When an overnight bus journey from Delhi to Shimla turns into a sleepless nightmare

Her face stiff and tense, her eyes were glued to the driver of the Volvo coach. What he was doing was something she wasn’t at all amused by. “Shut your eyes, no. Try and sleep. Ignore,” I, seated next to her, told her. “I cannot,” she said in no uncertain terms. “I cannot as long as he is doing this.”

“I am sorry,” I said, “I shouldn’t have insisted on the bus!”

I felt guilty because Zinia actually wasn’t keen on a Delhi-Shimla bus journey at all  – she has a back problem. But I convinced her saying busses these days are super luxurious and that we would save a day if we travel by the nightbus. It is another story that rather than her back, it was her mental peace that was lost.

“Well, we cannot undo it now!” she said bitterly, “but I will not return by bus. Train, plane, helicopter, book wherever, not a bus please!”

We would still have been better off if instead of the front row I had booked tickets somewhere in the middle rows where the driver would have been out of our view. Ignorance would have been bliss.

under-the-bus
So what was so disturbing? Well, it was a single lane highway, it was 11 in the night, and with the odometre needle hovering between 80-100 kmph, our driver was negotiating the rush of oncoming traffic with just one hand on the steering, the other holding a phone glued to his left ear. And talking nonstop.

Zinia waited patiently, hoping he would end his call, and concentrate fully on the road. But no, one call over and he was dialling another number, his eyes darting from the road to the phone.

Zinia could hold herself no more. “Bhaiya,” she told the conductor, “Please tell the driver to stop talking on the phone. I am getting scared.” He went reluctantly and told the driver, who immediately looked back, as if she had just asked a fish to climb a tree. He laughed, a come-on-don’t-joke laugh. “Madam, this is our daily job. Don’t you worry. I have to be in touch with people.”

Of course, it didn’t go well with Zinia. “If you don’t listen, I will write a complaint,” she said.
“Go complain. Nobody can do nothing to me,” he said arrogantly and laughed some more, even as he got back to dialling the next number.

This went on, the driver driving and talking, Zinia sitting straight, her restless eyes fidgeting between the road and the driver.

By two in the morning, I was jolted out of my sleep when the bus did a sharp manoeuvre, only to find Zinia still wide eyed, alert and awake. “Sleep no, baby,” I said. She said nothing.

Bhaiya, aaram se chalao,” a passenger from the back shouted.
“You will never reach Shimla if I drive aaram se!” the driver retorted.

busride

And our rogue bus driver negotiated hairpin bands like these with one hand on the steering

I went back to sleep, or at least attempted. The windshield being right on our front, the high-beam headlights from the oncoming vehicles hit my eyes like thousand flashlights. I kept on shifting on my seat, the twists and turns of the bus keeping me away from settling down into a comfort zone.

Somewhere outside a highway motel the bus stopped for a half-hour break. We had our tea, bought a packet of interesting strawberry-flavoured cigarettes, and then returned to our seats. But wait a minute – something wasn’t right! Is this our bus? The seat covers were the same but I don’t remember the passengers seating around. F…k, it was the wrong bus! We quickly climbed down and there we found our bus which in its all-white avatar looked quite similar.

So the story continued, our driver still on his phone and if not on the phone, chatting up with the conductor, their voices loud enough to hammer our ears. Only that the drive was getting more dangerous now given the bus was on the hills, negotiating the hairpin bends of the road right all through.

Somewhere ahead of Shimla, while it was still dark, the bus stopped abruptly. It was, I suppose, a designated stop. A few passengers got down and the bus was about to move when we heard a cry. “Wait, wait!” it was a woman, juggling an infant and a suitcase, stumbling towards the exit door.

Kya madam, why are you taking so much time!” the driver mocked.
“Can’t you see I have a child,” she retorted.
The driver and the conductor exchanged an irate look.

“Look at him. He is a serious piece of shit. You have the details of the bus, right? I will most certainly report him to the authorities,” Zinia said with resolve.
“Yes, we should,” I said.

And thus we arrived in Shimla, sleepless and agitated, glad the deadly ride was finally over.

Checking into our room in Mahasu House in Mashobra, 12 km away from Shimla, my phone alerted me to a SMS notification. I looked at it.

“Hope you had a pleasant ride,” the message from RedBus.com says. “We hope to continue our association with you.” And then goes on to say: Please take a while to rate your ride!

Oh, damn well, you want my rating!? Here it is then!

And jabbed at the phone with violent vengeance.

delhi-to-shimla-bus

LESSONS LEARNT
1. Never book tickets right at the front. There were no diagrams on the bus booking site Redbus.com to give me a fair idea about our seat positions. The headlights from the oncoming traffic and the loud driver-conductor banter will not let you sleep. Also our front seats were too close to the entry/exit door which meant a constant movement of passengers.
2. I would rather undertake the 10 hour Delhi-Shimla drive in my own car, even if it means taking a night halt in a place in between.
3. By train, the Delhi-Kalka Shatabdi works best.
4. Besides, there are no designated bus stands for departure. One has to call and find out last minute where the bus would exactly be. We were supposed to be boarding from Majnu ki Tila, but ended up doing it from another back-of-beyond place as instructed by the driver.

Nishiraj A. Baruah

Former Executive Editor of Air India's in-flight magazine and Harper's Bazaar Bride. Lifestyle journalist, travel writer and blogger who collects knives and plays the drums.

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