So, yeah, right at the front of Meenakshi Medicals was a simple waist high wall of metal railing with concrete pillars a few feet apart where one, particularly a pre-schooler like me could plonk their posterior and watch the rest of the world fly past in their multiple wheeled modes of road transport. My favorite part of the day (from when i can remember, till I was around 5 or 6 years old) was when my uncle (was part of a joint family then) used to take me out to this spot in front of Meenakshi Medicals and sit down with me and point out the different cars as they went past. While I was in for the cars, he was in for the short walk and the exercise that eluded him ever since he had retired. Sometimes he even went to Meenakshi Medicals and bought the medical supplies that is so common in homes in India. Maybe he even spent some time talking to the elderly owner and his sons, who were well known to us as neighbors. But I don't remember much about that painless and innocent times.
From the time I spent there everyday, I also picked up the art of identifying models from the sounds their engines made. I also developed this quirk of comparing people's facial characteristics with front of automobiles. For example, this particular bus / truck that Telco made (the Tata 4410 D?) had a front grill which reminded me of an acquaintance who had very striking dental structure. To this day, I can't erase the mental image of the man's face when I see a Telco truck or vice versa. And that's how my love of automobiles began. But it all started with buses and specifically the (then) Pallavan Transport Corporation buses (nowadays called Metropolitan Transport Corporation) a.k.a the PTC buses!
When I was 7 yrs old, my mother moved for a couple of months to my grandmom's place in Egmore to deliver my sister. I spent those months with her at Egmore. Since a change of school is logically not possible for those few months, I traveled to my school in Royapettah in a school bus. My stop in Egmore, next to the police station was the last pickup point and the last drop off point too. And this school bus route covered North Madras (Washermanpet, Tondiarpet, Royapuram etc.) in addition to Triplicane (which is practically next door to Royapettah). I don't remember any of those names, but if u were studying first second or third standard in Adarsh Vidyalaya Branch School, opposite Swagath Hotel during 1983-85, get in touch with me!
Anyways, during this bus journey, me and some other kids on the bus developed this new game. The PTC had just then purchased a batch of chassis from Ford, yup, Ford! So, everytime we passed one of these buses, we used to add one to the existing count. Ofcourse, we were too young to comprehend that there possibly could not be 1000 Ford buses running in the roads of Madras, but we counted anyways.
I also had this private game of looking at the route boards on buses and memorising the start and end points. This game continued way beyond the birth of my sister, which coincided with our relocating to Mandaveli. Since it was middle of a school year, I just changed school buses. But my luck did not change. This bus route covered South Madras (Kodambakkam, T.Nagar, Saidapet, Kotturpuram, Adayar etc.) and my stop was the last pickup and drop off point again.
So the memorising of bus routes continued and soon I was (I think I still am) so conversant with bus routes in Madras that at the age of 8 or 9, I was playing tour guide to my relatives and cousins from out of town, when they visited (my paternal grand mother lived with us) during the summer holidays. My job was to take them to the bus stop, get them on the right bus and get off at the right stop and get them to wherever they needed to go. And their job was to take care of me on the bus. LMAO!
After a year in Mandaveli, we moved to our present home in T.Nagar. For even my father was relatively new to T.Nagar, with most of our shopping trips being confined to Mylapore and Luz corner, areas chock a bloc with stores much older than the Nallis and the Kumarans. I think I was more familiar with the area figuring in my school bus route! A couple of months before we moved, I changed schools in anticipation of our move to T.Nagar.
My love affair with the PTC continued. The next game that I played was to figure out how the PTC kept track of its buses with an alpha numeric code (it seems to have changed slightly now) to indicate the originating depot, the time/batch of induction of their buses. For example, LE 567 (which was a Telco bus that ran on route No.10 between T.Nagar and Parrys Corner in the first half of the 90s) was a bus that was attached to depot L (T.Nagar) and was inducted in batch E (in the early 90s perhaps?) and was No. 567 in that batch. This particular bus was driven by this very friendly driver when I used to take route no. 10 to my school. Till 2001, if you would tell me a letter, I could tell you the depot with very little error, all by corelating the start and end points with common sense that the depot has to be the one closest to either of the two locations, ofcourse with some exceptions. I quickly figured out that there is no depot denoted by the letters "Q" and "O", (at least till 2001). And I THINK there are no depots with the letter N, G and J too, though I am not so sure.
Then close to the end of my school days, one fine day, one of my friends found this "old paper store" where he could buy magazines by the weight. I did not even know that he was a auto freak till he bought a stack of auto magazines (Auto India) specifically to school. I was soon hooked on the automobile reviews and news, not to mention the coverage of the international auto shows at Tokyo, New York, Geneva etc. Of course we did not care that the magazines were at least a year old. Once we had read the magazines, the better pictures were cut out and pasted on the doors to our respective cupboards. I still did not lose my fascination with the PTC and if my mom hasn't noticed it yet, there is still a small picture of a PTC bus on a Ashok Leyland produced Cheetah model chassis stuck on my cupboard in Chennai!
When I got into engineering, my fascination towards cars made me readily join mechanical engineering at a time when computer science was slowly becoming the stream of choice. My fascination remained just that since slowly I got sidetracked into manufacturing as a primary interest, with automobile engineering being just a elective course in our final year. But every month or whenever I had a chance to get to Trichy or Thanjavur, I never got back without a copy of the latest Auto India. I got a wealth of information, not neccasarily technical, from the magazine.
And my love affair with buses continued. With our college and the hostel being right next to the Trichy-Thanjavur highway, a lot of times our days were planned on the basis of buses passing the college. There were a couple of private bus operators who were the preferred service providers for our college students - Chidambara Vilas, Mahalakshmi etc. And there was one particular operator called Deenadayalan who was a speed demon. This particular bus reputedly held the record for making the journey from our college to Trichy a full 10 minutes faster the "next fastest". Needless to say, Deenadayalan usually topped everyone's list, if we were lucky enough to get the bus to stop at our stop when it passed by!
Coming back to Chennai for good after graduating, I did not feel a need for a vehicle and felt right at home travelling by the local buses. A lot of people claim that the Chennai buses are crowded and do not deserve the encomiums thrown at them from different quarters. My view however differs.
If you know your routes, then it is still possible to get to point B from point A comfortably. You might have to spend double the money or go to point C first which is slightly off the route, but it sure is cheaper than spending money on a auto rickshaw. You might not even spend any more time (in some cases) than you would have if you had taken a direct bus, but you will certainly travel comfortably.
For example, if you wanted to go from T.Nagar to Perambur, there are no buses that started from T.Nagar. You had to get on 29B which would mostly be full by the time it reaches T.Nagar from its start point at Saidapet. So, alternatively, you could just take a bus to Saidapet and board 29B there. You also had the alternative of taking 29N which ran between Velachery and Perambur. So if you knew your routes, then Chennai has the best public transport system in India outside Mumbai. You have my word for that!