On the Madanapalle-Chennai bus, there are only a few other people on board for the first part of the journey, till Chittoor. Right behind me are two young sleepy women, their heads leaning against each other as they doze, their voices jointly reading out signs on the road when they wake. The alternate silence and droning gets me sleepy too, and I doze too. (I don't read out the signs).
At Chittoor, a crowd jostles to get on even before anyone can get off. Two men put a case on the seat next to mine, and shoot some Telugu at me. I don't understand their words, but I know what they are asking: please keep our seats for us, we just have to step outside for a while. So I nod my head. They get off. Behind, the young women are fast asleep, their heads gently bumping against each other now and then.
Two other women, look like a mother and a daughter, struggle through the crowd at the entrance with enormous sacks and bags and suitcases, and flop down on the seat next to me where the men's cases are. They are speaking to each other in Tamil, so I tell them in that tongue, those seats are taken. They get up and move to the empty seat in front. Then, for no apparent reason, they get up and move back to the men's seat again. I tell them again, those seats are taken; if you sit there, you'll have to argue with the men when they return. They get up and move to the empty seat in front. Then, still for no apparent reason, they get up one more time and move back to the men's seat again.
This time, I give up. What I do is, I turn around and look behind us. There's a veritable sea of empty seats all the way to the back of the bus. What are these women doing?
A few minutes later, the men return. There's no argument, for the women have again moved back to the empty seat in front. But the older man comes directly to me, stands somewhat sternly over me and asks, in English this time, are you going to Chennai? I say, yes, I am. He wrinkles his nose and says, I'm getting down in Ranipet.
Having satisfactorily issued this information to me, he immediately turns away and sits down, and looks resolutely out his window until Ranipet, a couple of hours later. Doesn't say a single word more, doesn't even look at me.
Behind me as he gets off, the young women are reading the signs outside out loud.