Times were tough for our family in the mid-1940s. My father had died young, most probably with heart failure – he just did not wake up one morning. My mother was widowed at the age of thirty with four children to look after. My father’s family had migrated to Mysore, then a Princely State, after a business loss in trading of copra and coconut oil in Bombay. My father’s elder brother had found job in the Mysore Palace, while my father was clerk in the Municipality, with an income of, I was told, Rs. 25 per month.
My uncle and my father had separated five years before he died, so there was no close older male to look after our family. Money was tight. Our family did not get a pension from the Municipality – perhaps, at that time, there were no benefits available for a person who died in service. My mother told us that we did get some lump-sum money, perhaps as gratuity.
My father had taken out life insurance for one thousand rupees – a large amount of money. But, this was with the local government-owned insurance company, and it took several years of correspondence and the assistance of a kindly friend to get that money. In the meantime, my mother had the difficult job of managing four children, all below sixteen years, in a barely familiar setting. But, my mother was determined to educate her children – her sons for as long as they wanted to study, and her daughters up to Matric (10th standard).
Her father, who lived in Bantval, came to stay us every year with at the beginning of monsoons. (Editor’s note: See the author’s story Memories of Independence Day and Grandfather for more details about his grandfather). His visits had their own share of happy and galling moments but my mother felt happy because of the security it lent her and some financial help.
In 1945, when I was about 11 years old, towards the end of his visit, Grandfather announced that all of us would attend a family wedding in Bantval. My mother did not want to go, arguing that the children would have to miss school. She probably had other reasons too, such as the lack of money to buy suitable clothes and jewellery for the family, and gifts for the couple about to get married.
Grandfather did not budge; he was determined to take the family along with him to Bantval. My mother may not have liked it, but for us kids, it was a heaven sent break from the monotony of the municipal school, and drudgery around the house!
The travel from Mysore to Bantval, about 275 km, would take us through the Princely States of Mysore and Coorg, and finally into South Kanara District of the British-ruled Madras Province. We would travel through plains, then over a Ghat (hilly region) covered with dense jungle, and then coast downhill to the sea. Grandfather had told us stories of tigers, panthers, and hyenas, who would waylay unsuspecting travellers. He had told us of snakes – pythons, vipers and cobras – near his house which was at the foot of a hillock. And, yes, we were looking forward to the journey!
In those days, there were only two buses from Mysore to Mangalore; in those days, Bantval was a hamlet close to Mangalore. Both the buses started early in the morning from either side (Mangalore and Mysore) travelled up to Mercara, (now renamed Madikeri, the capital of Coorg at that time), a distance of 128 km from Mysore, where they stopped for the night. Next morning, they would resume their journey and reach their destination at sunset – for a total travel time of about 36 hours.
One bus was run by a person from our community, while the other was run by a Bunt (a small, prosperous community, who speak Tulu). Naturally, my grandfather patronized the bus run by our community member. The bus was a Ford, I think, with benches that ran across the width. By convention, the front benches were set aside for upper caste, officials and long distance passengers.
Petrol was in short supply because of the ongoing World War II. Because of this, our bus did not run on petrol or diesel – it ran on charcoal. Inside the bus, at the back, there was a furnace. Charcoal was fed into it, and a fire was started by pouring in kerosene and lighting it. Then air was blown in for a long time by a rotary. I think this produced a gas, possibly methane, which was first collected, and then burnt to run the engine. This device, I am told was, invented by T.V. Sundaram Iyengar and Company located in Madurai, and was known as TVS Gas Plant. But, it seems that this was not unique to India, and other countries had also developed engines that could run on coal or wood
Our bus trundled along at 20-25 km per hour, groaning and heaving when it encountered even small uphill climbs. After covering about 50 km, the bus would stop at a village or a small town. At this time, the fire was stoked, fresh charcoal was brought down, fed and blower worked. Those who sat at the back would feel the heat of the furnace but there was nothing they could do about it.
My mother’s slog and anxiety started two days before the travel day. She had to select our clothes and mend any torn parts; same for the bedding needed to brave the cold night of Mercara. And, she had to cook the food for the journey. We, her children, were oblivious to her misery. We were impatient to start our adventure.
Finally the day – or rather the night – arrived. Grandfather had woken up in the middle of the night. After finishing his daily ablutions, he began waking us up. The culprit was our table clock. We had a table clock of German make of unknown vintage, which worked only when it was laid down flat on its face. That day, due to some mistake, it had been placed standing up, and so it did not work properly.
