“Coffee time, five minutes!”
There is a scramble for the doors, even though it is only about an hour and a half since we set off on the fourteen-hour long bus journey from Pune to Bangalore. Perhaps it is the appeal of the branches swaying in the wind; who wants to be roasted inside a bus with the barely functioning AC switched off during the “break”? I get off, thinking of the phone conversation I unwittingly eavesdropped on earlier in the evening, hearing a man ask solicitous questions about Ammu’s purushan (husband). What does a grown-up Ammu look like? I have always associated the name with the little girl who saved her fisherman father from drowning in the sea in a Tinkle Holiday Special story from the early nineties, and as you probably know, little girls in stories cannot be allowed to grow up.
The five minutes stretch, inevitably, to fifteen. In this space, dark clouds from behind the hotel have come rolling over our heads and moved farther out over the Western Ghats. The jagged tops of the ranges are visible in the distance; a conical hill sticks out incongruously from amidst a cluster of settlements. A sinister blue darkness is rapidly swallowing everything in sight- everything but the vehicles hurtling down the highway, that is, a blur of colours attempting to beat the rain, silly things. I won’t be counting the stars or marvelling at the clear air of the countryside tonight, that is for sure.
As if to prove my premonition right, just when the bus begins its ascent up the twisting ghat roads, the clouds burst open with a dramatic flourish. The bus jolts through ruts connected by slender strips of road. Thunder rumbles across the mountains and lightning bares the exposed whiteness of white tree trunks, freezing them momentarily during their dervish-dance. The rain cascades down the window-panes in thick, rippling sheets; the raindrops caught in the odd beam of light are like furious, sharp arrows. Dark, hulking forms leap out of corners (eventually turning out to be battered barrels left around by construction workers), and the lightest creak inside the bus makes you jump. For all you know, the rest of the world has ceased to exist. The first signs of rain must have sent the electricity department officials scampering to turn off the lights in the city, so with the valley plunged into darkness, all that we know of now is the storm and the truck ahead of us inching its way up the road laboriously. You can’t stop on these roads, you just have to keep swimming through the rain, the wheels sending tall jets of water flying on either side.
One of the passengers is on his phone, ignoring the splendid rainstorm to give serious advice on how to choose the right MBA course. Another man digs out his film music playlist, which seemingly consists only of one half of every song. He runs from Dhak Dhak to Munbe Vaa to an unidentifiable Anuradha Paudwal song, before settling on a bhajan. An odd choice, I think: or is he suddenly feeling religious like the lady I came across on a trip to Sikkim, who, realising that our car was severely stuck in some stubborn slush, began reciting the Hanuman Chalisa frantically?
As a Vinod Rathod song comes on, the man next to me starts snapping his fingers and singing along. His rhythm is all over the place, but at least he isn’t sitting upright in his seat any longer, looking straight ahead and holding on for dear life. He is also no longer calling people in different parts of Maharashtra and asking them if they are receiving any paus, before proceeding to give them a detailed weather report with relish. It does look like the rain will never stop, though, and as we ease onto a level stretch on our way back to civilization, the bus joins a melee of other racing vehicles, all slithering and bumping home through deep puddles on undulating roads.
Update: At 2 am, the moon has struggled through the clouds and I see more stars than I have all of last month in Bangalore or Pune. And with that, the illusion of monsoon has passed.