Friday, February 11, 2011

What's in a number ?

This blog has some pretense to be a serious one where matters of considerable intellectual weight are analysed and debated. Issues of significant import and with profound ramifications feature here. Adjectives such as inane, irrelevant, flippant, pea brained, etc etc ought not to be applicable. It is in this rich tradition that today's post examines one of the thorniest of problems to face humankind - why are bus routes numbered as they are in India !

For those uninitiated in the ways of public transport, especially in the south of India, here is a primer. Buses of all shapes and sizes abound. They carry numbers such as 342BE and J421K. Why are they so numbered is what I am trying to explore.

Take the road opposite my house, The route that most frequents this road is numbered 335E. There is an occasional 335 P or a 335 L or a 335 K . But, as far as I know, routes 1 to 334 do not exist anywhere in Bangalore. So why 335 ?Is it one of nature's unique constants like the pi ?? The next number after 335 appears to be 500. There is a 500C (no 500A or 500 B) . This is one puzzle I will leave for the Mensa enthusiasts to figure.

The city of Madras offers enormous potential for research in this subject. That bus route numbers can be transformed into a political statement was a fabulous discovery the citizens of this metropolis can claim credit for. You see, this city always had bus routes such as 21A, 21B, 21 C and so on. Mathematical geniuses in Chennai restricted themselves to two digits while their brethren in Bangalore preferred three. But then a certain gargantuan lady called Jayalalithaaaaa Jayaram (no relation of RamMmm) came to power. She looked around and saw that her favourite alphabet J did not feature in the lexicon of buses. She dropped a hint. The masses took it up immediately. There was a flurry of bus routes being numbered as 18J or 21J and the like. Some enthusiasts went one better 18JJ and 21JJ. Some more enterprising lot picked up J21J. It went on upto JJ21JJ - physical laws of space limitations then took over until the most enterprising of the lot came up with JJ21JJ with a cross right across it. There the matter stood until the massive lady lost power. Her rival who replaced her immediately decreed that the alphabet J's time in the sun was over. Bus No JJ21JJ cross vanished. Thankfully, his favourite alphabet K did not make an appearance. Perhaps because of the insinuation that K comes after J !

Why don't they simply number the bus routes 1,2,3 and so on. Oh no ! How can things be made so simple ? I am sure a whole department of bus numbering complete with 5321 labouring staff exists in the labyrinth of Indian bureaucracy. Staffed full of Ramamrithams, whom you might have met here. Slaving away with impenetrable logic which mere mortals cannot understand.

This writer discloses that he has some vested interest in the matter. He is regrettably a rather frequent commuter of a bus numbered BIAS6 !