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Eight, not nine.

July 24, 2011 1 comment

That is the number of planets in our Solar System. I know we have all been taught that there are nine planets. That is what the CBSE, still says, as can be seen from page 22 of this activity book. But in 2006, the International Astronomical Union(IAU) decided to remove Pluto from the list of planets thereby officially reducing the number of planets to eight. Pluto is now only a dwarf planet. Let us see what the IAU had against Pluto.

Pluto was discovered in 1930, more than 85 years after the discovery of the previous planet, Neptune. But Pluto has always been an oddity in the list of planets. For one thing, its orbit was weird.

Pluto's and Neptune's orbits intersect

Pluto's orbit (in red). Notice how it crosses the orbit of Neptune (the outermost blue orbit)

From the top view, you can see how Pluto’s orbit crosses Neptune’s orbit. No other planet has an orbit like this. So, there are times when this planet is closer to the Sun than the Neptune.

But that is not all. If by the previous paragraph, you were wondering, why Neptune and Pluto with criss-crossing orbits, did not collide into each other, there is another oddity of Pluto that is hidden when seen from the top. The problem is that while orbits of all the other planets lie almost on the same plane, the orbit of Pluto alone, is tilted by about 17 degrees. Look at the two side-on pictures below, to see what I am saying.

Looking at the orbits on the plane of revolution of the 8 planets. Pluto's orbit is tilted.

Looking at the orbits along plane of revolution of the Pluto's orbit. The orbits of the eight planets appear tilted.

The other thing odd about it was, that the 8 planets discovered so far, fell into two families. The 4 planets closer to the Sun: Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars, were rocky planets. They were made mostly of rock and metal and hence were called Terrestrial planets. The next 4 planets: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune were primarily made of gases. These latter 4 planets are also referred to as gas giants. Pluto was made of rock and ice, but it did not belong to the family, its neighbour Neptune belonged to.

But what most embarrasses Pluto is its ridiculous size. Look at this picture from NASA.

Planets and other objects, scaled to size. Pluto is just barely visible. Note that the distances are not scaled.

It is so small, that its mass is less than one-fifths of that of our moon. Of course, mere difference in size would not have been much of a problem, since the Earth too is puny, when compared to Jupiter. But Pluto’s moon, Charon, was discovered in 1978 and it was half of the size of Pluto itself (Pluto now has four moons). For contrast, the size of our own Moon is 2% of that of the Earth. Soon many other bodies were discovered beyond Neptune, having sizes comparable to that of Pluto. This made astronomers realise that Pluto did not belong to the planets, but was part of a different group whose members were being rapidly discovered. Finally the worst happened. Eris was discovered in 2005.

Eris is a celestial body which orbits the Sun, and its mass is 25% more than that of Pluto. This was the first object discovered orbiting the sun that was more massive than Pluto (of course, apart from the other 8 planets). This posed a dilemma. Either Eris should be added as a planet, and along with it many other bodies, or drop Pluto from the list of planets. The definition of what actually constitutes a planet, became crucial, and hence in 2006, the IAU met, to decide on a formal definition. In that meeting, the IAU laid down the following as the eligibility criteria for a planet. From wikipedia:

The definition of planet set in 2006 by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) states that in the Solar System a planet is a celestial body that:

  1. is in orbit around the Sun,
  2. has sufficient mass to assume hydrostatic equilibrium (a nearly round shape)
  3. has “cleared the neighbourhood” around its orbit.

The first 2 points are clear and Pluto satisfied both. But the third one was its undoing. What the third rule means is that the body should be the dominant (in terms of mass) object in its vicinity. This Pluto was definitely not, since similar sized objects were present near it. Thus Pluto lost its status as a Planet. Pluto joined the group called dwarf planets, in which it is the second largest, with Eris being on top.

Interestingly, the whole debate was sparked off, when a planetarium in New York (Hayden Planetarium) prepared an exhibit in 2000, with only eight planets, leaving out Pluto. The brain behind this was its director, Neil De Grasse Tyson. Here is what wikipedia says about him.

