I was both thrilled and nervous as the driver pressed the horn and the bus eased out of its stand. I waved out to my uncle and my aunt and realised, with a sudden stab of apprehension, that from then on, I would have to make do without their reassuring presence.
Till then I had always travelled with my family, and my father, with his commanding ways, had taken charge of the situation and come up with the perfect solution to every problem we met on the way. He was our leader, and we just had to follow; and because he was an able leader, our journeys had invariably been smooth and comfortable.
But now I was alone. There was a hint of pride in the fact that I had grown up and was considered able enough to travel on my own but there was also anxiety. It would have been nice to have a friendly co-passenger, but the seat next to mine was empty.
Looking through the tinted glass of the window, I saw Kolkata pass me by. There were lights all around and people everywhere. The scene was strangely soothing from the interior of a bus which filtered the noise and the pollution but retained the vitality of a late metropolitan evening.
It struck me that this was one advantage of being alone. Had I been with my family, I would have most probably been talking, and though talking has its pleasures, I would have missed out on a special moment.
The bus lights were put out, and in the darkness memories of my brother flooded my mind. He had fallen ill in his boarding school in Kurseong, and my parents had rushed to meet him. I knew he was now out of danger, but I shut my eyes and silently prayed for him.
I don’t know when I drifted off to sleep, but I woke up to the smell of cigarettes and stinking socks of a person who now occupied the seat next to mine. I had no doubt that my parents would have had a way of dealing with the situation, but I was a sitting duck. I knew I would have to take it all without a murmur of protest.
I tried to revive my spirits by visualising what my father might have done. I dozed off again, which rescued me from the stink. I woke up to the lights and clamour of the stop at a restaurant, disembarked, visited the washroom, helped myself to a homemade snack, and spent the remainder of the journey in a somewhat cheerless nocturnal daze, deciding that travelling with my parents was far better, all said and done, than travelling alone.
When the bus rolled into the Tenzing Norgay Bus Terminus in Siliguri, the sight of my father standing there and trying to spot me out at the bus window was the pleasantest scene I had witnessed for quite some time. As soon as the bus halted, I hopped off its steps, contemplating that though this had not been one of my best journeys, it had been a very special one for me because I had done it all alone. Surely it would stand me in good stead later.