My mother’s entreaty that it was too early was of no consequence. Along with our luggage, all of us marched to the bus company’s office. There, the bus driver and conductor cum cleaner-cum-fireman had just woken up, and were busy lighting the bus’s furnace in the dark with the help of a hurricane lantern and a torch. We were a good one and half hour ahead of the bus’s departure time! Slowly the fire built up. I was fascinated by the entire process, and was eager to work the blower, but Grandfather did not permit this.
Other passengers arrived and the bus commenced the journey at the scheduled time. As early arrivers, we had occupied good seats – the second row from the front. My only grouse was that I was squeezed in the middle. My youngest sister got the corner seat, as she was prone to travel sickness, my mother was next to her, and Grandfather had occupied the other corner seat.
Well past midday we arrived at Kushalnagar, a small village in Coorg, located in the foothills. After refreshment for the passengers, filling up the furnace with more charcoal, and a check of the bus by Coorg officials, the bus started again, climbing up the hills.
Half way up the clouds started gathering and then it rained. Our efforts to look over the shoulders of others did not yield sight of any wildlife except, now and then, a few langurs (monkeys).
By this time my youngest sister had become travel sick, had vomited frequently. In sheer exhaustion, she and my mother had fallen asleep. Grandfather, after chatting for a while with the driver in Tulu, which we did not understand, shared his tobacco and pan with him, squirted the juice out on to the road several times. He had now dozed off, with his head falling on my older brother’s shoulder now and then. In between my mother and Grandfather, my brother, sister and I were chatting endlessly, playing school-based games such as interpreting an idiom, or guessing the names of objects by clues, and looking in wonder at small waterfalls cascading down from numerous hill streams. We also enjoyed sliding from side to side when the bus negotiated a hairpin bend, and we could safely bump into Grandfather or Mother, much to their annoyance.
The bus ultimately arrived at Mercara. It was a good two hours late, but who cared? Much more important was that we all were covered all over with soot and red dust. In Mysore State, the road was paved with tar, but once we entered Coorg State, it was a dirt and macadam road. We shook off dust as much as possible and went in search of the house of an uncle, who was the headmaster of the municipal school in the city. Our uncle and aunt welcomed us. After a hot water bath and ganji (a rice-based watery gruel to which some seasonal lentil is added), we children went to sleep, leaving the elders to their discussion.
Next morning, we wore some woollen clothes to ward off the cold, and resumed our journey. Some new passengers had joined us. I was fascinated by one of them, who had a choti (pigtail), sacred ashes on his forehead, and a shawl round his torso. He must have been a prominent priest, as he had got the corner seat at the front, on which he had spread an animal skin. (My mother told us later that it was deer skin. At that time, many upper caste persons believed that their purity would violated if they came into contact with a person of a lower caste. Contact with even the leather of the seat was considered polluting. That is why the person was carrying deer skin, as this was considered clean, and it would let him avoid contact with the seat.) He kept to himself with a permanent frown on his face, shooing off anyone who came near him, though he did talk every now and then with the driver. He was continuously chewing paan (betel leaf) and spitting all around.
Soon, the bus started going downhill. At one of the bends in the road, the bus suddenly slowed down and proceeded cautiously, as there was a crowd ahead on the road. A large tree had fallen across the road carrying with it a large slice of the hill slope. The bus creaked to halt. Driver and conductor got down to take stock of the situation. In those days, there was little traffic along this route, but there was a truck on the other side of the tree. The two drivers, the two cleaners, and a small crowd from the nearby village were surveying the situation. There were many suggestions from the crowd about what to do, but none were practical. Half an hour passed by. By then, another truck and a few bullock carts had arrived.
My brother and I were getting restless, and wanted to get down and join the crowd, but Grandfather’s stern command forbade that. We tricked him. My brother and I indicated that we wanted to relieve ourselves. Grandfather could not say No. We got down from the bus, and took our own time to empty our bladders. In the meantime, worried about the prospects of reaching Bantval late, Grandfather had got down from the bus and got engrossed in the discussion about how to resolve the problem. So, instead of returning to the bus, we also joined the crowd discreetly.