As director of the Hayden Planetarium, Tyson bucked traditional thinking to keep Pluto from being referred to as the ninth planet in exhibits at the center. Tyson has explained that he wanted to look at commonalities between objects, grouping the terrestrial planets together, the gas giants together, and Pluto with like objects and to get away from simply counting the planets.

Neil Tyson is an amazing science communicator. His interest science and his enthusiasm in communicating both make him a tremendous person. I recently saw a video of his. A must-watch. It was informative, and absolutely hilarious. Here is the video for you. His talk (more of an interview) starts 15 minutes into the video and goes on for 1 hour. Trust me. You wont regret the time spent watching the video. Look out for the last point he makes in his talk. It is disturbing, but also fascinating.

Note: I got the first three pictures from a free simulation software, Celestia. I recommend you too download and install it. It is fun.

We are back

July 12, 2011 2 comments

This is part 2 of an earlier post.

We call him uncle, and his house is on the main road in Nilavur. The actual Nilavur village is a little further down the road after this house. There is a bus at 3.30 PM that goes from Nilavur to Tirupathur. But the bus passes the house at 3, goes to Nilavur bus stop and then returns. So when the bus passes the house towards Nilavur, we started and reached the bus stop, so as to catch it on return. Since Prabha did not bring any book to read on the journey, uncle gave Prabha a magazine, Geo. It was a glossy print magazine, and we felt guilty taking it, even though we assured him that we would return it next time.

So we were all set in the bus stop. The bus finally came and we took our seats. We were looking forward to a nice downward journey, with good views. About 25-30 college students were waiting at the very next bus stop. When they saw our bus, everybody jumped in making loud noises. They had apparently, come to Yelagiri to have some fun, and were returning. The whole bus was packed. Prabha and I were occupying a 3-seater, and so one guy came and sat right next to me. What was strange about him was that, though his face and body looked human, he had two trunks growing from his shoulders. It took me a moment to realise that they were his hands. But what caused the initial confusion was he was wearing a sleeve-less t-shirt. Of course, I am not claiming there is something wrong in wearing a sleeve-less t-shirt, but then there are limits. I think it is present in our Indian Constitution that one should not scare the hell out of others. If not, I think a good case for an amendment could be made, by just taking this guy to our parliament.

And so, the anticipated peaceful journey vanished and was replaced with the memory of the smelly milk truck that we could have taken on our way up, and I think the similarity has got something to do with the smell that was wafting from this bunch of guys who were obviously playing some physically demanding game till the time they boarded the bus. If that was not enough, there was one more problem of half-baked unity among all of them that made the whole thing worse. They were united in that they felt that they should listen to some songs, but since they could not arrive at a consensus on what the song should be, everybody decided to play his own song on his mobile phone. The trunk closest to me pulled a mobile phone out of his packet and played a song from an even sillier Vijay movie. Let me introduce you to this Tamil actor Vijay in case you had the good fortune of not knowing him so far. I don’t know if you read my earlier post about how brain is the seat of the consciousness and that there is no consciousness without brain. But this guy is the single deadly counter-argument against that claim, since he seems to have consciousness with absolutely no trace of a brain. Successive governments are grappling with the dilemma of whether he can be barred from movies, since legal luminaries of the state think that his acting trying to act clearly falls under the definition of public nuisance.

One of my friends has a fascination for singing Tamil songs translated into English and this one is dedicated to him. The song that the guy next to me played went like this.

Tiger roaring
Tiger roaring

Lighting thundering
Lightning thundering

Flag flying
Flag flying,

Looking at the hunter.
Behold, the hunter is coming.

If the pallavi suggests that the movie is a Tamil adaptation of the Jungle Book, I wouldn’t blame you. Even as this left me scratching my head, the singer piled on with a stanza that began like this.

Who is this? Who is this? Who is this?
He is an entire town walking alone.

Now, I started wondering if the lyricist is trying to get some spiritual message across about the unity of all souls or some such thing. Even before that thought process could reach its logical conclusion, he threw in a time travel paradox.

Who is this? Who is this? Who is this?
He is the future who will change history.

