I was headed back to Chennai from Thanjavur, after finishing a training. The train was at 8.30 pm. The name of the train wasn’t there on the SMS. The student who dropped me off at the station, on his bike, said that the train to Chennai at that time was Rockfort Express.
I waited on the crowded platform no. 4 for Rockfort Express. Another train came in on platform 3. I was busy talking on the phone. My wife had called. As usual, she gave me instructions to be careful about myself, and more importantly, the laptop. I chided her, as usual : “I’ve been traveling alone for the last 20 years.” I told my daughter that I will be home by the time she wakes up the next day morning. The announcements were unclear and distracting.
Then the Rockfort Express arrived from the opposite direction. I started looking for coach S10. The train had coaches only till S4 or S5. I then looked at the train number. It was different. The TTE confirmed that I should be traveling by a different train. The coffee shop vendor clarified that I should have travelled by the train that just left from platform 3. It was a weekly train that not many knew about and it took the opposite direction to follow a different route to Chennai via Kumbakonam.
I called up my wife, and blamed her for not telling me the correct train name, and for not being alert enough, while booking, to notice the simultaneous departure of two trains. She politely reminded me of my 20-year experience of traveling by trains. I cut the call.
Though there were two more trains later in the night, there was no guarantee that I would get confirmed tickets. I was too tired, having travelled the previous night too, to risk traveling by the general compartment. So I decided to take the bus.
I asked a helpful-looking person, “Which bus-stand should I go to for taking an outstation bus?” There are two bus-stands in Thanjavur. He said, the new bus-stand, and gave me instructions on how to get there. I started to move, and then somehow remembered to turn around and ask, if I can get Chennai buses from the new bus-stand. He said, “Oh, you should have mentioned Chennai before. You have to go to the old bus-stand.”
Having averted another fiasco for the day, I reached the old bus-stand and boarded a government bus. The driver was playing Illayaraja songs. Though, I didn’t quite need any songs for slipping into a deep sleep immediately, the melodies did transport me to a different world, like only Raja songs can. I could somehow sense that the songs were playing non-stop throughout the night.
I woke up at 3am to older songs – many of them were from MGR movies. The leadership guru in me started listening alertly to the wonderful use of songs for political purpose. The political analyst in me wondered how such songs could pass through censor, and appreciated the acumen of MGR and the then liberal-mind of Karunanidhi (to permit such movies).
At around 5 am, we were nearing Guindy, where I had to get down. I moved to the front and stood near the driver. I could clearly notice that the driver was struggling to keep his eye-lids open. His reflexes were pretty good to ensure a smooth drive.
I was reminded of another trip to Thanjavur, a couple of years ago, when I drove down with my wife and daughter. We started late in the evening from Bangalore, and towards mid-night, I almost drove into River Cauvery. I somehow woke up and swerved our car back to the road, after mildly brushing against a tree.
The driver was trying to open a Pan Masala packet, while sleeping and driving. His fingers slipped from the packet a couple of times. He jerked his body and managed to tear the packet, roll the masala and put it in his mouth. The conductor was quite awake but didn’t seem to notice or bother about the driver. He must be used to being sleep-driven.
My bus-stop had come. Before getting down, I tapped the driver on his shoulders. He turned back with a jolt. I said, “You played some lovely music. I enjoyed the trip. Thank you.”
There were 10 kms more to the final stop for the bus. I was hoping that the praise and the pan masala will keep him awake for the rest of the trip. There was no bus accident reported that day.