Wednesday, August 30, 2006

My unforgettable journeys-II: When rocket failed to zoom (Part-II)

(second part of journey from Kolkata to Guwahati by road where misfortune refused to part with us. A journey that should have been completed in 36 hours with about 24 hours of actual traveling, took us 48 hours to complete.)

We got out of the ‘Rocket’ and headed straight to a nearby hotel for a late lunch. Everything has been late in the last 24 hours. But we were told that buses to Guwahati would leave early that day as the militant ULFA had called for a 12 hour Assam Bandh next day. The objective was to cross the sensitive areas like Nalbari before it is dawn.

We headed to the counter of Network travels as the name is familiar to us. After buying tickets we went around having a look of the area. We were back before the scheduled departure. We waited and waited, but the bus there was no sign of the bus. The bad experiences of the earlier night appeared to have raised their head again. We were told that the bus we are to travel had a broken glass and had gone for replacing it. They told us a glass is broken, but did not tell which one. We understood that it will be tough for travelers without a glass in winter. All other buses to Guwahati had left barring ours. Finally the bus had arrived at around 5 pm. When the bus turned toward us, we had another shock. The front windshield was missing! O God! It was the windshield that was broken, not a side window glass. They were planning to drive this bus 400 km without the windshield on a peak winter night! We did not scratch our heads to think about it. We got into the bus like obedient school kids getting into a school bus. We have to reach home somehow. Honestly speaking I was too tired to think. I feel asleep almost as soon as the bus left Siliguri. My friend however was a worried man. He was worried and scared about the stories of dacoits active in the Hashimara jungles that fall in the border area. To be honest, we were almost brook and hardly had anything left with us to be looted. I woke up once to have dinner at a hotel at around 9 pm. I probably fell asleep even before the bus had left.

Hashimara is a notorious jungle on the AssamBengal border. Vehicles moves in convoys only and no body gives you pass inside the jungle. There is a system of proving escort by police for crossing the Hashimara jungle. But as we were very late in arriving the border gate at Hashimara, the convoy for the night had already left. One more late running bus was waiting there. I was in deep sleep all thorough this. But my worried friend was awake and he told me all these next day. He also told me that the bus driver was wearing a helmet. There used to be some checking at the border. I forgot to mention that most of our co-passengers were Nepali, many of them might be illegal migrants. So police were picking soft targets for money. All the bad things that are happening in this country are because of corrupt police departments. They are not bothered how many illegal Nepalese enters India every night as long as their palms are greased. I was not bothered to be awaken while my friend was watching all these for some unforgettable memories. After some consultation, the two bus drivers decided to drive through the jungle without police escort. Even though my friend did not tell, he probably was praying all through the night. Without the windshield, anything could have happen. May be his prayer took us safely through the jungle.

It was almost 5:30 when the bus stopped for a tea break at Barpeta Road, some 1 ½ hours drive from Guwahati. The road has fallen silent by then. The bandh was to start at 5am. The driver, who had courage to drive through Hashimara jungle in bitter cold without a windshield, had developed cold feet to drive these 100 odd kilometers to Guwahati. This area was once the stronghold of militant outfit ULFA. We fought and argued, but both the drivers did not budge. So we were left stranded just 100 kms from Guwahati. The ordeal seemed was in no mood to leave us.

We started playing cricket on the empty National Highway with some local kids. One of the players was incidentally a supposed to be ULFA cadre or sympathizer. He was earlier seen asking shopkeepers to drown shutters. Even though the shutter was down, the hotel supplied us lunch. My friend told the bus conductor that he had no money and so he was offered free lunch with bus staff. The cricket match continued post lunch.

The bandh was to be over by 5 pm. Some trucks went past us along the National Highway. The drivers of the two buses swung into action. But a final twist awaited us. Due to some problem with wiring, the rear side indicators of our bus remained switched on all through the day and that had drained the battery. So the bus was not starting up. Fortunately, there was the second bus who had accompanied us from Hashimara. The drivers found an ingenuous way of starting the bus. The second bus was brought close to ours and parked in the reverse direction. Then both sets of battery were connected via cables. Volia! The bus engine started roaring and we were off. Soon darkness of night engulfed us. We were relaxing in the bus enjoying these final moments. I told my friend jokingly that only thing that did not happen in this journey is tyre blast and given the circumstances we still had enough distance to cover for that to happen. Fortunately God has spared us any more trouble. We already had enough in the last 48 hours.

My ordeal was over when we entered the Network Travel’s complex at Paltan Bazar. But my friend has to travel another 400 km to Dibrugrah. I bade him good bye and that was the last time I have ever heard of him. May be he had further experiences to share. Since then I had traveled once more between Kolkata and Guwahati by road, this time by my car. I sat, relaxed and enjoyed the journey as the driver droved. The same route but different circumstances. Then I had no money to sustain one extra day in Kolkata and now I could afford to buy petrol to travel by car!

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