When I woke up the next morning, the bus was still parked on the side of the highway. The driver decided to proceed after sometime. But the progress was slow and discouraging. The entire highway was littered with buses and people.
People were getting uneasy. Just like I couldn't stand the stuffiness of the train after a hopeless long wait, my fellow passengers in the bus were restless and discussed all the possible ways of reaching home. The problem was with a narrow patch of road a short distance ahead. Water seemed to flow very forcefully at this point and no one could quite gauge the depth. We heard that one bus driver who had attempted to pass that patch ended up with the bus dragged a good distance away. After this, everyone had taken cold feet, put the brakes on and traffic grew static. No driver would risk going beyond that point.
Incidentally, just beyond this patch, state buses were plying as usual. People had two options, to go ahead towards Kheda and cross the flooded patch somehow, or walk the way back to Nadiad and find a night's halt. Everyone was clear on one thing: Not to spend yet another night inside the bus.
Has it ever happened to you that someone asks you something extremely important but puts a cap on your thinking time. Something like, 'Do this and do this now or you are out'. It is not an exaggeration when I tell you that something happened in less than five minutes which made all the passengers throw their hands up and they started wading out of the bus, either towards Nadiad or towards Kheda.
I went to the two women and asked what they were going to do. They seemed already geared up to begin walking to Nadiad. I asked them to wait and let me figure out what to do with my luggage and how to convey the decision to Mitrajit, but they just wouldn't give me the time. So I rushed to the driver and asked if he assured my luggage would be safe. His answer seemed convincing enough. I was to collect my luggage from their office whenever the bus reached Ahmedabad. Everyone was doing the same and the bus was almost empty with the exception of a few passengers and the driver. He also let me make a call and all I could tell M was that I was leaving towards Nadiad and my luggage was in the bus. The women were getting impatient and I was afraid they would leave. So I conveyed just this and ran off to them.
One young man from Bhavnagar and another man from Junagadh also joined us in a minute. So after little time, I realised that here we were, five strangers who would be with each other for quite sometime now in this moment of accidental brotherhood. The road was full of people wading in knee deep water. The women took their shoes off and after sometime I realised that was the best thing to do. My shoes kept getting stuck in the mud and they would shriek me to hurry every time I stopped. There were hundreds of people wading along with us. This was the first time I understood the meaning of what people mean when they say that people come together in the times of calamity.
We must have walked some two-three kilometers when we got a lift in the tractors that farmers were plying to ferry the stranded passengers to and fro. We reached inside the town. Now ever since I got down from the bus I had started inquiring about the residence of a relative. Everyone seemed to know him by the virtue of his position, but my fair ladies got impatient every time I took a stop to inquire. Finally we reached this town square and I asked where the police station was. With the influence of that one name, I entered the police station along with the four others. Now, the policeman seemed quite doubtful, but he couldn't refuse us. I got to know that my relative's house was practically an island now and the area was inaccessible. I asked them to allow me to make a few calls and called home this time. Baba would know better how to explain the relation to the cops. Besides, he could contact my other relatives too.
Presently, we were given tea and biscuits and some nashta and the ladies were feeling really grand. They were like, 'So you really know someone!' After sometime, I was called in the officer's room. There was a call for me and my maasi was on line. She told me one of her relatives would come to pick me and that I stay with them as long as things are fine. (The officer seemed totally confused ever since I had entered the office, introduced my connections and conveyed telephone numbers to my family and phones had started pouring in). Next, baba called. His instructions were clear and to the point. "When the gentleman your maasi had told you about comes, introduce the people who are with you and take them home too. Say you cannot leave them". I was shocked and started contesting his order. "How can I? I don't even know him, how can I take four more people whom I don't know to his house?" He shouted at me and told me to do as told- I was not to be selfish to leave the people who had accompanied me this long.
I grudgingly admitted to myself that he was right. In less than ten minutes, Vinayakbhai came riding his scooty.
"You are Gauri? And these people are with you? Follow me". The women were chatty as ever and though all of the four strongly refused my suggestion that they come with me, I had to be firm for in spite of my doubts, baba's instructions were clear. We all went to his house. It was in the old city area and in a 'pol'. Now 'pol' is a typical Gujarati word, meaning a narrow lane on both sides of which are old houses, some often surprisingly huge and majestic. The lanes are confusing, with one mingling into another elusively so that a newcomer might just go round and round the area without a clue.
When we reached his house, which was very nearby, his wife was waiting at the door. She welcomed us in and talked about how rough the weather was and imagined how tiring the journey must have been. The couple was so generous, so natural that it put me instantly at ease. She didn't say it out of formality when she asked them all to stay with them. We had tea and hot snacks before us in no time. The men said they would rather stay at the railway station and were quite firm about their choice. They wouldn't even stay back for lunch. But Vinayakbhai's wife said they must at least freshen up and have tea before they leave. The two sisters said they had a relative who stayed very near by and would go and find them out. After tea, the men went their way and them sisters went to find their relatives in spite of our cajoling to stay back. The sisters came again in the evening to say they had found a place, chatted, had tea and left. I got a call from all of them in Diwali.
I stayed with Vinayakbhai till the next afternoon on July 2. He came to see me off at the bus station and I got home in two hours. They were more than happy to have me there. He talked a lot about his daughter who was settled somewhere in London and how he didn't like staying there in spite of having some solid visa permit. "We were there for six months, but I have to be back. We go for our daughter, but start missing this place in no time".
We talked on phone a few times. We couldn't meet as he had some wedding to attend. I sent him a postcard on Diwali. He called a few months later to thank me for it. He had again gone to London and had got the card only on his return. We sent him an invitation for our wedding, but he was out somewhere again. In another wedding this February, I got to know he had died of a heart attack.
In those four days I learnt a lot. I learnt how simple people can be if they so choose. And how open and how honest. I never met my four companions again, but I have the most fond memories of them. Hospitality is what I learnt from Vinayakbhai and his wife. They took me as their own with a warmth and simplicity that is peculiar to their community. I also felt how right Baba was and how selfish I must have regretted being if I had gone to Vinayakbhai’s house alone. Baba’s insistence was worth it for I came face to face with a couple who had the charm to welcome strangers in their house so graciously. I saw for myself how a host ought to be and how some strangers can find a permanent place in memories…