An overnight journey on the Bomdila-Tawang route is a risky affair. If possible, it is to be avoided. Shared Tata Sumos are the common mode of transport on this route but experience tells me that they are not comfortable. I opt to take a slower but more comfortable bus from Tawang back to Tezpur. The bus is scheduled to leave half an hour before noon. I think it’s a good idea to have lunch at Tawang before moving off.
‘What do you have?’ I ask at a restaurant.
‘Only thukpa,’ says the ladying who is busy counting cash.
‘Is it vegetarian?’
‘It is beef. You don’t eat beef?’ she quizzes me with surprise. She cuts a round figure. She certainly looks like she’s been fed on beef all her life.
Many years ago beef noodles used to be my favourite food. My memory takes me back to that wonderful taste. Temptation is laid deliciously my way. After some moments of hesitation, I let it go. I will have lunch on the way.
The bus is nearly full. There are as many as three drivers in the cabin. It is going to be long ride and they are going to take turns driving on this treacherous route. Progress is slow. The bus stops often to pick up passengers on the way out of Tawang. Soon after we leave town a convoy of army trunks blocks our path. The trunks are parked at a check post. For many minutes we are stalled. One of the drivers, a man of action and abuse, gets off the bus and gets into an argument with the soldiers. He throws abuse after abuse. The trucks are moved to the side and we are on our way.
On these long journeys you are really at the mercy of the bus drivers for meals. The bus will not even stop at a decent town. It will stop midway between towns at some nondescript eating joint. You have no choice. Lunch was at one such place. At half past two, it was a little late for me but one cannot complain. Lunch was not bad though.
By four in the evening, we have descended quite a bit from the heights of Tawang. The valleys are covered with mist. Rain is falling lightly. A river is flowing softly by. It is extremely cold outside but a fisherman braves this weather to try his luck in the waters. The bus stops suddenly and the driver gets off in a fuss.
‘Aai! Machli pakadtha hai!’ shouts the guy. He is joined by passengers from the bus. I get down too to take a leak, snap a picture of the scene and see how it plays out.
The fisherman sticks to his ground but the bus driver is not to be dismissed so easily. He is a man of long tongue and sharp words. ‘I will call the CM,’ he threatens. He borrows a mobile and makes a call to one of the MPs. I understand from other folks that fishing in these waters is not allowed but no one is really sure. Finally, the fisherman gives in. We depart after a delay of twenty minutes. As the bus is pulling away, the fisherman is seen casting his net in the rear view mirror. The bus stops again, the driver gets off and the argument heats up.
‘Tum kaun ho rokne ke liye,’ retorts the fisherman. ‘There is an order from the CM to allow fishing here.’
It often happens on a long journey that you cannot ignore the stranger next to you. Sooner or later a word is exchanged, introductions are made and a conversation begins. A friendship may be formed but in most cases it is a passing contact in the moving web of human lives.
The guy next to me tells me he is from the village of Balipara. It is in Assam, a few kilometers from the border with Arunachal Pradesh. This is the fourth time he has come up to Tawang to help his uncle who is a building contractor.
‘I require a permit to enter Arunachal but I have never bothered. I talk like the locals here. The guards at the border check post have never asked me for any ID,’ he tells me confidently. As for me, my permit was stamped upon entry at Balukpong but the officer did not really check the dates on the permit.
‘Tell me about your village,’ I ask him.
‘Balipara is a dangerous place. People are not cultured. Differences are settled with bloodshed, never with words,’ he says quite casually. ‘Vehicles are not permitted to pass that way at night. You can be sure that they will not make it to the other side. You will see. We will pass Balipara only after sunrise tomorrow morning.’
‘You yourself have gone to school, I assume.’
‘Yes but only till tenth,’ he confides. ‘Frankly, I am ashamed of belonging to Balipara. It’s reputation is so bad that I can hardly get a job anywhere in Assam. People know about Balipara’s bad reputation. You know, although there are many rich people in Balipara, all buildings are like huts. People are afraid to show their wealth for fear of demands from gangs.’
‘Sounds quite a place. Tawang was alright. I was planning to visit Ziro and Along but people tell me that those parts of Arunachal Pradesh are not safe.’
‘Yes. There are many parts of Arunachal that are not safe. Have you heard of Seppa?’
‘It is a village that has not developed for many decades. Even today there is a curfew after seven. People get drunk. They will disturb others on the road. Looting is common. There is another place near my village. We call it Second Pakistan. If you go alone into that village, I guarantee that you will not return alive. I know many people in that village but I am still afraid to go there alone. Only for work, I go in a group, do the job and return immediately. It is not a village to visit without reason.’
‘How long were you at Tawang?’
‘Five days. I will be back in a week’s time,’ he replies. ‘This is a risky road you know.’
He continues, ‘I took a Tata Sumo to Tawang. It was a night journey. It was raining and the mist was thick. There were five Sumos on the way up. I was in the second vehicle. Suddently we heard some skidding in front of us. We stopped our vehicle. The Sumo in front of us was missing. We jumped out of our vehicles. We found the Sumo some 300 feet below in the valley. It had gone down the slope and tumbled all way to the river. Only the headlights could be seen in the darkness.
‘We called an ambulance. We didn’t wait for it. Later I learnt that all survived with minor injuries.’
It is half past midnight. We stop at a horrible place for dinner. I have no appetite. In hindsight, it has been a good decision not to eat here. Soon after we depart from this place, the bus is stopped. Three or four guys are complaining of stomach aches. They get down to relieve themselves.
‘Bilkul third rate kana tha,’ tells me the Balipara guy.
‘Clear ho gaya bai?’ he asks lightly to the guys returning to the bus. They nod hesitantly. ‘Thank you. Thank you. Driver chalo.’
At day break, we pass through thick forest territory. The region between Balukpong and Balipara is called Hathi Gate. Large herds of wild elephants are common in this part of the forest. Soon my companion gets off as we arrive into Balipara. It is not long before I reach Tezpur. It is time to go in search of rhinos.