It was the time when we went to my sister’s wedding reception in Samastipur, Roshra Road, Bihar. We traveled from our ancestral home in Jalpaiguri to Samastipur by an SUV and the journey was an experience, one of its kind. We started in the evening around 8 pm from Jalpaiguri. It’s a distance of about 400 kms and there are usually two routes to follow, the first and more common one is via Belacoba, Ambari, Bahadurganj, Forbesganj. If you look up Google Maps, this would be the suggested route. But we took the other route, the new highway which was being built via Islampur and Purnia.
The new highway crossing river Kosi and Kosi flood area was a splendid smooth road except for the diversions which were still under construction. The real tale in this journey is behind these diversions as we were about to find out in the most memorable way.
While going to Samastipur, we all simply fell asleep in the car and didn’t care much how we reached Samastipur early in the morning. But on our way back, we were cautioned by the locals not to travel in the night. They advised us to stay back and start in the morning, but we didn’t want to spend the night in Roshra. So we decided to take the night trip to Purnia risking a face off with dacoits, car jacking, naxalites and other kinds of nightly creatures people believe in.
We took the risk not because were were all super brave but because we didn’t quite believe in the scary stories. ‘People always love to tell these stories which have one part truth and three parts filmy imaginations’, we thought.
Little did we know.
Our journey began around 9 pm from Samastipur. By around 1 am we had reached the most dreaded and completely dark secluded stretch of the highway. As mentioned before, this new highway was not a common route for people going to Samastipur for two reasons, first, they cannot be sure how motorable the road would be since river Kosi had a history of flooding the road unpredictably. Pools of water were seen on both sides of the road which are called Kosi flood area. Secondly, there were very few fuel station, dhabas or relaxation point on the highway. The stretch was extremely secluded with barely one or two vehicles, mostly trucks passing by once in a while. We were on an endless road with vastness spread across on both sides and absolute darkness.
As we entered the so called risky stretch our driver began to slow down, and decided to pull over at the next approaching stop-over point to take a break from the night drive. He said, “It won’t be safe to drive anymore let’s stop over for the night and start again near dawn.” We didn’t understand his plan of action, which we thought was weird. We were like “Stop? In the middle of nowhere? How?”
A few more meters passed by in discussing whether to stop or not to stop and the fear and risk factor became bigger in his mind, “Babu, see this is the last stop-over point, after this for next 3 hours there’s nothing, tell me what to do? After this what will happen I can’t tell. Do you want to take the risk?”
“Yes yes, keep driving, where would we stop? This is not even a decent place for us to stop, at the middle of the night. Nothing will happen, just drive.” We told him.
He drove another few meters and said, “Babu, now the diversions would come and the cars would have to be slowed down totally, at that time if some biker come and put a gun or knife on my head what will happen?” He especially turned towards my uncle who was quite mad at him and insisted he keep driving and said, “Arre, you are an old man, you may not care about your life but I do, as I still have a lot of years to live. I don’t want to drive any more, we will stop now” He quickly referred to horror tales of many drivers having lost their lives that way on this stretch of the road.
While he was telling those horror tales we noticed that the last stop-over point just passed by and it was think dark all around. For miles before and behind us, there was no other vehicle except a bike with two men on it. The bike came very close to our car, slowed down, then went ahead only to take a U-turn and be back towards us again.
When fear is in your mind, everything turns scary. We were scared.
We thought it was better to follow his plan, after all they ply through these roads daily, they know better. We had left the stop-over point behind by at least couple of kilometers by the time we told him, “Ok, let’s stop over.” He said, “Let me see if there’s a petrol pump ahead. We drove for another few meters but it didn’t seem like there were any petrol pump anywhere ahead, and we found the same U-turn that those bikers had taken. We too took a U-turn and went back to the last dhaba we found on the way, the stop-over point, and pulled over.
Those bikers too must have got scared and decided not to go ahead, took a U-turn and went back to wherever they came from. They weren’t kidnappers after all.
The dhaba or the stop-over point is actually a faint yellow light bulb, lit on a abnormally tall pole in the middle of the field, at a considerable distance from the highway and was barely visible from a distance. Near it on the highway almost 30 trucks had been pulled over, parked in a line and the drivers were all scattered around, sitting and lying on khatiyas spread on the field near the pole watching an 80s B-grade action film on an old black and white TV. We could hear the TV sounds from the road.
These trucks carry a lot of costly items. We realized even they don’t take the risk of plying through the night on this road. And it is safe to be around them since for their self protection a lot of them carry weapons. We felt somewhat safe, though it was quite unpredictable as to what would be the consequences in the event the truckers themselves decided to harm us – two young girls (me and my cousin sister), one lady in the late 50s (my mom), two old men (my dad and uncle) in their mid 60s and one young boy (my cousin brother) coming from a wedding carrying cash and gold.
