“This bus is awesome dad!” exclaims my 10 year-old son as we board the overnight-sleeper coach to Hampi. The other passengers have already spread themselves out so liberally it’s like scrambling through an obstacle course as we stumble to our seats at the back of the bus.
Once we make ourselves comfy the coach begins its slow crawl through rush-hour traffic. Every time we hit a bump we fly into the air. Theo laughs hysterically, insisting it’s like riding a runaway mine train. My wife, Jo isn’t quite as enthusiastic, though we’re relieved to be on the road.
Our relief is short-lived. As we hit the outskirts of town the driver shifts the bus into hyper-drive and we literally take off. We bounce so high we bump our heads on the row of births above our heads. We quickly lower our seats into beds and stretch out horizontally but we have nothing to hold onto and get tossed around like we’re riding in a giant tumble-dryer on wheels. The middle seat is particularly trampoline-like due to a broken latch. The seatback pops up at every pothole, shooting Theo into the air like a human cannonball. Periodic screams pierce the darkness as the passengers above get thrown into the roof of the bus. We shout at the driver to slow down, but he’s locked away in a separate compartment and hurtles the vehicle along the uneven highway.
Past midnight we pull into a truck stop by the side of the road. We spill from the bus bruised and battered. We finally track down our driver who is stuffing his face with bhaji. When we complain about his driving, he wobbles his head, explaining that the road is in a particularly unforgiving mood. “I do my best but it is out of my hands. I recommend praying to Lord Shiva, he is our protector and will bestow upon you great comfort.”
“Comfort my ass,” Jo seethes as I attempt to console her a few minutes later over a bottle of Thumbs-Up cola. A thin, young Indian man from our bus approaches our table. “Is anybody sitting here?” he asks, as he grabs a chair and yanks it with an extravagant flourish. The screech of metal on the concrete floor is deafening, even amidst the hubbub of the crowded canteen.
“Darling,” he coos to his very young (she looks about thirteen), very pregnant wife, “you must rest and refresh.” Together they slowly lower her swollen body onto the rickety chair. We hold our collective breath as her massive form settles on the tiny seat. Her alien baby bump splurges out between the top and bottom of her diaphanous silk sari. I whisper to Jo. “Surely, she’s about to burst.”
Once the young man ascertains his wife will not topple off her precarious perch he turns his attention to the three of us. “How are you enjoying the amenities of our overnight sleeper?”
“Enjoy?” Jo bellows incredulously, “How can you allow your wife to ride in that mobile death-trap?”
“But madam,” he smiles with the patience of Ghandi, “The bus is first-class.”
As we speak his wife lets out a humongous burp which Theo thinks is hilarious. His laughter stops suddenly. “Daddy, daddy!” he shouts, urgently tugging at my arm, “I think she’s peed,” pointing at a puddle beneath her feet. The women’s eyes lose focus as she begins a slow-motion topple off her seat. We all leap from our chairs just managing to catch her before she hits the floor. Her husband shouts a few words in Hindi and a stampede of women come running to our table and quickly carry her away.
We’re left in shock as the restaurant hordes stare at us. Soon our driver comes and herds us outside toward the coach. We stop behind the bus where he offers me a cigarette. “I drive this route every night,” he explains “and every night it’s different. Sometimes the road is straight and smooth, sometimes it winds like a snake, sometimes my bus travels at the speed of light and sometimes the journey seems endless. It makes no sense. This life makes no sense.” As he looks up to the stars I see a world of tears in his eyes.
We get back in the bus and continue the long night’s journey to Hampi. The driver plods along at 40 mph. There’s not a bump in the road.