a normal day, once she’s home, she cooks for herself and her children, and then goes on to watch television. “I watch Puttagowri Maduve, somehow I can relate to it”, she says dropping her voice; the show is based on child marriage, and is the Kannada remake of the popular Hindi soap, Balika Vadhu.“My children go to watch movies, but I read newspapers or novels that I can get my hands on”, she adds.

Reliving her years as a BMTC conductor

Recounting her years on the bus, she recalls, “It was my last trip for the day and I walked to the back of the bus where I found a black handbag. I opened it and saw it had no money, only a lady’s PAN card and some other cards. Right then, the lady, who was a ‘reporter’ jumped in on me and said she would take me to the cops. I haven’t ever been as embarrassed and scared as I was, as that time!”

Busy hands at work. Pic: Niveadha Nanjundeswaran

Other than that, we see people falling asleep all the time on the buses. The worst part, she says, is when commuters litter the buses. “So many times children and women throw up inside the bus. They don’t even apologise,” she says, disgusted.

Even so, seeing how women have struggled over the decades, she has a soft corner for women. “I’m fond of girls. I get angry with men who sit in women’s seats and don’t get up even when there is a woman standing,” she says. “BMTC has now implemented a rule where men sitting in the ‘ladies seat’ will be fined Rs 200. Sadly, the rule only comes to life when the Divisional Controller (DC) is in the bus for checking."

In the past few years, she says, she’s seen an increase in the number of female passengers who commute by bus. “Considering the background I come from, I feel proud of these women I see everyday. Women were just seen as people who can give birth. But now, they’re everywhere, in all fields and they are becoming independent. For me as well, I didn’t just give birth to my children, but I can also work towards their future and mine; I don’t have to depend on any man for it,” she says beaming.

A little give and take

“Earlier I used to carry chocolates so I could give it to people when I ran out of change, until one day a old man yelled at me for giving passengers chocolates; he told me it was disrespectful. That was the last time I did that, I try my best to have some spare change at all times, but passengers should understand too.”

And what advice would she have for passengers? “I just want people to buy tickets properly. It is embarrassing for us whether we get yelled at by the DC, or our passengers do.” She adds that it is comforting when people talk to each other on buses. She grumbles that all people do now is play on their phones.

It is obvious that Jayalakshmi has a special fondness for those passengers who take the effort to talk to her. “For us, every once in a while, there comes along a passenger who actually sits and talks to us. Telling them about myself, makes me feel lighter, happier even. One particular passenger, a lady, liked me a lot and gave me her old Kinetic. I tried to refuse, but she wouldn’t listen,” she says. Jayalakshmi now uses the Kinetic to travel around her house while shopping for groceries, etc.

Conductors typically retire at the age of 60. Helpful, independent and shy, Jayalakshmi is an epitome of success. Ask her her plans for her retirement and she smiles and says that she’s watched people die, so she prefers to live in the moment. “What’s there today, may not be there tomorrow. I’m only 38, I have no retirement plans as of now,” she adds. “I have a wonderful job, and I’m just happy being the mother and the father of my children.”