Mumbai: I had never realised how much I took the BEST for granted, the old red reliable on four wheels, mostly always there to take me where I wanted to go, until this recent strike. I’d reached the bus stop opposite Mulund railway station well after 11pm on Wednesday, and joyfully thought, perhaps I would be able to take the bus back home after nine long days and eight nights. But the bus stop was strangely deserted, until I turned my head and saw, as usual, I’d just missed the bus back home by seconds. Welcome back to BEST days. “Not to worry, doosri bus 5-6 minton mein aa jaayegi, kyon bus ke peechhe bhaagte ho,” I remembered a kindly bus driver admonishing me long ago.

My family’s ties with BEST go back decades. A BEST employee kindly rented out his house to my parents at very short notice, without asking for a reference, going just by face value, in the early 70s. Of course, like all worldly ties, my bond with the BEST bus too has its share of ups and downs and I’m not speaking of the numerous planned and unplanned road bumps and the one giant turn my bus to Mulund railway station takes, as it moves off Dr Rajendra Prasad Road and turns towards Mahatma Gandhi Road each day.

The angry exchanges I’ve had with conductors over change. One early morning in the nineties, as I was returning from night duty, I almost got kicked off the bus by an irate conductor as I was nearing home because I’d dared question that he had given me a torn two-rupee note in change. An unpleasant memory wiped off by the numerous sweet conductors, who have come rushing to give me my ticket even as I rush towards the back of the bus where they are serving others because I’m a familiar face to them and they know my stop is fast approaching. The only city in the country, I think, where the conductor actually comes to you and collects the fare, hands out change and gives you your ticket.

Try taking a Pallavan Transport bus in Chennai, for instance, where the conductor sits in the seat behind the boarding area and you must go there to buy your ticket, however crowded the bus is. My earliest memories of travelling on a BEST bus are when I was a healthy babe-in-arms, obviously less than a half ticket. My father would hold me with one arm, as there was standing room only and a bag in his other hand, which he would set down in what was pretty decent aisle space and with the now freed hand, would buy the ticket, put it away and then hold on to the familiar green or black strap until he got a seat or we reached our destination.

Then I remember our moving from Goregaon to Mulund and my parents warring on whether we should take the bus or train to yet another family gathering. Mother rooting for train and father, the eternal BEST loyalist. The compromise was we would take the train one way and the bus on the way back. If father was disappointed his various BEST permutations and combinations to reach our destination didn’t get a smidgen of encouragement from my mother, he never showed it. But those return trips were long and I got restless. To calm me down, how many times would my father have said, “Look for the Johnson&Johnson sign, when you see those sprawling lawns, our stop is coming up.”

One day in 1991, when the skies opened up in the rainy season and there was the usual monsoon madness afoot, somehow, a friend and I made it to Andheri railway station, walked over to the east-side, from where that most efficient route, No 396, brought us safely home, well past 1am. How we wished for a BEST bus that would take us from Mulund to CSMT. That dream briefly took wheels, in the early 90s, in the form of 30Ltd, going from LBS Marg in Mulund, all the way to Bombay Central, I think. But this dream barely lasted. Unfortunately for me, the one time I used it to go back home from close to town, it broke down around Sion or thereabouts.

The venerable route no. 302, once valued for its 24-hr service, from Maharana Pratap Chowk  (Mulund Checknaka) to Rani Lakshmibai Chowk, Sion, faster than Chetak. At one point, the service was extended to Pratiksha Nagar but that changed and status quo was restored. A recent ride on C-61 brought immense joy — all the way to Mira Road, that distant Western Railway suburb in one hour and 15 minutes flat.

Those beloved Ashok Leyland buses of yore, spacious and with the much-despised-forward-facing three-seater in the front and the long seat in the back. Then the solo seat right in the front, for the physically-challenged or senior citizens or woman with baby or standing, was introduced. At some point, that forward-facing seat behind the driver disappeared. Those dreadful AC buses, spewing hot air in their wake, putting dragon breath to shame, in the name of a cool commute. Now, in some of the newer models, the long back seat has been given the boot.

Then those new electric buses, where the first thing you do is grab one of those ‘hold’ bars or be prepared to ‘brake’ a bone or several bones or dislocate a major joint. One memorable night in December 2018, one such bus ran out of charge mid-journey to Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus and we were left in the lurch, on Marine Drive, with no cab or another bus to be had for the love of human or God, causing us to miss a fast train back home, which had been a sure thing until this emergency.