“Driving at night is about communicating with lights.” – Lukhman Pambra
As I sped away, I kept looking back from time to time, to see if there was anything, or anyone, visible anywhere. After a few minutes of not spotting anything, I rolled down the windows and let out a loud, long shriek that was building up within me for some time. I stared at my hands on the steering wheel; they were black, greasy and disgusting. But I looked at them with fondness. They were a testimonial to what I had been through during the whole day. And to imagine how worse it could have been, made me feel a chill running down my spine.
I had kept an eye on the fuel meter, and the ‘Low Fuel’ warning soon started to blink with an annoying, ticking noise. That also coincided with the time when the trees around me seemed to become thinner, and after another eight minutes or so, I had successfully come out of the forest and the sky, opened up in front of me for the first time in hours. It was a cloudy day and I couldn’t spot the stars, but the greyish dark tinge of the sky lifted my spirits again. I knew the fuel was a concern, but there was no other option but to drive on. I comforted myself that a car, which is an engineering marvel, cannot suddenly run out of gas and come to a halt. If there was an alarm, it was meant to alert me into taking an action, so there had to be a tolerance somewhere. The question however was, how much was that tolerance?
I must have driven on for another twenty minutes before the road improved significantly, as I wheeled into a well lit highway, with broad lanes and no ditches. This was exactly how I had pictured the national highway to be like. Alas! It came almost seventeen hours too late. I accelerated to almost 100 kmph, the highest in this trip since the morning and the car glided through the smooth highway, like they show in the Hollywood movies. Civilisation was close!
My cigarette stock was now depleting, but I pulled one out, rolled down the side window and lit it up. Usually, I don’t smoke inside the car, but this highway deserved some form of celebration. I think it was on my fourth drag, that I felt the car shake suddenly, and as I stepped on the brakes to steady myself, the vehicle jerked to a halt and the engine shut down. I panicked for a while before restarting the engine, and it started just fine, as I changed my gears. False alarm!
THE LONE RIDER!
But another couple of kilo meters later, it threw the same tantrum again, and shut down with a jerk. I looked around me. There was nothing visible on the road as far as my eyes could see. I didn’t know which was worse, an empty fuel tank or a troubled engine. But I tried to restart and after a few attempts, the engine roared back to life, and I was moving again. But not for long. The final stop came about four hundred metres from the last stop, and this time, the engine would not restart by any means. I told myself, it was a highway and there had to be other vehicles coming this way, so a little wait is all I needed to do. But in the next twenty odd minutes, not a single motor vehicle came my way. What came however, was a man riding an old Hero cycle, as I stepped out of my car and frantically waved at him, even when he was over a hundred meters away.
The man had little choice, and he stopped a few meters away from my dead car, as I explained my plight to him. He stared at my dark hands and stained shirt, with disbelief in his eyes, but it seemed to go along with the story I told him. He informed me that there was a shop on the highway ahead, and the guy might be able to help me out, even though it was not a petrol station. When asked how far it was, he nodded his head and replied:
“About six kilo meters from here”
When I gave him that look and took a step forward, he immediately responded by saying that his cycle tires did not have sufficient air in them, and ‘double carry’ was impossible. But looking at me, he knew I was not taking no for an answer, so eventually he reluctantly agreed, for a fee of Rs. 100. I used his help to push the car a few meters, and brought it to a stop on the side of the road. He warned me that it might be unwise to leave the car on the road, and that the car might be gone, by the time I returned with the petrol. But we had no other option and I locked my car, and hopped on the carrier of his ragged bicycle.
It was an uncomfortable ride, but the man, his name Vinod, did his best to ensure I didn’t fall off the cycle. Vinod had a vegetable shop in a small town about ten kilo meters away. We rode on at a steady pace, which made the trip just about bearable. The clock had struck 11 pm, by the time I saw a back lit PVC board with Hrithik Roshan, the latest Bollywood sensation, holding a bottle of Coca-Cola with a wide, toothy smile.
A MAN REBORN!
Vinod dropped me at the shop with the Coca-Cola board above, knocked on the iron collapsible gate and waited till a man in his mid-forties emerged from the shadows. Vinod explained to him in brief the situation as the man lowered his head and narrowed his eyes to look at me standing outside in relative darkness. Then he opened the gate and let me in. I thanked Vinod and fished out a Rs. 100 bill from my wallet and he gracefully accepted it, bowed and left. As the cranking noise of his bicycle faded, I looked inside the shop and a familiar sight lay in front of me; high stacks of red Coca-Cola crates!
