“It should be less than two hours before we hit the city,” said Kumar sitting in the passenger seat next to me. His voice seemed calm and composed.
However I sensed a tinge of nervousness. “Don’t worry,” I said, ” I’ll get you there safe and sound before the night falls or the storm breaks.” He was a better driver all right. But then I was no novice myself.
We were on this road trip for the past few weeks. It was always a struggle to wrestle the wheel from him even on pretty safe roads and clear weather. Some people are like that. They are not themselves if they are not driving. The dreary scenery outside was not helping my friend either. Dry, sandy, semi-arid landscape with little green vegetation. Pretty boring and dreary indeed. Both of us were really looking forward to some clean bed, fresh food and good sleep.
Mostly we were driving along by ourselves. Then I chanced to see a big, black SUV coming behind us in a distance. For the next few kilometres we both were coasting along with respectable distance between us.
Then the weather changed a bit. Wind picked up, lifting dust and forcing me pull the windows up. I hated the decision to put tinted windows in our car.
I looked at the map on my phone on the dashboard. We still had quite a distance on the same road. It went straight for some more kilometres and started twisting and turning around where the terrain became uneven with mounds and hills.
Kumar asked whether I wanted to pull over so that he could drive and I could take a nap. Nap indeed. No way. I told him to stay put and keep quiet.
As I glanced at the rear-view mirror, I was surprised to find that black vehicle had covered quite a bit of distance between us and was catching up on us. Perhaps they too want to beat the storm. I hit the pedal speeding up a bit.
“What is wrong with the GPS? No data?” exclaimed Kumar.
I found that phone signal had gone too weak. “It has been pretty spotty in these places. It will come back,” I assured him.
Before I could finish the sentence the black vehicle was on us honking to high hell. There was little space for them to overtake. Well, overtake they shouldn’t. I thought of showing a bit of my speed driving prowess. I accelerated more keeping us in the middle of the road. An SUV, I could take on. In my sleep.
Looked like they had an aggressive driver too. Started tailgating us blaring the horns. But I kept my nerve. Kumar wouldn’t keep quiet any longer.
“Pull over, right now,” he screamed at me. It only incensed me more. If the world wanted something, it should ask nicely. I was angry at the back SUV. And I was irritated by my friend. I decided to get into the spirit of racing.
The universe conspires against you at critical moments. Heavy rain started. Visibility went down. On came the wipers and headlights. Not a match for the elements. But I was set on showing my driving skills. Nothing like adversity to show your mettle.
Next thirty to forty minutes were absolute concentration. One eye at the back, one in front and stolen glances on the side. Total focus. Catch the middle of the road and not deviate. That should help both objectives. Prevent the black vehicle from overtaking us; and not fall over the edge of the road. The worst part, of course, was managing the critical and somewhat murderous look on Kumar’s face. But he was helpless. He was not courageous enough to open the door and bail out. No, I must focus on the road. Front and back.
I could not see the inside of the black vehicle. That was okay and it didn’t matter.
The road was not straight any more. But I kept going. Surprisingly I saw that the black vehicle was not trying to pass at every corner now. I wondered why. Perhaps they chickened out?
By the time, I realised why, it was too late. In situations like this knowing the terrain gave a big bonus. You know when to go fast and when to slow down. You know where the road turns and which way. That black vehicle used it to full advantage. Not just to overtake us but to send us sliding out of the road into a ditch.
As we veered off, the black SUV went past. I could not see the faces but made out four dark outlines. I am sure they were laughing. Swear words were perfectly in order in such a situation.
In pouring rain, Kumar and I stepped out to assess the damage. Everything seemed okay. Kumar got into the driver’s seat as I didn’t really protest. He managed to get the car back on the road. But GPS was still not up and we had to drive blind. Rain continued.
“What the hell,” screamed Kumar, “I can’t seem to change gears.”
Adversity is like rain. It comes thick and fast without letting up. We were left with a crippled car miles away from the city in the late evening.
Kumar got us cover quite a bit of distance, crawling in a low gear. The rain let up but light was fading fast.
“What a bunch of thoughtless people in the stupid SUV!” I said. “I agree I was a bit playful but what they did was terrible. Tomorrow I am going to find them and let them have it.”
Kumar kept quiet. I guess he considered my actions too as stupid. But didn’t want to say anything to annoy me.
Then he observed, ”You remember an early Spielberg movie, Duel, we saw? It is almost like you become possessed when you take the wheel. Normal, smart, reasonable person like you become so crazy when you drive”.
“Perhaps. But I was in control. Those maniacs were horrible. Pushing us into a ditch like that. We could have died. I am sure they have devil’s blood in them” I replied.
We still didn’t know how far we were away from the city and whether the road branched off. Still no phones. We had to get help.
“Let us follow the road for some more distance”, said Kumar. “Perhaps we may come across some farm or something.”
It had become quite dark now. In the next turn of the road, we happened notice a weathered sign post which read, “Noble Farms. 5 Kms”
“Thank heavens. I hope there are people there”, said I. We continued. And within a kilometre, the car stopped.
“Let us ditch the car here and get to that farm on foot. Perhaps we can get a landline and phone for help and pick up” said Kumar. Always pragmatic.
“I hope the people at the farm are noble as the name says and not cannibals” I quipped. Kumar just gave me a dirty look.
We trudged up in the dark and we could see a faint light. For us it was almost as bright as the North Star.
We went through the gates and knocked on the door of the farm house. A reasonably large house and possibly relatively wealthy people.
The door was opened by pleasant looking lady. I guessed she was used getting stranded travellers like us. She greeted us with a smile.
“Madam, we need some help. My we use your landline for a quick local call?”
”Do come in,” she said. As we entered, we saw a man, perhaps her husband. He was pretty friendly too.
Kumar explained that our phones didn’t work and we needed to call a city hotel and ask them for a transport. It turned out that their phones were out too. There was no way to get any help from the city. They offered to drive us to the city but we said we could not make them do it. Not on that night in that weather.
The couple (yes, they were) said they were living there with older parents. If we wished, we could stay the night. There was a spare room. They served us hot tea and snacks and introduced us to the older couple too. We had some small talk and retired to our room. They understood we were very tired.
The man showed as our room and the lady brought some milk, water and light meals. Then they left us to own devices. Throughout the interaction we decided against saying anything about our run-in with the mad SUV. We didn’t want to bring such unsavoury stuff to the nice people.
I could not contain my amazement. “What a turnaround in less than an hour? Warm bed, nice food, friendly people. An hour ago, no shelter, totally lost, dog tired, so angry.”
Kumar was philosophical. “Yes, world is made up of all sorts people. We get into all kind of situations. Some good, some hellish.”
“Yes,” I replied. “But any day I would prefer good people like our hosts and avoid those morons we met on the road.”
Kumar chuckled to himself. He was about to say something but held back. I could not figure out why and he wouldn’t tell me. He said he didn’t want to annoy me. Did he think I was a moron while I myself thought I was good but playful?
We both slept well and woke up to a glorious morning.
We had tea with our hosts. The man offered to drive us to the city. He had some work there anyway. We picked up our stuff; said good bye to the nice lady and the parents; we promised to write to them; and followed the man.
He opened the garage and there stood a dirty, dusty black SUV we met the previous day.