The lockdown and the ensuing downtime allowed me long periods of uninterrupted introspection. I was already contemplating on devoting more time to writing and teaching and with all the technology content I wrote regularly, I began to think of myself transitioning into a ‘digital nomad’. It basically means a worker who has the liberty to work from anywhere on the planet, so long as he or she has access to high speed internet and a laptop. In fact, I also read that certain countries like Barbados and Estonia were extending special incentives for digital nomads to set up base on their shores.
Travel restrictions were an impediment
Well, my digital nomad aspirations aside, I am immensely fond of driving. Lockdowns had ensured that the best I could manage was perhaps an hour’s drive. It was still better than not being able to ‘stretch my legs’ at all but I was yearning for a long drive, the 12-13 hour behind-the-wheel kinds.
There was one that I did need to embark on but inter-state travel restrictions came in the way. I thought it best for travel restrictions to first ease a little before I took my chances at the wrong time. This would have implied a good two week stay at some government run quarantine centre and this was not a particularly looked forward to location.
My parents had begun living in Jorhat, Assam while I was in rural North Bengal. Between us, it was some 850 odd kms that I would usually cover over two days. This time round, I thought I will attempt it in one sitting to try and beat my previous endurance runs. Google Maps deemed it be a 17-hour run, and I began conditioning my mind in earnest. This ‘conditioning of mind’ seems to always work for me, even when the ordeal ahead is a physical one. I am yet to repose complete faith in physical activity that fitness enthusiasts term a ‘workout’.
The time had come
Come mid-August, I received word that inter-state travel had eased and that there would be no institutional quarantine needed upon making an entry into Assam. I therefore planned my departure date and as it happened, I chose a lockdown day to begin. The idea on top of mind was the fact that there would be minimal traffic and if in the event I was stopped by police, I would serve up a fitting alibi.
When it comes to communicating with members of the police, my one thumb rule has always been to quickly remove my sunglasses if I am wearing them. Only then can the ‘innocent look’ be visible to the officer. Eye contact, and of the innocent kind, is of the supreme essence. Little did I know that I would have to pull this little ace out of my sleeve on my drive to Jorhat.
Now Covid ensured that my minimalist ways were a tad more amplified. In six months, I hadn’t worn trousers or shoes. Both these elements find some mention in the unwritten driving rule book in our country. And I’ll tell you why.
Trousers and shoes were a must
Some fours ago, when I visited the transport authority office to renew my licence, I showed up in shorts. I was curtly asked to show up in trousers to be deemed admissible for my driving test. It didn’t sound like a tall order; only home was three hours away where I would find a pair of trousers. My licence was issued from a small town and I had overlooked transferring it over to my current place of stay.
Anyway, my father was accompanying me and maybe the same innocent look worked because I was promptly gifted a pair of trousers, not for any special occasion but to qualify to sit next to the motor vehicle inspector. Thankfully, driving in shorts does not attract a penalty as driving without shoes does.
On this momentous day, I made sure to check off all the boxes since I was already flouting the lockdown rule. I wore trousers and shoes for the first time in six months and did I ever feel like a million dollars.
I tanked up the thirteen-year old Honda Accord I was to undertake my drive in. Not long after, I set off on the beautiful national highway that cuts through the Dooars and drove closer to the most exciting part of the day.
Policemen really are good souls
Now police in West Bengal are quite notorious, but they’re otherwise really good souls. For some reason, they have a rather pronounced tendency to check for minute irregularities in vehicle documents although they will not be very perturbed if you passed by them in a vehicle, spewing out noxious volumes of exhaust smoke. Some might call this ‘minor’ irritant as harassment but I usually consider it opportunity to network if at all I am flagged down by a policeman.
However, if one thought Bengal police harassed vehicles, Assam police definitely stole the show. Some five hours of driving later, I arrived at the Assam-Bengal border and I was happy that I had made it in good time. If I could maintain the same pace, I would be in Jorhat at an earthly hour, or so I thought. Unlike normal times, the border entry now entailed sharing personal and destination details. Until this point, it all seemed legitimate.
Thereafter, we were told we’d be ‘escorted’ to a Covid testing centre right up to our destination. Now even with a fast car, my destination was some 12 hours away from the Assam-Bengal border. But trailing a rusty old Maruti Gypsy at 40 km/hr would mean about 18 hours.
To ensure we didn’t bail on the escort, we were asked to deposit our driving licences with the escort vehicle driver. I reluctantly agreed to do so because it seemed contrary to established Covid protocols.
An indecent proposal
While I was strolling near the police outpost, a fast-talking Assam cop suggested I can pay my way out of this predicament. It was no surprise as I was hoping such an alternative would present itself. However, his ‘ask’ was too high.
I, therefore, like a ‘law abiding’ citizen drove behind the escort vehicle for about two hours with several other out of state vehicles for company. After a point, I decided to take my chances and I bailed. But my freedom was short lived for as I approached Bongaigaon, I was flagged down. The officer had a happy smirk on his face and asked to see all my papers.
He accused me of presenting a fake licence to the escort vehicle driver.
Long story short, he asked, “What did you benefit by running away? You seem a decent guy.”
My reply elicited a content grin. Thankfully, my Dale Carnegie lessons came to use. I replied, “the benefit really has been the opportunity to be able to meet you.” I must also add that the moment my vehicle was stationary, I promptly took off my sunglasses and put on my regular nerd looking ones.
All’s well that ends well
Now stoking anyone’s ego works like a charm. The ‘ask’ was more reasonable. And I was soon on my way.
This entire episode left my wallet a tad lighter but the outcome–in the grander scheme of things–was more rewarding. Since I’d already lost precious time, I decided there was no point in trying to rush to Jorhat. I thought it would be best to halt along the way and continue the following morning.
I, therefore, called on old family friends whom I hadn’t seen in years. Initially hesitant to reach out because of Covid induced fears, I heaved a sigh of relief when they readily agreed to host me for the night. This whole pandemic has listed out a ‘new’ code of conduct; some may welcome you while others will outright refuse. It is all fair game and not one to be offended by.
Well, thanks to Assam police, I made one new acquaintance in the forces and I was also able to reconnect with absolute gems of people after almost a decade. Had it not been for their attempt to escort me to a quarantine centre, I would have missed the opportunity of creating beautiful memories.