In Chennai, route thala is a self-appointed gang leader for a particular bus or train route.

Gang wars gethu pride and leadership Chennais route thala decodedYouTube Screenshot/Murali Manu
Features Human Interest Tuesday, August 06, 2019 - 13:13

Less than two weeks ago, a video of a few young men, armed with long machetes, chasing and taking a swing at other young men in a bus, causing panic in the midst of traffic in Chennai, had gone viral. It was soon learnt that the youngsters seen brazenly committing the crime in public were students from Chennai’s Pachaiyappa’s College, one of the oldest institutions in the country (established in 1842). Their fight that afternoon was part of a ‘route thala' clash - a battle of 'bus route leaders'.

The police later tracked down the young men from the video and took them into custody. Photos of two students with their broken arms in a cast were then released, indicating custodial violence. Two days after the incident, all ‘route thalas’ from the city were rounded up by the police and were made to take an “oath” that they “will not engage in any undesirable activities.” 

This incident has brought into focus a culture that is prevalent among college students in the city, one that might be bewildering to an outsider. The culture of college gang wars gained popularity with Kadhal Desam, a 1996 Tamil romance drama, starring Vineeth, Abbas and Tabu. One of its earliest scenes shows how an inter-college rivalry among students turns violent. A five-minute scene shot in Anna Salai, atop the Gemini flyover, is a flamboyant real-life example of the video from today. But what led to this social behaviour?

Who is a ‘route thala'?

College gang rivalries have been considered a widely prevalent culture, especially among young men. The way in which it manifests, however, might differ - while some compete academically or on the sports field, there are those who indulge in street fights, like we saw in that viral video.

‘Route thala’ is a self-appointed gang leader for a particular bus or train route. This culture, which can be called unique to Chennai, is mainly practised by the students of three colleges: Pachaiyappa’s College, Presidency College, and Nandanam Arts College.

A few students from Pachaiyappa’s College, whom TNM spoke to, note that this culture became popular among the students in the '90s.

“It is passed on from senior to junior. It is our pride.” This is the essence of their collective response. Name any other college from the city and ask them if they, too, have a ‘route thala’, they literally jump at the suggestion, which sounds preposterous to them.   

So, how can one become a ‘route thala’? Just like every other position, this title, too, comes with certain privileges as well as conditions. The student should have travelled in a particular route - by bus or train - at least for three years. Which means only a final year student is eligible to become a route thala. The leader is selected and appointed by the group which takes that bus/train route. Another specific requirement is to dress uniquely. “Paathale getha irukanum,” a few students of Pachaiyappa’s College tell TNM, which translates to “should appear cool.” Interactions with the students revealed that “gethu” - the closest equivalent of this slang word in English is ‘cool’ - can be attributed to why the concept of a route thala was conceived.

The route thala should also wield some influence in the college and in these routes. ‘Influence’ includes establishing a friendship with the driver and/or conductor of a bus and getting other students to listen to them.

At every opportunity, students insist that they are indeed superior to the other college students, they excel beyond their contemporaries and this has to be proved at every chance.

What do they do to invoke this gethu? “We sing songs, play percussion instruments or simply produce beats by thumping on benches and walls of the vehicles. Whoever makes the loudest noise is cooler than the other,” explains Gopal*, a route thala from Pachaiyappa’s College. When the bus drives past their rival college, their songs reach a crescendo. And every college is identified by these songs.

“It is not some usual movie song. We write our own songs to some famous tune,” he explains. These lines are written to diss the other colleges and hail their’s. 

The route thala is not alone in discharging his ‘duty’. Every route also has a ‘route maintenance guy’, who functions as an assistant to the route thala.

When TNM asks if they were aware of the recent incident, the students smile sheepishly and say the morning college batch will know. Students from 8 am to 12.30 pm form the morning batch, while the evening batch includes students from 1 pm to  5.30 pm.   

“There is an unwritten rule that morning college route thala and evening college route thala, even if they are from the same college, should not meet each other. It will lead to trouble otherwise,” Gopal explains. 

The actual role of route thala, and what it has become

According to the Pachaiyappa’s College students, a route thala is a respectable title in their college.

