I have always marvelled at the uncanny ability of rickshaw drivers to spot an outsider and know where they’re going. I wasn’t dressed too differently from a lot of other people at the bus stand; a simple blue t-shirt, jeans and a small backpack. But there he was, in my face, asking no one else but me, if I wished to go to Palitana. He would take me there for only 700 Rs., he said, and put me up in a nice dharamshala close to the big temples. First, I refused politely with a gentle smile saying I would rather take a bus. Then, when he refused to go away, a curt, dismissive “no”. And finally, when he became overtly insistent, a very angry “no” which appeared to shock him with its vehemence.
It also annoyed me immensely that the bus to Palitana was taking such a long time to arrive. If the time-tables at the station were to be believed, there was a bus that went every hour. But I had been waiting for well over an hour and there was no sign of any that went to Palitana. I went over to the “Enquiry Counter” to interrupt the men sitting inside who had been loudly gossiping with idle drivers and conductors in Gujarati. Someone had made a joke that made them all laugh very loudly and my frantic appeals went unheard. Finally when I broke the sound barrier with the loudest “excuse me” I had ever uttered, the laughter died off abruptly and all the faces turned to stare at me with a stupefied gaze.
“What do you want?”, said the man seated behind the square grill at the counter. “When is the bus to Palitana expected to arrive?” I asked. He gave me a piercing stare, like I was a student who had asked the dumbest of questions, then showed me the palm of his hand, closed the shutter of the window and turned back to entertain his colleagues before I could figure out if the five fingers meant “5 minutes”, “wait” or “get out of here”. When I went back to the Palitana stand, the rickshaw driver, seeing that my situation was becoming more hopeless with every passing minute, made another opportunistic move.
“The bus to Palitana will never come”, he said, “and even if it does, you won’t be able to get a seat.”
“I’ll take my chances”, I said, “Please go away. I’m not going in your rickshaw.”
“Okay, 500 Rs. You’ve come as a tourist to see the temples. It’ll be more comfortable for you if you come with me.”
“No”, I said, “Please go away.”
“As you wish”, he said, shrugging his shoulders.
The bus to Palitana tottered in after half an hour and to my utter dismay, he proved to be right. All the seats were taken and the people who had been waiting patiently all this while took up the standing space as well. There was no way I was going to hang out the door for a 2 hour journey.
The rickshaw driver rubbed his palms gleefully and walked towards me for another round of negotiations. This time, I didn’t know what to do. If I was to reach Palitana, he could be my only way out. But before he could reach where I was standing, a man who was sitting in the waiting area and who had perhaps been observing the dejected look on my face when I couldn’t get a seat on the bus, came up to me and said, “You’re going to Palitana?”
I said, “Yes.”
“If you hurry up, there’s a passenger train leaving in an hour”, he said.
So when the rickshaw driver looked at me with a smirk on his face asking if I was finally ready to go to Palitana, I said, “No, but you could take me to the railway station.”
The driver was appalled at this suggestion and tried every trick from the Book of the Touts to dissuade me from taking the train. The trains don’t go every day, he said. They always break down on the way. Too many people take them because they’re too cheap. The coaches are filthy and the train would take far longer to get to Palitana than his rickshaw would. And it won’t take me to those fabulous dharamshalas where I could bed with all the worldly comforts at bargain basement rates.
I’ll take my chances, I said, as I scooted across the bus station to find the first rickshaw I could find that would take me to the Bhavnagar railway station. Since I had the desperate look on my face that screamed “Yes, rob me of all the money I have”, I totally expected to be robbed of all the money I had by a rowdy rickshaw driver charging extortionate rates. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that the rickshaw drivers of Bhavnagar were gentle, honest souls who only charge 30 Rs. for a 2 km journey.
The route to the train station passed through parts of the old town I hadn’t seen and as I had another fleeting glimpse of the exquisitely photogenic stone and timber architecture of the buildings in this part of the city, I swore to come back some day and take a better look at them.
The train station was utterly deserted with not a soul in the vicinity. There was nobody behind the ticket window either. I walked down the platform to look for a station master to enquire about the timings of the train to Palitana. But I couldn’t find anybody. If I didn’t know I was wide awake, I could have sworn I had dreamt up a ghostly apparition of a haunted railroad, stranded all alone on a line that went nowhere.
The first human presence I came across was a bearded man, sleeping on a bench at the far end of the platform. I don’t like waking up people who are asleep but I was anxious to know when the train was going to arrive. So I nervously sputtered, “Bhaisaab” a couple of times and when he didn’t respond, shook him up slightly.
Two bleary, heavily reddened eyes stared at me angrily and asked, “What do you want?”
“I’m sorry”, I said, “I was looking for the train…”
“What train? There are no trains”, he said and shooed me away vehemently with his hands before going back to sleep.
I strolled back to the main entrance where I found that a human being had miraculously surfaced behind the ticket counter. “I’m looking for a train to Palitana…”, I began tentatively. “What train?”, he said, interrupting me curtly, “There are no trains.”
“But I heard there was a train to Palitana going around this hour”, I said.
“That train left long ago. The evening train is cancelled.”
I walked back dejectedly to the bustling market outside the station and hailed a rickshaw. I asked the driver if he would take me to Palitana and he laughed and said, “No, no. I can’t go to Palitana. It’s too far away. I’ll drop you off at the bus stand and you can take a bus or a rickshaw from there.”
After reaching the bus stand, he pointed to the platform where the buses to Palitana arrived. I didn’t want to take the bus, I said, and asked him if he knew someone who could take me to Palitana for a reasonable rate.
