I had gone to Delhi for some exam and was now returning to Rishikesh by evening bus. It is a usual practice among students to make the 6-hour night journey to take various competitive exams. Buses were efficient and comfortable. Bus journeys also allow us to come across different people from different backgrounds and help us see the different shades of this colourful world.
This young boy had got into the bus at Delhi and was travelling all the way to Haridwar. That means, he would get down about one hour before me, and was supposed to be my companion for the whole journey. That was good, so I thought. But I was soon proved wrong. That fellow turned out to be the most annoying and irritating travelling companion I have ever had in my whole life. As soon as he got into the bus and occupied the seat next to me, he started weeping, wailing and crying, for God knows what! I didn’t ask, as I was sure he was seeking audience, and would soon blurt it all out. And he did. Perhaps this was his first visit to the national capital, though he strongly denied it. He visited some street market just for window shopping. Those of you who have been to such markets know how risky it is, and what are the things which should be kept in mind, the various rules to be followed and so on. Of course, bargaining is an art, a battle of nerves which can be and should be won. Men, especially, youth, that too first-timers, should not attempt it on their own, and definitely not alone. Anyway, this young man did just that with an unpleasant experience — he was cheated in the sense that he was forced to buy a dinner set at a high price, which he certainly did not want to buy, and for which he did not have any use at all. And all that because he had dared to ask its price! You can easily imagine what might have happened. Anyway, this fellow was sitting next to me, tears in his eyes, pocket empty, late in the evening and only a dinner set in his hands, constantly wondering what to do with that. He even tried to sell it to me! But that was not the end of his sorrows, more was yet to come.
Some heavy construction work was going on at NH58, or perhaps there was some disturbance in the neighbouring area, which led to a traffic jam. U.P. roadways had sent instructions to its drivers to take the by-pass route in order to avoid the traffic blockade. So our driver also turned his bus to avoid the big cities Meeut, Khatauli, Muzzafarnagar; instead taking the route of Saharanpur, Bijnour and so on. Problem was that neither the driver nor the conductor was familiar with that route. Add to that the route was through isolated uninhabited regions, in night, famous for notorious stories of loot, robbery and dacoity. But they persisted at a very slow speed. Every now and then, the driver would stop and ask the driver of any vehicle coming from the opposite direction to confirm that he had been following the correct path. Whenever he came across any 3- or 4-way, he would stop and wait patiently for any vehicle that could guide him to the right path. Sometimes, some of the passengers helped him, sometimes there was no choice other than to wait seemingly endlessly. The otherwise 6-hour journey had taken 14 hours that night and at the end of it, everybody was exhausted because it put so much strain on our nerves, body and mind.
Still, I should mention that all along the journey, the passengers were very cooperative, patient and understanding. Even at the start of the journey, when the conductor announced that we were supposed to take the alternative route, nobody said anything. Everybody simply nodded, and said OK, go ahead. Not a single person protested or sought refund. Of course, nobody had any idea what was in future, yet even when things became complicated and difficult, people showed patience, and helped the staff whichever way they could. At least they did not make their work difficult by their complaints. Everybody was nice. Except one. And you can easily guess who that was. My fellow companion! He kept on shouting, crying, weeping, wailing for all the trouble and atrocities he was being put through, how it was all a conspiracy to torture him and innocent people like him, that it was a plan to take us to some dark, dense, isolated jungle and rob us of our valuable belongings — including that precious dinner set! And as nobody seemed to pay any attention to him, he turned towards the only available audience which the roadways itself had provided him — and that was me! I still don’t understand how could I bear so much pain and annoyance in that long journey, and why did I do that! I could have changed the seat, or at least scolded him and asked him to shut up. But that time such alternatives did not come to my mind. It would have been too rude to do so, afterall we had been talking for a sufficiently long time. When we reached somewhere near Saharanpur, he was perhaps tired because of constant crying and shouting, and perhaps because of indifference of other passengers. Finally he turned to me once again and asked — ‘Why don’t you say anything? No protest, no complaints? Is it OK for you?’ I replied, ‘Certainly not. But what am I supposed to do?’
— Do you know the route?
— Then? Will you be able to reach Haridwar on your own?
— No. And you?
