Dr. N. Sharma is a renowned surgeon who has countless achievements in his kitty. A hugely successful doctor, he has scaled newer heights with every passing year. He had worked with the Assam Oil Division Hospital of the Indian Oil Corporation in Digboi, my hometown, and is a great family friend of ours. He retired from the hospital in 2006 and relocated to Guwahati where he presently works with the NEMCARE hospital. His patients love him and adore him for being the most sympathetic doctor ever. The poor worship him for his godly nature and his benevolent activities in the remotest parts of Assam. He, along with his son, Dr. Abhigyan Sharma (my childhood buddy and best friend), pays frequent visits to rural areas of Assam where medical facilities are far fetched. They arrange regular medical camps there and supply medicines free of cost.
Uncle Sharma, being a busy doctor, has to frequently attend medical conferences and hence travel extensively in and around India. Most of his visits turn out to be fruitful and every time he returns richer, equipped with a vast know-how of surgery, the more the better.
One such conference was in Jaipur, the beautiful capital city of Rajasthan and uncle Sharma was one of the invited doctors there. However, this visit stood out from the rest because the journey back home was as strange as it was fulfilling. Uncle had narrated this little incident to us and by the time he had finished, we got goosebumps!
Rajasthan falls in the extreme Northwestern part of India where the Thar desert, also known as the Great Indian Desert, proudly stands. Soaring temperatures during the day, drop to uneasy levels by the evening. Summers are longer but winters are dreadfully cold. During one such winter, uncle Sharma had been on a brief visit to the Jaipur medical college for the conference. The conference lasted till late in the evening and uncle had somehow forgotten that the clock was ticking away. He chatted with some of the fellow doctors there and found himself explaining to the student volunteers, certain medical procedures involving surgery.
Suddenly, he remembered that he had a flight to catch from Jaipur and reach Delhi that evening. From Delhi he would be boarding another flight scheduled for Guwahati the morning after. He couldn’t possibly afford to miss the 8:45 pm Air India domestic flight to Delhi, but when he checked his watch, it was already half past ten at night. The flight must have even reached Delhi by then. He sank into one of the chairs, utterly dismayed. Observing him for a long time was one of the student volunteers of the conference who approached him and sat by his side.
“Sir, is everything alright?” asked the student curiously.
Uncle who had been lamenting over the missed flight, turned to look at him.
“Yes, I have missed my flight to Delhi. It was scheduled at 8:45. I need to reach Delhi tonight itself or by tomorrow morning earliest. Or I shall miss the second flight from Delhi to Guwahati,” uncle replied with palpable disappointment.
“Oh! Don’t worry sir. There’s a night bus that leaves Jaipur for Delhi at 11:30 pm. If you can reach the bus stop by 11 pm, I am sure you’ll catch the bus to Delhi”, assured the student smiling.
“Really? Are you sure it’s possible?” uncle’s face lit up at the proposition.
“Yes sir, I am from Delhi and on vacations, I take the night bus from Jaipur. I think you really should be going now”, the student advised checking his watch.
Thanking the boy profusely, uncle hurried out of the conference hall and hailed the nearest car among a horde of them waiting outside the seminar hall to drop conference guests to their nearest destinations. The car sped off towards the bus stop as uncle sank into the comfortable backseat.
They reached the bus stop at a quarter past eleven. Uncle rushed out of the car and hurriedly thanking the driver, ran towards the ticket counter. Fortunately, except for one, all other tickets had been sold. Heaving a sigh of relief, uncle turned towards the bus almost ready for departure.
It was a heavily crammed bus, overloaded with passengers, heaving and snorting as thick smoke bellowed out of its exhaust pipe. Luggage tied to almost every window railing, and passengers occupying the rooftop, added to the already overcrowded vehicle. Hens inside multiple cages stacked and tied onto the carrier atop, glared out of their prisons and cackled their displeasure in unison. Uncle Sharma was least bothered since he wanted more than anything to board the bus at that precise moment.
As he stepped into the bus, he closed his eyes for a split second to let the spectacle inside sink in. It was filled with villagers with their families travelling to Delhi and some places in between. As he slowly walked past the row of seats, uncle wondered whether he would have to spend the night sitting on the bus floor. Passengers had occupied all the double-seats in either row. As he reached the second last row, uncle grew utterly disappointed. Not a single seat was left for him. The village folk was noisily chatting about movies, city life, today’s youth and cell phones. Women were trying to control their boisterous children and put them to sleep. Uncle caught a whiff of tobacco and cigarette smoke as the night air grew chillier.
Watching the look of exasperation on uncle’s face, a young man in his early 20’s left his seat for him and told him that he would get off soon. Thanking the stranger, uncle heaved a sigh of relief and delivered his briefcase at one of the shelves above the row of seats and sat down and tried in vain to stretch his exhausted legs a little. A cold wind began to blow, moaning at intervals. And the air inside was rapidly turning colder. Uncle was still annoyed with himself for failing to keep a track of time. He watched as more passengers filled into the bus, many of them compelled to stand holding the strap handles of the bus ceiling. Everybody had a ticket but only a fraction of them managed a seat for themselves.