Now, my head started reeling with these riddles and I was desperately looking for some resolution of all these contradictions. And so I waited eagerly for the end of the stanza, and that is where the genius of the writer showed.

Strike, strike the blow,
Strike, strike the blow.

This further raised the expectations of a beautiful resolution coming in, and I was not disappointed. He ends his stanza with this wonderfully lucid resolution of everything that has come before, like the climax of an Agatha Christie novel.

Dakara dakara dakara dakara dakara dakara da.

And just in case the listener missed some important part of the line, he helpfully gets a chorus to sing it for us again.

Dakara dakara dakara dakara dakara dakara da.

Topping it off with a

Behold, the hunter is coming.

The next thing I remember is getting down at Ponneri in the foothills and waiting for a bus to Vellore. Prabha told me later that after this I started behaving strangely and finally became unconscious. Looking back at it, I think my becoming unconscious was a defense mechanism of my body to prevent me hearing the next stanza which could have led to some permanent brain damage. I thanked evolution, and looked forward nervously to what the next bus that we had to board was having in store for me.

A bus to Vellore arrived almost immediately. It was crowded, but I convinced Prabha into getting in since it was already 4.45 PM. This bus did not have any indications of college students and my mind was relaxing a bit. We bought our tickets, and a few minutes later Prabha got a seat. I was still standing and finally I got a seat in the last row of the bus near the window on the side of the stairs. I was sitting here, and the person next to me was a musician who was called to play at some wedding. He was generally lamenting on how rural music has been ignored, how his own son does not want to continue in the tradition and all that. A couple of his friends standing close by agreed solemnly with him.

Even as everything was going on like this smoothly, the conductor came to our seat and asked one of us to get up. Only then did it dawn on me that I was sitting in the conductor’s seat. I looked at the other two people imploringly, but neither showed any signs of moving. I yielded and got up. A few minutes later I got a seat on one of the two-seaters, and I took it. The lady next to me was a short lady of about 50-60 years and was looking out of the window, as if looking for somebody to whom she had loaned a considerable sum, and who is now hiding from her. The conductor then got up and started tallying the number of passengers in the bus and the number of tickets he had sold. He noticed that one person had not bought a ticket. So he started asking all the passengers to show their tickets. When he reached my place and asked me, I showed him my ticket promptly. Then he asked the lady next to me to show it. The lady became angry that her honesty was being doubted, and confronted him with a logical question, “If I bought a ticket and am not able to show it to you because I lost it, how would you know whether I bought it or not?” I was aghast. Let me explain.

Usually with bus conductors it is best to act like a person who does not know how to talk, the reason being that they have the capacity to embarrass you in front of so many co-travellers, even though you did the right and he is in the wrong. It is common experience of many bus commuters who when, very rightly, ask for the 50 paise that the conductor has to give back, have received responses that are minor variations of “Am I going to build a house in Anna Nagar, after accumulating all this change??”. If you are somebody who is dressed like a reasonably educated person, he will cast aspersions on the means through which you have got your degree certificates. In some extreme cases, they even question whether we eat rice daily or something else.

During my college days, in one of the bus journeys the conductor gave me a ticket, which was close to being torn into two, but technically retained a single identity. After I was given the ticket, it underwent mitosis and became two tickets. Dutifully I went up to him and told him “The ticket was torn”. He was furious and told me that my statement was inaccurate, tickets don’t tear up on their own, that only some conscious entity can tear a ticket into two and hence what I should have said was “I tore the ticket into two” .What happened after that that is not very relevant, but it suffices to say that I learnt the difference between active and passive voice and it has remained with me much better than anything my father ever taught me using Wren and Martin’s Grammar book.

Coming back to this lady, the conductor, who was already irritated, replied, “In that case, I will ask you to buy another one”. “Am I an idiot to buy a ticket twice?” asked the lady, her BP rising. “But if you lose the ticket, you don’t have an option but to buy another one”, the conductor replied. This ping-pong game went on for some time. Then the lady took a ticket out of her blouse and showed the conductor the ticket, and the conductor moved on. I am sure that after his encounter with this lady, he lost some of his belief in god and was quickly moving toward atheism.

