The Custodian

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Soumya shares the highs and lows of hitch-hiking in a truck, after a cancelled flight to Delhi, with two men and a lady. more about this adventure, in the weekly column, exclusively for Different Truths.

It was the worst trip of my life. My guardian angel was working overtime battling some ancient curse which was determined to end my life or so it seemed.

I was a marketing executive touring Himachal, when electrifying news from Delhi that my imminent parenthood is getting advanced by a fortnight and if I did not rush back, would miss the most significant event of my life. So, I decided that economising be dammed bought an air ticket to Delhi.

The day dawned with terrible weather and the flight from Delhi, which was to take me back to the most anticipated event of my life was getting delayed. My frustrating visit was shared by two anxious co-passengers, a Punjabi fellow salesman, and a Gujarati realtor.

The Punjabi gentleman in his eagerness to meet targets, had missed his previous marriage anniversary – his first and missing his second, he feared might make him again. He was cursing the weather for ruining his marriage.

Mehta Bhai having concluded some in HP was keen to return to a deal and delay would cause losses which were like losing a limb to him. To our combined horror, it was announced that the flight from Delhi could not land and has flown back and we should try our luck the next day.

We three then decided to encash our tickets and hire a taxi at whatever rates available, to be shared by us, three desperate people. That way, we could hope to reach next morning.

As we started negotiations, a young lady approached us and requested that we let her be the fourth passenger. Gallantry and economy ensured we agree and convinced a taxi to brave the weather for a small , relieved that we would be reaching Delhi soon. But weather and fate had other plans. A few miles from Bhunter, we were jolted by a crashing sound and saw the horrifying site of the hillside slowly collapse on the road, some boulders narrowly missing our vehicle.

The unnerved driver refused to proceed, offering us a ride back to town and when we refused returned our money and left us stranded by the roadside. The lady too against our advice, threw her lot with us. She confided that she had with great difficulty convinced her parents to bless her engagement with a man from another community and the date set was tomorrow. Missing it she was convinced would leave her no option but to choose between family and beau, a choice she dreaded.

So we waited for the road to be cleared while trying to hitch lifts from the stranded trucks on the road. We finally convinced a very merry gentleman driving a fruit-laden truck who had been making good use of the forced break journey by fortifying himself with liquid sustenance.

On our anxious inquiries about his ability to drive, he assured us he did not intend to but hand over the wheel to his apprentice, while he enjoyed a well-deserved siesta on the cabin roof. So the four of us squeezed into the cabin, the proximity being uncomfortable for the lady and guiltily pleasurable mixed with discomfort for us three. We were reconciled to finally reaching our destination late and exhausted but in time to avoid our personal disasters but the amount was not a spent force yet. A few hours later just as it was getting dark, we were dozing off and so was our designated driver. Speeding around a bend, he noticed when it was too late, another truck hurtling around the same bend from opposite direction. There was no time to brake, so he swerved left sitting by the window, I could see the truck veer inexorably towards the gorge to our left and felt the wheels slip off the road. The moment is indelibly frozen in my . It seemed to be happening in slow motion. The truck was slowly toppling left into the gorge. My mind was absolutely clear. We were going to die. My companions jolted out of a doze had not quite realised what was happening. The ad hoc driver was trying to jump off the truck on to the road. But my life was not flashing before my eyes as it was supposed to. My only thoughts were: 1. I will not see my child. 2. How will my wife bring up the child all alone?

But my guardian angel had not called it a day either. Instead of a free fall into the void, the truck stopped with a huge thump. There was a six feet ledge of terraced cultivation, six inches below road level. The truck was stuck, veering crazily in a small field of maize. Shocked out of the daze, we all scrambled out of the driver’s side, shaken and stirred but in one piece and jumped on the road. Other trucks had stopped and people were gathering. We noticed that ten feet ahead, the ledge ended and had we gone off the road a second later, we would be deep down in the gorge and up again towards our respective heavens or hells.

On headcount, we realised that truck owner was missing and feared the worst. But there is a special god for the inebriated and we found him sprawled in the field of maize looking dead. On closer inspection, he proved to be still peacefully sleeping. People really helped, perhaps the presence of the lady inspired chivalry. Some construction crew came with their equipment and helped haul the truck back on road. The spilled goods were reloaded. The engine was working fine. The by now sober driver took the wheels. The spilled sacks were reloaded with lots of volunteers including us. We got back on the truck and the journey resumed late in the night.

Early next morning, as dawn was breaking, we were at ISBT waiting for our auto, tired, dirty but ecstatic to be almost home. We now had to part ways and go to our respective lives. Having been through hell together was a bond and contacts were being exchanged. The lady wanted to visit the washroom to freshen up, and asked us to closely guard her belongings, as it had all her valuables for the coming ceremony. I jokingly told her, not to trust strangers with such precious burdens, as we just may disappear. She told us – look as I have trusted my most valuable possession, myself, in the custody of three strange men through the day and night of hell, in the most desolate of areas – in comparison this possession is nothing. I can trust you with them, and you are welcome to them if you so desire. We were left without an answer.

PostScript

A few days later, she came to visit my daughter in the nursing home (I had been present at this most exhilarating and frightening moment when I became a dad) and we three with our family were guests at her wedding a month and a half later. Mrs. Singh and Mehta too are still occasionally in touch.

Years have gone by, but my most memorable journey refuses to fade from my memory.

©Soumya Mukherjee

Photos from the Internet

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Soumya Mukherjee is an alumnus of St Stephens College and Delhi School of Economics. He earns his daily bread by working for a PSU Insurance company, and lectures for peanuts. His other passions, family, friends, films, travel, food, trekking, wildlife, music, theater, and occasionally, writing. He has been published in many national newspapers of repute. He has published his first novel, Memories, a novella, hopefully, the first of his many books. He blogs as well.