A Bus Ride Through Vellore
The small town of Vellore and its small town fragrance makes me believe that perhaps R.K.Narayan's mythic Malgudi has come to life. Recently visiting it after years I discovered that the town hadn't changed much in the years gone by since I lived there briefly imbibing my own Malgudi days.
The food is incredibly cheap , the people still friendly and simple , they still don't know any Hindi and and it's most illustrious occupant, the Christian Medical College and Hospital, is still arguably the biggest crowd puller in town. Most importantly, it still has two bus routes - bus routes number 1 and 2 where you can get a ride for the lordly sum of Rs.3.50 and cruise through Vellore.
You get off at Katpadi station, just two hours off Madras Central on the Bangalore route- a capable station albeit with just three platforms. All through the day , trains race along this concourse , stop for a two minute halt and then trundle on towards Jolarpettai where the trains decide if they want to go on to Bangalore or move on towards Coimbatore and then on to Kerala.
Just outside the station, is the point where you get on to bus routes number 1 and 2 which traveling clock wise and anti clockwise , give you a picture postcard view of the town before toddling back to Katpadi station and starting all over again. Those small, immaculately clean buses are themselves a sight to behold. Katpadi town is a colorless entity known only for its railway station and its singular lack of charm. The boundary between it and Vellore is demarcated only by a dry river bed where in the last twenty years; I have seen water only once.
Once you cross the river, you enter Vellore town and its three sections. The first has as its hub, the CMC Hospital and the bustling bazaar that has grown to cater to Vellore's own health tourism industry. It comprises tiny boxes of cubby holes called lodges, incredibly cheap eating houses and now 24 hour pharmacies and ATMs.
Surrounding the hospital are the wannabe hospitals and nursing homes bravely trying to compete with CMC in a David - Goliath battle. The hospital itself is a fairly ugly looking structure necessitated by having to grow and expand over the years in a cramped and confined space and having had to compromise aesthetics to some extent to accommodate functionality. What strikes one in the hospital, is the serenity of the hospital chapel in the middle of all the hustle and bustle and the incredible number of people - often by their appearance at least not " high net worth" individuals whom typically private hospitals target. Also the sheer variety of languages spoken, most prominent among which is Bengali.
After bus number 1 has crossed the hospital area, it enters that part of town where the place where the shops, markets and government offices are. This is the part of the town I like best. The shops have every thing and yet every thing is all compacted with in half a kilometer of the bazaar. At the heart of the market is the bus terminal from where sparkling new buses of the kind that one rarely sees in North India move on to distant destinations all over Tamil Nadu and beyond. The later the night, the louder the honking of the horns of the buses as they rush to fill passengers and move off onto the highways.
Beyond the bazaar and the bus stand, the town gets over and the beautifully serene and tree filled campus of the Christian medical college starts. Interspersed in its environments are gentle tree lined houses where many of the retired staff of the CMC live out their twilight years. In their midst are some of the brightest minds of the country and simplest. Among my most revered acquaintances who lives there is one of the world's greatest names in post leprosy reconstructive surgery , who used to be, at one time, the personal physician to the Emperor Haille Sellaise of Ethiopia.
A gentle soul , he is the very unique mix of a Gandhian , a Christian and an environmentalist. In his humility, gentility and quaint wisdom , the man of Swiss descent has served this land for four generations and more. The college campus at Bagayam with its thickly forested environs is as different from the hospital campus as chalk from cheese. The trees sway in the breeze and serve as a canopy protecting the many students waiting in the college bus stop for bus number 1 and 2. It is a beautiful feeling walking through the quiet streets , dodging the odd bus or car and making your way forward.
As you cross the college campus , you enter what might be called the ugly underbelly of the town amidst the new colonies that are beginning to develop and which in a decade's time will ensure that Vellore's genteel , small town atmosphere is squashed forever. The ugly match box houses, the kalyan mandapams blaring loud Tamil film music- they are all there. At the moment though , they blend well into the surrounding landscape and the bus routes numbers 1 and 2 still pay them obeisance and circumambulate these places.
This is the one place where the buses slow down and the crowds clamber up. But this is just a short interlude still and soon the buses are their half empty self with the somnolent passengers yawning and chattering away and some times indulging in a half hearted banter with the conductor over the fare demanded. It has been a while and the bus routes numbers 1 and 2 , operating in clock wise and counter clockwise fashion have finished the town of Vellore and have lumbered back into Katpadi railway station. As the trains from distant parts of India make their mandatory two minute stops and move on , bus routes number 1 and 2 get ready to carry their next bus load of passengers and begin their circular journey again.