After this the lady turned to me indignantly, “I am the kind of person, who buys my ticket, the moment I get onto a bus”. I wanted to tell her that not everybody is like that and that in fact whenever I get into a bus I first check my email. But I correctly deduced that sarcasm would be lost on her and kept quiet. But she continued “I am not the kind of person who avoids buying tickets”. For the sake of decency I replied, trying to communicate the conductor’s view point to her. “But the conductor will not know it, right? It is only his job to check”. This did not convince her, and neither did I expect it to, but I played my part in the conversation. She muttered something and started to again look out of the window for her debtor and I tried to read my book.

Prabha was sitting in the front row to the right, and we occasionally kept communicating, as usual in sign language. After sometime the logician lady told me that she was about to get down and that Prabha can come and sit next to me. I told this to Prabha and so she got up. The lady next to me was also standing and as I moved out of her way. Exactly at this moment, I got a phone call. As I was answering it, I moved to the window seat with the seat next to me empty. But even before Prabha could come and take the seat, another person occupied it. I momentarily forgot to hold that seat for Prabha, since I was on the phone. But Prabha had already got up from her seat, and somebody else occupied her seat too, and she ended up standing. I tried to offer her my seat for the terrible goof-up, but she, in a seemingly large-hearted way refused. But I knew there would be something in store for me. But thankfully, this person next to me got up and so Prabha got to sit down.

After all this, the bus reached Vellore at about 6.30 PM. We went into the Vellore bus stand to look for buses heading to Chennai. We were hoping to get an AC bus again, so that we can comfortably complete the remaining journey. There was one non-AC bus which had its engine started and ready to leave. Since there were no AC buses in sight, we headed towards this bus, but on the way there was an enquiry counter. I put my head through the counter and asked the person sitting there when the next AC bus to Chennai is. He told me that there was one waiting way behind the bus that was about to start but was hidden from our sight from here. I again quickly ran and located the bus. It was practically empty with one lady sitting, her legs folded as if sitting on the floor, but she too was about to get down since the driver or the conductor had not turned up for a long time. I asked Prabha to sit, and I went out to get, what else, a packet of bourbon biscuits a magazine to read and got back into the bus and then began our wait for the driver or the conductor.

It didn’t take long. Within the next ten minutes that AC was turned on and we settled down with our magazines to read. Now a young girl, with her father walked into the bus, and sat just behind us. Almost as soon as they sat down, she started an audiobiography (if I may coin a new word) of her life. She started talking about how she had come to Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT) for a Ph.D seat and that she had got it, since she was ranked No.2 in the entrance test and group discussion. She was obviously excited about her getting a seat. She then explained how the topic of her research would be “Telomerase action in Cancer”. She had her convocation on July 20th in Gujarat, where she completed her PG and so she told the VIT people that she can join only after that date.

If you are wondering why she was telling us all this, it might help you to know that all this information was interspersed with things like, “Hello chitthi, how are you? Yes I got into VIT”. “Hi da, I got admission in VIT. Thank you.”. “Hello periamma, yes I got into VIT. Thank you”. Her periamma also told her that she already knew by meditation that she would get a seat at VIT This girl was impressed with her periamma’s sixth sense and was discussing with her father, though I wondered that if her periamma already knew it, was the phone call not a waste? Now, now, please don’t think that I am uncivil enough to overhear somebody else’s conversation. In fact, I was trying to block that out so that I could read the magazine I had bought, but my efforts were a complete waste. She was so loud that the whole bus could hear what she was saying. This went on from sometime, preventing us from giving any attention to. Now the bus driver turned off the lights. I was irritated with this. First there was this girl who prevented us from focusing our attention on reading, and added to that the conductor switched off the lights. That made me even more determined, and I turned on the torch light in my mobile phone and started reading the magazine under its light. This irritated Prabha and she told me to not show off. I didn’t know what I was showing off, but I knew enough to listen to her words without much discussion and so I turned off the torch light. Of course, the switching off of lights had no impact on the David Attenborough sitting behind me. She continued her narration of her life history. My wife and I tried to counter this, by playing songs on our mobile phone. Thus continued our journey till Chennai. Completely in the dark, except when one child on the bus had to relieve himself and so the bus stopped briefly on the roadside, so that the activity could be conducted on the road. When the child was back in the lights went out again. After this multiple diversions we finally reached Chennai and got down at CMBT bus stop. It was already 9.20 by then and from then on we took a bus to Vadapalani, had dinner at Saravana Bhavan and then took an auto home.

