I wrote a portion of this on one of the bumpiest bus rides there ever was. My memory supplies the other bits. I’ve written a fair bit about bus journeys at night but I never tire of doing so. There is something to discover in every new tea stall, hamlet, or railway crossing on these trips.
A yellow half-moon hangs over the valley with a generous sprinkling of stars to keep it company. Lights speckle the mountainsides and beam at passersby through their Himalayan tree cover. Sleep evades me as the bus hugs the tight bends of the narrow road and seems to brush against the oncoming trucks, their creaking bodies matching the rattletrapness (why isn’t this a word?) of our own groaning monster. The driver honks with gusto whenever an opportunity presents itself – and also when one doesn’t. He hawks and spits with great relish at frequent intervals, keeping his window open for the purpose and bestowing upon those of us in the front seats a benevolent portion of wintry mountain air. He keeps himself and us awake with Hindi film music from the 90s. Despite having been an avid consumer of trash during that period, I can barely recognise any of the songs, most of which are sad and obscure and whose lyrics deserve a prize for inanity.
We stop for dinner not at a rickety little eatery with questionable hygiene, but at a roadside restaurant with a large “AC hall” that has two air conditioners which may not be of much use in summer. (Hygiene here is still questionable, but the kitchen is out of sight.) In November weather, we seek shelter from the cold in the hall with its non-functioning ACs. Baskets of hot rotis and dishes of paneer and dal are placed on our tables with great dispatch. They don’t fuss with menu cards or cutlery or napkins. They accept debit cards, which is all we ask for. A Tom and Jerry cartoon is painted incongruously on one of the walls; elsewhere, a sign in Hindi warns people that they are responsible for their own luggage, in case they had any misgivings about the services on offer. We finish our meal and return to our bus – there is nothing here to linger over, no promise of stories or laughter, just efficient business. There is none of the warmth that Ruskin Bond encountered at a teashop on the Tehri road (Rain in the Mountains):
I find a couple of mules tethered to a pine tree. The mule drivers, handsome men in tattered clothes, sit on a bench in the shade of the tree, drinking tea from brass tumblers. The shopkeeper, a man of indeterminate age – the cold dry winds from the mountain passes having crinkled his face like a walnut – greets me enthusiastically, as he always does. He even produces a chair, which looks like a survivor from the Savoy’s 1890 ballroom. Fortunately the Mussoorie antique-dealers haven’t seen it, or it would have been carried away long ago. In any case, the stuffing has come out of the seat. The shopkeeper apologizes for its condition: ‘The rats were nesting in it.’ And then, to reassure me: ‘But they have gone now.’
After sunset, there are no mules or good-natured elderly storytellers where we are. We have left the glorious monastery, the busy shops, and the lone gardener behind.
Considering the number of trucks and buses that jostle pell-mell on this road, that any of them completes its journey unscathed is a miracle. The roadside shrines to Durga (draped in finery of red-and-gold) and austere Shiva are clearly there for a purpose. If you’ve read H Rider Haggard’s She and remember the protagonists walking across the chasm to get to the caves, you know what I’m talking about.
I clung to the saddle of rock, and looked round, while, like a living thing, the great spur vibrated with a humming sound beneath us. The sight was a truly awesome one. There we were poised in the gloom between earth and heaven. Beneath us were hundreds upon hundreds of feet of emptiness that gradually grew darker, till at last it was absolutely black, and at what depth it ended is more than I can guess. Above was space upon space of giddy air, and far, far away a line of blue sky. And down this vast gulf upon which we were pinnacled the great draught dashed and roared, driving clouds and misty wreaths of vapour before it, till we were nearly blinded, and utterly confused.
It is intense. There is no draught, but the pitching and rolling bus is a good substitute.
We round a bend and the lights disappear. The rugged mountain wall appears to my right, its lower flanks overgrown with scrub. A few houses nestle in hollows in the rock, shrouded in darkness, showing their green and yellow walls when they catch the headlights. Piles of loose rock lie on the edge of the road, and it is in this accumulation that these mountains appear more sinister than the Western Ghats. They are capable of immense beauty, but also of wrath. Once again, I have to pinch myself to believe that I am in the Himalayas, far from the disappointingly flat coastline of Chennai. These mountains have been a part of me since long before I ever set eyes on them.
I miss the Beas. I will wake up tomorrow not to the rush of the grey river, but to the thick smog and dust of the city. There will be no birdsong, but the harsh sounds of humanity reluctantly facing another day of hardship. I already miss the bonfire and the voices warm with companionship that carry far in the clear night air. I feel a little bit like Bisnu in Dust on the Mountain. I’m glad that I’ve been in what could be Ruskin Bond territory, only it was in Himachal Pradesh. However, the Himalayas are grand wherever they are, and I’m supplied with an imagination active enough to turn my modest city bedroom into a precariously-perched study overlooking snow-clad peaks and rushing grey-green rivers. Thank you, Mr Bond.