“KP, don’t tug at the chain so hard. It’ll get…”
“Arey yaar! I know how to pack. Trust me.”
As he finished talking, the zip of our bag gave way. It had been martyred to my husband’s relentless attempts to stuff things. Why is it important? Because the ruined zip set the ball rolling for what was going to be the most ingloriously, memorable travel day of our life.
We were on yet another December bike trip. Udhampur to Delhi was a regular fare. Music (predominantly from my husband singing songs), pit stops, good food at dhabas and salubrious weather- everything contributed to its success.
On our way back from Delhi we halted at Jalandhar. The next morning we had to head out to Amritsar, about 80 kms away and from there continue to Dera Baba Nanak (DBN), another 52 kms further. The ruined bag on that fateful Jalandhar morning delayed our plans by about three hours as we had to wait for the market to open to buy another bag.
We were off for Amritsar at 1000 hrs. The lost time mattered little to us. For those who were accustomed to covering roughly about 350 kms a day, a mere 130 kms was child’s play. Or so we thought! This over-confidence ensured that we would get a kick in our teeth soon enough.
As we were leaving Golden Temple, KP suggested we head to DBN immediately. It was 1400 hrs and we would make it in good time. BUT, he has me for a wife. This perfectly sensible suggestion was shot down by yours truly. How could you come to Amritsar and miss out on Wagah Border? I invoked in him all the patriotic sentiments. Soon enough, we were on our way to the border in a shared taxi.
We returned from Wagah at 1900 hrs. Darkness had closed in upon us and wisps of fog seemed harmless. DBN was still on the plans! I was waiting outside the Golden Temple parking lot and felt a tap on my shoulder. My husband looked worried. We had lost the bike keys.
The staff at the lot guided us to a key duplicator. The keys could be made only the next morning. Since we had to move on, he called a mechanic who unlocked the handle and fixed the ignition in a manner that the bike would start without the key, thanks to a miniscule yellow wire.
By 2130 hrs we were ready to go. For a moment we debated if we should carry on to DBN. It was night, December and unchartered territory. See, we are not completely off our heads.
While he may have been bordering on forsaking the DBN plan, I steered him towards honouring the promise he had made. KP had to meet a friend with whom he had served with earlier and so we were off.
Ten kms out of Amritsar where the city meets the villages and the roads give way to potholed rastas, where the buildings are replaced by fields, we saw wisps of fogs rising above the fields like witches’ spells. We carried on. Before we realized the fog had enveloped us. The road was narrower than the veins in your hand with holes that made our teeth rattle. Our yellow wire that kept the ignition going, was hanging on. The road soon became a figment of our imagination.
A bus was chasing us. We let it overtake us and began following it. As it picked speed, we just could not keep up because we had our yellow wire to worry about. Soon, the bus was gone and we were left floundering on the road. The fog was now like a grey blanket that had enveloped us from all sides. Our visibility was about a meter. The fog was so thick that the light from the bike was getting reflected. So while our vicinity was lit up like a house on fire, we could see nothing at all. We still had about 25 odd kms to cover. It seemed impossible.
KP refused to move ahead; it was dangerous and futile. We could not head back to Amritsar. We could not move ahead. About 200m behind, we had crossed a faint light. So we turned around. The light was a bald bulb of the village gurudwara.
KP began to pound on the door of the first house he saw, while I sat outside a nearby shop, in the dark. He kept shouting, “Koi hai? Main ek fauji hun. Darwazaa kholo.” After roughly 15 minutes, the door opened. The hubby explained the situation and requested the house owner if he could park the bike in their house and retrieve it the next day. The gentleman kindly obliged us.
KP joined me outside the closed shop to wait for our friends who had agreed to pick us up. It was bone-chillingly cold. Then movements happened. Men could be heard talking softly around us. We saw the house owner cross us with a couple other men and they had swords in their hands. We heard more whispering.
I consider myself largely fearless. But the swords that day made me revisit the better moments of my life. The paltry sum of money that we had, I felt was grossly inappropriate to be killed for.
Soon, the men with swords approached us. Till then they were unaware of a companion with KP. He, rather heroically, tried to shield my being. They asked him in pure Punjabi, if I was his wife. He didn’t understand them. I understand and speak the language since I spent the most impressionable decade of my childhood in Punjab. I answered yes.
They asked us to not sit in the open and suggested we take shelter in the same house where we had parked the bike. We seemed unsure but they insisted that the man had a family. The racket that KP had created had led the village youngsters to think that there was an intruder and had come out with their guns and swords. They had warded them off but who knew who will come next. We sought shelter in the house.
For the next three hours, we sat in that house while our friends tried to find their way to us. The house was of a poor man. Rich enough to have a roof but with nothing else. His wife and his three kids were huddled in one bed in the room. There was a broken sofa put together with tape and peeling paint. There was nothing else. The other room served as a kitchen. And yet, these were people large hearted to accommodate us and even offer tea at one in the night.
When our friends reached us, I had given in to constant shivering and had lost the feeling in the toes and fingers. Even inside the house it was cold. We could thank the family with only a box of motichoor ladoos that we had carried from Jalandhar. Offering them money would have been disgraceful to their magnanimity. Our friends later told us that we had been lucky. The area was notorious for highway robberies since it was close to the border. Just a few months back a fauji had got killed with a sickle backstabbing for a paltry sum of money and more importantly for his identity card. Suddenly, KP’s constant shout ‘main ek fauji hun’ rang in my ears. What was supposed to inspire faith could have turned the tables for us.
We got off lightly. We were lucky that we did not meet any dire fate. By four in the morning we were having hot dinner. Our faith in the humanity was reposed. I believe that you can always seek help from fellow humans but that day even my faith had been tested. We passed but what if we had not. What if the swords that were drawn for our protection would have been drawn inside us?
KP has completely sworn off bike rides after that night. But he forgets. He has me for a wife.