Akhtar Bhai was the distributor of Coca-Cola products in that area, which was at the border of the states Bihar and West Bengal. It took us less than five minutes to get acquainted, and feel comfortable with each other’s company. It almost felt like I was visiting one of my own distributors, as we even discussed targets and concerns for the season for a while. Then Akhtar Bhai laughed and reminded us of the situation I was in. I washed my hands with a red Lifebuoy soap, as he poured water from a discoloured plastic jug. Once my hands started to look more respectable, he served me a bottle of chilled ThumsUp, and that was when I felt that I was indeed reborn. After that, Bhai took me for a walk within the town, as we walked a fair bit through dimly lit, deserted alleys of the small habitation and arrived at one of his friend’s place. Aziz, a buddy of Akhtar Bhai, went inside and fetched us a jerrycan with petrol inside, a rubber tube and a funnel. We walked back to Akhtar Bhai’s shop, and then we rode together in his scooter, down the main road back to where my car had broken down.
There was a period of a few minutes during that return trip, when I was a bit concerned if I would actually find my car where I had left it, but almost from half a kilo meter away, Akhtar Bhai had spotted it and turning back his head informed me with a smile;
“A black Santro is it? It’s still here!”
Together we poured the petrol from the jerrycan into the fuel inlet of my car. Akhtar Bhai stepped back as I seated myself on the driver’s seat, closed my eyes for a short prayer and then turned the ignition key, and the pleasant sound of the engine roaring back into life greeted us. Akhtar Bhai clapped his hands in delight, and then suggested that I took a break at his shop and take a shower and maybe even eat something, before continuing on my onward journey. Much as I wanted this trip to end soon, I found the proposal impossible to refuse.
I spent almost another hour at his shop, during which I had taken a shower, using that same Lifebuoy soap. The cold water took almost all my fatigue away, and I felt totally revitalised. In the meantime, Akhtar Bhai had managed to send a word to his wife, who quickly jumped into action and fifteen minutes after my shower, a young guy stepped in with a small container containing some warm chapatis (Indian flatbread) and some chicken curry. The food was simple, but it tasted better than anything I could have imagined at that point. Once I had finished my dinner, he even handed me a new pack of cigarettes, from his own shop, and refused to accept any money in return, although I insisted that I wouldn’t take the packet otherwise, and eventually he relented. This incredible hospitality from Akhtar Bhai was something I would never be able to forget.
About half an hour after the stroke of midnight, I finally bid goodbye to my generous host, wished him a successful sales season, and made my way to the highway to continue my unforgettable journey to Kolkata.
HOME SWEET HOME!
As I stepped on the accelerator, my energy and vigour had returned, and I felt resurrected, both physically and mentally. The rest of the trip was relatively eventless, although there was a point when I almost skid into an incoming truck. But I controlled somehow at the last moment, and lived to tell the story for another day. It was about 7:45 am when I finally brought my car to a halt within fifty meters of my parental residence in Kolkata. My family wasn’t expecting me, as I had planned it as a surprise visit.
Everyone was shocked and thrilled to see me one fine morning, and in the excitement of meeting everyone in the family, I soon forgot the physical exhaustion that was draining me. I also proudly displayed my new car, all covered in mud, grease and gunk at that point, and my father seemed pretty unimpressed as he quietly murmured;
“You purchased a second hand car?”
So after taking a shower and having a hearty breakfast, I took my car to a nearby workshop, got the spare tyre repaired, and gave the vehicle a thorough wash, and came back with a shiny black machine. This time, people seemed to be way more impressed, including my father. I went out and met a few friends, even had a few rounds of whiskey with a couple of closest friends that evening. By late evening, it dawned upon me, that to be back in Varanasi by Monday morning, as I had promised my manager Mayank Arora, I should be starting again the following morning. Considering the fact that I had to drive continuously for 27 hours, it would be naive to estimate the return journey as a ten hour drive. I told my parents about my plan to start exactly at 5 a.m. the next morning, and they were surprised and disappointed that I wouldn’t even spend a day in my hometown. I called it an early night and went to bed by 11 pm. that night, pretty unusual for me. But I fell into a deep slumber within minutes of hitting the sack, due to the tremendous fatigue that resurfaced after dinner.
I woke up with cold sweat around 3:30 in the morning. I had had a bad dream that involved some bandits in a dark forest. I sat up on the bed, lit myself a cigarette, and thought about the impending return leg of this once-in-a-lifetime road trip. And I shivered at the thought of facing it alone by myself, again. I made an instant decision and I was going to do everything to make sure it works out.
JUST SIT BY ME!
I left my bed at four in the morning, crept out of my house silently, making sure not to wake anyone up, and walked two hundred meters to the house of one of my closest friends back then and still, Sintu Bhattacharjee.
