Should we have stayed at home,/ wherever that may be'
' Elizabeth Bishop, 'Questions of Travel'
There was a moment of stillness before the journey began. It was just before five in the morning, and in the vanishing April night, a sliver of a moon shone high above the Metropolitan Building. A grey light was blooming slowly over the Esplanade, but the sky was still a vivid, deep blue. The state bus that would take us to Siliguri stood next to a tea-stall lit by a single candle. The early wakers at the stall seemed to be in a wintry huddle with their tea and tobacco, although it felt like a balmy midsummer night everywhere else. And in the noticeably different features of some of our fellow-passengers, there was already something of the hills that we were travelling to.
My friend and I got into the bus and took our narrow seat close to the front. The growing light was slowly changing a metal junkyard into the insides of a bus. My eyes fell on the driver's seat, tattered and gashed, with the immense steering wheel and gear glistening stiffly in the dark. (I had noticed earlier the lion-grimace on the front face of the bus.) The windscreen was like a huge, cold frame. In the background were the sky, moon, building and empty streets. In the foreground, perched on the sleeping lion, were the gods of the journey ' Shib with his large, half-open eyes, and Kali with her bloodstained grin and the hibiscus rotting quietly at her feet. Draped around them was a garland of tiny bulbs, blinking away to some unheard rhythm. They seemed to be oddly awake when everything else was yet to come to life.
There was something both crazy and menacing in all this. But it was made strangely beautiful by the early-morning light. It made me wonder what our fifteen-hour-long journey up the spine of Bengal would really be like. So when the driver climbed up to his seat, rubbed his bloodshot eyes and started the engine, which came to life with a great bronchial roar, I felt a thrill in my guts that I feel in only one other situation ' when the lights begin to dim in the cinema.
Within a few minutes, we were hurtling along the outskirts of the city. As I looked out the window, the stirrings of a city slowly waking up seemed to be in another dimension of time altogether, as indifferent as a cow to the menace of this other, driven creature streaking madly through its world of slowness. But for us, sitting inside, that initial sense of craziness and menace ' the blinking lights and rotting hibiscus ' would not go away. It became the very essence of our journey. It was the element in which we were held, body and mind, even when there were, on either side of the road, paddy fields stretching as far as the eye could see, silent and golden-green in the morning sun.
The fury of our jalopy was not just a matter of speed, but also of sound. I have never heard the banshee wail, but had read Enid Blyton as a child. The continual, hysterical screaming of the bus's horn, sounding out even when there was nothing to frighten away, kept reminding me of this female spirit whose cries portend death. It soon numbed our ears, just as the constant, furious shaking took our nerves and muscles to a state beyond rattlement. So when the bus stopped somewhere and we could come out and stretch our legs, that strange, stupefied feeling did not leave us. Stillness and quiet seemed weird and unnatural, as the body and mind perversely longed for the fury to be resumed. We had, in no time, got addicted, physically and psychologically, to speed and noise, to a sense of recklessness and danger.
This addiction became, as it were, the theme of our journey. So when the bus stopped at Boro Jaguli, I wrote in my little notebook, 'What makes one abandon everyday notions of safety and surrender to somebody else's recklessness, relinquish control over the fate of one's body and being'' I also found out that my friend had had very similar thoughts. In a fit of self-importance, we called the subject of our reflections 'the metaphysics of travel', and then changed 'metaphysics' to 'physics', for that seemed truer to our experience so far. What our bus-ride was making us realize was that at the heart of travel is the body in motion, placed in an unusual relationship with time and space, and with other bodies at rest or in motion. This is a physical condition as well as a state of consciousness, vitally constituted by the way we use our senses (especially sight), and by the extent to which we can think, remember, understand, move about and communicate as we travel.
