Each month in the Itinerant Writers Club we write a 500 word essay on a given theme. This month it was “on the road”.
A chicken bustled out of the thick fog then scuttled back. Manjit, our non-English speaking driver, had just navigated in the dark, through several kilometres of corrugated mud and no discernible road, to this fog-bound clay pit. We didn’t understand why he had parked the car next to a deserted shack, but the eerie silence, punctuated by an occasional muffled voice or muted bird call, was a relief after the incessant chatter and clatter of everyday India.
I squinted through the windscreen at undulating mud waves disappearing into the gloom. There was no sign of a river. While Manjit headed off in search of an early morning snack, Jamie, my partner, decided to see what was what. I stayed in the car wondering how long it was going to take to get to the terminus, and how a ferry across the legendary Brahmaputra River to Majuli Island in Assam would compare to the cross-Channel Leviathans back home. With a bit of luck we wouldn’t have to endure overflowing lavatories, beer cans rolling around the floor or piped music in every public space.
An Indian pye-dog ambled past.
Manjit reappeared with cardamom-flavoured sweet masala chai for all of us. Then Jamie tapped on the window.
“This is it.” he said.
“What do you mean, ‘This is it’? There’s nothing here but mud.”
From inside my cocoon I noticed a slight improvement in the visibility. I got out. As the retreating mist revealed a broad sweep of churned up mud, interspersed with more ramshackle sheds, the sun began to make its presence felt. The fog lifted and India’s sacred Brahmaputra river unveiled itself.
We walked down to the silvery water’s edge. A makeshift ramp, slightly wider than a car, had been cut through the clay. Further on, a couple of old barges, about 30 metres in length, leant against the waterside.
“You don’t suppose one of those is the ferry?”
“Too small, ” said Jamie.
We found a large, blue noticeboard:
Light vehicle like Jeep, Ambassador with driver 634.00/-
Bullock and cart (loaded) 104.00/-
Elephant with mahout 821.00/-
Wild animal like Tiger, Lion etc 82.00/-
There were another 26 categories.
An hour later – among the usual hullabaloo that accompanies any kind of tricky operation in India – Manjit manoeuvred his car straight down the ramp, across two wooden planks and onto the narrow barge. We watched from our seats, where we had already staked a claim among earnest salesmen, giggling ladies, goat herders, barefoot children, monks and well-to-do Indian tourists.
The ferry departed, and the mighty “son of Brahma” effortlessly carried us along this small part of its 1,800 mile journey from Tibet to the Bay of Bengal. I relaxed and decided not to worry about what was waiting for us at the other end.