What could be the ideal way to get a view of the whole of Kerala for 12 hours from sunrise? If such an idea or desire has ever dawned upon you, then here's the best bet: KSRTC bus. That is the one run by the state's road transport corporation. True, one can take a motorbike; but that will be tiring. Or get into a car, but the windows cannot give you a broad sight. That way, it's most enjoyable to take a KSRTC bus from the capital city in the morning and scale upward to reach north Malabar before nightfall.
From Thiruvananthapuram deep south of the state, a bus awaits you with the board of its destination: Vazhikkadavu. Oops, where is that? Ah, it's close to the more famous Nilambur, the wooded belt in Kerala's Malappuram district. History speaks of the place's association with Tipu Sultan during the Malabar invasion of the Mysore King 250 years ago. So, Vazhikkadavu might have its wind blowing from present-day Karnataka as well, but the map says Nilambur adjoins the Nilgiri ranges of western Tamil Nadu. So, what's the total distance? Well, it's some 410 km. Vazhikkadavu is another 18 km northeast of Nilambur, thus closer to the interstate border. So far so good.
From the coastal sands of Kollam to the mountainous terrain of Malappuram. This is going to be quite a journey, what with several midlands to be covered in between: the marshy Alappuzha to the metro-ish Kochi to the roundish Thrissur city to the quainter Shoranur across the Bharatapuzha to the small town of Pattambi on the other side of the same river to places perhaps obscure but still more scenic.
Along the roadside await the tea shacks, plush restaurants, swanky malls and what not! The Thiruvananthapuram-Vazhikkadavu bus, for now, is empty. Throw in a kerchief and book your side seat, as is the (absurd) Kerala custom. Around the red-and-yellow bus is the dark-blue air getting lit up by the rising sun in the twilight hour. That apart, the rest of the sights at the Thampanoor bus station are mundane: the vendor with a towel round his head busily serving tea, the lottery ticket seller dozing off, the jaded keeper at the public toilet, the newspaper agents who count the day's copies with practised ease... A train from nearby railway station sounds a shuddering horn, possibly trying to shrug of its laziness and chug out of the platform.
In no time, the seats got filled. Soon, the driver got in. No hefty chap. From the rear door emerged the conductor, sporting a walrus moustache and holding the travel ticket machine. To be introduced to the two stars won't be a bad idea. The charioteer's name is Vijayan, turns out he is from Kothamangalam in the eastern part of Ernakulam district. The ticket man Ramesan is a southie, from Balaramapuram further down from the state capital.
As he turns the key, the driver makes a gesture that one can make out is a ritualistic salute to Lord Ganapati at the city's Pazhavangadi. The elephant-headed god is the remover of all obstacles for the average Hindu, and, thus more relevant the Vishnu, the presiding deity at the much bigger Padmanabha Swamy temple. Even for a non-believer, the strength Vijayan has drawn from his silent prayer is evident: in no time, the bus takes out on to the main road, negotiating well a couple of turns and twists.
A drizzle accompanies the bus. Along with it, the cool breeze. In the damp air, the Juma Masjid and the Christuraja Church look all the more serene. Outside of the city, the bus gains 100 kmph speed. Small crowds sipping in tea along with the day's news appear and vanish in a jiffy.
Into further rustic lands, kids walk sprightly to tuition centres, while old men dodder as if juxtaposing two generations and times. The category that fails to hide to blend with the local populace is of the immigrant labourers. With chewing paan in their mouth, they have earphones on which they should most likely be listening to Bollywood hits. It's another matter Hindi movie songs are a hit with Malayalis too.
A gust of wind from across the Paravur lagoons had added coolness that not all fellow passengers found pleasing. One among them sprang up from his seat and downed the window shutter, as if challenging the wind.
At Neendakara, the seashore is lined with country boats that are to soon set for the day's fishing. Carts used to sell the marine items carry colourful boxes. From the coasts, they are to travel the higher ranges of Kottayam and Idukki. There, they metamorphose into pickles in the kitchens of many.
Further up, there is a dramatic flurry in the cycle bells along the road. That is one indication of nearing Alappuzha. Most of them are bound for schools and colleges. They have energy as high as this KSRTC bus.
A few minutes later, a red structure gives a split-second view. It is a historical memorial that hails a 1946 Communist uprising known by the name of the place: Punnapra-Vayalar. No wonder, the sights around have the jump-cut quality of KPAC plays. But then curtains soon fell on them.
Old habits die
The new-age KSRTC tends to defy a proverb associated with the buses of the 1965-founded corporation: the driver stops exactly half-a-km after a person on the roadside wanted to get into it. If anything Vijayan is over-sensitive to roadside signals that vaguely look like a potential traveller's. He would apply brakes and make it doubly sure he had stopped for the wrong person. At one place, the driver even halted back-to-back when a second traveller hollered from behind from a random stop.
