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When I caught the train despite the elephants…

If by some tragic magic all Delhiites were airlifted and dropped in the Himalayas, there would be havoc.

Loaded trucks and speeding motorbikes would plunge off cliffs daily, with dozens of men thrown into hilly forests by powerful punches and articulate abuses. Not by accident as much as out of street anger, that Delhi has so smartly mastered.

During that trip to Uttarakhand, I saw that it is possible to be patient on roads – something that Delhi does not allow me to see. On those sharp twists and turns, cars and bikes and buses and trucks understood each other as if they were couples newly in love. I admired – until that same placid pahadi patience, thanks to some elephants, nearly cost me my train back home.

It was May 2014, three weeks into the summer holidays after my first year as a teacher. I decided to travel alone for the first time, because there is a lot more to youth than being just boring 22.

I chose Lansdowne in Uttarakhand. Accompanying me were Shantaram, a camera, my train tickets, and a phone, the last of which I had ambitiously vowed not to touch.

At 30 degrees, the hamlet was Siberia for my Delhi-baked skin. I had always wanted experience the quiet villages of Enid Blyton’s and Agatha Christie’s England, with woods and churches, castles and hills. Lansdowne’s streets and colonial architecture had just begun to conquer me when I decided I should head out: by the end of just the second day, after several long treks, I decided that 30 degrees was, after all, hot.

On my way to Pauri, 85 km away, solitude allowed me to keenly observe the grit and tolerance it takes to drive through the hills.

There was a new turn before you could start thinking of owning a house amidst the newest vista of hilly beauty that the last turn revealed. The roads, with arbitrary turns at the most obtuse of angles, seemed to have been sketched by an amateur, shaky hand using an old version of Microsoft Paint. On two-way lanes, roughly 20 metres wide and without dividers, I saw the approaching cliffs at every sharp turn much before I could see the approaching trucks – both equally dangerous.

The day’s thrill was in seeing the vehicles make those deadly turns look like first-grade math.

***

On Day 4, I was on my way to Kotdwar to catch my 3:15 p.m. train back to Delhi. I was told that it takes three and a half hours to reach Kotdwar from Pauri, and I was on the bus at 10 a.m.

I confirmed with the bus conductor, who said with all his pahadi love (can we export love and politeness to other cities, I wanted to ask), “Three and a half without the traffic.” He offered me some strange dark pink, bead-sized fruit.“Kafal, a wild fruit,” he responded to my curiosity. With the pride typical to locals when they meet admiring tourists, he bought me 100 grams of kafal, wrapped in newspaper.

Being Indian, the bus driver was obliged to wait for the bus to fill with as many people as it could (or, could not?) accommodate. It was 10:40 when we left.

The wait had made the anxious calculators come alive in my head.While I sat back again, assured that I would reach the railway station by 2:30, I struggled to get the first kafal down my throat. It tasted nasty, and I put the rest of them in my bag.

As the foothills gave hints of the approaching plains, I started feeling more assured of reaching in time. But as the next milestone showed 20 km more and the watch showed 2:30, I was panicking.

The stream flowed calmly beside the road, and the hills seemed to shrink. The windows failed to bring me calm – the stream was all I had to look at, the temperature was rising and the hilly, curvy roads were behind us.

Luckily,we didn’t encounter traffic, but the milestone at 2:45 showed 12 km more and my love for math did not help: the speed–time–distance classes from sixth-grade math were going mad in my head. I divided, multiplied, and again divided. I assured myself I would reach the station by 3:00, because hopefully we were about to hit the plains. I also started imagining missing the train and taking a bus.

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At 2:50, even 3:05 seemed a comfortable time to reach the station; at 2:55, I thought 3:10 would be amazing. At 2:58, I spotted a herd of elephants about 500 meters from the road, walking on the rocks near the stream. It was a nice sight, until the conductor spotted the herd.

Local superstition obliged locals to bow down to the elephants. The conductor duly informed the driver to take a glance to his right, and the driver stopped the bus on the left side of the road. He told passengers about the unusual sight nearby: they were required to stop their journey because a group of elephants was busy at work.

Had it been Delhi, the driver would be a dead man after more than 30 seconds of stopping for such a trivial reason. But these were the hills, where patience rules.

Uncle ji, haathi maharaj ko dekh lijiye!” said the conductor to the oldest passenger. Uncle, please take a look at the revered elephants. The “uncle” was a wrinkled old man in his eighties, bent, just over five feet, dressed in faded white kurta and dhoti.  He got up from his seat with effort, and the conductor led him to a special spot in the bus where he could best see the elephants. “Maatha tek lo tau (bow down, sir!)” came a voice from the back of the bus.

Everyone was relaxed. No one seemed hurried. “My train is at 3:15, can we please move?” I asked the conductor, who was busy discussing the elephants with the passengers.

Even without moving his eyes from the elephants, the conductor turned towards me and looked at his watch. I thought he wanted to respond, but—

Uncle, peshab karoge? (uncle, you want to pee?)” The old man had indicated to a passenger that he needed to get down. As my watch showed 3:03, the bus had just got an extra minute to pay its respect to the mighty animals, which looked no bigger than goats.

The conductor took his eyes away from the elephants, held the old man’s hand, and got him down. It took some time to unwind the old man’s dhoti, do his stuff at the roadside and then wind it again.

I was furious, but this was a different world. People were patient, people were calm. I decided to let go of the anger and imagined I had missed my train. Yet another rich, memorable experience on a solo trip planned for the sake of discovering self. Why complain?

The bus started again and my first question was, “How far is the railway station from the bus stop?” I don’t know why I hadn’t asked it sooner.

“It’s just there,” said a co-passenger and the positive reply helped me imagine again that I might, somehow catch the train. It’s interesting how Hope can swing to Despair and back so wildly. I needed little events to feel hopeful again, and the bus’ slightest slowing made me lose hope again.

The hills were visible far away now. The town marketplace was there. By 3:10, the bus stop was visible.

I ran. I thanked terrorists for never having bombed small railway stations, so there was no security checkpoint to stop me from running.

I was in the train at 3:14. The train that I had nearly missed suddenly offered me a minute to calm down, have some water, and type some text messages. I was still able to spare thirty seconds to discover my chair was slightly broken and to find a new one with the help of a TTE officer.

I sat down and took my book out, realizing how long or short a minute can be, depending on which side you are on, of a train about to leave.

The train departed a minute late.

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