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Bus journeys of yore

The vehicles ran on steam, and huge logs of firewood would be fed to a furnace next to the penultimate seat

I can’t recall which year it was, but these were the earliest bus journeys in my memory. I must have been four or five. We had a bus service from our home town, Periyakulam, to Madurai, the closest big town.

The bus ran on firewood, and huge logs that had been brought from Kodaikanal were stacked up for this in the shed. The furnace was in the rear of the bus next to the penultimate seat, and one or two big logs would be fed into it. It was the conductor’s job to stoke the furnace with an iron rod often, to prevent the collection of ash I think.

The bus was open to the wind on all sides, and we enjoyed the piercing breeze as we trundled along. We sat in rows in seats that looked like park benches. Each bench could seat five or six, and there were as many benches. The driver sat at the right-hand corner in the front, and those who could afford it sat in the slightly more expensive seats next to him. Children were not allowed to sit at the edges and had to squeeze into the middle, so I always tried sitting in the front, next to the driver.

There was tarpaulin hanging to one side, which could be quickly dragged up over the passengers and attached to buttons fixed to the side of the benches if it started to rain. For some reason, this was never done in advance, and there was always a mad scramble when it started raining, which was quite often, considering we were in the foothills of the Kodaikanal Hills. Most of these buttons would be missing, and we were quite used to the tarpaulin flapping along in the wind and the rain drenching us.

At the entrance there was a rod which had a mark halfway up its length. Any child who got on was measured against the rod — the journey was free for children who were shorter than the mark, and those above paid for half a ticket. There would be energetic fights between the conductor and the parents who would disagree on whether their child’s height was above or below the mark. It was not even a lot of money, but still the fights would be bitter. There was no advance booking of tickets for this bus. Some parents would even carry their not-so-young children so that they didn’t have to buy a ticket for their child.

At the end of the street was a building called Somasundara Vilas. The owner of this building, whom we called Somu Mama, was also the owner of the bus service, and the buses would start from his house. My father, who was a civil engineer, used to go on tour to what was referred to as camps, and would set out early in the morning. We used to go at night to book a seat in the first bus for his travel the next morning. In the early morning, we could hear the driver starting the bus engine an hour before it was scheduled to leave, and he would keep winding it. The bus would be driven right up to our doorstep at 4 a.m., and the driver would keep honking away merrily, while my father took his time. His luggage would be ready at the entrance of our house, but very often, he himself would be sitting in the puja room saying his prayers, oblivious to the noisy bus at his doorstep. We would then have to tell the driver to go ahead, as my father would probably only be ready for the next bus.

The bus went to Madurai, which was 83 km away, with stops along the way. The bus would take all day to reach Madurai. We would set out in the morning after eating some food, and carry a snack for the way, as we were not allowed to eat in any restaurants. The main stops would be at Vatthalakundu and the next at Vaadipatti, but on the way the bus would stop at many tiny villages such as Chozhavandhan, Nelakottai, Andippatti and Devadanapatti. Passengers going to Kodaikanal would get off on Kodai Road. The coffee at Ramaiah Hotel at Vaadipatti was very famous, and all the passengers would rush out for the coffee there. The break there lasted as long as the driver wished it to last. The moment he got on the bus, depending on his mood, he would either wait for the passengers to take their seats or just take off, leaving some of them stranded while sipping their hot coffee.

rajamd09@gmail.com

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Printable version | Jul 11, 2020 12:31:32 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/bus-journeys-of-yore/article31819525.ece

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