The Bagh Express comes to a halt with a jerk. It was a long trip, from Lucknow to Kathgodam, and the late-running trains of Indian Railways didn’t exactly help. Still I heave a sigh of relief as being two hours behind schedule is a pretty manageable affair, especially when you just have a 6-hour road trip planned for the whole day.
‘I hope you had a painless journey. We have to move fast – the roads get closed during night and I have to return back from Bageshwar after dropping you people at the hotel’, mutters our driver. Standing at around five feet five, with a receding hairline, he looks like a man in his late fifties. Eight young naughty college boys on a trip after just having done away with their end sems, and we are going to be accompanied by a quinquagenarian – somewhere in there I don’t like the sound of that. Anyway, off we go, empty-stomach, with a promise that good food will be available en route.
In a short while, the road gets extremely windy, like any other typical mountain road. Duggi and me constantly bump into each other. I can only guess what Pullu and PP would be feeling. Sitting at the rear end of Qualis/Sumo or any such vehicle on such a road might as well be considered the worst decision of your life, especially if you are six-feet something. People begin to feel nauseated. Put eight male youngsters in a place and you either have to tolerate some gibberish about girls or the most profound debate on problems of the world/life. Well, as anyone might have guessed, we take the easier path and the focus shifts to Pulkit and his six (or was it eight) wannabe’s. I don’t understand if it is an evolutionary thing, or just a social one – pulling your friend’s leg over a girl (try not to extract any ‘literal’ meaning out of this phrase ;) ) is the most satisfying thing in this world. At first it might just seem sadistic, but I believe there is always greater good involved; for there are times when you lose touch of reality, when you take things more seriously than they are meant to be taken and these little pranks are the ones that bring you down to earth, bringing before you the fun aspect of serious events.And at other times they let you know what-a-dumbass you are (sorry Pullu). And there is always the added laughter bonanza. (Pardon me if you get distracted by my philosophical bickering every once in a while—but if you know me, you know that it’s part of my Bubian tendency and I am sure you have got accustomed to it in the last four years.)
As the conversation veers to more adult stuff, the driver beside me shifts uneasily in his seat. You see, this is what I was apprehensive about at the outset. One of the added responsibilities of sitting up front beside the driver is to listen to him, to engage him in useful conversations, so that he doesn’t go to sleep on a long drive (whether you like it or not). The Qualis runs alongside River Saryu, and the road becomes narrower. Sometimes the car veers dangerously close to the cliff. ‘We drive on this road all year long. The river looks deprived of juice right now, but believe me, when rain comes, they rise up by more than fifty meters and wash away a large portion of this road. And we have driven at such times. The trick is to believe in God and drive in his name. Unless your luck runs out, you won’t be in an accident’, the driver smiles after noticing signs of apprehension on my face. Living in this Western-culture rampant campus, most of us have a tendency to devalue the power of faith and religion (I myself am an agnostic at best). But out there, that is what that is they live on, that is what endows them with the strength and courage to face danger every day. We might never agree on the existence of god or supernatural beings, but I am sure even the most adamant of us would agree that faith is what gets you along in life; may be in different forms, may be in different areas. Some believe God will lead the way; some believe in luck; and some believe in their own abilities to make a change – but everywhere they believe in something which most of the time has no empirical validity, yet it gives you the necessary momentum to move forward. Every time there is a road-side temple, the driver closes his eyes for a moment, and his hands automatically salute the deity, and he is back concentrating on the road. As is often seen in aging persons, he tries to engage me with our old Hindi philosophical anecdotes concerning luck versus self-worth. Some of them I am already aware of, but it is always great fun listening to them from every other person’s personal perspective. And he talks in impeccable pure hindi, which even my hindi-speaking friends have difficulty comprehending. ‘You see that bridge there? Folklore has it that the constructor took a few weeks to build it and when he went to have a good night’s sleep once the mammoth task was completed, the local troll came and put it upside down’, he tries to explain the existence of a peculiar bridge.
Some anecdotes are interesting, others downright boring. But I don’t complain. Meanwhile, unknown to me, the ‘Pulkit bashing’ has stopped sometime back. He doesn’t look like he’s in a good mood. So, to redirect the attack, on each of my comments he begins adding , ‘Just Chill, Buddy’. Now that is what you call sickeningly irritating. To make matters worse, the radio starts blaring that chimpanzee-face Salman’s song- ‘Just Chill Chill, Just Chill’. My dear roomie comes to the rescue and starts singing Kishore Kumar songs. No matter how much you show you are ultra-modern, and you are only an admirer of hip-hop English music, when Kishore sings, you undoubtedly are spell-bound. The songs have an altogether different charm, and all of us begin humming with him. The rest of the journey is spent recollecting more songs, some short discussion about their significance and their merit and I guess that acts as a reprieve for Dugs and Sutta who are on a puking spree.
Presently, the Bageshwar valley asserts its presence. It is a wonderful scene, watching at the plain place surrounded by mountains on all sides, still so alive with life, with River Gomati standing guard. Well, it’s an absolutely remarkable hobby to follow the threads of your thought from one topic to another, and we soon leave Pulkit and her girls to talk about the possible invasion and defence techniques particular to such a place. ‘You see, it is quite easy to occupy this valley. The defence has to protect each and every spot of the high-land. Even if one critical area on the mountain gets taken by the occupying force, a sniper can wreak havoc from that spot’, PP blabbers on. Told ya, it’s either girls or debates that come out of nowhere.
Jai Singh, our guide, a happy-go-lucky chap, with a perpetual smile on his face, greets us at the hotel. The hill-side hotels are a marvel of construction art. You see, they are made on a slope; so every storey has its own balcony and roof, and when you look out of the window, it seems like you are occupying the ground floor, no matter where you are. (And that leads to utter confusion, especially if you are drunk or sleepy. The next morning itself when I, with Duggi and Sutta, went upstairs, we were astonished to find four-wheelers parked there. Now, how on earth did they get those vehicles up on the roof? Reflect for a moment and you realise that it’s actually the street level and it was you who had been sleeping at below street level the previous night.) A rivulet runs beside the hotel. Night draws in, we take out our torches, and march in a file to the stone-ridden river bed. PP tries to be extra smart, and says ‘I’m the leader. I’ll tread upfront. Thee shall follow me.’ And lo!, the next minute the treacherously slippery stones give way, he’s in water, wetting himself, and giving that what-the-fuck-just-happened look. That is the second of his many epic falls (fails ?). Well, it all started when the wannabe Indiana Jones dove into Saryu beside a road-side restaurant to catch some filthy little black fish and came out empty-handed, humiliated and with a broken toe and a wet underwear. The Mom decides that’s enough for today, and the children go back to sleep, in anticipation of the future.