This is an account of a journey by sleeper bus from the Tamil Nadu city of Madurai to the mega city of Bengaluru in Karnataka and occurred in February 2017.
It was early evening when we got back to the Residency in the centre of Madurai, time had moved on quite quickly if truth be told, it hadn’t been such a drag after all, my fears of it being an unmitigated bore fest had turned out to be unfounded. After all we were not due to catch our sleeper bus to Bengaluru until 9.45 pm and yet we had officially checked out of the Residency at 1 pm, leaving our bags there behind the reception leaving us with over 8 hours to fill.
In fact it was not long after I had settled back down in one of the comfy chairs in the lobby, stomach still full from the meal we’d eaten, that our man from the travel desk came over and advised us that we take the taxi ride over to the Maduthavani bus stand sooner rather than later, due to the fact that some parts of Madurai were likely to disrupted because of the thunderstorms from earlier on. This kind of made sense to the both of us, me and Anita, as there was simply no point in hanging around the lobby anymore if truth be told, we might just as well get on with it, and thus avoid any last minute hiccups. We had agreed a price of 500 IR with the man from the travel desk earlier on in the day for the ride over to the Maduthavani which, although well above what we could have got a ride for if we had stepped outside to negotiate with one of the numerous street taxis, was OK for us. This was mainly due to the fact that we had been able to hang around the lobby and safely store our cases behind the reception until it was time to go.
Turned out that our taxi driver was a really nice guy, a religious man who had Siva chants playing on the car stereo as we made our way through the streets to the west side of town, which was where the bus stand was. He told us he was into meditation, knew a lot about Ramana Maharshi, that he also followed a vegetarian diet, saying that too much meat was being eaten in India these days, way too much meat and that morally it was bringing the country down. It was a surprising, interesting conversation, not the kind you usually have with a taxi driver, even in India. We were all so wrapped up in it that we seemed to arrive at the bus stand in no time at all. I think I might have forgotten to mention to him that I was in fact non-veg, and so was Anita, but I guess the chance to say so didn’t really come up, so that was that. The only unfortunate thing about the ride was that both Anita and I were almost completely out of change, which meant we could only give our driver the flat 500 IR fare along with a paltry 30 IR tip. This was a bit of a pity as I would have liked to have given him more than that, but he really didn’t seem to be bothered in any way whatsoever. There was no doubt in my mind however that palming him 50 or 100 IR would have been better for me, in order to be able to feel I had rounded things off nicely as far as our trip to Madurai was concerned but there you go, sometimes not everything can be perfect.
Once we were out of the taxi, unloaded with all our stuff, we were confronted with another scene of intense busyness. The Maduthavani bus stand was absolutely ram packed with buses, all standing in rows side by side, getting ready to set off on their night rides to no doubt pretty much every major destination that you could think of in the whole of South India and beyond. There were even sleeper buses preparing to go up as far as Mumbai, which I imagined would have been an absolute killer journey, taking a minimum of two days considering how far south we were. The way things seemed to work at the bus stand was that as a passenger, you went to the office of the private bus / travel company with whom your ride was booked with, in order to confirm your reservation on one of their buses to wherever it was that you were going to.
The name of the company on our reservation that we had been given back in Kushal Nagar by Sunil at Mahaveer was Sharma Travels and their location was stated as Shop No.4 at the Maduthavani. Other companies at the bus stand went by names such as Lucky and T.K.N. so the buses on the stands could be easily identified by way of the company names emblazoned across the top of their windscreens. We duly checked in at the offices of Sharma, and once our details had been confirmed we were told to wait outside until the boarding time of 9.30 with departure at 9.45. This gave us a wait time of at least 90 minutes but that was not really a problem, there was plenty going on at the bus stand for us just to stare at, in actual fact we were able to avail ourselves of a couple of vacant seats right outside the Sharma shop, setting our cases and bags down in front of us, then sitting down ourselves.