He looked around and yelled, “Raju! Palitana jaoge?” (Raju! Will you go to Palitana?) Raju came running from the distance and when he came closer, I was dismayed to discover that it was the same driver who was chasing me to go with him earlier at the bus stand.
This happenstance gave him the opportunity to rub his hands in glee again. He said, “Toh, sir, chalein? Kaisa laga Bhavnagar railway station?” (So, sir, let’s go. How did you like the Bhavnagar railway station?”
“Bahut khoobsurat” (Very beautiful), I said, “Kitna loge? 500 Rs?” (Will you go for 500 Rs.?)
“Haan, sir, aapke liye toh jaan bhi haazir hain”, (Yes, sir, I could even give my life for you), he said, smirking uncontrollably, sarcasm dripping from every pore.
The Gujarat State Road Transport Corporation has an app that lets you book seats online. So I downloaded it, filled a sign up form and after a number of app crashes managed to book seat 21, a 4th row window seat on the 11 am bus going from Vadodara to Bhavnagar. Having travelled in Indian state transport buses for much of my traveling life, it was a comfort to know that I wouldn’t have to fight for a seat or get crushed by a stampede of passengers wanting to get in or travel 5 hours standing all the way.
But as India regularly reminds you, things are never what they seem (or are promised) to be. The platform number that the app said my bus would leave from was non-existent and it took long sweaty run-arounds from the enquiry counter to the various platforms to figure out where I had to wait for the bus I had booked. Finally, I found it in the most old-fashioned way possible, with a conductor yelling “Bhavnagar” so loudly that the entire neighbourhood could hear it.
There were already a hundred people trying to get in and all the seats had been filled. My frantic demands for my booking to be honoured went completely ignored. I walked back to sit down in the waiting area to think a little. Did I really want to go to Bhavnagar? Was it worth all this trouble? Was I too old for this shit?
These existential ruminations were interrupted by the conductor yelling the number “21” in all directions as the driver assumed his position and began to start the engine. I ran as quickly as I could to take my rightful seat which, to my considerable disappointment, wasn’t the promised window seat on the fourth row but the middle seat on the second which was the row right next to the door. Like a lot of things in the modern world, here was a distinct difference between the dreams advertised online and the downers that existed in real life.
I felt sorry for the old man who had to vacate seat no. 21 on my account. But my empathies wouldn’t last long as he promptly took the little bit of room left next to the person sitting on the aisle seat thus squeezing the space available to me even further. To the old man, things couldn’t have worked out better because the easy access to the door gave him the liberty to chew all the paan he had on his hands (which was quite considerable) and spew these contents out of his mouth every time the conductor opened the door to let passengers hitching on the highway into an already jampacked bus. I saw people sitting on the aisle, people sitting on the engine, people sitting on people and one particular person who was sitting on top of my head making the 3 inches of the backrest handle his home.
To compound this misery, the driver, either in a state of depression from an emotionally wrenching heartbreak or in a spectacular display of bad taste, insisted on playing the most cantankerous song in the history of Hindi cinema i.e. “Ishq Mein Nachenge” from Raja Hindustani, a song I had considered myself fortunate to have never heard since I first did back in 1998, on a loop for the entire length of the journey. There were no signs of protest from the other passengers and some thoroughly enjoyed this atrocity and hummed along to it. I felt like my ears were being Clockwork Orange’d to deafness and my brains being reduced to mush.
I couldn’t distract myself by staring at the scenery outside either, my views being blocked from all sides. The people around me killed the time by socialising with each other and I felt like that awkward introvert at a cocktail party who didn’t know anybody or what they were saying. It was only 2 and a half hours later when we reached the town of Dholera that I got anything resembling air and a bit of quiet. The bus stopped here for tea and snacks and we all stood there drinking tea and eating snacks staring at the beauteous sight of a large cement grinder whipping up dust across the road. The landscape here was industrial, scrubby, parched, arid and dry. Dholera was earmarked as one of India’s numerous futuristic smart cities. I guess it takes time build one of those.
Half the bus emptied at Dholera because many of the people who had hopped in were labourers working at the various construction sites in the town. One of these people happened to be the person sitting next to me and I felt happy as a 6 year old child at getting a window seat for the rest of the journey. If the vistas pre-Dholera were anything like post-Dholera, I hadn’t missed out on an awful lot of beautiful scenery. The landscape was both bucolic and industrial, a woman herding her sheep by the side of the road, men fishing on the sandy banks of a lake far in the distance, dry grasslands and scrublands forming the periphery of the Blackbuck Sanctuary, egrets and herons resting on the waterbodies adjacent to the chemical plants where large mounds of salt waited in the sun to be processed.
My hotel in Bhavnagar was a 20 minute walk from the bus stand. The rickshaw drivers offered to take me there for 30 Rs. but the weather was pleasant, my bags were light and I chose to walk following google maps which showed me a short cut that went through a large park area adorned with strange sculptures of muscular men exercising. The gardens were well-kept and had quaint little bridges running over stagnant pools of water and kids played and frolicked about the grass and the slides. It wasn’t a bad place to begin looking at a new town.
Hotel Comfort Inn, at the edge of a traffic circle and hidden away above a Laxmi Narayan temple was exactly what it promised, a no frills, barebones place where the bathroom was tolerably clean and the plumbing worked. One didn’t expect anything more for 400 Rs. It was a long day and I needed a few cups of tea to nourish myself. So I walked down to a large traffic circle, past the quaint old, colonnaded edifice that housed the Bhavnagar Muncipal Corporation office, to a heavily busy chai stall populated by office goers and college students and spent the rest of the evening watching people while drinking bottomless cups of chai.