“Sometimes all you need is a great friend and a tank of gas.” – Unknown
As the forest came closer and closer, the sunlight kept decreasing, and I was now pretty sure that I was heading into a forest that would be in darkness, exactly what the lady had warned me against doing. But there was no turning back now and the sooner I could cross the forest, the better for me. My entry into the forest was also delayed by a long queue of covered trucks ahead of me, which seemed to be following a systematic pattern, and it suddenly occured to me that it was by intent. The trucks had formed a convoy and they went at the same pace, keeping a steady distance of about fifteen meters from each other. They were basically acting as a single unit of multiple trucks, thereby reducing their risk as individual trucks.
As this theory started to make sense, it also gave me the feeling that the warning from the lady, about armed bandits in the forest, must have some truth to it. These trucks would be the first to know about this, if at all, as they were expected to be the most likely target for such bandits, if it were to be true. The slow and steady pace at which these trucks were moving, did seem to indicate their strategy to safeguard themselves, and I felt more relaxed being at the end of this convoy, without knowing how many trucks were really ahead of me. I followed them into the forest as the last rays of the sun disappeared behind me, but I felt safe as a part of this community of truck drivers.
However, forty minutes later, my impatience started to get the better of me. The trucks were moving too slowly, perhaps at a speed not exceeding twenty five kmph, and driving a private car at that speed for forty minutes, was not easy. I realised that I didn’t know how far this forest stretched, and at this rate, it could probably take me till morning to reach my home in Kolkata. It was already evening, and I still had almost half the distance to cover. The fear of bandits took the backseat for a while, as I decided to take matters into my own hands again. I stepped on the accelerator and started to overtake the row of trucks that had acted like a shield for sometime now. It took me almost half an hour to get past all of them, there were ten of them, and after crossing the final one, I accelerated to almost sixty kms per hour for the first time since I had left Sasaram.
THE NIGHT IS DARK, AND FULL OF TERRORS!
I had long left the convoy of loaded trucks behind, as I sped away at what could be considered as a high speed on a poor road. Darkness had completely engulfed the forest and with the tall trees on both sides of the road, a sense of eeriness crept in as well. Visibility was limited to the few meters ahead of me, due to the bright new headlights of my Santro, and everything outside of that focus was just a black shadow. I drove on, determined to end this darkness and the gloominess that came along with it.
There was a straight stretch of road, and I took my hands of the steering wheel at times, to clasp my fingers and stretch my arms a bit, when I felt the car slowly turn left, rather than continuing straight on its course. I readjusted the steering to maintain my forward direction, but every time I let go of the steering, the car seemed to slide towards the left. The road was fairly flat, so the idea of a natural inclination impacting the steering was illogical, to say the least. As this kept on happening, I felt a sudden concern creep in. But I kept on driving, not knowing what else I could do anyway.
Another twenty minutes later, I realised that I could not go on. The car was now swerving left by itself, as if someone was trying to manipulate the steering wheel, despite my efforts to maintain it on its course. I finally brought the car to a halt, killed the lights, and waited for a while to gauge the forest around me. I lowered the window and tried to listen to any sound that might suggest any form of impending danger.
After being convinced that there was no bandit lurking around in the darkness, I stepped out of my car, making minimal noise, and checked out the tyres one by one.
Much to my horror, I found the left rear wheel flat and in pretty poor condition. There was a puncture, and I must have driven thirty kilo meters ignoring it, and the tyre showed severe signs of physical stress. I swore at myself with a subdued voice, but it came out as an audible shriek. I looked around immediately to make sure no one had heard me. The situation was very clear, and immensely terrifying. I had a flat tyre in the middle of a dark forest, with very little visibility. The forest was supposed to be unsafe, and there was a realistic possibility of armed bandits lurking around. And to top it all, I had never changed the tyre of my car, or any car for that matter, and I had no clue what to do or how.
I pushed the car out of the road, into a small clearing to the left, so it did not obstruct the road. Then I took a piss under a tree and lit up a cigarette, covering the flame as much as I could, so the bandits wouldn’t see the light. Every time I took a drag, I covered the burning end with my cupped palms. The smoking break allowed me to recompose myself and figure out my options. There was no way I could change the tyres of my car by myself. I needed help, and I needed it before my car and my presence was spotted by the threat that lay hidden somewhere in the darkness.
