There’s a night sky outside my window, in the bus from the village of Chougan, Bir, Himachal Pradesh to Chandigarh. From Chandigarh I travel onward, back to Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay. In the cloudless, darkened sky, I notice stars, the same arrangement I used to see as a little boy from my bedroom window back when it was called Bombay, back when there was no light pollution and slight air pollution. Now it’s known as Mumbai, has been known as Mumbai for a long time now, and now it has heavy pollution of every kind.
The ride from Bir has been just a couple of hours but a lot of ground has been covered. Through the hill town and village of Baijnath, with fruit vendors, vegetable vendors, small roadside dhabas and men having a meal or a late evening chai.
A shop selling copper pots and utensils, next to a general store, next to a shoe salesman, next to a store selling the most tender chicken in the world, now closed for the day.
Next to all, the ubiquitous roadside mountain dogs that keep humans company in the hills though mostly not – they are here for the scraps and the random donations but very rarely allowed inside. Maybe they wouldn’t want to be inside always. Free to roam outside when they want to and food from humans when it appears.
Inside the bus, the conductor is cross-checking seat numbers with a couple of passengers, it’s going to be a full bus, no standees, he doesn’t want to have to ask anyone to leave when it gets full. The bus stops to pick up a couple of pre-booked passengers along the way. A man here on the road between Baijnath and Palampur, the next big town, a newly married couple at the next stop, she, visibly pregnant. At Palampur, a small send-off party of woman and child, her husband, his father, waving to a relative boarding the bus. Himachal music alternates with Bollywood inside the bus. Inside me, the music of tiredness is playing.
Sudden tiredness, sadness to be leaving friends I’ve made in the last month at the Deer Park Institute in Bir, the hospitable and friendly villagers in the hills surrounding Bir, who’ve stopped to talk and engage, the Tibetan people in the Tibetan colony over there, those two little street dogs who weren’t afraid to ask for love.
Someone’s phone call on loudspeaker mode pulls me back into the bus. The night sky and the winding road pull me out. Outside, darkness. Not enough to ease the sadness, but does it really have to go away? Can it stay for as long as it does? The winding, downward road induces distracting churn. Constant. A sign saying zigzag road ahead. More than this? A child inside the bus begins crying, consoled by her father. She has woken up from a bad dream. The bus driver turns on the lights to make sure everything is okay. The music is turned off. The man, now self-conscious, tells his child, Be quiet, don’t cry, why are you crying? Turns out the child’s ears were blocked and popping – we are rapidly losing altitude down this road and the bus’s churn doesn’t help either. Now I see why there are throw-up bags in the seat pocket in front of me. Everything sorted, the conductor turns off the interior lights. The driver turns the music system back on. Punjabi music this time. With a drum beat to match the sharp turns on the road.
My mind goes back to Bir, wistful of the adventures there, mountain rides on scooters, traffic tickets from polite cops, hikes in the hills, friends from Bir, from India and from the world over. Wheat fields and mustard fields and sweet-smelling cherry blossoms. Himalayan rivers and herded mountain goats. And friends and warmth in cool weather. Outer journeys and inner journeys. Writing workshops and songs in languages from all over India. And the world. Listening circles. A celebration of the equinox in the haunting music of the forest. And a newly discovered desire to learn Marathi so I can practice with a new friend from Sawantwadi in southern Maharashtra.
The bus twists again. The music is loud again, another turn, another churn. There’s no straight road up a mountain, there’s no shortcut down. Down the mountains we are going. Rapidly losing altitude. Cars up ahead, tail lights, headlights. We are passing an ambulance, with an ill person inside being attended to carefully by family. An empty truck in front of us, a full one further ahead. Increasing traffic. Signs of a different kind of life. I am reminded of Mumbai, of city living. There’s a bit of dread, heaviness. What’s there for me there? As if on cue, the bus crosses a patch of rough road, unpaved. Rough road back to a city? Or in a city? I rest my head on the window to comfort myself. The relentlessly loud Punjabi music in the bus is giving me a headache. Mumbai and city living inside, loud Punjabi music outside. And bereft at leaving Bir behind. In this moment, there’s no escape. I chuckle inside and smile outside. This moment is perfect. No escape. I look out the windshield of the bus, headlights illuminating the dimly lit road, outlines of trees bordering. The headlights go only so far. The road further ahead is unlit. Another adventure awaits.
© 2019 Marlon de Souza. All rights reserved.