ON BOARD When Madurai celebrated the maiden flight to Dubai from its airpot, SOMA BASU and A. SHRIKUMAR chose to travel in a city bus, taking the longest route

We can bet there is never a dull day in a city bus.

We climb aboard Bus 48J for a point-to-point ride from Tabalthanthi Nagar to Thirumangalam and grab a window seat each. There are a dozen other passengers inside the bus that rolls on the city’s longest route from the North to the South six times a day.

The bus inside is not as clean as it should be on its first round. We run our eyes over the Thirukkural sayings and the stern warning to ticketless travellers on the side walls of the bus and the small advertisement panels of a pain relief balm on the swinging hand grips above our seats. The city is still in the process of waking up. The lone flower seller at the skimpy bus shelter is busy stringing the jasmine flowers.

Office goers holding tiffin carriers, women with manjalpai, older men with umbrellas, college students in burkha and nursing college students in their uniform are our co-passengers.

“Ticket, ticket,” conductor S.Ravindran calls out. We get an orange colour ticket costing Rs.21 per passenger for the 25 km journey. Driver Kamal Badshah takes off with a jerk ruffling a cloud of dust.

The morning breeze brushes against our cheeks. Few autos and cars looking like keyed toys overtake us. Every ten yards, the conductor blows his whistle and the wheels screech to a halt. Once people climb in or disembark, it is two hard blows from the same whistle, a cue for the driver to blip his throttle.

The bus veers into Vishwanathapuram. Some of the quaint houses still seem to be in slumber with the milk packets hanging on the gates. Fresh kolams on the doorsteps of others tell they are up. Incense and camphor fragrance wafts across as we pass a roadside Ganesha temple.

After disturbing the tranquillity of the residential area, the bus turns into the busy Bibikulam junction. A flock of chattering school girls with heavy bags jumble into the bus and get their monthly pass punched by the conductor. Class XI students of Kendriya Vidyalaya, Bhuvaneshwari, Joshitha and Anitha, say they have never faced any problem during their bus rides and the city bus ferries them daily safe and fast.

The roadside eateries are coming to life. At Narimedu, we see and hear the master thumping the ladles on the big iron tawa in a rhythmic beat. In Chokkikulam, a smiling Aishwarya Rai stares from the board of every beauty parlour.

The bus gets crowded at Tallakulam and Goripalayam. So does the road. The long and brief, shrill and hoarse horns of various vehicles sound like a band gone off track.

An elderly man immerses himself into a newspaper. A college girl rushes through her class notes, another reads a Tamil magazine, women banter, a young boy plugs into music, some grab a cat nap, others stare blankly. The seating capacity of 46 and standing 40 seems to be falling short now. A seat mate is loud. On the mobile during her entire journey, she gives away the guest list for a wedding in the family. And you realise how the public bus offers a personal space for everyone.

The bus climbs the AV Bridge and the wind hits strong. We hate to look at the dry Vaigai below. A clear view of the majestic gopurams of the Meenakshi Temple diverts us. It is time for the driver to display his dexterity on the narrow alleys of the old city. We inhale smoke from diesel autos, pungent odour of festered fruits and vegetables at Simmakal and the stench emanating from garbage bins on West Perumal Maistry Street. The nauseous stink of overflowing sewage at Periyar bus stand knocks us out.

Most passengers get down here and a new set gets in. It is like playing musical chairs. Ravindran shares some tidbits. He clears our first doubt. The buses are cleaned once in three days. The tanks are filled with 130 litres of diesel every morning. As he counts the bundles of notes and stacks of different coloured tickets in between his fingers and makes a note on a sheet of paper, he asks us whether we counted the number of bus stops. “Done 33, 25 more to go!”, he exclaims. During rush hours, he says, 300 people hop in and out on single trips and the collection ranges from Rs.10,000 to Rs.35,000 per shift (6 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 2 p.m. to 10 p.m.)

It is time to resume the journey. Ravindran shouts at a young mother whose sleeping baby leans against the window. “It is risky. I have to be alert,” he says and squeezes himself through the row of standing passengers pulling out tickets from between his knuckles.

The cramped interiors of the bus invoke a spirit of cooperation. In the bone crushing squeeze, the money trusted into the hands of the passengers is faithfully delivered to the conductor and the ticket find its way back to the original payer along with all the change.

From the height of a bus window, the vast bowl of the city resembles an animated movie. On the Muthu Bridge over Jaihindpuram, the bus rumbles hard. A train chugs under like a massive centipede. The slum of Sundararajapuram comes into full view with its rows of tiled-roof houses, clutter of wires and posts and a huge drainage canal ripping through the landscape. Crossing Palanganatham, Pykara and Pasumalai, we now overlook the town of Thiruparankundram. The sprawling spill of the Madakulam tank sparkles in the sunlight bearing a stunning reflection of the hillock.

As we cross Tirunagar, the buildings, hoardings and traffic reduce. The ride on the four-lane bypass changes into a scenic drive. Lone houses with bright advertisements painted on them jut out of an extensive green carpet of paddy fields.

Kadaisi stop,” the conductor breaks in. The bus pulls into the Tirumangalam main stand and becomes a hollow cuboid, only to be filled again in no time. We don’t get down but shift seats to head back and relive the sights and sounds of the city once more.

The return journey is cacophonic and chaotic. The bus is full. Carrying heavy jute bags, the old ladies are stronger than they seem. Everybody is in a hurry and nobody wants to tail another. Speed breakers and potholes take the sting out of the speeding vehicles.

We spot more shops with mannequins in the window, more interesting people and a much more brisk life outside. Amidst the sweat and anonymity of passengers, there are still some catching up on their beauty sleep. The sun shines brightly and we feel the heat inside.

We chat up retired engineer Sudalaimuthu, who goes on bus rides thrice a week just for time pass. He buys the Rs.50 ticket and sees the same sights from a different angle. He says his favourite routes include the ride from P and T Nagar to the Airport and the buses plying on Natham Road to Alagar Koil.

“I suffer from leg pain,” he says, “this is an adventure for me.”

It was for us too – full three hours on the bus up and down. If we were in the sky we would have reached Dubai in another hour. But in the clouds we would have missed these musings!

(City 3Sixty is a monthly column that captures the different moods of the city. It appears last Thursday of every month).

Illustration by:

Satheesh Vellinezhi