Tring tring. Treeeeeeng treeeeeeeng.
Our landline telephone rang harshly. Impatiently. “Cominggggg” said my dad. He seemed to have read the impatience, much like me. He rushed past me, towel wrapped around his waist, with half-shaven face while the other half was covered in foamy white lather. I let out a cheeky laugh. How funny he looked.
I heard him pick the receiver. I heard a loud authoritative “Hello. Major Kumar speaking.” A long pause. Some muffled sounds. Inaudible mutterings. I was a curious little one and silently, with baby steps, I went to the living room where he was talking on the telephone that sat over a hand-knitted white crochet piece. He seemed different. I have only seen him angry or laughing (with a drink in hand). I had never seen this expression on this face. What was it? He left the room, oblivious to my hiding place, and went straight to the kitchen where my mom was cooking breakfast. It was an off day and it was still quite early. Not a decent time to call anyone. Maybe papa was angry, for the caller disturbed his routine. He was very fastidious. Nothing, mind you, ever disturbed his toilet. It had to complete on time. It had to be thorough. “An officer is a gentleman first” he used to say. I think being gentleman had something to do with shaving till no hair dared to poke out from one’s face.
Uncle Sanjay came hurriedly. It was an hour or two later, same day. He said something about car or taxi or something I didn’t understand. Maybe we were all going to a picnic! Sanjay uncle and few other uncles from papa’s unit used to go with us for picnics. What fun!! I will ask Gaurav, Sanjay uncle’s son, to bring his cricket bat. “Good morning uncle” I said. He looked sharply at me, not expecting me perhaps. He quickly gained his composure and replied nicely, but it was unusual. Everything was unusual today. I asked if we were going again for picnic and he said something under his breath. I couldn’t catch it. Before I could say “I beg your pardon,” as taught to be used in such situations, papa came rushing in the room.
“Sanjay Yaar no luck at the railway station. I sent my batman but I don’t think we will get a reservation in such a short notice” said papa.
“Sir, please don’t worry. I have spoken to a man here who runs a taxi business. He has one vehicle that you can take on rent. It will cost you much more than railway ticket but at least you will reach on time. Sir, let me know and I will book.”
Papa thanked Sanjay uncle and asked him to book the taxi as there seemed no other way.
Papa went to office and got all the formalities done. Yessssss, we were going somewhere!! But where? That question wasn’t answered. Mummy was busy packing food for journey and our bags. I think we are going for longer than 2 days. She had packed only two pairs of jeans?!
The taxi arrived, an old Maruti Omni. Old looking vehicle but very shiny handles. It was decorated too, with plastic flowers, God’s idols and photos of all Hindu Gods. There were three incense sticks burning inside the car, that made it smell like roses. I think the driver was a very religious man. I had only seen such devotion in temples. Maybe his car was his temple or maybe he was busy driving so made a makeshift temple in the car itself. How nice!
I asked him his name, about his car, how long could he drive in one go, where he lived and so on. He nicely answered all my questions. The first person since morning to have done so. I remembered suddenly! I went in straight to my room, picked up my cricket bat and ball. Ran up to the taxi, asked the nice man to open the car trunk and kept my bat and ball inside. I knew mom and dad would forget. Can’t take chances on vacation, can I?
We set off. I sat in the front with the driver at first. I came to know the destination : Chandigarh. Our grandparents lived there. What a coincidence! It will be fun. This was my first road trip. Usually we went by the train, which was fun too but this was new and exciting. Since Naseerabad was far, we were going to stay in Delhi and next day leave for Chandigarh. Few relatives stayed in Delhi, so it was all settled.
The journey began. The first few hours were okay. I counted the number of cars I saw on the road. Then counted the potholes but that was too tiring. Then counted the number of trucks that had this message written at their back “Horn OK Please”. I asked driver to honk. He laughed at me. I told him that the truck people wanted us to. They wrote “please” on the truck. The driver only guffawed at it. These elders don’t understand that when they laugh at us kids, it hurts. Anyways, then I didn’t look at the passing trucks and cars. I played around with the tapes in the car, selected one with current hits by Kumar Sanu, inserted the cassette in the recorder and played. My father asked me to keep the volume low. I obliged. My mom was unusually quiet. Only once or twice she asked about my school leave and plan. Papa seemed to be in no mood for chitchat and she left him at it. Since we hadn’t had any breakfast she offered us all the paranthas and sandwiches that she had packed. It was alright so far. Food, music, front seat in the car, passing scenery which was all a big running green. We stopped at a local vaishno dhaba for lunch. Hot tandoori rotis and steaming dal filled us up and we set off again. By late night, almost midnight, we reached Delhi as planned. Our relatives welcomed us with long faces. How rude of them. They weren’t happy to receive us it seemed. They said sorry to papa and I forgave them. We had dinner and took our tired bodies to bed. Next day was another day of journey.
