Aparna Karthikeyan takes a point-to-point ride from Thiruvanmiyur to Thiruvotriyur on route No 1A, enjoying the sights and sounds of a city coming to life at dawn

Outside the Thiruvanmiyur bus terminus, small knots of people are performing a ‘spot the bus’ dance. I join them at 4.55 a.m., and under the watery street light, we twist our bodies and crane our necks every time a bus pulls out of the parking bay. A few run to board it; the rest of us fidget, waiting for our turn. Bus 1A leaves for the Central Station, its interiors glowing with light. 1A, the bus from Thiruvanmiyur to Thiruvotriyur (in the far north of Chennai), pulls up in front of me. Eight of us climb in; I sit in the women’s section, towards the back, by a window.

Just after 5 a.m., two sharp blasts of the whistle see us off. By the front door, a woman places an orange baby chair in the seat next to her; she buys a ticket to Central. The fare to Thiruvotriyur bus terminus is Rs.19. Bhaskar, the conductor on this route for nearly 21 years, folds my Rs.20 note lengthwise, and tucks it between his fingers. He flips his change bag, hands me a shiny rupee coin and my ticket, before sitting down.

Minutes later, the bus is in Adyar; through the window, the sky is the blue-black colour of ripe jamuns. Across the aisle, one man props up his knees, drops his head to one side and promptly falls asleep. Above my seat, job vacancy and arthritis cure advertisements catch my eye. The Adyar bridge is a breezy blur; at the next bus stop, the conductor blows on his whistle once. The bus halts, the automatic doors wheeze open and two men get off. There are no cars on the road yet; a few autorickshaws and motorcycles throb beside us.

Mylapore is asleep when we cross it; tarpaulins cover the roadside shops; a vegetable outlet receives baskets of greens.

We tail Bus 21 over the Royapettah flyover. Near Express Avenue Mall, the driver Thyagarajan honks for the first time in the morning. The bus’ headlights bounce off the shiny railings, and two disparate worlds come together for a moment — one where Rs.19 gets you across town, and another in which it won’t even buy you a cup of coffee.

We turn into Anna Salai. The conductor counts the stacks of pink, orange and green tickets in his palm and makes notes; the whistle hangs from his ring finger. To my left, the tall Metro Rail barricades wink orange, garlanded with serial lights. Ahead, a group of mounted police, seated upright on their horses, move gracefully in measured steps. As we approach Central Station, autorickshaws streak past; from the height of a bus window, they appear small, bumblebee-yellow and very noisy. The bus fills up at the Central bus stop; passengers with holdalls and suitcases climb in.

The conductor answers questions (‘does it stop at Kasimedu?’; ‘yes, yes’), briskly hands out tickets and occasionally asks for Rs.3 in loose change.

The sky lightens; the bus’ rectangular shadow races alongside, falls on newspaper bundles getting sorted on pavements. Parry’s Corner is quiet, but near Pookadai, there’s a sudden half-a-minute of blazing light, colour and sound. Past the High Court, we go over three speed-breakers, and I smile with the gentle up-down-up-down of the bus.

We turn into Rajaji Salai. Milk packets stand in tall crates; the road comes alive with share autos, cycle rickshaws and motorbikes. Pedestrians walk around, dogs stretch, and crows queue up for dustbin treats. ‘Kasimedu, Kasimedu’ the conductor calls out. Near Washermenpet, a long horn from an oil factory startles me; the oily reek is soon overpowered by the jasmine on women’s hair.

Huge puddles from the previous day’s rain reflect the city, adding a fourth dimension, until the wheels tear through them. The muddy water crests in a brown wave. The sky is now pre-dawn grey; in the opposite direction, engineering college buses transport students to the city and beyond. We turn into the Thiruvotriyur bus terminus; it is 6.02 a.m.

‘Last stop, last stop’ the conductor announces. The bus empties in a minute; it reverses into its bay; other buses arrive and depart. As I leave the terminus, Unnamalai, in dark glasses, waits for her bus to go to the eye hospital in Alwarpet.

The sun rises in a splash of orange, sending the half-moon packing. Birds fly south in a neat V formation; I follow them, but turn right, into the centuries-old Vadivudaiamman temple. Palm-thatching hides the gopuram from view; but inside, not even the brick and mortar of renovation can take away from the peace and village calm of the courtyard. Admiring sculptures — a miniature Ayyanar and stories set in stone — I pray to the Shiva Lingam, encased in a kavacham, removed annually only for the Karthigai full moon.

By the temple tank, a neem and peepal tree sway as one, united in marriage with turmeric threads. The sun climbs up the sky, and stands behind the gopuram. That moment, waking up at 3.45 a.m. seemed well worth it.

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