Remember my knack for finding work in the most unheard of places? Well after all these years, I have to say, I haven't lost the touch. And so, I find myself in Pratapgarh. Err "Where?", you say. "Have you heard of Chittorgarh I ask? "Err... sort of", with that intelligent expression that reeks of "I don't know what you're talking about but I'm just going to nod along to appear I do." I see through the nod straight away but join in the pretense. "So ya go on 150km south from Chittorgarh and you reach Pratapgarh." At this point most people abandon the conversation, others rush off to fulfill their Cartographic Cravings [alright, run off and map it on Google, its a reflex you just can't get rid off eh?].
Traveling from Delhi, Pratapgarh seems to be at the very end of the earth and for once, I am not even exaggerating. You start off in one of the fancy (and pretty impressive) luxury buses that the Rajasthan Tourism guys are (justifiably) proud of. They cater to the more-touristy (oh don't you just detest that word?) parts of Rajasthan, the ones frequented by the firangs, for they alone deserve good transportation, to hell with the general public. When I called the tourism office, they told me I would be in a Volvo-Mercedes bus. I put down the phone suitably impressed and understandably flummoxed. That not one, but two auto giants were gracing my mode of transport would have been flattering if only it was not so absurdly unbelievable.
I settled into my seat. Rucksack in luggage area. Check. Ticket in easily accessible pocket. Check. Earphones within reach (without having to move). Check. Shawl to combat frigid night temperatures AC buses just love. Check. Whoops! Am I sitting on the correct seat number? Check. The bus started off bang on time. 4:30pm and I was off. Punctuality. Oh so check.
* * *
At some ungodly hour, frantic horn honking and loud voices woke me. "Chittorgarh, Chittorgarh" they seemed to be shouting. Hmph, so much for finishing that dream. The Chittorgarh bus stand at 4am is an eerie place, like a scene out of some alternate world where all the women of the world have (smartly) taken off, leaving all the men, predominantly middle-aged, behind. The bus stop, like most others I have had the mis(fortune) of being at, smelt of pee and I struggled to find a bench free from snoring men all wrapped in something: shawls, newspaper, and some innovative ones, in plastic bags. Finally I plopped myself on one semi-empty bench, and struggled to keep awake for the next few hours.
Buses came and went announcing their arrival with that brash impolite way horns have about them. Suddenly there was a commotion around counter 6. Hey, I'd been furiously guarding that one - willing it to open so I could buy a ticket. I saw a mass of humanity (all men in this quasi-, semi-stupor-world) stick their hands into the mouse hole opening - all with exact change for the ticket. I, with my silly big note, was naturally sidelined till enough change was collected.
Just then, in a display of impressive hooting and a spectacularly large cloud of smoke, the Pratapgarh bus arrived. Oh no, don't get me wrong. No bus goes to Pratapgarh to stay there. Pratapgarh, like Tpur, is one of those places no one really goes to, its always on the way to some place more interesting. This bus was actually going to Banswara (you mustn't of heard of that too...oh dear just go and learn that map) and Pratapgarh was just another stop. The bus was rickety and dusty, an epitome of that delightful word khatara. I clambered onto it, jostling for space with sari-tied bundles, sacks that vaguely smelt of my chemistry lab, and a frantic breathing body of humanity. Here, the men having done their job of securing tickets, backed out and the women (now where did they come from?) took over. Bangles clanging and freely abusing, they grabbed seats. I hung onto my 'window seat' for dear life, the rucksack suddenly becoming a lifesaver as it deterred many by sheer size alone. After the morning shift of mosquitoes had had a hearty breakfast, the bus took off, hooting at the mirth of having a load of passengers.
* * *
The way to Pratapgarh to Chittorgarh is a sheet of potholes with some road thrown in, just enough to keep alive a spark of hope. But the driver seemed to disagree and flew at a pace that would've shamed many. He zipped - hooting his way past trucks, blaring cars into submission, zooming past motorcyclists and leaving their helmetless heads in a swirl of dust and smoke. "Take that", he honked. His only worthy opponents, other Rajasthan Roadways buses, were few and so the Conquest of the Craters carried on unabated. Abandoning my grand plans of sleeping, I gave myself up to the bumpety bump.
Roadways buses in Rajasthan are in(famous) for breaking down and my ramshackle stead lived up to its name. It broke down only once though and a co-passenger informed me that we were lucky. After five hours, we reached Pratapgarh - the dirt and grime that garlands every little town welcomed me. The bus swerved and then all of a sudden came to a halt. Like a slain beast, it suddenly stopped breathing and the whole world seemed a gentler place. I stepped out of the bus, lugging the rucksack with me and parked it on some steps nearby. A cow came towards me, its head bent low, those knobby horns not too inviting. Exhausted and incapable of any meaningful movement, I just let it come. At the last moment, it swerved, rubbing its horns on my faithful rucksack instead. Oh the travails of an itchy head. And the ecstasy of itching an itch.
I looked about me. Auto rickshaws parked - they were the usual yellow and black and rather large here. The tea stalls were doing brisk business. Flies occupied every available surface. I swatted some away and sat on the steps. A foot away, a pat of dung lay, in that lazy unperturbed way only a pile of shit can. After 17 hours, I have arrived. (In Pratapgarh of course).
* * *
So when people ask me where Pratapgarh is, Google maps just doesn't cut it. And now you wonder why am I here in the first place? Because...