Sintu was sound asleep when I threw stone chips at his closed window, to wake him up. After a few attempts, he came down, still half asleep. He was a part of the small group with whom I had enjoyed whiskey the last evening, and Sintu, clearly overjoyed by my sudden arrival and also dismayed that I would leave the next day, had a few too many, and it showed in his groggy voice and reddish eyes. I started by telling him that I wanted to see him before I left for Varanasi, and that the road trip, as I had explained the previous night, was a real challenge for me to take up by myself. I ended with the suggestion that, I felt it would be nice if he came along. He was not busy with anything at that point, in fact, he was bored of inaction, and it would be great for him to have a change in his routine life. He could stay a few days with me in Varanasi, before taking the train back, when he had had enough of my company.
The proposal shook him awake, and after the initial moments to validate that I was not playing a poor joke early in the morning, he vehemently opposed the idea. I tried everything from pleading, to reasoning, to even threatening with a total breakdown of our friendship, but he rejected all my attempts and kept nodding his head sideways. Unable to get him to agree, I left him with the final words;
“I will drive out exactly after 5 am. If you are indeed my friend, be there at the intersection of my road and the shop of Paritosh. You don’t have to drive or do anything, just sit by me!”
I returned home feeling somewhat dejected, as Sintu had not taken up my proposal, which could have been life saving for me. My mother and sister-in-law had already woken up and were busy fixing a breakfast for me. I took a quick shower and readied my one piece luggage that had been hardly touched during this hurricane trip. Shortly after having my breakfast, I said goodbye to my entire family, put my bag in the boot and started the car engine. The fuel tank was full, the spare tyre was repaired, and I was all set to drive back the dreaded 700 kilo meters.
A couple of minutes later, just as my waving family disappeared out of the sight of my rear mirror, I took a right turn and there, in the early morning light, I saw the familiar frame of Sintu, standing with a crumpled old luggage bag, waiting to be my companion in this return journey.
BACK ON THE DUSTY TRAIL!
The sight of Sintu at that moment, felt more pleasing and inspiring than anything else I could have hoped for. He was still a bit grumpy, but knowing Sintu well, there was a hidden smile under his mask of annoyance. I gave him a hug, stuffed his bag in the boot, and drove a few hundred meters to stop at a small shop that had just opened up. We had some tea and Sintu had a bread omelette. Thereafter, we purchased some cigarettes and after smoking one together, we started on our long drive back to Varanasi.
The return trip was relatively less eventful compared to the first leg. But it was definitely laden with upswings and downswings of emotional turbulence. Sintu and I joked and laughed for the first few hours, but soon we started to argue about trivial issues, and there would be half an hour of silence when we would not say a word to each other. Then we would stop somewhere, eat something, have a smoke and return to the car as usual friends.
Sintu had told me once that he could drive, and he was often the guy who would take us around on his motorbike or scooter, so I had assumed that in this long and arduous trip, he would be able to share the driving load and allow me some rest in between. But when I mentioned this, he scoffed at me and denied having ever claimed anything of that sort. He also admitted that he had driven a car only once, the one that belonged to Raja, a friend who was the only one among our close circle, to own a car back then. The experience did not go well, especially for Raja.
We had a decent, smooth run till about four in the afternoon, and we had even stopped at a Dhaba and had a very nice lunch that included chicken tikka masala. We even managed to cross the dreaded forest while there was still sunlight, and Sintu seemed particularly tensed while we were in the middle of it, and I almost freaked him out with some made up stories of how the bandits tried to chase my car down, riding on their horses, almost in the style of Sholay, Bollywood’s all time most popular film.
We probably did a high five once we came out of the forest, without any bandits chasing us or shooting at us. But less than half an hour later, we found ourselves in trouble, the kind that could once again jeopardise the rest of the trip. A massive traffic jam, one we soon realised to be the same one that had severely impacted the first leg of my journey, brought us back to a standstill. For over two days, most of these trucks were stuck in this blockade, unable to move beyond a couple of kilo meters. Some of the truckers had even set up small shelters for themselves, temporary roofs with tarpaulin to guard against the rain. Most others were well set with their cooking pots and small stoves, and some even had women stirring the pots and children running around playfully. It seemed like a proper refugee camp. In the two days that had gone by, no rescue activity could be done, and the only thing that had increased was the sheer number of vehicles, small, medium and large, that had added to the size of this immense, temporarily immovable asset.
I spoke to one of the truckers, who shrugged and informed me that on the highway such jams were very common and often they would take a few days before clearing up. The man had started his trip from Sasaram and he had barely progressed fifty kilo meters, before getting stuck in this mess, and now, after two days, he still had no idea when his truck will be able to move again.
To cut a long story short, it took us almost six straight hours to get past this stretch of about twenty kilo meters. It took all my previous experience, and some generosity from the truck drivers, who moved their vehicles a few meters ahead or backwards, to allow me to squeeze through, when necessary, as I manoeuvred through the slopes, ditches and impossible spaces at times, to make my way through all this.