I told myself that the best chance I had was with that convoy of trucks that I had left behind. I made some mental calculations about the time I had last seen them, and the relative velocity with which I had been driving since then. They would probably take an hour to reach my present location, and the thought was not an encouraging one. But there seemed to be no other option and I sat down under a tree, in the pitch dark forest, feeling safe for once, that it was impossible to be spotted by the bandits, for now.
Initially it was a real challenge to kill time and I started feeling that the proverb that ‘time flies’ was not particularly meant for this situation. But I was so exhausted from the disturbing day I had experience, that I dozed off after smoking my second cigarette. the noise of a twig cracking somewhere nearby woke me up with a jolt, and I was admittedly alarmed. I had chosen a spot about fifteen meters from my parked car, just away from the open road, so I could still keep an eye on the road and the car, but it would take someone a while to spot me in the darkness. Without moving an inch, I tried to figure out where the noise had come from. I could not see much, apart from what my eyes had already adjusted to, but I heard a bushy noise to my right and turned my head to that direction. Then I saw it!
It was an animal, a sizeable one too. I couldn’t make sure what exactly, but I could make out the silhouette of its short horns and its bulk, to some extent. It was about twenty meters away and seemed to walk in my direction. Gradually I could make out more of it. It seemed like a deer, but it was bigger than any deer and its body was of dark colour. The body was closer to a cow in terms of size, and its movement was definitely slower than what we know about deer. It walked a few steps in my direction, and then looked up and I could see it staring at me straight. I had no idea if it was an aggressive animal, but the fact that both deer and cow were not carnivorous, made me feel somewhat safer. However, I didn’t want to risk it either, and slowly got up on my feet, without making any sudden movements to startle the animal. The creature seemed unhappy at my standing up, and made a sharp movement towards me, but then it suddenly raised its head, and looked away for a moment. And the next second, it turned and disappeared inside the forest with haste. I would later find out that this animal is called the Nilgai (Blue Bull).
As I wondered what might have startled the Nilgai into a retreat, I thought of two possibilities; a carnivorous animal like a leopard, or the much talked about human bandits. I couldn’t decide which would be better for me. But instead, I heard the mechanical sound of an engine and saw light in the distance. A truck!
That seemed to be the best moment for me and I prepared to get back on the road and ask for help from the truck drivers. They could fix this in minutes and I would be back on the road in no time. I saw more lights and I was happy to realise this was the convoy of trucks I had once considered myself to be a part of. As they approached my coordinates, I stood on the road next to my car, and waved at them frantically shouting:
“Bhaiyya, Bhaiyya, Roko Roko!” [Brother, stop stop!]
I watched in despair, as one by one all the trucks passed me by, without pausing for a moment, let alone stopping. I considered standing in the middle of the road, forcing them to stop, but watching them almost accelerate as they saw me waving, I seriously felt they might run over me, if I stood in their way. As the last truck went by, I started to understand why they wouldn’t stop and help me out. After all, the threat of bandits was real and the ideal way to stop and loot a loaded truck, would be to pretend as the driver of a car that had broken down.
ALONE AND WRECKED!
As I was left alone once again in the dark, it dawned upon me that I had to find a solution to this problem by myself, I had to somehow change the damaged tyre and replace it with the spare tyre, all by myself. I tried to remember that fateful incident on the way to Ballia. I opened the boot and found the spare tyre, unbolted it from the screws, and placed it next to the rear wheel.
It took me some time to figure out how the jack worked, and how I could place it to lift the chassis of my car. The first placement was wrong and it slipped after a while, but after that the jack held its position, as I lifted the car to free the damaged tyre off the ground. Taking the damaged tyre out was fairly simple, and within minutes it was out from its holding bolts and lay flat on the ground. I whispered a note of thanks to Amjad, the driver of my boss Mayank’s car. If I had not watched him do a few things during that Ballia trip, I would not even know where the spare tyre was kept.
However, the real challenge had just begun. The replacement tyre, full with air, was much heavier than what I had imagined. At this point, my inexperience with cars and tyres was such, that I had no idea the hand brake (parking brake) actually worked on the rear tyres. Every time I lifted the heavy tyre and tried to slot it into the four bolts, the wheel base rotated and the tyre slipped out. There was very little visibility as I had switched off the headlights, due to the fear of the bandits. So I was basically grappling in the dark, trying to feel the bolts and then slipping the tyre in, while the axel would rotate and the tyre would fall out of the bolts. This might have gone on for a good twenty minutes, before I decided to switch on the parking lights, as it was impossible to see anything, let alone make out the position of the bolts.
