I don’t remember his face very well. Just a faint sketch of his physical outlines, his big broad shoulders, his deep voice, some of the songs he sang and few of the words he said to me about life, freedom and spirituality that I couldn’t quite understand. From what I have heard from those who knew him intimately during his lifetime—and there weren’t many who did for he was known to have a very strong and intimidating exterior—he was a well-read, liberated but arrogant and formidable sort of a man. Some interpreted it as his reticence; others translated the aloofness of his disposition as his egotism.
My mother never spoke much about him. I always felt she nurtured a deep sense of emotional detachment from him ever since the day he left her alone in the physical world. No, he did not leave her for another woman. He desolated her for a greater cause—the love of the nation. A man of his principles could not accept the fetters of a foreign rule. He gathered his resources and revolted against the British Raj. Unfortunately, his extremist views cost him dearly. Arrested, tried, jailed and eventually executed, he paid with his own life and some of ours.
I lost my father when I was six. My mother followed all the rituals of mourning but didn’t shed a tear. They thought the shock had left her senses inert. She was unable to emote to grief, was their legitimate conclusion. I, however, felt his death only enhanced a predetermined indifference. She held him guilty of evading his obligations towards his family and deliberately dragging her into an inevitable misfortune.
Yes, his untimely demise left her with a lot of responsibilities—the ancestral property, the dependent relatives, her own children and their future. On the other hand, his departure from my life left me with almost nothing except for a legacy that I naturally, as an heir “acquired”. A wooden handcrafted flute, a diary, the portrait of a lonely woman chasing a silver moon and just a handful of memories of a man I once called Baba was all I was left with. The one frame that had the longest lasting impression and remained etched in my mind throughout my childhood, adolescence and youth was that of his funeral pyre. Yet, I could never bring myself to come to terms with his death.
In my moments of indecisiveness and fright, in times of utmost anguish, hopelessness, defeat and loss, I always found refuge in his thoughts. My father was a strong man, whereas I, his only son, was a submissive emotional weakling, often going into an overdrive of self-pathos and depression when things didn’t happen my way. In all those moments of despair, all my monologues were addressed to him. What may appear as a deviation to normal behaviour, I communicated with him, never expecting a response but baring my soul nonetheless. Surprisingly, even in absence, his presence had the most undeniable influence on my life. And time and again, events occurred to corroborate my faith in the inexplicable power of the unseen and unheard existence of an arbiter of my destiny.
I vividly remember a winter night in the biting cold Himalayan terrain five years ago. I was assigned a job in the Tehri town in the state of Uttarakhand in northern India. My deputation at the controversial hydroelectric project required me to travel to the lovely hill station located by the fiery Bhagirathi river quite often. In fact, more often than I loved to be away from my family! My regular trips would be typically short and I would return to my hometown in Dehradun in a day or two. However, this trip, in particular was overstretched and after a fortnight of staying in a freezing cold, unfriendly and difficult working environment, I naturally wanted to go back to the warm comforts of home during the weekend. And that particular evening I was sulking in loneliness.
From the guesthouse where my accommodation was temporarily arranged, I could see a magnificent peak of the snow clad Himalayas. As I was watching the setting sun cast a pinkish orange tone to the snow capped peak, the spectacle left me completely mesmerized and thoroughly homesick. I began missing the panoramic view from my room’s window facing the mystical Mussoorie lights and Shivalik mountain range, my mother’s home-baked bread, curry and mango pickles, the warmth of her affection and all the associated hospitality that came with being raised in a large joint family, and most importantly, without a father. Without dwelling too much over how the superiors at work would react to my sudden disappearance from the site, I decided to take a bus home.
In the hills, especially in winters, it is not a common practice to stay out in the open or travel after sunset. Much as the temperature plays a devil, the fog plays its rightful advocate. It’s too risky to travel uphill or go downhill when the visibility drops down to a minimum. Needless to say, the bus station was nearly empty and traffic was scanty. By the time I reached the ticket counter, the conductor to the last state transport bus to Dehradun was already whistling away and trying to sell the few spaces left to fill up the empty back row. The government-run bus looked as unimpressive as it could and though craving to be home as soon as was possible, I was hoping I had another option.
