By the time we headed back, it was dark already and the two-hour drive didn’t seem nearly as exciting as it had in the morning. With no bright city lights on the way, the road looked long and endless. Trucks loaded with tea chests and other produce lumbered by and cyclists from nearby villages whizzed past as it grew darker and darker. Driving past endless tea gardens with fencing posts and shade trees gave us the feeling that we weren’t moving at all and were stuck in one place. Our singing soon gave way to restlessness and impatience with poor old Tuni driver. On top of that, the five of us seemed to have put on weight during the day and were now squashed against each other.
At a railway crossing, we had to stop to let the train go by, when Saadia smelt fresh bread and made the mistake of saying this aloud. Before we knew what was happening, Roshni jumped out and marched towards the baker’s shack behind the level crossing, and returned armed with several loaves of warm freshly baked bread. At least we wouldn’t go hungry. To this day, I have not had bread as good as that, anywhere, here or abroad.
A little further ahead, our car came to an abrupt standstill. Peering out in the dark we saw the large shapes of elephants crossing the road to get to the forest on the other side. There must have been about 20 of them, including the little ones, with their trunks curled on to their mother’s tails. Quietly, and in the most disciplined manner, these huge creatures moved across the road – unhurried and unperturbed by our presence. None of us had a camera and that was just as well, since the flash could have startled them and caused a stampede.
Tuni driver seemed nervous and stayed still long after the pachyderms had disappeared till Priti barked at him to move.
We want to go home
One by one, we fell silent after the initial attempts at levity; it was pitch dark and getting nippy. Even the dirty jokes seemed lame now and no one wanted to sing any longer. Peering at the signboards on the fencing posts we tried to figure out where we were and realised we were still at least a good hour and fifteen minutes away from the garden.
Roopa, the most recently wed, started sniffling and tried to mask it by blowing her nose into her handkerchief. Priti, the most practical, rattled off the names of the other gardens that we would cross next, in a vain attempt to think where we could stop overnight and perhaps call up the men to say we were alive and well. I chanted vigorously, asking for divine intervention. Saadia yawned and fidgeted and drove us mad, and Roshni? Roshni hummed to herself and seemed completely unperturbed. “He’ll come looking for me” she said, “don’t worry girls, he always comes looking for me”. None of us quite knew how to react to that. Should we be skeptical, hopeful or just plain jealous? “He is perpetually afraid that I am going to run off with someone” she continued, “and I like it that way; keeps him on his toes; besides, the making up is fantastic!”
Saadia was ready to faint out of shock at this declaration, while the rest of us giggled skittishly. Priti belted out orders in Assamese and poor old Tuni driver accelerated the Gypsy in terror and in the process, ran smack into the speed breakers before the bridge, tossing us wildly inside the car, leading to shrieks that could have scared away any hyenas within a five km distance.
Once we had righted ourselves and crossed the little bridge, maybe just out of sheer relief, (I’m being polite, it was plain hysterics) I started giggling and couldn’t stop, despite many thumps on my back, and many sips of lukewarm, leftover coffee. Remember, adventure stories make delicious reading, when you’re safely ensconced on a divan at home, but it’s quite something else, living it, especially during those pre cell-phone days, crossing leopard country in a Gypsy, in absolute darkness.! I was essentially a city girl after all.
Swearing never to stay out so late ever again, but giggling hysterically, chuckling, snorting and hiccupping, we were a fine lot of memsaabs – unapologetic about our fun day and ready to retract any foolish promises we may have made a few moments earlier! Some of the hysteria must have rubbed off on Tuni driver because he yelled out loud and suddenly threw his hands in the air, causing the Gypsy to swerve. We must have unnerved him and he shot forward and braked to a halt muttering “shaab shaab”
To the rescue
Up ahead, we could see the headlights of a long row of vehicles – probably trucks carrying tea. They didn’t seem to be in any hurry and we counted six vehicles. Oddly enough, their headlights were all at different levels; and as they drew close, we saw a tractor, a jeep, a Gypsy, an Ambassador and two Marutis. Wait, so they weren’t trucks carrying tea? Oh my god, were they … ? Could they be … ?
Tuni driver jumped out and gabbled incoherently waving his arms. The vehicles stopped and a large flashlight shone into our Gypsy from the tractor. That was Surinder! In a trice, Roshni was out of the car and flinging herself at him, yelling, “I knew it, I knew you would come looking for me! I told the girls you would.”
Ashok’s loud guffawing followed, much to my chagrin, but all was forgotten when he came up to ruffle my hair. Anil and Priti had a quick discussion in Assamese and Roopa and Saadia sniffled sheepishly and apologised to Raghu and Prem, their respective spouses.
Would we ever live this one down? I wondered. But it sure made a fun story to tell the kids.
This is the second part to the article. The first part can be read here.