CMBT offers a taste of the big city to people passing through, even in the dead of night

As we pull into the parking lot of the Chennai Mofussil Bus Terminus, it doesn't seem like 1.45 a.m. It's more like 10 p.m. in the city. This impressively clean structure (at least from the outside) is still alive. Auto drivers who have just dropped off their ‘savaris' make eye contact with passersby, trying to find out where they would like to go. The Inner Ring Road is largely dug up for the Metro Rail work, so at a time like this they could charge in gold.

The area between the lobby of the CMBT and the Koyambedu local bus stand is bustling with activity. The MTC operates night service buses and Koyambedu is a major hub for late-night local travellers. This is where they change buses and get home. The monitors displaying the routes seem to have a bit of a glitch, showing stray characters from The Matrix instead of the timetable. The prepaid-auto counter, still active, seems to have very little patronage. “Very few buses arriving from the districts at this hour,” says the man at the counter.

Right at the entrance, all around the Time Keeper's Cabin — on the floor — people are fast asleep. Easily about 500 of them. Some have laid out newspapers as bedsheets and don't seem to have anything valuable that they would fear losing. We walk into the Time Keeper's Cabin, which teems with policemen, and ask about the people sleeping outside. Are they travellers waiting for early-morning connections or homeless locals? “Most of them must be locals. They come here to sleep because of the free latrines,” the policeman on duty says, with a hospitable smile and a sense of empathy towards the homeless.

There are no security guards ensuring that everyone walks in through the metal detector. We walk into the main lobby of the terminus. More people sleeping. The lobby is one huge bedroom at this hour. Not too noisy. Not too quiet either. Easily about a thousand people fast asleep in this huge hall.

If they wished, they could walk up to Saravana Dormitory, at one corner of the lobby, and get a bed. A bed in an air-conditioned room costs Rs.299, a non-AC room is priced at Rs.149, but if you are okay sleeping on the floor outside the dorm, it's absolutely free. There's no entry fee or platform ticket required, after all.

While there are ATMs on one side of the lobby and a pharmacy located right outside the other end, the first shop inside is an all-night supermarket called Stop and Shop. It's well stocked with everything you would expect in your neighbourhood supermarket, but priced two rupees more than MRP. “The rent is Rs.1 lakh a month, sir,” explains the staff.

Healthy meal options

We stock up on snacks to munch and beverages to drink for our late-night walkathon only to find healthier meal options right outside. Like Amul Pizza for Rs. 60 at the shop next door. The man heats one up, and gives it to us with ketchup, oregano and chilli flakes. Stuffing our mouths with pizza, we continue our stroll. This is an unusual assignment of people-watching when not many are awake.

The toy store is still open for the benefit of those who want to take home a last-minute souvenir from the city to thrill the kids. We see a bunch of people waiting for a paper cup filled with hot milk at the Aavin counter, and a few others sipping tea to keep themselves awake at the beginning of Platform 1.

Further in, not really expecting to find any buses till 4 or 5 in the morning, we are pleasantly surprised by one that's just arrived at 2.30 a.m. The conductor calls out “Pondicherry, Pondicherry.” “It leaves at three,” he tells us and continues to call out the name of the destination. As we scan through the State Express Transport Corporation timetable to find out the other buses available at this hour, a conductor is quick to warn us: “Don't depend on that. Nothing goes as per schedule.”

A quick walk through Platforms 1 and 2, and we realise there are connections available to Vriddachalam,Tiruvannamalai, Tirutanni and Villupuram within the next hour or two. Passengers have already boarded the buses and gone to sleep. By 3 a.m., the Chennai Fast Food Kitchen disintegrates for maintenance. The giant stoves and vessels are given a scrub and a wash. There are many toilets in the vicinity to cater to this huge floating population. Tonight, one block of toilets is closed for renovation.

The bookstore on Platform 4 has everything from magazines and comic books to the latest biographies that have hit the market. We pick up a copy of Tinkle, for old times sake.

There are fewer buses in Platforms 3 and 4 while Platform 5 is more or less deserted, except for one bus that's ready to leave for Vellore. (Platforms 5 and 6 house bays for the long-distance inter-state buses that have left much earlier in the night.)

One of the displays near Platforms 3 and 4 proudly shows off the ISO 9001: 2000 certification and also provides a quick glimpse of the changing landscape of the structure. Looking at the ‘Start to Finish' photo gallery of CMBT in the displays, we realise that, years ago, this place was just a swamp. Today, it's swamped by thousands of people passing through, from all over the state. People from other cities, towns, villages and hamlets. This was their gateway to the capital of the state. Their taste of the big city experience.

CMBT offers that taste. Even in the dead of night.

Factfile

The Chennai Mofussil Bus Terminus is the largest bus terminus in all of Asia, and one of the biggest in the world, spread over 37 acres and set up at a cost of over Rs.100 crore.

Hundreds of homeless sleep at the CMBT every night with nothing more than a newspaper for a bedsheet since its inauguration a decade ago.

The terminus is connected to the Koyambedu bus terminus, a major hub for local night service buses.

It has six platforms and 180 bus bays used by over five lakh people and 4800 buses a day.

CMBT houses hotel and dorm rooms, eateries, a bookstore, a 24-hour pharmacy, ATMs, and a supermarket among other shops.

A correction has been carried out in this article on March 29/ 2012.

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