Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Hemantha Kalam - 11 'A Paean to 12B'

Hemantha Kalam

Kalam - 11

'A Paean to 12B'

Today is 'New Year' and as is wont of me I spent time in introspecting on who I am, Why I am, What I am, Where I am and Where I am likely to go from here. During this storming, I was also fondly remembering the contributors to my present status and I am glad to acknowledge that one major contributor to my growth or otherwise, has been the bus-route number 12B.

I do not clearly remember when I took my first ride on a bus. I guess it must be somewhere in between 1960 & 1961 and I remember taking a bus from the Vani Mahal Bus Stop on Gopathi Narayanaswamy Chetty Road (G.N. Chetty Road) in T. Nagar to Panagal Park in T. Nagar-just one bus stop in between. The fare was Rs.0.07 (7 Naya Paisa).

There is a little explanation for this Naya Paisa business. The earlier coinage in India was something like Paisa, Kaani, Chillu Kaani (Kaani with a hole), Dammidi, Artha Anaa (Half Anaa-Three Paisa), Anaa (6 Paisa), Beda (12 Paisa), Paavalaa (1/4 of a Rupee/ Four Anaas / Rs.0.25), Artha Rupayi (1/2 of a Rupee / 8 Anaas / Rs.0.50) and so on (These names are of Telugu Language-India with so many languages will have different names for the same coinage).

Over a period, the government felt the need for a simpler and uniform coinage and just reduced the monetisation to Paisa and Rupee. The new system was called Naya (New) Paisa and so on. Paisa is singular and Paise is plural in Hindi, which is the national language of India so it is now Paise and Rupee.

Coming back to the main story, as long as we were staying in T. Nagar I seldom rode on a bus as there was no need. My school was about a kilometer from my house and either my father dropped me on his bicycle or I walked, i.e., when I became old enough to walk. For a long time till I was in the 3rd grade I guess, my mother used to carry me and drop me much against my wishes though.

Sometime in 1966 my father purchased a small plot of housing land in the suburbs of the city (now it is in the heart of the city with close proximity to a mall and several good hospitals and thus a prime property) and started constructing a tiny house. Since my father was mostly busy, it was my mother and myself (just about 10 years old) who had to regularly visit the construction site and supervise the progress, by using the bus services.

                                                Photo Courtesy:

We used to walk from our house for about half-a-kilometer to ‘Maattu Aaspathiri’ (Veterinary Hospital) and board one of the 3 buses that would take us nearer (about a kilometer) to our newly constructing house. The routes were 17B, 63 and 88. These were the only buses which used to go beyond the Vadapalani Temple stop, as the city limited itself upto Vadapalani Temple. Most other buses used to ply till this stop, take a turn back and return to their starting points.

Beyond Vadapalani were the villages of Saligramam, Virugambakkam and Porur and beyond. Excepting Poondamalli, other villages were hardly known to any of the city dwellers and only the Jutka (Horse carriage) was the carrier that could go beyond Vadapalani Bus stop. For a long time Kodambakkam was synonymous only with the film making activity and quite an amount of human soliciting / flesh trade and was considered a ‘bad’ area for many of the city genteel.

It was around the same years between 1965-67 that the area started developing; first with the Kodambakkam bridge being constructed and opened and next the Vadapalani Bus Depot being constructed. With a limited area to hold about 12 buses in the front uncovered bays, the Vadapalani Depot had a vast fortified area behind, for its workshop and fuel storage. The bus stand had its offices and a nice canteen and was quite clean. Adjacent to the Bus depot was the long road called Vadapalani Bus Depot Road (now called Kumaran Colony Main Road) that connected Vadapalani with Kumaran Colony, Dhanalakshmi Colony, Dharanisingh Thottam, Telephone Colony, Gandhi Nagar and so on.

With the opening of the Vadapalani Bus depot most buses started coming till the depot with an extension of two more bus stops. While this was relatively convenient to the villagers of Saligramam, the casualties were the Jutka owners who, overnight, lost most of their custom.

Our house was completed by April 1967 when I had just completed my 6th grade and we took possession in April 1967 and started living there since 30th April, 1967. As it was summer vacation time, there was no imminent requirement of my having to go to school but from mid June I had to commute to my school, which now is over 6 kilometers, by bus and the route was 12B.

