Tanuj woke up ten minutes before his alarm rang. Like every other day, he felt like staying in bed for at least an hour more and even regretted his decision of joining Hitesh for the trip, but he got up nevertheless, assuring himself that this was worth it. He left a note for his parents, who were still sleeping, at the breakfast table, which said he was going somewhere with Hitesh and will be back soon. He didn’t know exactly when he would be returning because he never asked Hitesh. Maybe he was afraid that the trip would be too short and wouldn’t make any difference. Sharp at seven, he was in front of Hitesh’s apartment with his Swift.
“I wish this was a road trip. The view is beautiful!” said Tanuj, as the two friends drove through the countryside. “It’s a pity that it is only 25 kilometers.” He couldn’t remember when was the last time he saw so much greenery, as he had never driven outside Lucknow and had not even taken a train for a long time. For the very few trips he had been on with his family, the flight tickets would be ready before he knew it.
“You know the reason I chose this place is because it’s not so far away. I could take my time travelling, not be late, and also take some clicks on the way,” said Hitesh, who had asked Tanuj to drive at as low as 30 kilometers per hour and had his camera lens out of the window half of the time. The scenery was typical of what one would see while travelling by train in North India. Lush greenery on all sides interspersed by crop fields, mostly wheat, and small huts and one-storey buildings lined up at the end. Nothing too unusual for the common Indian, but it took a beautiful shape through Hitesh’s camera lens and would end up in a magazine some day.
In about an hour, they reached a marketplace that indicated that they were finally in Samarganj. It seemed to be a small village, and the number of inhabitants not so large. Tanuj breathed in the fresh unpolluted air, and felt the energy of a morning marketplace seeping in. It was interesting to see how the vendors maintained a peaceful atmosphere, although calling out the names of products they were selling. The passage for walking through the market was in no way blocked by the vendors, who occupied only the minimum area they needed on the periphery of the passage. The morning air smelt of fresh fruits and vegetables, periodically interrupted by the sweet smell of paan from tiny stalls that stood in between. A disciplined herd of goats passed by, followed by a man with a long tree-branch in his hand, and so did a queue of carefree school-going children, chatting and laughing. There was an aura of cheerfulness and freedom which Tanuj sensed instantly.
They stopped their car at a seemingly safe corner in the market near a paan stall, and paid the stall-owner some money to watch over the car as they would walk round. As they crossed the marketplace and reached the residential area of the village, Tanuj got his first flavour of rural India. It was not something remarkable or unheard of, but it was a completely different atmosphere. Women sat outside their little cottages on the porch, bathing in the sun, oiling their children. There was always some laughter in the air, some jingling of bells or anklets and some mooing of cows that brought about a liveliness in the streets. Irrespective of their age, people greeted each other when they crossed paths. As Hitesh captured the people, the animals and the colours of nature in his camera, Tanuj weaved memories in his mind, observing every detail and even initiating conversations with the people, who seemed more than happy to welcome the visitors from the city, and who recommended them a cosy little dhaba for a hearty lunch.
It was almost six in the evening and Hitesh proposed they should go back. He had to sort out the best photographs for sending out for publishing, and the deadline was only a couple of days away.
“Already?” Tanuj was clearly disappointed. “I will come with you to your next outing too. I don’t care if you mind.”
As they drove away, fifteen minutes into their journey, Tanuj gave out a gasp of amazement. “Look at that sun over the horizon! I am sure you would like to shoot that my friend.”
“Oh yes that’s photogenic for sure,” agreed Hitesh. The setting sun looked magnificent at a distance and was planning to disappear in about five minutes. As Hitesh got out of the car and positioned his camera on his tripod, Tanuj followed a small bend on the road with the hope of delaying the journey by a few minutes by walking around, and thus getting to spend some more time outside the city.
But what he saw next was beyond his comprehension. The tranquil air of the village was no longer identifiable, and was instead being torn apart by the screams of a woman, which seemed to emerge from the centre of a large circle made by a crowd. Without a second thought he made his way through the crowd and saw a woman lying unconscious on the road with her saree torn at places, deep scratches and bruises on her exposed limbs, and bleeding profusely from her head. He looked at the faces in the crowd with disbelief – none of them seemed willing to extend a helping hand to her and carry her to a doctor, although the anguish was clearly visible in their eyes.
“What is wrong with you people? Help her for God’s sake!” He shouted. They did not respond to him but their eyes moved to the distance where he saw a group of five or six men riding away on motorbikes. He stood there for a couple of more minutes without any answers from the crowd, puzzled and disgusted, until he picked up the woman in his arms and headed for his car.
(To be continued…)