Someone in the crowd suggested that the bus cleaner should go for police help. Our bus driver did not like this idea, as he did not trust the Coorg police. Finally, someone suggested that our driver and a cleaner from the truck should go to nearest estate, and ask them for their elephants, which they used for logging. Moving the tree would be easy for the elephants.
The news that elephants might come electrified us children. One hour later, two elephants and a few helpers arrived at the site. It took two hours of pushing and heaving, cutting some branches and removing some mud to make a narrow passage just enough for a vehicle to pass through. But, our bus could not move on its own, as the fire in the furnace had almost died out. Our bus was slowly pushed through to the other side.
In the meantime, my brother and I had wandered off the road to explore the jungle. Our exploration was cut short when I found some thing crawling up my ankle. I tried to shake it off. But it would not. I started crying and ran to my mother. Some one identified it as a leech. There was a search for matches or some lime paste, which would be applied to the place where the leech was stuck on my ankle, which, according to folk wisdom, would cause the leech to fall off. Ultimately, someone produced some choona (lime), which was part of the paan and supari (betel nut) package that many people carried with them. This was smeared around the leech. After some time, a full blown leech fell down. Instead of sympathy, I got a sound thrashing from Grandfather.
It took another half an hour to rebuild the fire and restart the bus. When the bus started moving, the sun had already gone down. A little later we arrived at the check post of Madras Presidency. The bus then wound its way to Puttur – a logging town in South Kanara. I don’t remember whether the town had electricity. All I remember is small wicker lamps shining here and there, and a petromax gas light in one of the shops. There was a droning noise of insects and cricket.
The departure from Puttur was delayed because a drunken plantation worker had got on to the bus somewhere along the route. He was making a nuisance of himself with the fellow passengers at the back. Perhaps he had not also paid the bus fare. With the approval of other passengers, the driver and the cleaner threw him out of the bus.
Finally, our bus arrived at Bantval at the bus company’s agent’s home. My uncle had come to receive us. The agent had become quite worried by the delay, and wanted to know all the details from the driver and cleaner.
The tarpaulin covering the luggage on the bus’s rooftop was rolled back, and our trunks were brought down. Silently, we marched towards our destination with a mama (mother’s brother) leading the way with a hurricane lamp, an umbrella and carrying a trunk. We children carried whatever luggage we were assigned. For some distance, the path was lit by street poles with oil lamps, around which dragon flies, moths and other insects circled. After that it was pitch dark. We slowly marched huddled together behind our mama.
I was imagining live encounters with ghosts, tiger or hyenas and silently praying to God. Perhaps my brother and sister were doing the same. Finally, after leaving the road and meandering on a path which ran in between paddy fields, we arrived at the house. None of the children of house were awake at that time, so, after, a quick wash, we were bundled off to bed on cotton quilts on the floor. Very soon, we were sound asleep.
Our stay here got extended for 15 days as Grandfather refused to send us back to Mysore without a proper escort. To our delight, he simply ignored Mother’s grumbling about the delay. It was not easy for Grandfather to find a trustworthy man travelling to Mysore. Grandfather first searched as far away as Mangalore for a person from our community. He didn’t find anyone who would be travelling by bus to Mysore.
Then, through the grapevine he learnt that a Muslim hardware merchant was planning to go to Mysore. (He was a Nawayat, a small group of Muslims who speak Konkani with their own accent.) After conducting a detailed inquiry to ascertain his family background, and finding it satisfactory, Grandfather handed us over to his charge.
He proved to be kind hearted gentleman who kept us happy with stories and cookies. When we reached Mercara, he escorted us to our uncle’s home, where we spent the night. Next evening, when we reached Mysore, he hired a Tonga (a horse-driven carriage common throughout India, with those in Mysore city having a unique design of their own) whose driver was a reliable Muslim man. Then, with us and our luggage loaded in the Tonga, he said goodbye, and soon we reached home safely.
In 1956, all the regions mentioned above became a part of Karnataka. Bantval is now a prosperous trading-cum-services centre with good connections to other parts of district. State Highway 88 connects Bantval with Mysore. Travel time has been cut down to 10 hours, and there are various hotels and refreshment stations along the way. There are reports that about 100 buses – ordinary, semi-luxury, luxury, sleeper, AC sleeper, Volvo – run between Mysore and Mangalore every day. There is no wildlife along the road except for monkeys and some small animals.
© M. P. V. Shenoi 2007