I did not know what fate had in store for me when I accepted my cousin’s proposal to go fetch her newly married sister, Suyog, from a small little village where her doctor husband was posted. I lived alone in a rented room in front of Maharana Bhupal College, Udaipur where I was doing my graduation from. I was told to travel by rail to Nasirabad, then by bus to Kota, by rail again to Baran and finally by bus again to a place called Cheepabarod, my destination, just inside Rajasthan on the border of Madhya Pradesh. On a cold December night, I left Udaipur by passenger train and, after an uneventful journey, reached Baran the next afternoon where a bus was waiting for the train. It was also the last bus of the day for Cheepabarod. I boarded happily, looking forward to a sumptuous dinner and a joyous reunion with my cousin.
It was about an hour after this that lady luck deserted me. The bus stopped near a small rivulet and the driver announced that it would not go any further because the brakes had failed. I had no choice but to accept refund after deduction of pro rata fare. The bus departed as did all the other passengers who were obviously locals and knew their way around. I, a young teenager with no experience of the world, to say nothing of an emergency, was marooned in the middle of nowhere on an empty stomach which was already growling in protest. I was certain I was going to starve to death when my nose picked the delicious smell of eggs being cooked. I swept the area swiftly with eyes rotating in all directions and espied a shack lurking behind some tall shrubs. I lost no time in reaching the shack and saw the welcome sight of a middle-aged Sardar frying an omelette. I am truly grateful to the enterprising race which has penetrated even the deep forests to save lives of starving travellers. Having gorged myself on half a dozen eggs and half a loaf of bread, I settled down to wait for the bus which, the Sardar told me would take me back to Baran.
I was preparing to sleep the night at the railway station when a good Samaritan advised me to take a train to a station a few kilometres down where I would get another bus which would take me to Cheepabarod. It was already dark when I boarded the waiting bus. It rattled along crawling through what I assumed was the bed of a dry river. It was all I could do to latch myself to the back of the seat in front of me in an effort to save my limbs from being broken and keeping my head smashed by the ceiling. With relief, and a word of thanks to God, I disembarked when the bus reached Cheepabarod, retrieved my suitcase and bedding and asked a passer-by to guide me to the doctor sahib’s residence. As I knocked at the door, my stomach was growling again and was looking forward to the delicious dinner my cousin was sure to provide. It was not for hunger that I swooned when the door was unlatched by the lady of the house. She was not my cousin nor anybody I recognised. She was a stranger. She told me that my brother-in-law did not live there. Nor anywhere else in the village. Her husband was the only doctor there. I asked if I could see him and was told that he was watching a movie in the visiting touring talky. I was pointed to its location and, in a short while, collared the doctor. Taking a few moments off the movie (Minar, starring meena Kumari} he was watching, he said much the same as his wife had. Also, that he was the only doctor the village had seen in the past six years and that he had never heard of a Dr. Bhatnagar.
I found myself in a quandary. Here I was, in a godforsaken village at the unearthly hour of 8pm, which was nearly midnight for the village, with a growling stomach, and with no place to sleep I was sure I would freeze to death on this winter night.
We Indians are known for our hospitality – ‘atithi satkar’, ‘Vasudhaiv kutumbkam’ and what not. A visitor to the village is a guest of the entire village. Selflessly, we share with our guests whatever we have. What my host, the good doctor shared with me was information, which probably saved my life. He told me that there was a remote chance of my finding a place to sleep in the government rest house which was occupied by the National Malaria Eradication team. As for something to fill the stomach with, there was no chance at all. Being a true Indian and a believer in atithi satkar, he deputed one of his orderlies to escort me to the rest house.
A look at the rest house in the dark winter night was enough to send shivers down my spine. The building, which was probably built in middle ages, was all but ruins. An eerie silence prevailed with a hint of smell of decay. In all probability, it was also haunted. I was considering taking my chances out in the open, which I thought would be safer. Before I could convey my apprehensions to my escort, he cheerfully knocked at a closed which opened a crack and a voice demanded to know why the owner was being disturbed at this time of the night. Recognising my escort’s voice, the door opened wider and we were let in. My escort explained my presence. The man was genuinely concerned and told me I was in luck. Two of their party who had gone to the neighbouring village could not make it back to base. I could, therefore, get a room. He also offered me a couple of chapatis without vegetable but with raw onion and green chillies. Gratefully I accepted. My stomach was not happy at all but, knowing the circumstances, decided protest would be useless.
The ‘room’ I was shown to was all of six feet by five and would have done honours to a death row convict. I spread my meagre bedding on a rickety charpoy and tried to get some shut eye. I must have just dropped off to sleep when the ghostly haunting voice of a girl crying ‘bacaho bachao’ brought me up on my feet with a start. I was ready to fly out of the haunted house and save myself. What saved me from embarrassment was the sudden realisation that it was not a resident ghost crying but Meena Kumari in the movie ‘Minar’ which I had seen the good doctor watching.
At day break I caught the first bus out of Cheepabarod and retraced my journey up to Kota, the way I had come, and landed at my friend Uday Singh’s house. A telegram to Udaipur seeking fresh directions brought this response on the third day – “GO SHIVPUR-BARODA DISTT MORENA”. How wrong can one’s directions be! Cheepabarod is just this side of the border in Rajasthan while Morena just the other side of border in Madhya Pradesh. Well, I started on my expedition again. The route was common till Baran where I boarded another waiting bus. I asked the conductor for a ticket to Shivpur-Baroda and got another shock when he enquired where exactly did I want to go, Shivpur or Baroda. I was stumped. Enquiry revealed that Baroda would arrive before Shivpur and that hotels were available in Shivpur. I purchased a ticket for Shivpur. Arriving in Baroda, I stuck my neck out of the window and asked if Dr. Bhatnagar lived there. An affirmative answer brought me scooting out of the bus. A man volunteered to carry my bags. In a few minutes, I witnessed a scene I never expected to. Scores of people were running about shouting and brandishing knives, and spears and sticks. They were not rioting. It was a posse of the villagers trying to prevent kidnapping of a government engineer. Commendable but futile effort. The dacoits had departed with the victim a few minutes ago.
(This English version of ‘सुहाना सफ़र’ posted five months ago is for my readers who do know Hindi.)