Vinod Kumar is a former route thala from Presidency College, who is currently a criminal lawyer practising at the Madras High Court. He explains that a route thala is supposed to be ‘a model student’ who ensures the gang he represents is safe at all times.

“A route thala will be respected among students in the college. They can refer students for new admissions based on their understanding with teachers. Sometimes, professors pass on messages to the other students through the route thala, who becomes a mode of communication as well. For example, if the faculty wants the students to behave well at an event, they speak to the route thala, who is like a students’ representative,” Vinod tells TNM.

“Any student of that particular college, who travels in that route, will be under the route thala’s control. Basically, the route thalas should ensure the students do not run into any trouble. No one should be ragged or teased on the bus or train the students take and this is the route thala’s responsibility. We make sure the girl students feel safe while travelling,” he further explains.

Sudhakar*, another route thala from Pachaiyappa’s College, points out that they don’t always get into fights. “Not many know this, but we gather students for blood donation drives. If a student in our route falls sick, we even collect money for his/her treatment. We also celebrate bus day to thank the drivers and conductors. We maintain good unity inside our gang,” he says.

While bus day in its purest form is a thanksgiving gesture - a day when students thank bus drivers and conductors for helping them travel to college every day, it essentially became a day of terror and nuisance for the public. Quite recently, a video showed a group of college students standing and sitting on the roof of a bus and then tumbling down when the driver hits the brake. This day became so notorious with students indulging in vandalism, that the police banned the celebration of bus day in the city.

Standing outside Pachaiyappa’s College, the conversation of route thalas moves into discussions of the achievements of their college. “We have a state-level cricket player from our college. Some of the police officers and lawyers studied in our college. We are proud and we are cooler than the other college students,” brags Gopal while his friends hoot and cheer in agreement.

Are they not worried that their idea of fun could be scary and dangerous for outsiders? “But that’s not our problem,” one of them casually remarks while a few others laugh.

When violence spills onto the streets

If the route thalas are supposed to essentially ensure the safety and welfare of the students under them, how does this translate into fights and violent clashes?

“It is nothing but ego clashes between colleges,” says Vinod, adding that the scene has changed in less than 10 years from the time he was a route thala. “Now, when I look back at my days as the route thala, it looks scary. It looked fun when I was a student and I didn’t know the seriousness back then,” he says.

Vinod is also surprised that students have weapons in their hands. “I don’t know how they get hold of weapons. We have also fought but only with stones and sticks, not with knives. A few years after I completed college, I heard that our juniors, who were the route thala then, had vandalised shops during bus day celebrations. My batch students and I called and warned them not to do so in future,” says Vinod.

He also shares that students often indulge in scare tactics to invoke fear and respect. “Let’s suppose that I, a student of Presidency College, am caught inside Pachaiyappa’s College. I’ll be bashed by those students. A call will then be made to my route thala. My route thala will negotiate for my release with Pachaiyappa’s College’s route thala by taking one of their student into custody. It is all done to show who’s stronger and cooler,” Vinod says.

While students indulge in “fun” without limits, it often tends to threaten peace in public spaces. Vandhana, a Chennai-based clinical psychologist, says that we need to address why such incidents keep recurring. “It has been happening for years but it is getting noticed only now because of social media. They keep recurring as no action is being taken against it, and nothing is done in terms of prevention either,” she says.

Vandhana also adds that such behaviour tends to develop right from childhood and needs to be taken care right then. “We call it conduct disorder (CD) and oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). What we see now is more of an attention-seeking exercise. Being violent in public is considered a cool, acceptable behaviour. There needs to be a crisis management team to prevent it in future. Colleges should carry out psychosocial rehabilitation work, a process to restore community functioning,” she adds.

In the wake of the recent incident, the police have come down hard on student gangs. They have assured “strict action” against those who flout rules and spread terror in the name of college gang rivalry.

In spite of all the criticisms, Vinod maintains that a route thala should exist. “Only then the students will be under control. They will not stray towards the wrong path and will not get into trouble. These thalas will be a checkpoint for decent behaviour. Without a leader, how can you hold them accountable?” he asks in all earnestness.

(*Names changed on request)

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