At the same time, a private luxury bus pulled up next to the old state transport bus. The conductor, a street smart chap, seeing my hesitance to board the former, sensed my need immediately. Spitting out a mouthful of paan juice, he assured me in the corniest phrases possible that he’d give me the best ticket.
“Sir, we offer excellent service. The best you can get here. Also, one bottle mineral water free. I’ll give you seat 3 and 4, just behind the driver. With only steel rails in front, it will give you more space to stretch your tired legs, Sir. And with two seats, you can also sleep your way through the journey.” He sounded extremely tempting and I thought my prayers were just being answered. At least, I had the privilege to opt what I wanted.
I was just about to board the bus when something within instinctively forbade me to climb up the steps and secure my luggage. Strangely, I retracted with an unexpected reflex. Just then, for a split of a second, I thought, I saw a faint outline of Baba by a window in the other state transport bus. It was impossible I knew. And in all these years, when I had constantly nurtured and lived with the feeling that Baba though omnipotent was only my passive listener, I never hallucinated about his physical presence. The sight of that funeral pyre was stamped on my mind.
Strangely enough, knowing that it was one of the most illogical but overpowering intuition, I submitted to it and withdrew immediately. The conductor looked at me helplessly and wondered why I had changed my mind. I left him with no answer and walked back to the rusty old state transport bus. The bus had almost started moving away from the station and I managed to hop on to it at the last minute. Of course, I couldn’t find any remnants of Baba, no proof that he was there, not even a remote lookalike. Needless to say, I had had another illusion, and now my only choice of seating was a long narrow back seat near the wheels—the worst you could get on a public transport.
The air reeked of an unpleasant rustic stench, the windows rattled dangerously as the bus moved, the glass panes were broken, the cheap leather seat was torn and worse still, there was no room to put my luggage or feet. I hauled my rucksack and squeezed it between the rows of baggage and legs, blaming my idiosyncratic behavioural manifestation and choice of transport and wondered how long the journey would be. Just then the luxury bus zoomed past mine that was shamelessly staggering over bumps and the precarious mountain track, further instigating the feeling of a loser in me.
“What on earth is wrong with me? How could I even imagine such a thing? Why did I make this utterly stupid choice when I could have travelled so much more in comfort and faster than this mechanical wreck?” I asked myself. Metaphorically, the chill night breeze blew in from over the high mountains and hit me hard on the face. I pulled my woollen cap and mufflers closer and closed my eyes counting the hours. The journey had only just begun.
I must have fallen asleep for an uproar woke me up from my forced indolence. The bus came to a screeching halt as the driver pushed the brakes all of a sudden, thereby startling the sleeping and unprepared passengers. I could hear the shrieks of women and children and the angry outbursts of men cursing and abusing the driver.
“There has been an accident, right in front,” he sheepishly explained. A bus has skid off the road shoulder and fallen into a gorge, he informed. “The local villagers have come out of their homes to help. They are asking us to stop and rescue the trapped passengers,” he urged the angry mob. The same men who were screaming at the driver a minute back changed their infuriated attitude immediately, agreed in unison that it was a noble idea and their foremost civic responsibility to help the distressed. In the next few minutes, torches were lit, sleeves were rolled and a brigade of unfamiliar comrades joined hands and started working for a mission together.
Carefully guided by the locals, we descended the crags and crannies and managed to reach the site. The bus was on its side with the front smashed in. To my utter amazement, it was the same private luxury bus that had over sped and fallen into the ravine. The bus was travelling at highway speed, the driver had apparently lost control over a hair pin bend and skid down the steep hillside. There was mayhem everywhere; screams, fury and gore. The driver had jumped out in the nick of time and fled away. Injured passengers were lying in the ravine, some had lost consciousness; some others had climbed out but were too dazed and bleeding to understand the situation and some were still trapped between the mesh of steel and glass.
I spoke to a local villager, who was leading the pack of Good Samaritans. I could see he was busy gathering people, arranging for medical intervention and getting the others to rescue the ones who were still trapped inside. Typically curious, I asked him if there were any fatalities. “Not that we know as of now, except one,” he paused for a minute and added with a touch of distant pathos. “Poor fellow was sitting on the front seats just behind the driver. His neck was trapped between the steel rails that separate the driver’s compartment from the main car.”
Some called it intuition, others said it was destiny; for me, it was just one word—Baba, my eternal armour.