The conductor, still, needn't be that patient, if Ramesan is anyone to go by. The man who so got into the bus held out a 500-rupee note for the conductor, when the passenger's destination was only a couple of kilometres away. Irked, Ramesan retorted. A loud argument ensued. It didn't last long only because the conductor soon managed to eject out he invader within five minutes of his boarding the bus.
As if proud of this episode, the bus gains speed. The road is like a black carpet rolled out for the fast-running tusker that is the KSRTC bus. In any case, the elephant is it is logo. And fellow vehicles down the path give space for the bus to overtake them earliest and heave a sigh of relief.
If it was slim cycles in Alappuzha, this city has gargantuan containers on a particular stretch of its road. Yes, Kochi is in. Sometime ago. That's what those huge hoardings announce even as the ships by the sea appear tiny from a long distance.
At the Vytilla hub, private buses seemed to envy the self-importance with which the KSRTC carrier will come and leave. For many Malayalis, more so from a slightly older generation, KSRTC buses alone provide a public transportation of satisfaction, even pride. Even if its conductor is cold/rude, even if the bus runs too slow, even if it arrives late and departs even later, even if it gets a flat tyre midway, even if it breaks down and tells passengers to look for a bus slated to arrive in another 40 minutes, quite a few of Keralites prefer the 'elephant vehicle.' It's much like the Malayali's craze for caparisoned tuskers at the temple festival.
As for this trip, once it reached Edappally, the bus seemed a bit uncomfortable with the royal movement of the Metro trains along the elevated tracks.
Still northward, there is a terrible traffic jam; so this must be around Lulu Mall.
At Kalamassery, the container trucks tests Vijayan's patience even as cycles pedal past him in greater speed.
Halfway Ernakulam and Thrissur, the bus again witnessed a spar between Ramesan and a passenger. This time, the traveller does have change to pay, but then he is really drunk. If he is managing to speak something, although uncomprehending, it is possibly because of the wind that has hit his face along the travel. As his voice got louder, the conductor ordered him to shut up. This only infuriated the man further.
That leads the conductor to order that the bus needs to be taken to the nearest police station. There, in front of the men in khaki, the tiger traveller suddenly becomes as quiet as a cat. He even mews in a crying sound, saying he doesn’t have even the money to take another bus to return home, leave alone paying a penalty. Ramesan takes him back to the bus, where he dozes off within a couple of kilometres' distance. Peace returns.
At the Thrissur bus stand, he wakes up and gets down. And doesn’t forget to wave his hands at Ramesan and thank him for the post-skirmish rescue.
Soon Ramesan announces that this is a ten-minute halt. And that passengers can go for a quick bite at the restaurant. At this, quite a few vacate, placing bags on the seats to tacitly announce that they are occupied. This system leaves many new faces irked; it’s only on getting into the bus they notice the seats are not vacant.
The restaurant outside doesn't look that bad. In fact, it looks increasingly clean. So, there is time for a quicker bite yet. Just as one swallows the first piece of a snack, there comes a mike announcement. It's that the Vazhikkadavu bus is to leave anytime now! The sentences aren’t drab, and have better clarity: it soon turns out that the lottery-ticket seller double as announcers at the Thrissur bus station. You rush out to the bus, only to be stopped by one of them. He wants a “bumper ticket” to be sold.
Within minutes, the bus turns right from Poonkunnam, cross the sprawling Puzhakkal paddy fields that are now more famous for the Sobha City complex and then Peramangalam-Mundur to reach Kunnamkulam. Still ahead, somewhere on the way to Pattambi, it takes a halt for a young passenger to get down. Suddenly, he falls in the process. There is commotion. This time, Ramesan is worried. Luckily, the lad gets up without a fuss. The cool bar nearby serves him a glass of sherbet. The bus proceeds. The conductor breathes it easy: “God, I thought we were in trouble.”
Then comes a river. It's the Bharathapuzha, with its sandy basin and grass tufts. Very less water, still pretty beautiful. The evening sun casts a golden colour along its course. Past the bridge, it's Pattambi town. The potholes at the bus stands kill what little romance one had with the nature only a couple of minutes ago.
Towards the twilight-hour dimness, men in flowing white dress walk past the roads, sketching a contrast. The Muslim presence is pleasingly high, so is the change of accent. More so with the older generation guys one met at Vazhikkadavu. Only sometime ago, one saw the younger among them speeding in two-wheelers. Their hairstyles were so freakish that one might suspect that a new variety of helmets are out in the market.
Night falls, casting silhouettes of minars in the western sky.