Taken For A Ride

February 8, 2016 OPINION/NEWS

By

Ananya S Guha

The North East part of India is strategically located, geographically defined but politically and socially vulnerable for decades due to insurgency and armed militancy which is still continuing in some states.

In Nagaland, where armed militancy first started, there is now an uneasy quiet after a ‘truce’ with the government of India pending a final agreement. Though geographically defined there are some paradoxes even in the demarcation of states as some of the states were carved out of a political expediency. Thus Assam, which looked after most of these states and what is now Meghalaya border, has strange quixotic borders; one part of it the Barak Valley has a route through the Khasi and Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya, and the other the Brahmaputra Valley can be entered through the Garo Hills of Meghalaya.

The following narrative tries to undergo how one valley, which is the entry point to so many other states, lives in geographical and hence social insularity being far away from the capital city. Also, for the common person, road connectivity is the heart line not only here but for the rest of the country. But North East India has always been dogged by poor road connectivity: poor roads, long hours of travel, etc. Unless this glaring issue is sorted out with concomitant good rail connectivity, which is comfortable, the ghost of ‘neglect’ in various manifestations affecting communities will continue to haunt this Region which is one of India’s most vulnerable points, bound by four or five foreign countries. It is a very culturally diverse Region, but it is this diversity which also leads to ethnic tensions.

On the 15th of January I was travelling to Silchar by bus with a friend. The bus started from Shillong at around 10 am and we were told that we would reach Silchar at around 6.30 pm as the road in some patches was very bad. This of course, I had been hearing for a long time. But the last time I remembered travelling to Silchar in a bus was around 13 years back and I recollected a fairly nice and smooth journey. We started at 10 in the morning and arrived at around 3 in the afternoon. A few years later I went to Silchar en route to Aizawl in a taxi and it was a smooth journey. So all these years although I had been hearing about the bad roads I really deluded myself into thinking that it couldn’t be all that bad and people aways have their own hyperbolic sense.

Anyway up to about Jowai it was quite nice and I hummed to myself softly. The next day I was to deliver a talk and I was really looking forward to it. After that the driver or the road started showing their true colours. Or it could have been the ramshackle bus. It lurched forward, bumped like an aeroplane and everyone took things in their stride. I thought that this was normal, though my premonitions started working a little overtime. We had a sedate lunch at Ladrymbai. I told a co passenger that the roads were not that bad after all, but he said tersely ”wait.” Ahead of the Assam Meghalaya border the bus chivalrously hit something, there was a noise which rattled me and we saw a truck nonchalantly sail by. I thought the irascible truck driver had hit our hapless bus. After some time the bus halted, the mechanic was brought into action and there were no signs of movement. Getting bits and pieces from co passengers I was told that the spring of the bus was severely damaged, there was no instrument to rectify this, but wait – they had got one thanks to another charitable truck driver and everything would be alright within minutes.

The bus once again started, and for five minutes the driver drove as if caution was the only thing on earth. I admired his wisdom, thinking that discretion is the better part of valour but discovered such discretion was more due to the mechanics of the bus, the spring was mended by patchwork and then the bus came to a slow, slow halt, clearly a sign that it would be a long one. By that time many passengers started making their own arrangements rather adeptly I thought, understanding clearly that this was nothing new to them, and they were veteran travellers in this part of the world. I admired them silently, but started wondering when I would reach Silchar, the talk weighed heavily on my mind, and I had no idea where the hotel I was supposed to be staying in with my friend was located. It was past seven.

A co passenger who was from Shillong suggested we try a truck. That he said was the best bet. In the meantime we made effete attempts to stop autos the drivers of which looked at us with disdain. Our co passenger kept on muttering the magic word ”truck.” And then the magic happened. A young truck driver looked at us benignly and agreed to take us to Silchar. It was almost 7.30 pm. If the previous bus driver threw caution to the winds, with gusto, this young man was caution personified. He took us carefully, avoiding the main roads, if one could call them, taking us by the farthest side so much that we thought the heavily loaded truck would overturn. But he was an experienced and clever driver. He halted two or three times on the way, once in Meghalaya to pay what I think are called toll fees and grumbled a bit. In the meantime the three of us were sitting literally on the driver’s seat with our legs in all directions.

We crawled our way safely enough to Silchar at around 11pm and reached the precincts of the hotel.

Unless I narrated all of this I cannot of course highlight the moral of this story. But there is more than one moral. The first is that this route which is the lifeline to many states: Meghalaya, Assam, Mizoram, Tripura and even Manipur is grossly neglected. And the people living in Silchar and beyond are not only cut off, which we all know, but no one bothers, and all this talk of ‘mainstream’ is rubbage in this much vaunted 21st century with all its talk of an internet world.

The second is that private buses plying have no right to cheat their customers and should refund the money of the tickets in such cases to whatever extent. This so called highway, the gateway to so many states is neglected. No one bothers about the road conditions there and I am surprised that people are silent and there are no protests. True, another highway is being developed, but what has been happening all these years? What about the trauma and suffering that people have undergone? On that day there were two ladies and a child. I shudder to think of what they must have undergone.

Two weeks later there was a major mishap on the same route to a bus travelling to Agartala. I might have escaped, but providence is not kind to everyone.

 

 

 

 

 

Ananya S Guha

Ananya S Guha was born and brought up in Shillong, North East India. He has seven collections of poetry and his poems have been published worldwide. They have also been featured in several anthologies. He is also a columnist, critic and editor. He now is a Regional Director at the Indira Gandhi National Open University and holds a doctoral degree on the novels of William Golding.

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