There was a tremendous amount of action going on around the bus stand, it was quite simply crowded with people, without doubt one of the busiest places that I had been to in India for quite a long time, and to think that it was supposed to be a sleepy Sunday evening made it all seem like a total joke. After we had settled ourselves with our luggage on the seats outside Sharma, I left Anita to sit there whilst I went off in search of some stuff to buy for the journey, snacks to eat and water to drink. I made my way across the busy main road which was just outside the bus stand, it was extremely busy, like virtually everything was in that part of town. I managed to get to the other side of the road relatively unscathed, and from there I located from the row of shops a place which sold the stuff I was looking for; biscuits, crisps, water and some nice cold Bisleri Soda. I had many good memories of drinking cold Bisleri Sodas from the Ramana Maharshi Supermarket outside the ashram in Tiruvannamalai, so I just couldn’t resist buying another bottle. The smallest change I had for all the stuff I wanted was a 2000 IR note but the shop keeper didn’t mind, business was business at the end of the day, anyway I made sure I spent a good couple of hundred rupees with him. It felt good to have a nice big bag full of supplies for the journey as it was going to be the best part of 9 hours long. Although it was a night ride and most of the time would be spent sleeping, or at least that was what we hoped, there were bound to be spells during the course of it when we would feel more than a little peckish.
When I got back to Anita at the bus stand, sitting outside the Sharma office amongst the crowds of people, I saw that there was a bus now parked right in front of the stand. It turned out not to be a Sharma bus but which one had the word Lucky emblazoned across the top of its front windscreen, which from the typed sign in front of the driver’s seat indicated it was going to Chennai. I stood right in front of it and tried to look inside. All the way down the aisle there were blue neon Lucky signs beside each berth, both to the left and right. I found it interesting, fascinating in fact, as I just hadn’t known until we had made the booking back at Mahaveer in Kushal Nagar that there were such things as sleeper buses, or at least not in the form that they now appeared. Guess before I saw one, I had just thought they were normal buses with reclining seats, but I now saw this was not going to be the case at all, that there was more to them than that, much, much more as a matter of fact.
In the heat of the bus stand, which was still crammed full of buses, I took some long slugs from my bottle of Bisleri Soda, which felt so good as it slid down my throat. It was so damn cold after having been in the fridge of the shop, that I was suddenly so damn thirsty I couldn’t stop drinking it. All I could was stand there holding the bottle, once every minute or so lift it up for a little bit more glug, glug, gluggy. Due to the fact there always seemed to be something going on at the bus stand, the hour or so which we had to wait until we boarded our bus went very quickly. It really did feel like everything going on there was being pushed to the limit in terms of the sheer numbers of people, and the rows and rows of buses, some of which were now beginning to rev up and take off into the night, along with the tremendously intense amount of noise which the whole scene generated.
After what seemed like no time at all we got a call from someone standing in the doorway of the Sharma office to tell us that out sleeper bus was now ready for boarding, so we made our way across to where the buses were parked and ours was one of the ones behind the front row. As I expected there were quite a few passengers, all of us carrying our bags and cases, soon making our way between the tightly packed buses of the front row in order to get to our vehicle. The ground behind the front row of buses was also pretty muddy due to the rains which had fallen earlier on, which meant that in the dark space we now suddenly found ourselves in we had to be a little bit careful so as to avoid the squelch. The majority of the other passengers seemed to be young Indian guys who I guessed were either students or working in IT. Sure enough after I got talking to a couple of them, it turned out they were on their way back from Madurai to their jobs in Electronic City, South Bengaluru, which was very much the centre of India’s Silicon Valley. They were nice guys, more Western than Indian, in fact more Western than me if truth be told, they also helped me load our cases into the luggage compartment which was located in the underbelly of the bus, and I thought that was pretty nice of them.
Once we had climbed on board the bus Anita and I made our way down the aisle to find our berths, which were lower bunks, as opposed to upper ones, and numbered on our reservation as L22 / L21. When we got to them we saw that our double lower berth came with two single bunks, blankets, pillows and a curtain to draw across for privacy. It was clear that the bunks were long enough for us to be able to stretch out, lie flat down on, which was very good news indeed. They were far, far better than those reclining seat jobs in which, from past experience, I had more or less spent the whole night half awake, trying my hardest to get comfortable in order to stop my neck getting completely stiff. All in all the interior of the sleeper bus seemed to pretty much replicate the sleeper coaches that you found on Indian trains in the second class compartments. I was impressed, and I had high hopes that I would be able to get a good night’s sleep under the blanket with my head on the pillow.
We got in our lower berths, which were pretty low down it had to be said, whilst above us were the upper berths. It seemed that for those people who were in those above, the space available to move about in was going to be pretty tight, very tight as a matter of fact. Kind of made me think that although it felt we were damn close to the ground, the lower berth was indeed the better option, as at least our heads were not directly beneath the roof, this in fact was what had been pointed out to us by Sunil back at Mahaveer when we had originally made our booking. So good old Sunil, he had made the right call there. On the other side of the aisle were the single berths, both upper and lower and finally across what would have been the back seat of the bus there were a couple of berths as well. So all in all I guess there must have been berths on the bus for around 50 or possibly 60 people to sleep in.