A few of us stepped out of the car to stretch our legs and enjoy the night breeze. It was around 2 am by now. In the next ten minutes the TV at the distance went silent and the faint light on the pole went out, the truckers had gone to sleep. Darkness and silence engulfed the last bit of safe space in this godforsaken place.
That, there, scared the shit out of us. Those of us who were stretching our legs quickly came back near the car. Our driver was sleeping spreading himself on the front seat. So some of us had to stand outside but none of us spoke. Lest female voices are heard from a distance and easy preys are identified. My younger brother was playing music on his cell phone, we scolded him and asked him to be silent. I started inspecting the car interiors carefully searching for a place to hide cash and gold. Under the seat? Inside the carpet? I did find a nice place, the gap between the back door’s frame and leather padding.
Suddenly, lightening struck and it started raining. It started raining cats and dogs. Alas, not literally, for a few dogs wouldn’t have been so bad at this hour. What was eerie was this sudden rain out of nowhere, there was no looming clouds that we noticed so far. Like that, we were in a scene straight out of a slasher movie. The psycho killer was right behind us ready to stab.
All of us adjusted inside the car as it rained outside, we remained silent and stayed still.
I am not sure how many hours were passed like this but the sky had began to clear out and it was about to break dawn. Trucks and Vehicles started frequently passing through the road. Some of the trucks around us were gone. Our driver woke us up and said we were good to start.
It was around 4.30 am when we reached the diversions. I don’t know the exact engineering term used for these diversions but they were incomplete construction sites where a dented raised platform was being constructed on the otherwise straight highway. Every vehicle had to really slow down, shift to first gear and drive carefully to not get stuck in the incomplete construction pits. It was the fear of this slowing down that made night drive so vulnerable. “Had it been a straight road Babu I would have hit and run the bikers (assumed miscreants) but how can one escape the diversions?” Our driver had said.
Now dawn had broke, but the diversions remained scary as ever. Thanks to the rains last night one of the diversions turned into a muddy pool and almost every vehicle got stuck in it and had to be pushed manually to emerge out of the mud creating a long traffic jam. We dreaded at the thought of passing through this diversion at the night and getting stuck in the mud. By the time our turn came to pass through the mud, our driver took it as a challenge and accelerated the car with full force. We passed through the muddy stretch and he gave a wide smile and exclaimed, “See, we didn’t stuck.”
“No we didn’t. You are a good driver, I must say” I complimented him. He was super happy to hear that. I honestly thought he was a good driver.
Few more kilometers went smoothly in good speed and it was now around 6 am. Just when it seemed the worst was over in this journey the car slowed down and stopped. We had ran out of fuel. The last petrol station was way back in the night before we stopped over. On this newly built highway there’s hardly any fuel stations.
Clear morning sky, but empty roads and no fuel. We stepped out again. The driver said, “One of you come with me babu we’d walk ahead and find some place. Usually the villagers or local shops store fuel which they sell at high price.” He took his can and went away with my uncle in search of fuel.
Once again we dreaded the thought of driving through the night and running out of fuel.
Local men with lota (water bearer) in hands going to or coming from their morning nature calls stopped by near our car and inquired what’s the matter. We explained, they showed sympathy but promptly assured us that there was still no fuel station for another 15-20 kms until Islampur. Having given us more worries they went off their way. About half an hour later, the driver and my uncle came back with fuel. They had found a cell phone tower that stores fuel. Two-three liters of fuel were brought in the can, only to drive up to the tower where we filled the tank fully.
The tower was very interesting. Fuel came in cans of ‘Mahatma Egmark Mustard Oil‘ and were poured using a funnel in our car. Photography wasn’t allowed, but I took one anyway. Besides fuel there was a rose garden, a stable for cows and buffaloes, a super clean toilet where we all freshened up. It was one of those days of the month for me and I couldn’t be more thankful for the clean toilet.
This time the worst was really over. Islampur was close, we had breakfast there and then the last few hundred kilometers were lovely. Early morning, the sun was rising, in the clear blue sky somebody had poured liquid gold, women folks were going to work, some to the farms, some to the road constructions. Young girls were riding bicycles to their schools.
In the car, everybody were sleeping except me and the driver. He started chatting up with me. Asked me how much does a driver make in Delhi? Is there a demand for good drivers? What car I drive etc. Suddenly he exclaimed, “Damn it, I spoiled the mileage meter while accelerating, it is not showing the mileage anymore!”
We reached home in the afternoon. While paying him, dad got into an argument over the mileage. He kept saying, “babu the meter broke half way.” But dad won’t believe him. I was the only eyewitness of his innocence but as soon as I had reached home I crashed and came to know about this argument only later.
I am not sure how did it get sorted.