With the parking lights blinking, I had better visibility as I could see the position of the wheel base and the bolts, but the flip side was that they would be visible for a couple of seconds before plunging into darkness again, and this game of light and dark seemed to be even tougher to deal with. Added to that was the fear of getting noticed by the bandits. The parking lights would obviously be more noticeable in the dark, so I tried to push myself hard, despite aching hands and several bruises by then. I had to get this done fast, or I might get into serious trouble.
This urgency made things even worse, as the only way to succeed in this mission was to be patient, slow and operate with steady hands, and all three requirements seemed to have eluded me at this point. I might have kept on trying this for almost an hour, without any success. I even took a break in between, switched off the parking lights, and had a smoke. That was when I decided to give up. I decided to push the car further into the forest, to keep it away from the road. I told myself, if it was not visible from the road and left in the dark, I could lock myself inside and sleep the night off. I was confident, the chances of a truck stopping and helping me replace the tyre, would be significantly higher.
As I prepared for a nightcap in the dark forest, something inside me urged me to give it another try. My hands were both fatigued and blackened with grease till the elbows, and I had patches of black sticky grease on my sleeves. I sat down and kept trying once again, to slot the heavy tyre into the four holding bolts. After several attempts, just as I was giving up for a second time, a washer slipped out of the bolt and as I lowered my head to spot where it might have rolled to, I realised that the tyre had not moved for a moment. Keeping my hand as support, I looked up at the tyre and found it neatly positioned with all four bolts sticking out.
I couldn’t stop myself from letting out a loud roar of jubilation, before feeling the fear of bandits creep back in, as I cut short my expression of happiness. I had been trying to put the tyre back in its position for more than an hour and finally I had succeeded somehow.
There was still a washer missing and it was not be safe to screw back the nut without the washer in position, but there was no way I was going to take this tyre out again. Not a chance!
I used the wrench to spin back the nuts into the bolts, and within a few more minutes, the tyre was back the way it was supposed to be. I lifted the punctured tyre and placed it back in the boot. As I was screwing it to secure its position, something caught my eye. I looked up and spotted a gleam of light in the darkness around me. I paused and narrowed my eyes, to get a better visual and I saw it shift a bit. The light was moving! A sudden chill ran down my spine. I don’t think I even made sure if all the nuts were screwed back in. I closed the boot with a thud, and rushed to kill the parking lights. Turning back at the light source I couldn’t find it for a moment, but then I saw it again. It seemed like an electric torch, flickering as it moved between trees. Someone was holding it as it seemed to get closer. Then I spotted another light next to it.
I almost panicked! I didn’t know who it was, or who they were, but I could not come to tell myself there was anything positive about this. The most likely possibility was the most scary one, the bandits. I had survived hours of stuck traffic, the hunger, the hours without a drop of water, the car breakdown and fixing it, all by myself. Not to eventually fall in the hands of some armed bandits. I swore to myself loudly, jumped into the drivers seat, and started the engine. I switched on the headlights, and looked one more time towards the lights between the trees. They seemed to be very close, maybe thirty meters away. And this time, it seemed like four or five different light sources. I did not think again and stepped on the accelerator as hard as I could. The car skidded for a moment on the damp soil next to the road, as I turned the power steering rightwards and with a thrust, the car bounced and jerked back onto the road.
I pressed the gas so hard that I almost lost control, but the car swerved and balanced itself as I picked up speed for the road ahead. That was when I heard a loud BANG!
What was that? Was it a gunshot?
I looked back one last time, and this time I could make out the figures holding the torches, as I sped up along the dark road ahead. The lights behind me became distant and gradually faded away as I swept my arm to rub the cold sweat that had gathered around my forehead and temples. I looked back through the rear view mirror, but couldn’t see any sign of light behind me. I felt that I had managed to lose them to the darkness.
I increased the air conditioner to maximum level, let out a muffled groan, and took a long, deep breath. I had managed to get away, I had managed to survive!
I composed myself, my breathing returned to normal, and my hold on the steering wheel relaxed over the next five minutes or so. I slowed down a bit, what I needed most right now was to avoid another flat tyre. I glanced at the car dashboard and suddenly spotted something that could be equally scary. The Fuel indicator was blinking, and almost at the verge of touching the point which had the dreaded words in red, “Empty“!
Perfect buildup to a grand crescendo of suspense