It soon became clear that it was not really possible to sit up on the bunks and look out of the window, you just could not do it comfortably without straining your neck, so the only real option was to just lie down. Naturally enough, as soon as the bus got under way, pulling out of the Maduthavani bus stand onto the night roads of Madurai, this is what everyone seemed to do without too much of a problem. This included Anita, who adapted to the situation pretty much straight away, as she always seemed to, it had to be said and she appeared to be comfortably asleep in her berth in next to no time. She was in the land of nod well before we got out to the highway, whilst we were still swinging through the streets of Madurai. As for me as I was pretty much wide awake, not ready at all to lie down and stay down. In fact if truth be told the initial part of the journey freaked me out a bit as we were so damn low in our bunks and so close to the ground it felt like my head was just above the wheels of the bus, which in actual fact it probably was. It also felt like I was rocking about like crazy and that I would never get comfortable enough to be able to crash out because of the waves of mild nausea that had begun to roll over me.
On top of all that, there was also the fact the bus didn’t seem to have a toilet, this for me was rather unfortunate as before boarding the bus I had drunk that half litre bottle of nice cold Bisleri Soda. I was soon paying the price big time, half sitting, half lying in my bunk absolutely bursting for a piss. Things were most certainly not helped by our low position, which meant I felt every twist and turn we made, and in the course of getting out of Madurai there were definitely more than a few twists and more than a few turns. It was almost enough to bring me out in a cold sweat, I really did begin to wonder whether or not I was going to be able to handle the journey stuck there in my bunk for the next 9 hours. Fortunately for me, once we got clear of town, and hit our first open stretch of road, it was clear that there a couple of other passengers who also needed the bus to take a pit stop, probably they were in pretty much the same situation as me. A small group of us walked as quickly as we could down the aisle, down the steep steps at the front of the bus, in order to take a sorely needed piss whilst breathing in the hot night air of some unknown place in the late evening dark of South India. Needless to say the relief was really rather blissful.
Initially I thought the bus was not going to be that full, as when we pulled out of the Maduthavani Bus Stand there were quite a few empty berths, but as we were in India I really should have known better, and sure enough after a couple of pick up points along the way, the last being the town of Dindigul, a few miles up the road from Madurai, we were pretty much full by the time we hit the open highway which would take us to Bengaluru. Once we were on the highway, speeding through another Indian night, the rocking motion of the bus settled down into a rhythm pretty similar to what you would have expected if you were on an Indian train. As a consequence it was not too much of a problem at that point for me to just lie back down on my bunk and get a bit of rest, whilst next to me lucky old Anita was sleeping soundly, her head deep in the lap of Mother India. Guess it must have been after an hour or so up the road from Dindigul that the bus pulled over for another roadside piss stop, which again I availed myself of as that cold Bisleri Soda had quite simply played havoc with my poor old bladder.
In retrospect drinking all that fizzy stuff was an elementary mistake to have made on my part, as in India it always best never to take anything for granted. In this case it was the toilet on the bus that was never there which had got me, caught me out big time as I half lay there, half sat there on my bunk. There did in fact turn out to be an extended break somewhere further along the highway at around 3 in the morning for the bus crew to have drinks and snacks. By this time my need to relieve myself wasn’t quite so acute, but nevertheless I got out again to stretch my legs and have another quick leak, just in case you know, just in case. Got to say that after this last stop I got back on the bus, lay down on my bunk, closed my eyes, more or less went straight off to sleep, hours behind Anita at this point, but nevertheless finally settled. When I woke up the bus was hitting the outer edges of southern Bengaluru, there was the faint beginnings of early morning light outside the window, and I knew that we were getting close to a point of disembarkation.
The bus began making a few stops in order to let its passengers off. Hosur first of all, a busy south Bengaluru suburb, then Electronic City which saw almost the whole of the rest of the passengers disappear in one fell swoop. Anita and I disembarked at Lalbagh Gardens which was pretty much the last stop before the bus reached the end of the line outside the Majestic Hotel, just around the back of the MG High Road right in the centre of town. Once we had pulled our cases from out of the luggage compartment we were good to go, in no time at all we had succeeded in getting a rickshaw ride from Lalbagh Gardens over to the Satellite Bus Stand on the Mysore road. This bus stand was on the west side of the city and from there we would be able to pick up a coach to take us either to Mysore, or even better, back to Kushal Nagar which was the town just next door to Bylakuppe, our final destination.
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