At 5.45 am on a rainy morning, Suresh Harijan maneuvers a big yellow bus out of a parking lot in Lokhandwala and heads to his first pick-up spot a few minutes away.
There, sleepy children and harried parents have lined up and are waiting.
It's 6 am and the sun is starting to come up. The kids climb in and settle down and Harijan gets moving again. He has 12 stops to go. And this is just round one.
Over the next 14 hours, he will make eight more rounds, ferrying a total of about 250 children to three schools, two in Vile Parle and one in Juhu. For this work, he is paid Rs 11,000 a month.
"Monsoon is the worst season for driving, especially on Mumbai's pothole-ridden roads," says Harijan.
The 32-year-old has been driving school buses for 12 years. Before that, he trained for five years as a cleaner and, to get the hang of handling big vehicles, as a truck driver.
Harijan starts his day at 4.30 am, with a quick, cold bath in the one-room Lokhandwala chawl home that he shares with his wife of eight years, two daughters, mother and grandmother.
At 5 am, he leaves home on an empty stomach and begins the half-hour walk to the depot, where he supervises the cleaning of the bus before he starts his day. His first batch of students dropped off at 7 am, Harijan heads back from Vile Parle to Lokhandwala to pick up his second batch, kindergarteners from the same school, at 7.30 am.
All this while, Harijan is fielding calls from parents on his hands-free headset.
"The cellphone is a headache," he says. "Mothers constantly call me, asking where I am, or telling me to drop their child off at a kitty party destination. I have to take every call or they complain to the management."
With 50 children creating a ruckus in the bus, and blaring horns and traffic jams outside, what keeps Harijan sane, he says, laughing, is focus.
"I am responsible for 250 children for 12 years of their lives," says Harijan. "I take that responsibility very seriously."
Every four months, to help ensure safety, Harijan attends a compulsory training programme for school bus drivers at the Regional Transport Office, where he takes a 90-minute test and attends motivational sessions on how to drive carefully.
Over the past 12 years, however, Harijan says he has noticed a change in the children he ferries to and fro.
"Earlier, students would call me 'Uncle'," he says. "Now they call me 'Driver'."
Harijan gets two breaks a day, a one-hour recess at about 8.45 am, when he grabs a vada pav or samosa from a streetside stall, and a 15-minute lunch break at 2.15 pm, when he gets some roti and sabzi from a streetside eatery.
"Home-cooked tiffins are a rare treat, because I leave the house so early," he says.
Done with his rounds at 7.30 pm, Harijan drives back to the depot and briefs his boss, detailing any refuelling done, repairs needed, fines levied etc.
Finally, at 8 pm, he takes a bus home, where he has a quiet dinner and spends some time with his family before turning in at 10 pm.
A Class 10 dropout, Harijan is the second of three sons born to a truck driver from Lokhandwala. "I got my first job because I needed to help support the family," he says. "I never liked it. I still don't. I wish I could have a nice job in an office instead, but it's too late."
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