The route of 12B plying between Vadapalani and Foreshore Estate is quite unique in that that the bus covered, in addition to government offices like Accountant General’s office and All India Radio, many educational institutions like;

·       Government School (opp. Ram Theatre)
·       Durga Nursery School (Kodambakkam Powerhouse) Government School (Puliyur/Trustpuram)
·       Saraswathi Vidyalaya (Kodambakkam / Liberty-Now this is relocated to Vadapalani itself)
·       Indian Institute of Engineering and Technology (IIET-Kodambakkam/Liberty-Now its associate Meenakshi College for Women also is in the same campus)
·       Stree Seva Mandir & Ramakrishna Mission School (Bazullah Road/T. Nagar)
·       Sarada Vidyalaya-Girls School & Ramakrishna Mission Main School (Panagal Park / T. Nagar)
·       T. Nagar High School (Pondy Bazaar / T. Nagar)
·       Sri Bala Gurukul (Pondy Bazaar / T. Nagar – since closed)
·       Holy Angels Convent & Besant Montessori School-Daniel Street (Pondy Bazaar / T. Nagar)
·       Kesari High School-My School (Teynampet)
·       SIET College for Women (Near to Teynampet)
·       Government School in Eldams Road (I am a bit vague about this though)
·       Vivekananda College for Men & Sanskrit College (Mylapore)
·       Rosary Matriculation High School (Santhome)
·       St. Bedes Anglo Indian Higher Secondary School (Santhome) and
·       Santhome Higher Secondary School     

This was one route which was fully occupied and most of the time beyond the capacity and thus became a vital link in the education of many nerds like me.

                                                 Photo courtesy:

During the holidays I made friends with the local children though there were only a few of them in the relatively new and developing area without much habitat. Krishna was one of those first who made friends with me and we remain friends till date. Then it was Late Sriramamurthy who was already working in Indian Airlines.

On the first day when I had to go to the school in a bus on my own, I had joined the entourage of Krishna, His grandfather who was dropping his tiny tot cousins in the school, Sriramamurthy and other children in the area.

Dr. K.V. Swamy of the famous Madras Homoeo Pharmacy and Clinic in South Usman Road, used to travel with us, accompanied by some of his children sometimes. Immaculately dressed his presence and demeanour itself was a brand.

Singer siblings Surender & Narender and their sister Sobha (Actor Vijay’s mother) used to travel. As they used to board the bus from the Vadapalani temple stop, by which time all seats would have been filled and many standees used to occupy the bus (yes within two stops), we used to reach out to help them by holding their book bags and food carriers.

This was a real pain where most of us needed to carry our books in bags or aluminium boxes (now in backpacks) and also carry our food boxes and water (children in India still need to carry donkey’s loads of books to school. Despite struggles by famous writer R.K. Narayan and in a very micro and limited way by me, the education department in the country is totally insensitive and apathetic towards the burden of books for small and tender children. Hope the Aam Aadmi Party would trail its guns on this aspect as well soon and deliver the children of the country from the drudgery of carrying loads of books).

With such physical intimacy, the passengers in the bus became known to each other within a very few days, as at specific times the same commuters used to use the same service. But as always, the supply of seats were far lower than the demand and even if one fellow got in first into the bus, he used to ‘reserve’ some seats for his / her friends / colleagues by putting in some article representing the ‘ person’ to come. If any such reserved seat could not be occupied by the intended person before the bus started, the seat used to be magnanimously offered to some other person. Such a system may not be easily possible today without a fight; in those days we could manage with just frowns and jeers / sniggers.

We did not have electricity in our house for almost a year and I had to read / study like Abraham Lincoln – in the light of hurricane lanterns or other sources if any. So if I failed to complete my homework before the dusk or within the school on the same day, I needed to do it in the bus and I needed a seat for this. If no seat was available we used to squeeze in the front near the driver to grab any space that could be had and observe the gear changing and driving methods and mannerisms of the various drivers. The buses in those days were not having powerful engines or power steerings requiring a lot of physical exertion on the part of the drivers.

Very quickly we became friends with the crew of the buses. Some people whom I could never forget are Mr. Kasi, Mr. Singaram, Mr. Jayaraman, and Mr. Mani - the drivers, Mr. Fiddle and Mr. Joseph the conductors. Among them, Mr. Fiddle later went on to become a member of the ticket checking squads as a promotion.

To my knowledge, the journey of public bus transport in Chennai began as Madras State Transport Department (MSTD) which later became Tamil Nadu State Transport Department (TNSTD). When the state government decided to bifurcate the TNSTD into smaller corporations, the Chennai bus transport became Pallavan Transport Corporation (PTC).

Due to over work in trying to catch up to the demand and also due to limited technology, several buses frequently used to break down on roads and the passengers were asked to lend a helping hand in pushing the buses either to start (due to ‘self’ problems of the battery) or to push the bus aside of the road. So people used to call the Pallavan Transport as ‘Tallava’ Transport. The word ‘Tallava’ in Tamil means ‘To Push’. But it was so much fun and after pushing the bus we used to show off like 'heroes'. Though today the corporation has been re-named as Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) the break downs keep happening, though in lesser intensity and frequency, than in those days.

