I am part of a writer’s meetup but haven’t been able to go to one of the meetups in the recent months/days due to schedule on my end. So this is my attempt for ‘short story’ entry with two probable endings.
The story is dedicated to the CRPF Jawans who just died in the Sukma Encounter .
It was just like any other day. I, along with the Principal, a teacher, a driver and a cleaner/attendant was taking approximately 55 students of Nandurbar Tribal Girls High School, Nandurbar to Bharwani Girls High School to inter-mingle with the students there. The idea was to exchange life-stories, play with each other and generally have a good time.
As the last few days I had been furiously working cajoling and getting permission slips from fathers and mothers for the trip, I was dead tired as hadn’t had enough sleep the last few days. Also as it is summer and no electricity meant you somehow just survived it.
The distance between the two places is approximately 200 kms. .On a good motorable road the distance could be covered in two, two and half hours. For those new to such places, both places are inaccessible and it’s not just like they are, they are 7,000 + villages which lack proper roads since independence. Anyways, while officially the route should take around 4 ~ 5 hours, it’s more like 6 odd hours. These places do not have good communication facilities and the only way to figure out things is to have and share landmarks with each other. I had shared the landmarks, told him from where we needed to divert from the main road in order to be at Bharwani. I had also instructed him to wake me up when we reach the diversion and slumbered on to dreamland.
Come 14:00 hrs. and I’m awakened by a rude jolt and find myself in an unfamiliar forest road. The girls, the principal, the driver and his attendant just had lunch and hence were full of merry. The driver and attendant were singing some of the local songs, many of which had double-entendres or double-meaning lines. The girls were pink but as many of them also knew the local songs, some of them had also joined. Not wanting to sound alarmist although the back of my neck was telling me we were in the wrong place, I had my lunch and gently enquired with the driver as to why he hadn’t woken me up at the diversion and from where he diverted. Asking him gently and persistently came to know that he had turned at some wrong place. As this was the hinterland with possibility of wild animals, naxalities and all kinds of anti-social elements, I knew we could easily land ourselves in full-blown crisis mode. I asked the driver to park in a shaded place and asked all the men to come down and shared that we have somehow landed in some wrong place. I asked the driver and attendant as to our reserves of petrol and was told that at least there we were good, we had enough to drive for 4-5 hours but no more. As there are no petrol pumps in such places, you had to have reserve fuel when taking a journey such as this. The driver or the attendant, one of the two told me that they had read a sign just sometime ago of a ‘dak bungalow’ or a government rest house sometime ago but they hadn’t seen one till yet. I asked all the people present as to what they think we should do, some wanted to go back, some wanted to go further to the dak bungalow and some wanted to stay there itself, all the three options were not to my liking. In such places, the sun goes down very quickly and I knew that the sun will go down at around 17:00 hrs. hence we needed to be at a place where we could rest as well as defend if need be and a bus seemed to be a very vulnerable place.
I knew we would quickly reach stalemate and this was something that I could not be part of. Hence, in the interest of taking a decision, I quietly shared that we should also involve the girls in the decision and let them have an equal say. While the others protested, I quickly explained the predicament and they realized that it’s the girls who are the most vulnerable. I asked the girls to dismount the bus, freshen themselves up and come to a nearby large shaded tree in a round group . Fifteen-twenty minutes later, they all came and sat themselves in a group. Meanwhile, they had grown curious as they had seen our interchange and were curious as to what was it all about. I quickly and quietly told them about our situation and shared the situation about our petrol, spare tires (we had only one), food and water (water we had some but we hadn’t planned for food) and shared the three options with downsides to each action –
1. Going back – We were two hours or more from the main road, getting back meant we would miss the daylight and it’s possible to miss the main road and end somewhere worse of. Also two hours of driving back meant that much lesser petrol. Hitting the highway/main road the chance could be slim and it was also no guarantee that we would be safer than where we were.
2. Going forward to the ‘Dak bungalow’ – Going forward meant that we would be going further into this unknown forest and the ‘Dak Bungalow’ sign was only seen by the driver or the attendant and we had no clue whether it was there or not or even if it was there, whether there would be correct people around (meaning government officials or/and the government caretaker/s).
3. Doing nothing – This also had the downside that we don’t know where we are, we might be in the middle of some wild animals route or worse humans
So laying down the three options, I asked the girls what they thought we should do. If they had any ideas, this was the time to share them. There were few suggestions but all of them half-formed and didn’t lead to any satisfactory solution. I saw 2-3 of the most shy girls talking animatedly with each other. I went to them and gently enquired what was the matter? It came to be known that 2 of the girls had also seen the sign-board for the ‘dak bungalow’ and quickly it was decided to move ahead towards the ‘dak bungalow’.
