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When the Waters Rose

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By Savitri Narayanan

As the State Transport Bus entered the Eastern Express Highway, Sulaiman pressed the accelerator. No stops, no intersections, and no traffic signals – it was a straight road and a clear run for the next two kilometres.

It was the last trip of the day. Rainy day it was for sure. Sometimes heavy, sometimes light, it rained incessantly. The sun had rarely come out. The roads were deserted and very few passengers boarded the bus. The last passenger had got down at the Gol Market.

“It’s just us both and our bus! The whole bus left for us!” laughed Vishwas as he walked the length of the bus closing the windows. Then he settled down in the single seat to the left of the driver.

“Mottu bhaiyya and Lambu bhaiyya must have taken the day off,” said Sulaiman.

Those two were regulars on this last trip. They stayed in an old building behind the depot and worked in some department in the Secretariat. Without fail, they boarded the eight-twenty bus in the mornings. In the evenings, again like clockwork, they caught the last trip at half past six and got down at the depot. Sulaiman made it a point to slow down near the milk parlour so that they could alight and go home before the bus entered the depot.

It was more than three years ago that Vishwas became a bus conductor. His ambition was to go to Dubai and make money. So, after Class XII, all his efforts were to try to get a visa to Dubai where he hoped to pick up a driver’s job. It was during one of those days that the State Transport announced the hiring of conductors and drivers on contract basis.

“Meet Bhandari sir in the depot,” Suresh mamaji had suggested at the breakfast table, “he mentioned they’re planning walk in interviews!”

Bhandari Sir was in the accounts department in the Roorkee office. Whenever there were vacancies and interviews, he looped in the youth in Ramnagar.

“Keep your eyes and ears open, there are opportunities everywhere,” he often told the youth, “put in your applications and try your best; trust God to know what’s best for every soul!”

There was such deep faith and conviction about Suresh mamaji’s words that Vishwas put in an application on the same day. Like all children, Vishwas too found buses fascinating. Drivers and conductors held an aura of their own. Once, at the steering wheel, the driver seemed to have not only the bus but the whole world at his command! The way he would honk the horn to make people step aside, the way the smaller vehicles gave him way, he seemed so powerful!

A bus conductor with his bag of money and whistle was a hero, too! Amazingly he knew the fares from any stop to any stop and he was quick in calculations to return the correct change! Moreover he could multi-task – have a conversation with the driver or a passenger, ensure people’s safe boarding and alighting and, most of all, be on his feet in a moving bus!

Sulaiman had joined the State Transport as a driver more or less at the same time and they were often posted together on this circular route from the Kansar Depot to the Secretariat and back.

Vishwas counted the day’s collection and filled in the log sheet. The sky grew darker as the rain clouds loomed in the western sky.
“We’ll be lucky if we get home before the rains,” said Sulaiman.

It had rained incessantly for the past two days and nights. The monsoons were in full glory. TV news reports were all about floods and rescue work in various parts of Garhwal but, surprisingly, Ramnagar and surrounding areas remained safe, so far. Of course there was plenty of rain – not the dangerous, scary kind but the rain that the poets sang about, the musical downpour that one loved to watch through the window while eating ‘pakoras’ and sipping hot tea!

“How’s it in your area, Sulaiman bhai?” asked Vishwas.
“Not good, bhaiyya! When I left in the morning the lanes were flooded knee-deep and it was still raining,” he laughed, “Allah ka shukr hai, I know swimming so will reach home from anywhere!”

No more passengers were waiting to alight. Not many had got in for that matter. With the schools and colleges closed and the offices offering work- from- home options, the number of passengers had gone down anyway. The rains were an additional reason for people to stay home.

As they turned right and got off the highway, the floods became real. All they could see was a vast expanse of muddy water dotted with bushes, shops, trees and houses there was no road to be seen. Leading to Kansar depot, the road went past the Shiva temple and turned right at Kalu bhaiyya’s laundry shop. But the familiar landmarks were partially submerged.

“Whatever happens, we’ll take this bus to the depot. It’s our responsibility!” said Sulaiman.
“I have today’s collection in my bag; have to submit it to the supervisor,” said Vishwas, “Yadav Sir will be waiting to close today’s cash transactions!”
The rain grew more furious to the accompaniment of thunder and lightning.

“Vishwas, it’s getting risky! If the water rises, the engine might stop and we might get grounded till a tow-truck comes to our rescue! I have to somehow take the bus to the depot! So I am going to raise the engine and drive through this flood. The moment we reach the depot you run out to hand over the cash, OK?”

True to his word, Vishwas raised the engine and drove as if there was no tomorrow! The sound of the bus with raised engine was lost in the rain’s own furious downpour. On the left of the road, the Shiva temple on the left was surrounded—by water but the light in the sanctum sanctorum was still burning bright.

“Oh God! Keep us safe! Stay with us till we enter the depot and hand over the keys!”
“And till I hand over this cash and Yadav Sir closes the account!” added Vishwas.
“God keeps an eye on all of us!” they continued to reassure themselves.

As he drove, Sulaiman tried to get his bearings with reference to familiar landmarks. In the expanse of water, he looked for the post box, the transformer and the flag-post in the Panchayat Bhavan to guide the bus to the depot. The security post at the entrance to the depot was already submerged in water till the window. The water level was rising around the depot office, too. The papaya tree was almost under water except for the leaves and papayas. The Manager’s cabin and the photocopy room were becoming invisible too. It was getting increasingly dark and cold.

“Vishwas, come closer! Rush! Save this cash!” from somewhere came the feeble voice, surpassing the rain.

Yadav Sir stood there at the first floor window, frantically signalling and shouting. Holding the huge bag he called out again, “Vishwas, find a way! Save today’s collection! The water is rising…”

Then onwards, things happened like a movie in slow motion. Somehow Vishwas managed to get hold of the cash bag.

“Leave it to me, Uncleji. Save yourself, swim home!” said Vishwas as he hung on to the bag and managed to climb on top of a double decker bus.
‘I am an honest employee, doing my duty; God will surely provide protection!’ he told himself.

As the night grew dark and cold, the water receded. One by one the villagers came out and assembled. To many cheers of joy and appreciation, Vishwas came down. His timely act of courage elevated Vishwas in his own and the public’s eyes.

“Children of our village are like this!” said Bhandari Sir in the Panchayat meeting, complimenting Vishwas,” Come what may, protect the public property and be true to one’s duty!”