Our trip in brief:

Total distance covered: About 500 kms.
Total distance it felt like: 500 light years.
Total time taken: 17 hours
Total expenses for the trip: I better not think of it
Number of AC buses: 2
Number of non-AC buses: 7
Other means of transport: Walking, Running, Dragging along another person with you, 1 Auto, Almost a milk truck.
Number of biscuit packets consumed: 2
Number of book/magazines we had in hand: 4
Number of books/magazines we read: 0.002
What we had in plenty: Curious characters
What he didn’t have: Peace of mind
Lessons learnt: Logic, Sign language, how to find an AC bus
Lessons we need to learn: How to convince an old lady with logic, how to travel in an AC bus without paying for it, how to communicate in Sign language so that the other person understands it.
What we would do differently next time: Not go

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Neptune was discovered only this year

July 7, 2011 Leave a comment

Do you know that Neptune was first discovered by us, less than a year ago. It is shocking, is it not, considering what we have been taught in our school, but it is true. Let me explain.

Neptune was discovered in 1846. As of today, it is the outermost planet of the Solar System after Pluto was declared not to be a planet. It is, on average, 30 times as far away from the Sun, as the Earth is from the Sun. Since the Earth is, about 150 million kilometres from the Sun, that means Neptune is roughly 4.5 billion kilometres away.

A picture of Neptune taken from Voyager 2 mission

A picture of Neptune taken from Voyager 2 mission. The original can be downloaded from http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA02210

The interesting thing is that since it is so far away, it takes about 165 Earth years for it to complete one revolution around the Sun. Now you might wonder that, if the planet is 30 times as far away from the Sun as the Earth is, then it should take about 30 Earth years to complete its revolution. Then, why is Neptune taking 165 years to go around the Sun?

The answer lies in that, our expectation is valid, only if both Earth and Neptune are travelling at the same speed. But, that is not the case. Earth is going around the Sun at a speed of 30 kms/second (pretty good speed, isn’t it?) while Neptune is orbiting the Sun at 5.5 Kms/second. Since it is about 5.5  times slower (30 / 5.5  kmps = 5.5) than the Earth, its time to make one orbit would be 5.5 times longer than our usual expectation of 30 Earth years which means it would take about 165 (30 x 5.5 = 165) years, which is what is its correct orbital duration.

But its distance has not deterred us from reaching out to it. NASA’s Voyager 2 mission, has gone closest to Neptune on August 25, 1989 and it took about 12 years to reach Neptune from Earth. But that spacecraft will eventually go out of the solar system and into interstellar space. The FAQ section, tells me that this could happen in about 2020, but by then, it will exhaust all its supply of energy to power its instruments. After that point, neither will it be able to move on its own, nor will we be able to communicate with it. It will be lost forever. These spacecrafts will be the first human-made objects to go out of the Solar System. You can track the progress of these spacecrafts here.

Now let us come back to our topic. On July 12th 2011, 5 days from now, Neptune will complete one revolution around the Sun, counting from the day we discovered it in 1846. We count one year as the time it takes us to go around the Sun once. Measuring the Neptunian year the same way, not even one Neptunian year has passed since we discovered it. Now, tell me. Is the title justified or not?

The onward trip to Yelagiri

July 3, 2011 6 comments

A small note. Though this is intended to be a science blog, this 2 part post has got nothing to do with Science.

