All I had done was ride in a bus all day. Yet when the bus began moving, I felt sleep weigh down on me and my fuzzy head and bleary eyes were all too willing to give in. For an hour or so, I drifted in and out of a fitful sleep; catching glimpses of strange faces, shanties and trees – all of them prospective casting for the film soon to unveil in my sleep. And sleep I did, for a good six hours.
I awoke at 6 AM and the world was still cloaked in the darkness of the night. After an hour, the bus came to a stop. The last time I’d been to Bangalore was by flight. The scene before me looked quite different. I got off the bus, gulping water from my bottle. When I saw what was written on the sign next to the stop, my heart stopped beating. It literally did. The sign said – Gachibowli. I was in Hyderabad.
I felt a daze wash over me as I realised I was once again in a different place from where I had been headed. I might have swooned if I hadn’t begun moving. For a long time, I walked in no particular direction, barely feeling the weight of my rucksack. Eventually, I found a bench by the roadside and sat down. Hyderabad was 11 or 12 hours away from Gokarna. I had only been travelling for eight. There was no way I had boarded the wrong bus this time. Nothing made sense. As if in response, my stomach rumbled. Oh yes, hunger always makes sense; as primitive as the origin of the planet. I watched some buses pass by but I was too frightened to get into one again. Who knew where I might end up? I hailed an auto instead and asked him to take me to a central area, where I was likely to find cheap food. “Would the Charminar-Falaknuma Palace area do?” the driver asked. He must know it was his lucky day – landing an ignorant passenger like me. I nodded. Whatever.
The lane leading up to Charminar was so thickly lined with hawkers and honking vehicles that it became a real trial to make my way around. I ducked into a by-lane and walked into the first Udupi restaurant I saw. It seemed to be popular with its patrons. Within minutes, the place was full to the point of tables being shared by strangers. My solo streak of luck had run out. A man of undetermined age plonked himself across me. He wore a short kurta and khaki pants and his frame was wiry; his face tanned but not dark and his features lean like his body. He could have been 20, 25 or 30. I supposed he’d looked this way for the last five years and would continue to do so for the next five as well. A modern-day Dorian Gray.
“The medu vada here is really good,” he said in his Hyderabadi Hindi, making the pronouns sound a little funny. So, it was obvious that I was an outsider. For some reason, that depressed me. “Thanks but I already ordered.” “Studying here?” Dorian asked. I’ve never liked overly friendly or inquisitive people. I shook my head and looked away pointedly. Thereafter, silence reigned supreme.
“Something strange is happening to me,” I burst out suddenly. I don’t know why I’d chosen to say it when the poor fellow was about to leave. His brows crinkled. It was almost as if the words inside were starting to give me a stomach ache. I had to get them out before I fell sick. “I didn’t intend to come here,” I continued. “I boarded a bus to Bangalore from Gokarna last night. But I ended up here this morning. It’s just insane.” I desperately hoped that he wouldn’t ask me the obvious question. He didn’t. “I see,” was all Dorian said. I felt encouraged to say more. “This isn’t the first time. On May 9, I boarded a bus for Nagpur from Mumbai and I ended up in Gokarna. I swear I didn’t take the wrong bus.” Only now did I notice the hints of grey at his temples. But a lot of people had premature greying.
“So you took two different buses for destinations different from where they actually took you.”
“That’s about it.”
I didn’t know what I’d expected him to say. But the ache in my stomach had subsided. The dosa might have helped as well. I decided to voice the fear that had been clawing at me, “What if I never reach home? What if I keep ending up at the wrong destination?” “The wrong destination,” he murmured softly. To my surprise and indignation, he burst out laughing. “I’m sorry but what you’ve just described is what life keeps doing to us, over and over. We keep boarding buses for our intended destinations and the route keeps changing mid-way. Look at me. I wanted to be a cultural revolutionary – working for the preservation of our native arts and languages. Now I’m just a history professor at a college full of students who have no desire to learn. I’ve ended up at the wrong destination too and you know what, I can’t even take a bus back home. That route is closed to me forever. I can only move ahead.” I was too shocked to respond. He said just one more thing before he left, “Try taking a train.”
I wandered aimlessly through the streets of Hyderabad for a while, salivating at the aroma of hot haleem and mutton biryani even though I was pretty full with my meagre lunch. Humans are just so greedy about everything – food, money, possessions. Nothing is ever enough. And if like everything else, this too can be traced to some prehistoric habits, I wonder when we will leave this legacy of ‘want’ behind. But at that moment, what I really wanted was a good spot to relax my tired feet. I hailed another auto and asked him to take me to Golconda Fort.
However, the sight of all those ruins; so beautiful and resonant of greatness even after all these years, made me forget about my tired toes. I climbed numerous ramparts and stairs to feast my eyes on the panorama of alternating greens, browns and whites, each standing for trees, streets and houses respectively. One doesn’t realise how much greenery there is in a place until one has a bird’s eye view of it. I sat down on the railing at one such spot and breathed in the warm mountain air. Maybe, landing up at Hyderabad wasn’t such a bad thing after all. There wasn’t much to see in Bangalore, by way of historical tourism. That set me thinking about my strange bus rides again. Was there a pattern to the places I was ending up at? Gokarna, Hyderabad. I thought of the verbal ciphers I solved in the newspaper back at home and spent some time trying to work out a solution that connected Gokarna and Nagpur, as well as Bangalore and Hyderabad. But no, that didn’t seem right.
A few tourists invaded my brainstorming session and I watched them gawk at the view and whisper excitedly to each other. That was when it struck me – I was simply wasting my time. The key to this mystery wasn’t revealing itself to me any time soon. So, I might as well sit back and enjoy the ride. I mean, wasn’t this actually fun? Like someone else turning the knob on the radio for me. There was no saying what music I might hear next! Suddenly, adrenaline coursed through me at the prospect of a trip with surprise destinations.
Thereafter, I kept boarding random buses and ending up at wrong destinations. After spending a night at a budget hotel in Hyderabad (I was starting to stink and needed a shower), I boarded a bus for Pondicherry. I ended up at Kolkata and had a wonderful time exploring its frozen-in-time streets and quaint little cafes and bookstores. I even stumbled on to a literary festival and heard my favourite travel writer William Dalrymple speak about his fascination with Delhi’s history. That made me want to visit Delhi. But of course, the bus took me to Rajgir.
(To be continued. Come back later or follow this blog to read the concluding part)
Missed Part I of this three-part mystery? Read it here