We saw our bus. A placard with ‘MANALI’ painted on it was stuck to the glass pane up front. Our feet tiptoed up the narrow steps. We found our seats. Our bulgy rucksacks were squeezed through the steel rods of the luggage rack. A kind Himachali gentleman helped us out in that ordeal, and we exchanged smiles. We shuffled into our seats, being geared up with our warmest layers.
As we waited patiently, the people in the bus caught my eyes. A pair of impressive gentlemen were seated in the front row, wrapped in a saffron attire and donning dusky matted hair. A girl kept twirling her ponytail, tied up high with a red scrunchie. She was accompanied by a tall, fair man with whom she shuffled seats a number of times. All were snug in warm, woollen layers.
Others included hawkers dragging their valuable goods. Tattered jackets and worn out shoes shielded them from the cold. A few young men in navy blue denims and colourful hoodies swiftly slid into seats while smoothening gelled hair spikes. The bus conductor trotted up the steps, his green hoodie brushing against passengers as he shifted down the aisle asking destinations and punching out tickets.
The engine rumbled into life as the night crept inside the bus windows. After slowly rolling out from the bus terminal, the bus picked up pace on the road. The bright lights of Delhi and Gurgaon sped past like glittering fireflies in the dark. The highway lights shone on our faces like moving floodlights.
The world outside and the few people inside. It seemed like we were cut off from the city flitting past us. We were brought together for one purpose. Travellers, all waiting to go somewhere.
The cold afforded me a few winks of sleep. Proper rest evaded us due to restroom breaks at shady dhabas. At one such roadside inn somewhere in Haryana, we couldn’t see any woman roaming without a male accomplice.
When the night grew older, the bus gained higher ground. I marvelled at the driver’s impeccable talent in manoeuvring the bus through steep, hilly roads at a steady speed. The wind grew chillier too.
At around 4 ‘o’ clock, sleep totally abandoned me. I sat up wide awake, as the bus halted for a break at Mandi. I stepped down and stretched my legs. On my inquiry the bus conductor pointed at a tea shop. Other bus-weary travellers like myself had gathered there, craving for some hot, steaming chai. The warm beverage ran down my throat and offered energy to my tired muscles.
The mystical lights of dawn broke through the dark sky. A huge group of people crowded the bus as it prepared to leave Mandi. A new conductor exchanged words and money with the novel, sleep-refreshed faces. They seemed focussed on a particular purpose for their journey. It had been barely 40 minutes when the new crowd alighted at Pandoh, as swiftly and efficiently as they had boarded. It all seemed like a dream sequence through my sleep-deprived eyes.
The bone-chilling cold pierced exposed reddened cheeks. Sunlight touched the tops of the encircling hill ranges. The bright blue sky refreshed everybody’s sleepy eyes. The number of passengers dwindled to a minimum by the time we reached Kullu, the last stop before Manali. The new conductor, wearing a bright yellow fur hoodie and blue jeans, amicably sat across me and asked about where we are headed. His brown bushy moustache and pink cheeks shone in the golden sunlight as he talked.
When we alighted from the bus, the mountain air sent ecstatic thrills (or chills) down my back.
After a good night’s bumpy ride and cold shivers, we reached the end of our journey.
We reached Manali at around 9:00 AM, 24th November, 2021.