On Thursday, Prabha and I decided that we will go on a one day visit to Yelagiri hills on Saturday. We have a 76 year old friend there, who runs an NGO, and we had to meet him. These hills are in Vellore district, about 20-30 kilometres from Jolarpet station. Normally, we would take a train till Jolarpet and then take a bus to cover the 20 kms up into the hills. But since this plan was made at such a short notice, we could not buy train tickets, and so we had no option but to go by bus. The whole distance from Chennai to Yelagiri would be about 250 kms.

I should have known it by the way the day started off. Wanting to take an early bus out of the city to avoid traffic, I set the alarm valiantly for 4.30 AM on Saturday. Of course, I did not tell Prabha the exact time for which I set the alarm. She is not an early riser, you see. But to my complete irritation she got up at 3.45 AM. Of course it was not exactly the fact that she woke up so early which irritated me. She thought she had something to tell me. For some reason, she thought it was the most important news since the death of Osama and that I had to be updated immediately about that. Being a woman of action and all that, she woke me up to tell me that she was awake and that she could not sleep anymore. Knowing her for almost close to 4 years, I knew right away that it was futile to attempt any more sleep myself. I still made an attempt, telling her I wanted to sleep. I know that it was not the best line to take, but it was 3.45 AM. I am not sure which part of it she did not understand, but she completely ignored my statement, and insisted that she was not able to sleep. I got the message. I got up and went looking for my tooth brush.

Our uphill journey went only downhill from then on. We reached the Vadapalani bus stop at 5.00 AM. A small shop was open there. We bought a water bottle, a packet of biscuits and started waiting for a bus that will take us to Vellore. A bus for Pondichery came, then a bus to Trichy, then to Kalpakkam, then to Kanchipuram, then to Kumbakonam, Chidambaram, Cuddalore, Jayamkondan and so on, but not a single bus to Vellore. Twenty minutes later went by this way wherein the Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation made well intentioned efforts to educate me on the Geography of Tamil Nadu. But I was not diverted and I started having doubts. I asked Prabha if she was sure that Vellore buses do indeed go via Vadapalani and that they don’t take the route via Maduravoyil. She said “Vera eppadi poga mudiyum? Chancee illa.” I could not but agree to this nuanced detailed reasoning. I shut up. But a person, who was standing near us, and who had obviously overheard our discussion helpfully told us, that buses going to Madurai don’t go via Vadapalani. I told him that we wanted to go to Vellore and asked him if Vellore buses pass this way, and this he confirmed. Thus, reassured, we continued waiting. Twenty minutes went past, and we even saw buses going to places like Athirampattu but not Vellore. There was also one lady who got into a bus with a toothbrush in her mouth. Prabha and I were surprised, though it did not perturb the conductor even a little bit. He must have seen quite a bit of life. The number of people standing for buses started increasing and then started decreasing again. I got worried, and I went and asked a guy preparing Tea in a shop at the bus stand, whether buses to Vellore go this way. He nodded affirmatively. Again re-assured, I joined my wife to continue waiting. More time passed, but no bus to Vellore. I was reminded of a silly Ajith movie (I know it is superfluous), “Citizen”, wherein some whole town is erased from all the official documents with Ajith being the only survivor of that village. Did something like that happen to Vellore?

Then another Pondichery bus came. This time I went up to the conductor to find out if Vellore buses go via Vadapalani and he said yes, but his attention was clearly on getting as many people into his bus as possible, even if that meant some of his passengers wanting to go to Madurai, have to take a detour via Pondichery. In cinematic fashion when the bus started moving, the conductor looked at me, made eye contact and starting making gestures to me (he had a whistle in his mouth). Looks like he had some traffic in his aural pathways, since the question I had posed to him some moments ago seemed to reach his brain only then, and wanted to tell me, through sign language, that Vellore buses don’t go via Vadapalani and that I needed to go to CMBT to board them. Now that I got official confirmation for my hunch, Prabha and I crossed the road and took a bus to CMBT. We reached CMBT by 6.00 AM. Since it was time for our morning milk, Prabha went straight to the Aavin parlour, while I started reading the notice boards that would tell me which platform and which bay would house the buses destined to Vellore. Once I found it, I went looking for Prabha. She was looking deeply depressed since she could not get cold bottled flavoured milk that she preferred. Trying to convince her that there are bigger problems in the world, I took her hand and started moving towards the platform where Vellore buses stood. Soon I noticed something in Prabha’s eye. I thought for a moment that I had indeed succeeded in bringing into her a cosmic perspective to our daily small troubles. I never really believed in things like Nirvana, but on seeing her eyes, I guessed that the people, who say they have experienced Nirvana, will have eyes appearing in a way that that were not very unlike Prabha’s as they were now. Following her eyes, expecting a divine appearance, I saw something that came very close to it. An AC bus which had letters running on their digital display boards spelling out Kaveripakkam. We were in for the only positive development of the short day we had so far. But the very next second, I realized that it was not just the digital letters that were moving.