— Neither do I. But the driver knows driving far better than me and everybody else in this bus, and the conductor knows his duty. They are making every possible attempt to reach us safely to Haridwar. They are not torturing us to get some fun, instead they themselves are experiencing the same agony as all of us, perhaps even more than us. And in comparison, what are we asked to do, just sit back and have patience. That is all. There is some problem along NH58, you know that, that is why all this problem. There is no conspiracy.I can assure you that my arguments and preachings did not have any effect on him and he continued with his painful songs. When we reached Haridwar, he very easily got the next bus to Dehradun, got ticket and proceeded happily to occupy his seat. However, at that late hour, there was no bus for Rishikesh in sight for me. I had no choice but to wait. He asked me:
— What would you do now?
— Nothing. There is nothing to do, just wait.
— And if no bus comes? If the last bus has already left, then?
— No problem. I would sit somewhere here or may be sleep, and wait for the morning.
— Aren’t you afraid?
— For what? There is nothing in my bag, just Rs 100/-, one packet of Good Day, and two oranges. I would be too happy if somebody took them away! — I replied and laughed.
— How could you be so relaxed?
I did not reply, took his farewell and we both went our different ways. But the question still remained — what made me so relaxed even in that tense and stressful night. Fact is, when the things had started becoming complicated and confusing, and some of the passengers had just started getting uneasy, I suddenly recalled a short story that had appeared in Hindi newspaper Navabharat Times some 20 years back — that time it was just 4-5 years back. The narrative was exactly same as the present situation.
The story went like this —
The narrator, his wife and small baby were travelling through a night bus and the journey involved passing through a dense and dark forest. While deep in the forest, some fault occurred in the bus engine and it broke down. The driver made some attempts at troubleshooting, but could not resolve the problem. Then the driver had some conversation with the conductor in a low voice, both of them had a glance at the passengers who were looking back at them with anxiety and apprehension. The conductor went to the top of the bus, brought his bicycle down, and rode away at top speed. The passengers kept waiting, waiting, but nothing happened. Now the passengers could bear no more, they were sure that there was some conspiracy — they had been taken to this dense forest late in night and were now trapped in this isolated place. They would soon be looted and may be assaulted also. The conductor, for sure, had gone to call the other gang members. Some of the aggressive passengers even grabbed the driver and started shaking, beating and shouting at him in an attempt to extract the details of their ‘plan’. At the same time, they didn’t even care to listen what the driver was trying to tell them. The driver looked at the narrator with pitiful eyes, calling for help, which the narrator was in no position to provide. Still, he tried as best as he could to pacify the passengers and to convince them to keep calm. Nothing helped. The men were getting more and more aggressive, women restless and uncomfortable, and children had been crying because of fear and suffocation.
Suddenly headlights of another bus shone through this bus. The passengers looked back and saw another bus coming from behind. Surely, the gang had arrived, and everybody prepared themselves for the big fight. But there was no gang. From that bus got down the conductor of this bus. He got into this bus and announced to the passengers — ‘This bus is having technical fault. It would take time to repair. So I went to the roadways and brought this another bus. All of you please go into that.’ Then he went to the narrator and taking out flask from his bag said, ‘The child was crying, perhaps it is hungry, so I brought some milk with me, you can feed it.’
And so the story ended. It is a curious story, and its philosophy can always be debated. After all, you have heard and read numerous stories of cheating and looting, and perhaps had a first hand experience as well. I agree. Still, I could not resist the influence of that story that night. It is like the story was saying — ‘Yes, I completely agree with what you say, still we should have some faith in humanity’.
Unfortunately, in such cases nothing helps and the passengers are on their own. In spite of the efficient police force, enhanced security, laws, rules, regulations, we do know that crimes still take place. And it would be too optimistic to expect that the scenario would change overnight. So, seeking security from any hostile attacks, we tend to fence ourselves, trusting nobody, looking everyone with suspicion. This is the worst part. The walls surrounding us have become so high that nobody and nothing can reach us any more. That leads to suffocation, isolation and emptiness — yearning for love, companionship and support, but not allowing anyone to reach out to us. Worst of all, if people still extend their helping hand to pull us out, we drive them out. Crime thus affects society in two ways — first it gives birth to hatred, suspicion and distrust and keeps raising it, and secondly it kills love and faith a slow death.
But without love what would be our life — without those loving words, kind gestures, beautiful smiles, everyday greetings? It is the biggest challenge in front of humanity not to let that brightness and warmth die out, because ultimately it is that which supports and sustains us and the world. How could that be achieved, I do not know. I do not have any formula.