Tuesday, 21 July 2015

And I was the last man to jump off to safety from the jaws of death

The Pulchowk bus station at Narayangarh was bustling with crowd Рa m̩lange of people from hills, terai (plains) and foreigners back from Sauraha, the destination famous for sighting one-horned rhinos. The temperature was soaring at 36 degree Celsius and the air was humid, making everyone sweat perpetually. The Narayani River flowed gently nearby, with the vehicles screeching at the bridge to lower their speed. Policemen were loitering at the station, enquiring groups of people in between.

Adding to the sea of confusion, a bus from Bhairahawa, with a load of bananas and vegetables on the rooftop, stopped near the common ticket counter booking tickets to Kathmandu. People, waiting for the bus, hurried to embark the bus and grab the front seats – so that their journey till Kathmandu will be a comfortable one. Among them was a man with five goats – he got in the bus with the goats in the tow. As the goats bleated, the passengers cursed the conductor for allowing him to get in.

“Mommy!” “Mommy!”

A terrified baby started crying seeing the goats, while one of the goats started tearing at the shawl of the mother seated on the last row. She hit the goat with her elbow and it let go off the shawl. But whenever she looked elsewhere, the goat would again start its work. A game of hide and seek, between the mother and the goat, ensued.

The bus was full within minutes and the passengers were packed like sardines. The perspiration and smell of all different sorts started wafting like a concoction of strong rotten eggs and raksi, a home-made alcohol.

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A man next to me was chewing beetle leaf and used to lunge at the window to spit in between. The red spurts would splash on my face and clothes as he spat each time. In spite of the man’s audacity and my peaking vexation, I crushed my anger and remained a mere spectator.

All the passengers were asking the driver to start the bus, but the greedy conductor still wanted some more people who could travel sitting on the sacks of bananas and vegetables on the bus roof.

The bus operators never care for the comfort of the commuters but only for the money that they can squeeze out of them.

Then came an old man with a white cap, a silver goatee and a few days’ stubble which confirmed him to be a Muslim. He tried to get in the bus along with a basket of 10-20 chickens in it.

Not letting him in, the conductor started haggling over the fare.

"Hundred for you and 50 for your chickens," said the conductor.
"I will give you just 100, why are you charging for these chickens?" said the man meekly.
"Don't you know, they occupy a space that can adjust three men?"
"But they are not men, they are mere chickens."
"Fifty is not even a pinch of what should be paid," the conductor growled furiously.

The deal could not be struck. But the old man had just managed to get inside the bus door with his basket of chickens. Miffed by the altercation, the conductor grabbed the collar of the old man's kurta, disembarked him from the bus rudely, picked up the basket and threw it out of the bus.

The chickens, afraid, started clucking – adding to the cacophony.  

The old man was no match for the young conductor boy. The boy still managed to get some more men inside the bus. As the engine of the bus started roaring, the old man with tears in his eyes cursed, “You have mishandled a man of your grandfather’s age, the great Allah will punish you for your misdeed.” “Insallah!”

“To hell with you and your Allah!” shouted back the conductor and the bus sped on.

It was not fair. But none in the bus thought of confronting the ill-mannered guy. All were perched to their seats and nobody wanted to share the space with the old man and his chickens.

To the most Hindus in the bus – if not all – he was just a Muslim.   

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The Narayangarh – Muglin road section had lots of potholes and to add to the woes, the driving was reckless. The passengers at the back jumped with each bumps and jolts on the road. As the bus hit a bump, the goats would start bleating and passengers would scream “Ram Ram”. 

The bus left behind a cloud of dust which would finally settle on the trees and shacks by the road. I was feeling sorry for the soothing scenery and the river flowing by the road that provided some relief amidst the agony.

Besides, I was lucky to get a front seat. I had put my bag and sandals on the overhead rack and was reading the latest issue of Businessworld. The man sitting next to me wanted to break the ice and chat, but I kept mum. Still he disturbed me with his chewing and spitting.

At first I would take off my gaze from the magazine and look outside the window as and when the bus came across a jolt. But with a bump every minute or so, the curiosity died away. And I remained stuck to the magazine.  

As the bus crossed the bend after the famous Jalbire temple, the driver increased the speed. There might have been two reasons – Muglin, the next stop was nearby and a huge loaded truck was in front of us – with a driver adamant at not leaving the tarmac.  