Questions of travel are, therefore, inextricable from the larger questions that form the shifting bedrock of our selfhood. Our notions of solitude, friendship and sociability; how we relate to the unfamiliar, unpredictable and unknown; our capacity for boredom, and therefore our aesthetic and erotic need for change, novelty and difference; how we leave behind or carry with us our tangible and intangible possessions (the question of luggage); how we deal with our need to eat, drink, sleep and relieve ourselves, with our fears of sickness, pain and death, of embarrassment and indignity; how we acquire and live out our notions of what is clean and what is dirty, safe and unsafe; how we keep drawing and re-drawing the boundaries of our spaces and bodies, our public privacies, and then stretch or break these limits, or allow others to do so, out of curiosity, tedium, desire or other, less explicable, needs. And for some, all this comes with a compulsion to make something out of this experience that would be more enduring than memory or conversation ' like writing or images.
These reflections, spun out within or between us in silent thought or shreds of talk, became part of the journey itself, in the way words get woven into the unfolding textures of space and time when travelling with a friend. But the nature and subject of conversations differ according to the mode of travel. Trains, for instance, are more reflective because they are quieter and less manic, their noise and movement rhythmic and lulling, allowing one to settle in, think, look, talk and move around. And there is usually the assurance of a loo somewhere at the back of one's mind. The train window is also a different kind of visual frame, and only allows the traveller to look out sideways, without affording a view of what lies ahead or is approaching from the opposite direction. Besides, the invisibility of the driver and the awareness of running on tracks give to the journey a different set of symbolic meanings. A train simply 'runs', while a bus is 'driven'. Hence, a train journey is a different kind of allegory from travelling on a bus, a car, a ship, a plane and the metro. Each treats the body differently, giving it a different sense of freedom and control, or the loss of these.
Our lurching, screaming bus allowed us to talk only in fits and starts when it stopped. And to be able to see our driver all the time, and the risks he was constantly taking, gave to speed and danger an immediate and un-metaphysical quality. The danger emanated from a flesh-and-blood human being, and not from an invisible, and hence god-like, origin, as on a train or plane. Moreover, the highway was strewn with dramatic memento mori ' flattened carcasses, smashed cars, overturned lorries, disassembled buses. Every time we passed such a spectacle, our driver would loudly draw the moral from it: bus-drivers should chew on very hot green chillies whenever they felt drowsy on the road.
Just after Shantipur, the bus stopped and, after some hesitation, took in a young woman accompanied by an elderly lady. Two seats were given up behind us for them to sit. I thought this was unusual, but my friend filled me in with what I couldn't see from where we sat, hemmed in now by the press of people in the aisle ' that the young woman was in labour. Very soon, I could hear her cries. It was perhaps the most helpless human noise I have ever heard. The driver heard it too, and kept looking backwards angrily while driving full speed. The people around her had also begun to sound loudly and ineffectually alarmed. And then, above the woman's wailing, we heard another noise ' a muffled human squealing. The bus lurched to a stop, and I saw the woman, pale and weeping, struggle down the steps, clutching something between her legs inside her sari. She got down, hobbled onto a cycle-rickshaw 'van', and I saw another woman, standing at a distance with a child in her arms, grinning with amusement as she looked on. Then, with another lurch, we were off again.
Soon afterwards, we stopped at Krishnanagar, and I went to the toilet. The relief it afforded me was more complicated than usual, after what I had just seen. The lone graffito on the wall of my cubicle was the Bengali obscenity for the female genitalia. Outside, on the wall opposite the tea-stall, the panchayat had inscribed in big, red letters, 'Ma-er dudh amrito shoman'. Next to this wall was a tiny curio shop selling a row of statuettes ' Chaitanya dancing with his arms in the air. Three identical, old dwarf-boshtomis ' probably triplets ' were haggling with a tea-stall boy for some biscuits. I went inside the bus, and found another boy from the tea-stall cleaning the seat where the young woman had started having her child, with drinking water from a plastic jug. I sat down, still rather shaken, and my eyes went to the other Ma on the bus. In spite of her bloody grin and tongue of shame, she looked unmoved.