We started early at 4 or 5 am as we were to reach latest by 1pm. The journey was much similar. Sonepat, Kurukshetra, Ambala came and went. Nothing exciting. All fields. Road was better – smoother. After all it was the grand trunk road. Why was it named “trunk” road, I wondered. Did it resemble elephant’s trunk? Who named it so? Who names the roads? Why do they name the roads? Why don’t they name the fields too? I didn’t see any sign on any of the open fields we saw. I saw white dome-like big boulders along the road. They all had a number, some name (of towns as driver uncle told me). As I sat wondering, my thoughts took me elsewhere. What was Gaurav doing at this time? Why did we leave in such hurry? I don’t think this is a picnic or vacation. Something felt wrong. It had started affecting me, the sad countenances of everyone around me. Thankfully before I could think more, sleep took over. Papa suggested I sleep in the big and spacious boot of the car. It was perfect and more comfortable than the seat. I anyways wasn’t allowed to sleep next to the driver.
HONKKKKKKK. Where was I? What’s this place?? Am I moving? Am I dreaming. Window over my head? Where’s mummy papa?
“Haan beta. You are awake? Come, sit in the front.”
I climbed from over the two seat to slide on to ‘my place’ – the co driver’s seat, while mom dad sat on the passengers’ seat. I realized slowly. “Oh how long did I sleep for? Did I miss something?”
“Did you sleep well beta? We will reach in 2-2.5 hours. Are you hungry?”
I shook my head in negation.
Truck. Horn OK Please.
A truck smashed. Car boot gone. Crushed. Pain. Blood on arm. Mom crying. Papa? Papa?
“Betaaa.. can you hear me? Beta you are fine. Get up, get up.”
I was fine? We were fine? But a truck smashed our car. The boot in which I slept 5 minutes back gone. What if? What if I were in the car’s boot. What if I hadn’t woken up? What if I hadn’t come to sit in front? My mom was crying. Probably riddled by the same questions. Papa had a bloody stain on his head and had one hand pressed to the spot to stop the blood. Mummy too had injury marks but they said they were okay. And I was fine. Little scratches on hand and neck pain from the big jerk, but other than that I was fine!!
Wait till I go back and tell Gaurav and Prashant at school. They will be so jealous. What a story. What an adventure.
Children can think and say the weirdest of things at times. The glass is always half-full. What would have repulsed or shocked an adult, would only interest a young child. I was thoroughly impressed. It felt like an adventure.
Papa shook me and asked me to gather myself. “Beta we have to go. We need to go on.” He told mummy that another taxi has been arranged and we need to go. We can’t get late. We had to reach by 1 pm. We started again. I resumed my place next to the new driver. 9:30 am.
One hour gone. Our thoughts came back. The ‘what ifs’ were back and then a loud pop. This ‘new’ car wasn’t so new and something had gone kaput with its engine. We were getting late. I saw papa tense up. We were going to get late. He kept saying “We can’t afford to get late.” Both me and mummy sat dazed and a little scared of papa’s rising temper. The previous incident was still fresh in our minds. Our senses weren’t back yet. The shock still possessed us. “Come on move. We will need to take a bus or a lift if we are lucky”. We came out of the car. Air was warm outside. It was near noon. Our sweat-drenched clothes told us that although it was still early in the day, the temperature was already high. 10:30 am
North India gets hot in summers. But how bad it was I realized that day. I have lived in north India in summers of course, but usually we would stay indoors, well hydrated or played in shade. Standing on the road with luggage and signaling with our thumb for lift, wasn’t exactly exciting for me. One hour went by. Mummy sat on one of the bags. The water, whatever little, was long gone. What if we never ever got a lift or a bus? There was no PCO booth nearby. No police station in the distance till our eyes could see. It looked like a dead end. This sure was an adventure of a lifetime. 11:40 am
A car stopped. A small light-green colored Maruti 800 carrying a family. They heard our story. Took pity and took us. They were going the same side. Thankfully they agreed to take us till our destination. I had to sit between mummy-papa this time. On my favorite seat an uncle sat. I think we all need to make sacrifices. 11:45 am.
Oh God what will happen next? This was getting more and more exciting. Wait till I reach school. This summer holidays my essay will be about this journey. Wow.
