A dented bus lumbers across the sun-baked plains. Every surface inside is grimed with fine diesel grit and road dust. My hair is powdered with it. I’m travelling with my new friend Sophie. She’s from Holland. Bollywood soundtracks blare from the speakers up front. Everybody knows the lyrics but us. Sometimes grown men board the bus and break openly into song.
India feels like a time machine to me, even a bridge to some other realm that is not of this mundane modern world. From the bus windows, I’ve witnessed men with shaved heads and dhotis, pilgrims of some kind, jogging barefoot along the roadside. Shirtless labourers raking salt into mammoth white piles. Turbaned camel drivers with handlebar moustaches, dressed all in white.
We clatter over the bleached landscape. I hope to reach the medieval city of Bhuj by nightfall. There is a beautiful castle there whose inner walls are lined with mirrors. But as they say, if you want to make God laugh, just tell him your plans.
We stop for a train crossing. The bus grinds down through its gears to a halt. A slow line of rust-coloured rail cars thunders rhythmically over the tracks. The approaching train emerges never-endingly from behind some dry hills in the distance. Our bus driver turns the key in the ignition and the motor cuts. The breeze stops, and searing air begins to penetrate through the windows. The group of ladies seated nearby goes back to their chittering. Traffic accumulates behind us. A baby at the front starts to cry.
Cars pull around the bus into the vacant oncoming lane. They, too, idle at the verge of the racks. Cars filled with human biomass, plastic laundry bags and burlap sacks of rice. Everybody going somewhere, laden with their burdens. Before the caboose can trail through, more drivers creep up on the road shoulder to our left and then on the far right.
The train finally passes, revealing the other side of the crossing, where waiting travellers have also rushed the railway barrier. Our two gridlocked lanes sit nose-to-nose with two lines of oncoming traffic. Four lanes across, if I count all the cars on the dusty shoulder. Our driver budges his way out, heckling his fellow drivers, sounding his trusty air horn. It takes perhaps two hours for this traffic showdown to clear, but I can’t be sure. I lost my watch weeks ago and decided not to replace it. Finally we break free. By the time the bus fills with dry road wind again, my t-shirt is soaked with sweat.
After dusk, the bus empties. Sophie and I sprawl over the vacant seats. The driver’s companion sits nearby, talking as if to keep them both awake. In the middle of the night the bus stops inexplicably. I see thorn trees, the desert sand lit up by the brittle light of the moon. The driver and his friend alight. They gather sticks and build a tiny fire. They squat, warming their hands until the flames burn out. Then they climb back aboard. Who knows why? Every hour of the day seems steeped in holy rituals. Our driver starts the engine, and then we rattle on.