                                                      Photo Courtesy:

During the time of PTC the buses, despite the Registration numbers given by the Road Transport Offices, had been given fleet numbers. The Fleet numbers of 12B in those days used to be A-722, A-724, A-733, A-736 and so on. Most of the time the drivers were allotted the same bus and it is with these fleet numbers that we used to recognise the bus drivers from afar even without really seeing them.

Though while going to the school we could board at the starting point and so were lucky most of the times in getting a seat, it was not the same case while returning, as we had to board the bus somewhere in the middle of the route and by which time all the buses were over-crowded and people hanging out of the entry and exit ways.

During the 1960s, the incentive scheme, for the bus crew members, on earnings, was not introduced and many a conductor used to ‘double whistle’ once he felt the bus was fully crowded or if he felt that the bus was being late. The driver needed to stop at the bus stops if the conductor gives out a long ‘single whistle’ or should not stop and continue to drive if it is a ‘double whistle’ where the conductor whistles quickly two notes.

As almost all schools and colleges close at the same time, the school leaving time everyday was inevitably over-crowded and buses never used to stop at a bus stop but stopped either before or after the stop to facilitate the alighting of those passengers already in the bus desiring / needing to.

Over a period, the passengers waiting at the bus stops also become wiser and adept in the technique and took their chances in waiting before or after the specific bus stops and trying their luck.

Children like us could not decide and that is when the proximity to the crew used to help us. If the driver sees us, he used to give us a signal that he is either not stopping or stopping a little ahead. Once he stopped, he used to ensure that we got in and for us it used to be a triumph of the day. We used to chat happily with the driver and generally have bon homie atmosphere thereupon.

But there were drivers who were newly inducted or filling leave vacancies who did not know us and thus we could not use any privilege. On such days, we used to run behind the buses in a bid to catch them where they would stop. On many days we used to chase buses from one stop to another stop and cover more than 6 or 7 bus stops without catching a bus, in the normal 14-15 stops from our school to Vadapalani Depot. those days we used to save some money on our fare and buy toffees with them.

Sometimes the crew used to treat us to some snack in the canteen. One day the driver Mr. Kasi became wild at my shouting at him as ‘Kasi, Kasi’ He told me to wait in the bus till all alighted in the  Vadapalani Depot. I waited for a special treat from him and suddenly he started boxing my ears and asked whether I will again repeat calling him as Just Kasi and not Mr. Kasi. My ears were ringing and I could not bear the pain anymore and tears welled in my eyes when he left me with a stern warning that I should always respect elders whoever they maybe. What a lesson? Catch me even today where I call or address anybody without a title? Elder or not J

There was one driver whose name I am unable to recall, who apparently had a large family to support and so used to drive autos or a taxi in his spare time to augment the income.

Mr. Mani was the most humorous. I distinctly remember one conversation between him and another depot worker whose job was only to fill water into the radiators of the buses while in the depot. He used to carry water in tin containers and climb on to the bumpers of the buses and pour water into the radiators. Those were the days when chemical coolants were not heard much about and water was the common coolant for the radiators.    

One day they were having a friendly banter when the guy pouring water had somehow managed to incense Mr. Mani. So Mr. Mani simply retorted saying that employees should earn appropriate trust from PTC. Since he (Mr. Mani) is more trusted he has been entrusted with a bus costing Lakhs of Rupees where as the other guy has been trusted with only a tin container not costing more than 2 rupees. The passengers following the banter had a hearty laugh with this exchange.

There used to be days when we had lost our money and so could not come home using the bus service. That is when the conductors used to buy tickets for us with their money.

Mr. Singaram was one person who for some reason always liked me and always waited for me to catch the bus even at the peril of getting late. He was in service even when I started working and when I needed to use the bus 12B again but later I could not see him. For sure, he must have retired from services. After I stopped using the bus service and took to bicycling and later scootering I lost touch with these people.

Today in retrospect, I ponder how much they had silently contributed to my growth and so many others like me. And all because of the route 12B which till date caters to the needs of so many students like me. What we would have done without this route and service? Long Live 12B and its services.

Where are those gentlemen today? Where is that warmth and where is that affection? What I will not give to meet them again?

You tell me! :-)

Till then, 

Krutagjnatalu (Telugu), Nanri (Tamil), Dhanyavaadagalu (Kannada), Nanni (Malayalam), Dhanyavaad (Hindi), Thanks (English), Dhonyabaad (Bangla), Gracias (Spanish), Grazie (Italian), Danke Schon (Deutsche), Merci (French), Obrigado (Portuguese), Shukraan (Arabic), Shukriya (Urdu), Aw-koon (Khmer), Kawp Jai Lhai Lhai (Laotian), Kob Kun Krab (Thai) and Asante (Kiswahili).

Hemantha Kumar Pamarthy

Chennai, India

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