We reached our grandparents house. Oh, why was this such a secret? I knew they lived in Chandigarh. Why didn’t mom dad tell me before? But summer vacations were still far away. Why then we came now when we anyways go there every summer holidays? Dad made us both go in while he discussed something with the Maruti 800 uncle, which was none of my business (as I was told). There was nobody in the house but my grandma and aunt, wife of my dad’s elder brother. Both looked identical. Wearing white-ish clothes. Sad faces and tears. My mother too joined them. They took us in to treat our bruises, nicks and cuts from the accident. Mummy told them about the journey but she gave them only plain details. It was not even half as exciting as it will be when I retell the story to my friends!! How the truck rammed in our car and I got a big jerk. How I was thrown away. How the two vehicles locked each other. Oooooooooo. And then the other vehicle and the way it broke down, with black smoke coming from its nose. How we stood on the roadside asking for lift. I will teach them how to signal for lift. I am sure they wouldn’t know.
Where did papa go? “Mummy I want to go with papa.” “Beta, your papa is leaving for… Go ask him if he hasn’t left. ” I ran outside and, reached just as my father was thanking the Maruti 800 uncle and getting into the car. I insisted to come along and papa gave in, not wanting to cause further delays. 12:50 pm.
I jumped in the car and we sped off.
We reached. Chandigarh, thankfully, is not that big and this strange place was not too far. Papa thanked the Maruti 800 uncle. He gave him all his money. Maruti 800 uncle refused but took the money and left.
We entered. It was a big empty place with a group of white-kurta clad men standing in a big wide group. In the centre was a pile of woods. The kind we alight on lohri but laid out horizontally instead of in a cone shape. On top of it was someone lying. I saw my uncle, dad’s elder brother, taking a long rod like thing in his hand. Someone lighted it up and it became a torch! He then proceeded towards the pile and lowered the torch to touch one of the lower wood logs.
We ran with all our might.
Papa called out “I’m here. We reached.”
Uncle looked our way. He wiped his eyes to see clearer. His face relaxed somewhat. He stood like a statue. We ran up to him. Papa hugged him. They looked at each other. Said nothing. Papa held his hand and they lit the pyre. I came up close and recognised the sleeping man. Only he wasn’t sleeping and he was not just ‘a man’. He was my grandpa. My grandpa ! “What happened papa? What are you doing to grandpa? He will get hurt”
Papa looked away. They set the pyre on fire. I ran away. I didn’t like it. We came for this? To hurt grandpa?
We came back home. I didn’t say a word. I didn’t want to. Everyone looked sad. Nobody said a word. Sometimes I would heard a soft cry, a muffled sob. I was given food and made to sleep. While I slept papa and mummy went to doctor to get their injuries checked and came back with white bandages. They were fine they said. Why didn’t they take me too? I would have gotten bandages. That would have made my story more real. I would have gone back like a Hero!
Papa called me. He explained.
“We all are in a journey beta. Yes, a journey similar to what we had. Sometimes it’s exciting, sometimes it’s saddening, sometimes scary and sometimes very happy. But sooner or later it ends. Your grandpa’s journey ended yesterday morning beta. He left us all. ”
“He died papa?”
“Where did you learn that word? Do you know what dying means?”
“Papa, I know. My friend’s dog died and they buried him. They said that he just went to a long sleep. He will never wake up. Is it what happened to grandpa?”
“Yes beta. He had a full life. He made friends, he did good deeds. He raised us all. He loved us all. It was time he moved on. Everyone moves on.”
“Papa if he had gone, why did we hurry to reach?”
“Because son, we must honor the dead. I wanted to see him off. Say my goodbye and wish his next journey be pleasant” “I understand papa but I will miss him.”
“So will I son.”
A single tear rolled down his eye.
A single tear rolled down my eye too as I sat remembering the day my father fought against all odds to reach his father’s cremation on time. I had just placed the receiver back on the cradle. The news had not sunk in fully. My papa no more? I am serving in the valley, a captain in Indian army, just like my father.
The valley is disturbed. Lot of militant activities in and around the area. It’s not safe to travel and not recommended. But I will reach in time for my papa, no matter how; just like he reached for his father’s. I must have been 5-6 years of age back then. Everything was new and exciting back then. I do not remember much from that time but I remember his words well. I remember his face from that time, the way he looked back then. How different he looked. He was young. I know that now of course. Back then I just felt my parents were so old, much like every other kid who thinks that all grown ups are “old”. I remember the journey, our journey.
His journey ended too. Too soon. But his son will be there to see him off. To say his last goodbye.
Happy journey papa.