Most travelers would have special memories associated with their travels – each evoking a different sense of emotion and some capable of transporting one back to the experience and recreating all the feelings associated with it. This ride will be among my top-five unforgettable travels at all times.
It was late November and early one morning I had traveled with a local colleague called Singh from Mirzapur to Robertsganj in Uttar Pradesh. The plan was that Singh would take me to villages in Sonebhadra district where Robertsganj is situated and introduce me to children who had been working in the carpet weaving industry. After interviewing them, we would head back to Mirzapur via Robertsganj.
A local private bus dropped us on the main road at a point nearest to the villages. Thereafter, we had to hitch a lift on a bullock cart going towards the habitations. As the bullock cart was stacked with hay, we had to sit on either sides of the driver. Singh began a conversation with the driver and as if he was under an obligation, explained what I was doing there. We got off at one habitation after thanking the driver and made our way to the houses. Everyone around seemed to know Singh and we went from house to house, habitation to habitation talking to children and their families. The children showed me looms on which they worked and how they wove intricate carpets. By evening, I had spoken to over twenty children and had collected data for my research. It was time to head back and we again hitched a lift on a bullock cart. This time, the cart was empty, so I stretched out at the back as Singh and the driver were lost in their conversation. This time, Singh did not have to explain the purpose of my visit because the word had already gone around.
Back on the main road, we waited for the bus to take us to Robertsganj. We waited and waited and waited, but there was no sign of any bus that would take us to Robertsganj. I asked Singh about the bus schedule and he simply laughed and asked, ‘what schedule, the buses keep plying until night’. That was not particularly re-assuring and I began wondering if Singh actually knew what to do in case the bus did not show up. It started getting dark and cold; and yet no sign of any bus. A couple of other people who were also waiting with us had gone off on buses taking them to some other place. I told Singh that I was willing to take any bus going to whatever destination as long as we got out of that place. But as luck would have it, after that there was no sign of any bus passing that way going in any direction. Singh and I were simply stuck and we had no way out! It must have been around eight o’clock when Singh also began to panic. He suggested we hitch a ride on one of the trucks passing by as several of them were headed towards Robertsganj. He had done it many times. I asked him how many times had his female colleagues taken a ride on a truck at night, he just gave me a blank look. I realized it was now upto me to decide- either get on to some truck and reach Robertsganj or continue to wait at night in the middle of nowhere. By the way, this was happening at a time when cell phones were not common and I did not own one.
After a few trucks and half an hour had passed, I made up my mind. I told Singh to speak to the next truck that passed and ask for a ride. The only condition was that he should not mention that I was with him to the driver and insist on sitting behind. He should not make any sign to me, I would just follow him. I stood far away from Singh and watched him stop a few trucks. He had a slightly long conversation with one driver and I realized that we had finally found a way out. Singh came at the back and as instructed started getting on to the truck. I quickly ran and followed him. For the first time, I realized that trucks are really built tall and I was athletic enough to climb up quickly and quietly without attracting any attention. The backside of the truck was empty and I sat quietly in one corner, covering myself with my dupatta. It was biting cold. Singh and I did not exchange a word. I looked up at the sky- it was clear and I could almost count all the stars. The journey seemed so long. Hundreds of thoughts passed through my head: where was I and where was I going exactly? Should one generally trust fellow human beings or should distrust underpin one’s interactions with others? I thought of those closest and dearest to me; they had no clue where I was. The truck stopped at a point. Some men got in and then again at the next stop, some more. I wondered whether the presence of strangers should make one feel safe or unsafe. I was actually feeling neither. We finally reached Robertsganj which was in almost total darkness. There was no electricity! The truck stopped at a point and most people got off. Singh told me that we could get off too. I remember jumping from the high truck without the shutter being opened, telling myself that I would land just fine like a cat. When I landed smoothly, I remember the truck driver’s assistant noticing me and saying, ‘hame maloom nahi tha madam hai truck mein’. I did not know what that remark implied and I did not bother to think; I just thanked him for the ride and walked away. Singh found a cycle rickshaw which took us to the bus stand. We still had to go to Mirzapur. And as per Murphy’s law, the last bus to Mirzapur had already left. I had no intention of spending the night at the stand. I suddenly realized how hungry I was and how badly I wanted to go to the bathroom. I had actually not eaten anything after my breakfast at Robertsganj in the morning. I was so immersed in the interviews that I had not joined Singh when he had some grub at a local eatery. I asked Singh to take us to any hotel close by. I paid for two rooms knowing that Singh may not be carrying enough cash. We then ate a simple dal-roti meal. I called my contact at Mirzapur and told him that we would return the next morning. For some reason, he felt personally responsible for my situation and insisted on speaking to Singh and the hotel owner to make sure that I was safe and looked after. I called home and told my hubby that I was safe and gave him the phone number of the Robertsganj hotel in case he had to reach me. No point in alarming him with the details now, I thought.
I tried to understand what I felt exactly when waiting for the bus and when I was sitting on the truck. Was I feeling vulnerable, helpless, unsafe or adventurous? Why did I feel the way I did- was it only because I am a woman or was it because I thought I did not belong to that environment? I did not have answers then and I don’t think I have them even now. But when I look back, I think this unforgettable ride not only helped me to understand myself better but it also helped me repose my faith in the basic goodness of people.