Now as we knew that we had only a single spare tire, it was also decided that each of the men take turns , get down and sort of walk a bit ahead of the bus. We couldn’t afford a break-down and also enforced a strict code for water usage. I also asked the girls to chat and blow off steam as having more pressure, nervousness would simply add to the situation rather than remedying it. The driver and attendant cottoned to the idea and again started some of the those songs targeting some of the girls which evoked some embarrassed laughter from the targeted girls as well as the other girls as well. We proceeded with the plan to try to reach this elusive ‘dak bungalow’ and our speed which was slow had become slower still. The idea was simple, the man who would walk would walk for around 100 metres, if everything was ok, he would whistle or shout and the bus would come in. The next 100 metres were done by the next person and in such way we were making sure that neither of the people were too tired or nervous and we were able to inch forward a bit as well. If there were any hurdles or any other issue he would shout in a particular manner, it was the job of the person who went ahead to warn us against any such eventuality. We just had couple of iron bars (which are/were used in case of a breakdown) and couple of hammers (all of which were part of bus repair kit) to defend ourselves and that is what we did.
Slowly, we inched forward and were able to make the ‘dak bungalow’ in a distance just as soon as the sun was setting. We were again at a cross-roads here, we didn’t know if the ‘dak bungalow’ had decent people and if we could trust them. The bus was still about 100-150 metres out and the wind flowing at cross so the only hope was that they hadn’t heard the bus and one of us should go and enquire if we could get food, drink, place to sleep or just use of the grounds and directions to get back tomorrow morning.
Meanwhile, all of us (the men i.e.) had started getting splitting headaches as we were all under pressure and realized that we were in hands of fate. The job of being the interlocutor was quickly given to me. I asked the driver and the girls to get down and push the bus manually further away to a largish mango grove which we had passed sometime earlier. I got down, changed myself from shirt and pants, freshened myself a bit and changed to the only spare clothes I had, a dhoti, kurta and gamcha or gamucha as it’s known in various places. I also asked them to be patient as I had no idea of who would be there and it is possible that I may be away for quite sometime.
After the transformation, I put up some dirt in my hair and on the dhoti and specks of dirt on the kurta. I was already tired with all the pressure so I didn’t need to act that part, my eyes had already become red with all sorts of foreboding. Asking them to be vigilant and silent and ensuring that all the men patrolled silently around the girls, I slowly made my way to the ‘dak bungalow’ . I slowly ventured towards the ‘dak bungalow’, went to the gate and shouted to ask if somebody was there. Not hearing an answer, I slowly unlocked the gate and went inside still, ask in a slightly louder voice if a chowkidar or somebody else was there. After a while, a voice came out asking who is there, I said I was a poor villager who had somehow forgotten the route and had no idea as to where I was. I wanted to have some water and some place where I could lie for few hours and tomorrow morning I would try to figure out where I had to go.
A little while later, a door opened and I saw a person, somewhat around my age coming with a tumbler filled with water and a bit of onion and bread. Thanking the gentleman earnestly, I proceeded to have a small bath with the tumbler of water, eating the onion and bread, thanking profusely for both the water as well as the onion and the bread. Through the conversation, I enquired whether they were any ‘sahabs’ or government people who were around. The chowkidar/caretaker replied there were indeed two-three people from the government who were staying but were presently had gone to a ‘daura’/ tour and would either come tonight or come tomorrow morning. He indicated towards his quarters which I could share with him or showed the car-shed either of which I could use to lay down.
The car-shed was built a little to the side of the main building and the chowkidar/caretaker’s quarters were not easily seen by it which worked for him as well as for me both ways. I Asked for a bit more bread, few onions and a bit of water in case I felt hungry at night, he asked me to wait and came with a bit of local bread, few onions, a plastic water bottle to spend the night with. I again thanked him profusely, told him my name and asked him to call him when the ‘bara sahab’ or government officer comes in. I would like to offer my thanks to the ‘bara sahab’ as well as offer my services for the night in lieu of being allowed to sleep in the verandah which would be more comfortable.
After an hour or so, as the night came in, I slipped from the car-shed, went back to the mango grove, shared the bread and the onions, the bread and the water bottle I had with me. I asked them to have only one onion in among 60 odd people at a time and try to savor the onions and the bread with them throughout the night as that might be the only food we may get at this point of time.
I also proceeded to tell them that the ‘dak bungalow’ is occupied and the ‘bara sahab’ (big man) might come tonight. Depending on whether he/they are likable or not, would try to share the troubles we are in or just somehow spend the night and try to go back tomorrow morning to the main road asking the caretaker for instructions.
I will leave the story here as there are two conclusions here. Because it is dedicated to a sad chain of events which happened recently, I am loath to put either of the endings here.
I ask people to share their views and hopefully we will have an ending soon, look forward to your comments, views.