Prabha continued to walk in a trance, while I started running to catch the bus. It was just coming out of the bay and taking a U-turn, I ran around a wall, in between another bus and an impromptu public urinal that usually come up at corners, and reached the entrance to the bus. The conductor’s eyes met my eyes, and I had a déjà-vu feeling. Something about the eyes seemed very familiar to me. There were frenzied attempts by my neural networks to get the right connections, and then it finally clicked. It was the same feeling that I saw in Prabha’s eyes some time back. I realized that our boarding the bus was going to be a mutually spiritual experience for both us and the conductor, though I could not imagine why it should be so for the conductor. I checked with him if there were 2 seats for me and my wife and he said yes. But our brains did not grow out of 3 billion years of evolution for nothing. It quickly detected this positive turn in a day of not-exactly-positive events. My brain had quickly moved on to the key question, and I realized that from my mouth, the big question popped. How much does a ticket cost? The reply explained the sparkle in the eyes of the conductor.

Eventually, Prabha too came and boarded the bus. If the ticket price was not enough to convince us that the day stuck to the pattern it began with, there was something else too to hammer it home. Only when we entered did we realize that though a case against the conductor for dishonesty will not stand in a court, his reply to my question of “Do you have 2 seats for me and my wife” was on morally dubious grounds. There was one seat in the front for Prabha and one seat in the far rear for me. There was a towel placed on another seat in the front probably booked for somebody. Prabha noticed this and asked the conductor if there really was only one seat in the front. I am sure you remember, that the conductor too, was Nirvanified, and so obliged to Prabha’s request. We settled down seated on the left and right sides of the bus where we could see each other but could not talk.

The bus started at 6.15 AM and by 6.25 I could not bear it anymore. I started to desperately communicate with Prabha in sign language (learnt from the Pondichery bus conductor). I noticed some middle-aged people giving me an all-knowing look of indulgence. Young couples just can’t be separated from each other and can’t stay away from talking to each other, they must have thought. The situation had all the makings of a scene that would lead to some Bollywood song about the pains lovers have to go through during separation, with some motivational lines thrown in on how separation though temporarily causes perspiration, leads eventually to salvation, or something to similar effect, with the hero standing on a busy road, vehicles rushing past him, and the heroine, sitting in her house, with every member of the family laughing exaggeratedly so that the viewers are not left in any doubt regarding the extent to which the lady’s heart is pining away for the hero who cannot even cross a road. At least that was how it seemed to the imaginations of the rest of the people in the bus. All this while, I was becoming increasingly desperate. All my efforts at telling Prabha to give me that packet of Bourbon biscuits were failing, as she continued to act as if she did not understand me. Eventually not able to bear this romantic scene, one person offered me an exchange with his seat which will put me within Prabha’s earshot. I politely refused. But with that, Prabha finally yielded giving me the packet. I finished 4 out of the 6 biscuits, entirely justifying her reluctance to give it to me in the first place. After a few minutes I opened my book. It was a slightly large book, and was becoming a bit boring. So, after I convinced myself that I had taken all efforts to ensure that that everyone in the bus is convinced of my formidable intellect, as was evident from my reading this book, I placed the bookmark somewhere in the final 10% of the book, kept it back in my bag and promptly fell asleep, secure in the fact that even if Prabha had suddenly elevated some mundane fact of existence to the level of some world shattering news that I had to be immediately kept abreast of, she could not do so owing to the distance between us.