The bus roared to life and moved out of the stop and thus started the eventful nightlong journey. It had taken the route via NH 21 and it was the longest of all routes on road from Jaipur to New Delhi. So it would take more than six hours to reach New Delhi.
Uncle was hungry and tired but conscious of the rustic villagers who were staring at him wide-eyed. He was dressed in formals and frequently glanced at the briefcase in the shelf, inside which were some money, a few conference related documents and a few credit and debit cards. He clearly looked out of place among the hordes of travellers who looked impoverished but were fully covered with warm clothes since they were well aware of the intensity of the cold in Jaipur. Uncle wished that he had at least brought a jacket to keep himself from the cold. He only had his blazer on.
To his right were strap-hangers struggling to retain their balance as the bus bumped into potholes from time to time. To uncle’s left, occupying the window seat, sat an unseemly man who looked somewhere in his early 70’s. He pulled off the thick gaudy, smelly blanket he had been covering himself with, turned towards uncle and grinned. He smelled of a mix of onions and garlic. Uncle cringed at his sight and looked away, cursing his fate.
“Sahib, have you a sweater or a shawl?” asked the man.
“No.” came a faint reply from uncle, almost inaudible.
“But Sahib, it’s a long journey to Delhi and it’s going to be colder. I can share my blanket with you. I see that you only have a blazer to protect yourself from the cold”, said the man offering uncle the other end of the blanket.
“Oh! No! I am good! Please don’t trouble yourself,” uncle pleaded with the man while silently praying that the man would stop bothering him. The hideous smile troubled uncle even more. In the darkness of the bus, with dim lights casting a neon glow inside, the atmosphere looked hostile and intimidating.
“Are you sure?”asked the man, prying.
“YES! I am. Now, if you would please excuse me,” uncle replied, annoyed and repulsed and pretended to engage himself with his cell phone.
“OK sahib. But take heed”. And the man went off to sleep. Soon he was snoring. Uncle cast a sideways glance at the sleeping man. He had looked rather suspicious. But worst of all, was his foul smelling, retch-inducing blanket that he had covered himself with. Uncle wondered if this man had no sense of smell. The thought of the briefcase up in the shelf worried uncle and the cold gnawed at his skin.
A word of caution from his wife, against travelling with complete strangers, echoed in his ears, and with every passing moment, having to share a nightlong journey with a shady co-passenger, escalated his discomfort. The cell phone battery was draining fast and soon he would be losing contact with the world outside.
The rest of the seated passengers had all dozed off. Even the rowdy kids were quietly sleeping in their mothers’ arms. The strap hangers struggled to keep their eyes open for fear of losing their balance. It was almost midnight and uncle could feel an icy gust of wind force its way through the half open bus door. All the windows were tightly shut and yet the cold outside seemed to seep in through the narrowest gaps below the window panes. The bus sped across the deserted National Highway. The night had by now turned bone-chilling and uncle’s teeth chattered as he struggled to breathe. He pulled both ends of his blazer tighter round himself. Nothing happened. Having no other alternative, he held up his arms and crossed them over his chest. His felt his legs freeze as his fingers went numb.
Unable to bear the cold anymore, he gently attached himself to the eccentric sleeping man to his left and felt the warmth of the thick blanket even as its smell made him dizzy. The portion of the blanket covering the man’s face had slightly come off to reveal his countenance as he slept reclining his head against the bus window for support. The man’s head jerked a little and the tainted glass window quivered noisily with every bump. Uncle was careful not to awaken the queer fellow whose face, uncle observed, had a network of wrinkles. His darkened skin, heavily tanned from labouring in the hot sun, was an indication of decades-long toil and sweat. Uncle looked away but didn’t budge an inch. He found a loose end of the blanket and gently pulled it over his freezing thighs. It felt good. It felt really good. He let go of his shame and aversion and pulled the end a little further and soon, had managed to cover the left portion of his body with the other half of the blanket. The warmth brought profound relief and soon he drifted off to sleep.
Uncle wasn’t aware of how long he had slept but when he opened his groggy eyes, heavy from the previous night’s ordeal, it was half past five in the morning already and the bus had halted somewhere. Delhi was an hour away now. Most of the passengers had already left and some had briefly got down to have tea at a roadside stall, rubbing their palms vigorously, to keep from freezing. The sun wasn’t out yet and thick fog had shrouded the adjacent areas, reducing visibility.
On opening his eyes wide, uncle suddenly remembered the man from the night before and immediately turned to find the window seat empty. Shocked, uncle reached for his briefcase and to his relief, found it safely stacked away in the bus shelf. It was then that uncle realized that he still had the blanket on and perhaps that kept the cold out. It seemed as if somebody had tenderly wrapped the blanket around uncle as he slept soundly.
Just then, the bus conductor boarded the bus, smoking a locally made cigarette.
“Hey, there was a man sitting beside me, where’s he gone?” uncle enquired.
“Oh! He? Got off hours back, why?” the conductor wanted to know.
“He left his blanket behind by mistake….” uncle replied agitated but the next moment itself, the truth dawned on him. He stopped short, unable to speak further as a lump settled in his throat. He didn’t hear what the conductor was saying but wrapped the ‘smelly’ blanket tighter around himself and smiled as gratitude filled his heart to the brim…