Our bus driver was doing his best to overtake the truck and our ears were abuzz with the horn honking all the time. As he located a narrow strip, he sped the bus further and we were competing with the truck.

Then the only thing that we heard was a huge thud. And a complete chaos. Our bus had hit a post on the road boundary! 

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A bus stranded on the road between Narayangarh and Kathmandu after accident. Image from Flickr by Michael McDonough. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The bus was hanging by the boundary post. A scary see-saw it was. Thanks to the goats – their weight at the tail end was holding the bus from plunging down the hill into the river.

Some of the passengers had already jumped off the bus from the front door. Some were hanging to the trees with their skins slashed. Two women were crying at the back seat. The window had shattered and the glass pieces had cut their faces at several places.

Even in the death-at-the-sight moment I was able to grab my sandals and bag from the rack above my head. In a flash, I was jumping out of the opposite window.

Then somebody grabbed my t-shirt and hurled me back into the bus.

The man was in his 60s. “Please let my daughter jump first, she has a long life ahead,” he said and started helping her jump from the hanging bus.

Each second in the ill-fated bus seemed like a year to me. I was sweating like nothing and the fear of death was not letting me think anything rather than jumping out of the bus.

After his daughter, it was the man who took the turn to get out of the bus. A minute ago he was talking about giving chance to a younger girl to live and then he was ignoring a young man in his early twenties.

The bus was still hanging to the boundary post. When I jumped off the window, the upper window sill caught my t-shirt but still I was able to get off the bus. As I safely landed on the road, I could see that the bus was already empty. Nobody was inside, except the goats. They were still bleating. And this time, I knew it was because of the fear of death. But the din and hullabaloo out on the road overpowered it.

People care not for the precious lives but think themselves to be more precious than others.

Several thoughts preoccupied my mind and the most prevalent was the conversation between the old man with chickens and the conductor boy. The old man with his silver goatee and white cap would flash each time in front of my eyes as I turned towards the bus. And his words would echo in my ears, “You have mishandled a man of your grandfather’s age, the great Allah will punish you for your misdeed.” “Insallah!”

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It was 7 PM and was getting dark. The stranded passengers were waving hands and getting on to any vehicles that stopped for help. Luckily, four monks and I were picked up by a pick-up going to Kathmandu. We were the last ones to be rescued from the site.

As we left the scene, the bus was still hanging to the post and the goats – tired of bleating were whimpering. And the whimper, I knew, was scary. A sign of little thread of hope amidst the appearing death.

The pick-up, a jittery vehicle, was throwing billows of smoke behind. Amidst the darkness of the smoke, it seemed, the old man with white cap and silver beard was cursing the conductor. And I could see the man in his 60s tugging me by my t-shirt and pulling me back into the bus. I was comparing the tears in the old man’s eyes to the twinkle in the eyes of the latter.

The more I tried to remember, the more cunning the latter looked.

Passing the small town Muglin, we were back on tarmac with no potholes. The journey was smoother and the pick-up no more threw clouds of smoke behind. Till that time, I was getting familiar with the four monks, all dressed in orange and maroon. There was a sort of glow in their faces. Calm as sea they were.

When I asked from where they were coming, one of them quietly replied, “Bodh Gaya.”

I was more interested in them and as I chirped and chirped asking them more and more, the reticent men started talking – this time in one-liners instead of the one-words. They had been to the place of Buddha’s enlightenment. And enlightened they were.

After almost two hours’ ride, we arrived at Naubise – with the remaining journey reduced to 36 kilometres, an hour’s journey. As the vehicle stopped for late tea and snacks, I grabbed a packet of salt and sweet biscuits and started munching on it. The four monks remained in the pick-up. When I offered them the packet, they simply denied. I could feel the sense of fulfillment in their eyes.  

Then the scenes again started revolving in my head – the goats bleating, eating the women’s shawl, the bus smelling of local alcohol, the old man with chickens, the conductor and the man in his 60s – all characters forming an indelible collage. 

Lost in my thoughts, I looked at the four men. I could feel and see the calmness in their faces amidst the dim light splashed by the vehicles following us.

The tranquility in their company was slowly erasing the harsh memories I was hoarding moments ago.

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