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Highway horror

Shabbir Aariz

It was a chilly morning of December fall and the year was 1980, sky overcast without any sun beam. Faced with an emergency of collecting an ailing relation from Jammu. And these were the times when getting a quick flight was a dream as not many flights went anywhere from Srinagar. Travelling by RTC bus remained an option furnishing also a sense of adventure at that age.
So started at nine in the morning, driven and conducted by two middle aged sardarjees. Seated somewhere in the front besides a total stranger and a glance around told me some of the faces among the passengers were familiar that included one Prof. Muku , Kashmiri Pandit with his wife and two little boys , son of my school teacher , Master Inderjit Singh with his wife and a new born besides a couple older in age and fashion dressed in Pharen , holding Kangri ( fire pot ) inside who took me down the memory lane to my childhood in sixties and the husband a robust and daring fireman of those times popularly known as Yousuf Kakh still wearing the grace that tough experience had given him.
After initial hours of journey on reaching Qazigund, snow started falling and settling on the ground. Bus that was already moving on snail’s pace for the reason that the driver wanted to earn the halt as he belonged to Jammu , had no wipers on the windscreen and every few yards another sardarji , who amused looking more like Maharaja of Air India , had to stop and board down to clear the windscreen. It was now obvious that panic and despair gripped the passengers particularly those with small children. By the time we reached Ramban township, it was dark making obvious what could be in store in journey ahead.
On Batote town, the prospect of making it to Patnitop in the falling and over a feet of snow on the road, became slimmer with absolutely no sense of direction except a faint faith in the driver inching forward who abruptly in the dead of night and the thick of snowy forest announced his inability to move on and that was it.
It was not only cold harsher against the woollens on the body but question of very survival in the horrifying wilderness of snowing night between Batote town and Patnitop with no life in sight other than the hapless passengers of the lonely bus. With every passing moment, things started becoming complex with Maku’s little boys catching cold, running high body temperature and young sardarji’s sibling starving for want of warm water for the feed to be prepared. It was now panic all around while stuck in the highway horror.
Meanwhile the stranger by my side unzipped his bag and out came a packet he opened on his lap to reveal the surprise of plenty of Seekh Kbabs bundled together according to him gifted by his relatives in mutton trade whom he had visited in valley. By now we had become pals both of us being smokers and smoking then being no taboo while travelling. He offered a number of them to me making me understand that full stomach was first in line of defence against the odds we were faced with. This employee of the state government from Rajouri was generous to all. “What are these kbaabs use of in any other situation”, he observed philosophically. Another reminder were rattles caused by snow thrashing of the bus from the pine trees. Maku’s two sons and young sardar’s new born were the focal point of concern to all when old fashioned Yousuf Kakh on pilgrimage to Ajmer having kept his calm, sarcastically broke his silence, “look here you bell bottems, if you have the courage to get down my luggage from roof of the bus, you will find a small Smawar, charcoal and all the ingredients of Kehwa (traditional black tea) to take care of you all” and silent he went. As if waiting for the news one like this, sardarji conductor of the bus, who could also identify the luggage, went out to return with whatever he had heard about from the wisest of all while it was past midnight. Now the little smawar was in place in the middle of the bus in the charge of its conductor who repeatedly filled it with snow and convert it into warm water making it possible to prepare feed for the new born, kehwa for sick boys bringing them to near normal. Then all the passengers had their share of kehwa and rounds of that till it was dawn…..the dawn of hope.
(The writer is a senior advocate at state High Court and a noted writer and poet. He can be reached at: [email protected])