On the last day, the morning before I was to leave Assam, and move onto Bihar, I was given the option of visiting the Brahmaputra.
(I could have hired another gaadi and gone looking for the santhals who are likely to lead the next wave of unrest in the state. But it was simply too expensive and I had to stick to a budget, after all.)
So, I persuaded Saito (one of the activisits with The Ant) to take to the Brahmaputra bridge. We took a bus. A slow, slow, local bus, stopping at just about every village street turning, and staying stopped until the passengers threatened homicide.
Of course, before setting out, Saito had taken the precaution of finding out when we could take the last bus back. We were told '7 pm'.
Which gave us enough time to take a leisurely walk across the bridge, against the sunset.
Sunset was now out of the question. It was dark by the time we got there - though it was not yet six in the evening. I still looked forward to a nice walk on the bridge, looking down at the low waters, listening to the traffic on the highway...
But the moment we got off the bus, we got stopped by the cops.
They were guarding one end of the bridge, at some sort of checkpost.
Cop number 1 asked us what we were doing there.
Saito explained that I was down from Delhi.
Cop wasn't convinced. He looked perplexed. "You came to see just this bridge?"
"Yes," I said.
"Yes. She's from Delhi,"Saito explained.
Cop looked suspicious. "Why do you want to see the bridge?"
"I just thought I'd take a look. I heard it's pretty,"I said.
"She wants to look around before she goes back to Delhi," Saito said.
And finally, I played my magic card, "I'm a journalist."
Cop number 1 couldn't imagine why anyone would want to look at a bridge in the dark, even if one was a journalist from Delhi. But he allowed me through, adding, "You can only walk as far as that lamp-post there. Return at once and report back here."
So we did that. We walked as far as the lamp-post. I was silent; Saito was probably internally cursing this wierd creature who'd descended (ascended, actually) from Delhi. Then, we walked back to the checkpost.
Cop number 1 took stock of the situation. "So, now how are you going to return to Bongaigaon?"
I looked at Saito.
Saito ventured, "Bus...?"
I nodded, thinking of the tight budget.
Cop number 1 snorted. "What bus?"
'What bus', it turned out, was the right thing to say, though we didn't believe him then.
We sat at the roadside, and waited and waited and waited.
No bus turned up.
An auto-rickshaw, loaded and spilling over with various goods wrapped in a large white cloth, offered to drive us back to Bongaigaon for four hundred bucks.
I baulked. Besides, where would we sit, in that loaded rickshaw?
The cops insisted on our hiring the man because no more buses would arrive. We still didn't believe them.
So, Saito and I began to walk back to the nearest village. We were half-way there when a motorcycle man stopped.
"Where are you going?"
I looked at Saito, more and more uncertain.
Saito ventured, "We're going to take a bus."
"What bus?" the motorcyclist snorted.
This was not sounding nice.
It was dark and late, by rural Assam standards; it was not a nice time to be out, away from shelter and warmth.
The motorcyclist explaind that it was a Sunday and that no buses would be going this way. He offered to take us to the nearest town-village, where we had some chance of taking a private bus.
So, both Saito and I clambered onto the motorcycle. We got dropped off at Kariabaira. Again, we waited and waited and waited. Finally, my chai-addiction got the better of me and Saito went off to fetch me the tiny cups, half-filled, of tea from a nearby stall.
It so happened that we were waiting just outside a police station. We had been instructed to contact a cop in red cap, for he alone could flag down a racing bus at night.
While I stood there, cop number two sauntered up. He asked me what I was standing there for. I explained.
Cop number two looked perplexed. "Bus? What bus?"
Yeah, right. Thank you so much. I sighed and continued to wait.
Then his senior officer - he wore a red cap - sauntered out of the police station. His eyes were bloodshot and he looked very, very drunk (a given state of affairs in Bodo regions, since this was immediately after the Bihu festival).
Red cap cop asked me. "What are you waiting for?"
"For a bus," I explained.
He looked at me up and down. "What is a girl like you doing out alone at night?"
"I'm not alone. I'm with a boy. We're waiting for a bus back to Bongaigaon." I struggled to keep the irritation out of my voice.
"Who's this boy? How long have you known him?" Red cap cop had decided I needed to be interrogated.
"This boy is an activist with an NGO. I've known him two days."
"You're out at night with a boy you've known two days????" Red cap cop's eyes turned even redder.
"He's an ACTIVIST," I retorted.
"Who's your father?"
"Where's your mother?"
"She's not here."
"You're a girl alone, then!" Red cap cop was very firm.
"I'm a journalist!" I said, equally firmly. "I'm from the press."
Red cap cop fell to this final salvo. Few people, including cops, could argue with the magic word 'press'.
In the meantime, Saito returned with the cups of tea. Saito had to do some more explainging in Bodo lingo. I did catch the words, "She's from Delhi."
In any case, the bus did not turn up. We waited another half an hour and Saito discovered an auto-rickshaw driver who would take us home for two hundred and fifty rupees. I agreed, a little resentfully. (The only other cheaper option was taking a cycle-rickshaw, which would take two hours at the very least, and it was very probable that the puller would collapse, in the middle of nowhere, on the highway, leaving us to foxes in the adjoining forests.)
So, we took the auto.
Except that there were two other passengers waiting. The driver clarified that he wouldn't take us alone. Not enough money. We'd have to share with two others.
I thought, "Oh, what the hell. Let's just get home anyhow. At any cost."
But of course, there were more than just two. The driver took on three others! Which means, there were eight of us in the auto-rickshaw, four of them on the front seat, with the driver.
I will not go into what it feels like to be riding down the highway, in an auto-rickshaw, your vision completely blocked by four strangers' backs.
Half-way home, Saito discovered a straggling bus in another village. We jumped vehicles, paid up, got to the bus stand in Bongaigaon, took another auto to The Ant's headquaters and.... and that was that.
Oh well, I did walk on the Brahmaputra bridge...