We reached Vellore at 8.45 AM and had our breakfast. It was 9 AM and we informed our host that we were at Vellore and will be at his place in 2 hours. Then we took a bus to Tirupathur and got down at Ponneri, the village at the feet of Yelagiri hills. It was 10.30 AM. When we got down there, a share auto promptly came to us and told us that a bus to Yelagiri had just left and that the next bus would take an hour at least, and that he can take us up for Rs.200. Since both of us were too clever to be deceived by the advice of an obviously interested party, and me not wanting to send any more of the public on their way to Nirvana, we refused and told him that we were ready to take some co-passengers to share the expense, a proposal which he flatly refused.

Then a lady who was selling jackfruits at the bus stop showed us a milk truck which was carrying aluminium milk cans up the hill. Noticing my confused look, she told me that this truck will take people up, somewhat like a share auto. Excitedly I went to the truck and saw a person sitting in front and asked him how much it costs per head. He told me that he was not the driver and that the driver was in the rear trying to settle people who had boarded the truck. I went and enquired with him and he told me that it would cost Rs.10 per head and that he would let Prabha and me sit in the front seat. This, justifiably, irked a lady sitting near the cans and asked why we alone were allowed to sit in the front, while she had to sit behind.

I tried to get into the front of the truck to see if there is enough place for the two of us, considering that one person was already sitting there. The person already sitting adjusted somewhat to let both of us in, which led to his occupying slightly less than 90% of the driver’s seat.

At this, the driver, again justifiably, got irritated and tried to explain to him patiently that the truck does not move from the driver pushing it from behind but that technology has progressed to a point where the driver needs to sit in front to drive it.

Meanwhile, Prabha had her own irritant. As a pure coincidence she too was justifiably pissed off. She clearly told me that the truck smelled of spoilt milk and that there was no way she would get into the behind of the truck and stand the stink for the one hour journey up the hills.

As everybody had their own justified irritations to attend to, I admitted defeat and settled down in the bus stand. There we sat down on a couple of benches laid out by a shop there, and waited for the bus. Time went by. We saw some monkeys playing. We saw a person coming in and placing some notices on the benches we sat. The notices were intended to promote some local college. 11 AM came and went. Prabha, as usual in a considerate manner, reminded me that this was the two hours that I had estimated would be the time that we will take to reach Yelagiri from Vellore. I ignored it and tuned in my antennae to the local gossip of the village. Eventually the bus came at 11.30 AM, after an hour’s wait. As we excitedly tried to get in, this conductor too refused to stray from the part of the cosmic design that was planned for us for the day. He told us that this bus does not go all the way to the village Nilavur that we planned to go to, and that it stops six Kilometres before our destination. I did not argue. We got in and sat down. The journey took slightly less than hour, when we finally got down at the final bus stop. We still had 6 kms to cover.

Here too a share auto again came to us and told us that it would cost us Rs.60 to go from there to Nilavur. While we were wondering what to do, the driver of the bus that had just dropped decided to violate the rule that had seemingly been set to all members by the transport workers union to ensure as much hassle as possible to Madhav and Prabha, and told us that if we are planning to go to Nilavur there was another bus coming just behind that goes to Nilavur and that we can take it. I repeated the now well rehearsed execution plan when I see a bus. It contains a simple step of 3 instructions.

1. Run towards the bus wildly gesticulating to the driver trying to convince him that our boarding the bus was terribly important, and failing to do so would lead to worldwide ramifications. I know it is difficult to convey this much information in gestures that too while you are running, but then I had been practicing sign language since 5.45 AM

2. Turn around and wait for Prabha again gesturing to her that if we miss the bus, we wont get another for the next 48 hours. Here too practice plays an important role.

3. Go back to step 1.

As with much else in life, the timing of execution of each of these instructions has to be perfect. I managed it. Thus, we reached Nilavur.

The second part of this post talks about our return trip from Yelagiri.

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