There were hardly ten people inside when the first bus for Palani left the Madurai bus stand at 4:30 a.m. that cold November morning. The driver had, consumed too much hooch the previous night and was in no condition to walk, let alone drive. The conductor who began issuing the tickets a few minutes before the bus left the stand had still not woken up from his sleep. The passengers on board were also sleepy eyed and cuddled themselves inside long shawls which they had draped over themselves to keep away the cold and early November morning dew.
Of the ten passengers, seven were men who appeared to be rustic and rough hewn. They seemed to look like farmers who had come to the city from the nearby villages to buy seeds and fertilizers the previous evening and had stayed back to enjoy the pleasures of the city before boarding the first bus back home in the morning.
Of the three women on board the bus, one was a health worker on her way to a remote village to organize a vaccination camp to arrest the spread of Dengue, which was affecting the neighbourhood The other two women were slightly older and one of them was the wife of a temple priest in the town of Palani; the destination to which the bus was heading. The third women appeared to be much coarser than the other two but appeared to be wealthy for she was adorned with gold jewelry from head to toe. The jewelry hanging from her ears were so heavy that it had stretched and elongated her ears so that the hole pierced in the ear had grown to the size of a one-rupee coin (Not the new one rupee coin but the one that had existed twenty years ago).
When the driver boarded the bus and took his seat behind the steering wheel he noticed a huge bronze vessel, which had been placed near the bonnet covering the bus engine. The vessel was of the type, which was used to prepare food during huge wedding feasts and was covered by a thick yellow cloth, which appeared to have splashes of red vermillion sprinkled on it. The cloth was tied tightly around the neck of the vessel to resemble the vessels, which are used to carry sacred items during temple consecration ceremonies. The driver wondered which of the ten passengers could have brought the bronze vessel and stored it inside near the windshield of the bus. It would have certainly required immense strength to carry it up and place it where it now stood right in front near the windshield to the left of the driver.
A few feet away from the door of the bus sat the coarse woman adorned with gold jewelry. She had actually come from the village to visit her son and his family who lived in the city of Madurai. The son had obtained employment as a small time government servant in the city and had therefore settled down in the city leaving behind his mother and his farm in the village. It was this son that this coarse old lady had come to visit and was now going back to her farm. Her son and grand children had come to the bus stand to send off the old lady and had departed after biding good-bye, when the bus began its journey.
Madurai to Palani was a distance of approximately a hundred and twenty kilometres and took about three hours to cover with the last seventy odd kilometers consisting of uphill climbing on the Ghat section.
The bus conductor walked up to the old lady and asked her where she wanted to go. When the old lady replied, he ripped off the ticket and handed it over to her while demanding the money for the same. It was at this moment that he noticed the huge bronze vessel and asked if it belonged to her for then she would have to pay for the extra luggage.
The old woman looked around furtively and found no one claiming the vessel as their own. At the spur of the moment her greed overcame her caution and she impulsively replied in the affirmative. The conductor then demanded ten rupees extra for the additional luggage; which the old lady immediately paid for and obtained a booking slip for the same.
The woman wondered what could be inside the bronze vessel which was securely tied with the yellow cloth around its neck. The vessel appeared to be smeared with sacred ash and vermillion on all sides. She was quite certain that the vessel contained some temple treasures which some thief had left behind in his hurry to escape from the law.
She dreamt of gold coins and ornaments bigger and heavier than what she herself was wearing. Whatever it may be, she was quiet sure that even if there was nothing inside, the very bronze vessel itself could fetch her a few thousands for it appeared to be quiet heavy.
As the woman day-dreamed of her new found wealth the bus wound its way through innumerable villages and small towns on its way to Palani. Within a few kilometers from its point of origin, many more people got on to the bus and soon the bus became very crowded with farmers and local business men on their way to their daily chores to earn a livelihood.
It was about an hour after the bus had left the Madurai bus stand that dawn began to break and the first rays of the sun gently kissed the landscape; brightening up the world and making it appear divine as the morning dew glistened on the blades of grass and dripped off the leaves like sparkling diamonds falling down to the floor. The old woman began to doze off and her head drooped down when the bus abruptly came to a stop. She was jolted awake from her dream and looked up and found that the bus had been held up at a police check post.
The conductor got down from the bus and walked up to the check post officials to show them his papers and request them to let the bus go. However, the policemen were insistent that they should check the bus and the conductor requested them to do so quickly, so that he could proceed on his way as quickly as possible and not be late.
The policemen got into the bus and started checking the luggage and belongings of all the passengers thoroughly. Then they came to the front of the bus and demanded to know who had brought the bronze vessel on board the bus. The old woman was petrified and did not respond to the query but the bus driver pointed her out and informed the police that the vessel belonged to the old lady who had obtained a luggage slip after paying for the excess luggage.
The policemen then ripped open the cloth covering the vessel and found a banana leaf neatly placed around the mouth of the vessel. They then removed the banana leaf and peeped into the vessel. One of them immediately turned around and retched as he spewed puke. Another policemen rushed to the old woman and grabbed her hand as she sat there looking puzzled. The policemen then informed her that she was under arrest. The old woman then coolly demanded why she was being arrested. The policemen dragged her over to the vessel and she looked in to find a human form which had been neatly cut into small pieces. The policemen dragged the woman out of the bus to the nearest police station while the old lady kept protesting that the vessel did not belong to her.
The bus then wound its way through the snake like narrow roads passing by the towns and villages on its way to Palani.