By the time we managed to get back into a relatively clear road, it was long past midnight, and while the traffic had disappeared, there was the reemergence of the dreaded potholes and the road became far more difficult to drive on, given the lack of light and visibility. To make matters worse, a heavy downpour came from nowhere, reducing the visibility even further, and I had to reduce our speed to less than 25 km.ph to even feel that we were safe. But the biggest threat turned out to be somewhat familiar, the fuel indicator blinking with that same threatening noise. There was no petrol station in sight and we had no idea if there would be any before the fuel ran out completely. This time, it was unlikely to find an Akhtar Bhai in such weather. Sintu made things much worse, with his tips on ‘how to minimise fuel consumption’. According to him, the car should go at a steady pace without any disruptions, or it will end up consuming more fuel. If I accelerated, he would freak out shouting;
“Don’t press the accelerator, the fuel will finish!!!”
If there was a ditch and I slowed down using the brakes, he would shout again;
“No brakes! What did I say? We’ll finish up the fuel!”
My efforts to explain that without the brakes we would run into those deadly ditches, and that without the accelerator, the car would eventually stop, went into deaf ears. But in some miraculous manner we ended up driving for almost forty minutes with the blinking fuel indicator, before Sintu spotted a petrol station and it was not a bluff. There was indeed a visible signage of Bharat Petroleum, the state run oil & gas firm, and it felt like we had survived.
But alas, the pump was located on the highway, catering to long distance trucks, and had only diesel to offer. My car ran on petrol. We decided to stop there, as we were sure there was no way our fuel would allow us to go further. Almost half an hour of wait followed, without either of us having a clue about how we might be able to get on with the rest of our journey. We just stood close to the huge front lit board of Bharat Petroleum, and hoped for something to happen.
And help did eventually arrive! The pump operator, a young boy in his early twenties, who was feeling worried why we hadn’t left yet, came and inquired about our problem. When we explained that we couldn’t move without some petrol, he suddenly suggested something which initially felt weird, as well as impractical. There was a long open truck parked at one corner of the road, about fifty meters from the pump. When he pointed at the truck, I was initially unsure what he was suggesting. Was it for the truck to tow our car? I knew we couldn’t use the truck’s fuel, as it was sure to be diesel, and besides, there was enough diesel available anyway, since we were in a fuel station. Just that diesel was not a solution to our petrol problem.
Sanju, the young boy, nodded his head and asked me to look again. I did, and this time I noticed that on the flat bed of the elongated truck, there were three small cars, all Maruti 800 models, arranged sequentially. The truck was delivering cars to a showroom somewhere. Sanju explained that while the truck ran on diesel, the three Maruti cars would surely be running on petrol. The three of us walked to the truck, woke the driver up from his deep sleep, and made the outrageous demand that we will need some petrol from the showroom cars he was transporting.
It took some convincing, and two bills of Rs. 100, before he agreed and Sanju got us a foul smelling jerrycan, a funnel and a pipe that he himself used his mouth on, to suck and draw out the petrol from the cars into the can. We did the same thing for each of the three cars, and soon we had enough, probably a few litres of petrol. Once that was inserted into our own fuel tank, I handed over a bill of Rs. 50 to Sanju, who accepted with a wide smile. Sintu called him away from me, and handed him another fifty from his end, and Sanju seemed elated. We thanked him profusely and resumed our journey that had been stalled for over an hour at the fuel station.
SAFELY BACK IN NEST!
That turned out to be the last major hurdle for us. We found a petrol station in less than an hour and under the first light of dawn, refuelled the vehicle to safety. Thereafter it was only the bad roads and the occasional snoring from Sintu, but by the time the clock struck 8 a.m. my car, the legendary machine that survived this arduous journey of almost 1,500 kilo meters, was neatly parked in the open parking lot.
I took a quick shower and managed to drive down to our factory at Rajatalab, to report to my manager, who was not really expecting to see me. I spent the rest of the day feeling like a zombie, with little productivity, and after lunch my boss, after hearing the story of my back and forth trip, asked me to take the rest of the day off. I happily obliged. It had been seventy five hours from the time I had left my apartment on a Friday morning, to the time I returned back on Monday morning. And in that period, I had slept for six hours at best, including the occasions when I dozed off with my hands on the wheel. I had mostly been on the road, driving for fifty four hours straight with little breaks apart from the ones that were forced upon me. And in between there were bad roads, traffic jams, starvation, forests, flat tire, bandits and running out of fuel, to make the trip insanely unforgettable.
But I survived the trip and learnt some valuable lessons. The very next day I installed a Pioneer Stereo system in my car. Sintu and I spent the next few days in good company, before Sintu started getting bored like a housewife with no house to manage. He departed by train after the sixth day. My car grew stronger from this experience and served me very well for the next few years, across the cities of Varanasi, Allahabad and eventually the capital New Delhi. I finally sold it to a colleague when I left India for the uncharted territories of Africa. The car and this road trip in particular, stayed in my memory forever.