The words fluttered and flew in the wind. They ran up and down and round and round like kittens chasing their tails. Some went quickly, some lumbered along, some flitted around, powered by the vapours of whiskey and smoke rings from the cigarettes. They would often peep out of the windows of the car, only to be pushed in by the gush of air rushing past the vehicle. They mingled with the loud music playing in the car, and the medley poured out, often surprising bystanders or people driving by in other vehicles. They conveyed a variety of emotions – some were filled with melancholy, some with longing, some had love in them, some anger, despair, joy, and enthusiasm. These words shared a common story, that of the lives of the speaker and the listener. The story was the same, the versions were different, depending upon who was telling the story. It was one grand narrative, a mighty river with several side streams forming plots and subplots to the one central theme.
But wait! There was another person in the cabin. This person was mostly a listener, contributing only rarely with either words of enquiry or occasional laughter. There were other sounds too, trying to mix in with the words. These were the crunching of the snacks, the occasional clincking of the glasses, the soft sloshing when the liquids were poured, and an occasional striking of the match! The protagonists of this commotion were blissfully unaware of the racket they were making or the angry stares they drew from other passersby. The din continued even as the short evening turned to night and the countryside grew dark and deserted. The car along with its occupants continued its journey along the highway, its headlights slicing through the growing darkness, like a hot knife cuts through butter. As the night grew more humid, the airconditioner was switched on and the windows of the car pulled up. The closing of the windows suddenly cut off all the noise and confined it to inside the cabin which became an island of light and music and animated chatter, moving rapidly along the road through the dark, rural countryside.
We were returning from our monthly outstation visit to a hospital in a nearby town, where each one us conducted a clinic to bolster our practices back home. We travelled together and carpooled, and so each one of us had to drive every third month. The person doing the driving invariably got the least amount of liquor to keep him sober and the others safe. The rest, however, could have a good time. This month it was ‘A’s turn to do the driving , so here he was, at the wheel with me as the co-driver and DJ, and ‘RD’ was riding in the back seat and playing the bar tender as well as the audience to all our conversation. There was a set pattern to the conversation. In the morning when each of us started from our respective places, some after their morning rounds and some, like myself, from home, the talk would always tend to focus around our professional lives. Our practices, our hospitals, our colleagues and the politics of our separate work places. A and RD shared their working place and so had common issues. This would mean that the conversation would invariably center around their hospital politics with me pitching in with questions and comments. However, since we had a common set of friends and colleagues, soon I would join in too and the conversation would turn more lively. ‘A’ and ‘RD’ would also often discuss investment and property of which I had scant idea; the only time money and property had come together in my daily conversation was when, I had taken a loan against property and built the first floor of the residence where we all currently lived. Having completed this Herculean task during the very early days of my training and career, I had sat back and focussed on repaying the loan which I had raised against my parents’ house. My parents had cooperated with trepidation, handing over the papers of the house to the bank for the loan which I secured for building the first floor and a clinic.
Since my experience with property had started and stopped with this single venture, I was not a very active participant when ‘A’ and ‘RD’ started discussing property and I would nudge them to move away from this topic and to more juicy issues like who got a raise and who didn’t. And thus our mornings on those days started with easy gossips and light banter which continued till we reached our destination and got down to actual work. We would often stop midway for a snack and some tea, enjoying some local, roadside hospitality at one particular ‘Guruji ka dhaba’, where the paneer bhurji was excellent and the tea so full of milk one could hardly swallow a sip. We would sit on the plastic chairs carefully arranged around wooden beds or takhats while we waited for our orders. I usually did not carry any packed food myself but the other two did. ‘A’ would usually bring bread omellette and ‘RD’ would bring paratha rolls. The one would be consumed in the morning at the Guruji ka dhaba along with some paneer bhurji and tea, and the other would be saved for the return trip. By the time we took the mid morning break at the dhaba, the talk would have diversified to include the state of the medical profession in general, why notto make our children doctors and some stray discussion on national politics. After the verbal deluge of several hours, there would be several episodes of talklessness, each lasting only a few minutes. Thus our morning would be spent, till we reached our destination and got busy attending to the patients.
‘A’s waiting list would usually be the longest while myself and ‘RD’ were free in a couple of hours. And then we would continue chatting through the afternoon comfortably over cups of tea and namkeen. Sometimes, I had some personal errands to run, having relatives living in the area, and ‘RD’ would accompany me and thus we would have something else to fill our time with before it was finally time to leave. It was only after ‘A’ had finished seeing his patients that we would collect our respective envelopes and hurriedly embark on the journey back home.
The return journey was always more enjoyable than the morning trip and the topics for discussion were different. They were more animated too, being lubricated, no doubt, by sufficient amounts of liquor. The setting sun, the approaching dusk, the fall in temperature as night approached and the company of friends would provide an apt setting to discuss issues of a more personal nature than the ‘Return on Investment’ of our respective specialities. As the intoxicant hit us, the narrative would invariably begin with either myself or ‘A’ taking the lead. The mighty river of our past lives would start flowing again, tempestuous, driven by the passions of the person telling the story and contributed to by the companions. The topics would be familiar stories of love triangles and heartbreaks and how we passed the difficult exams together. The story was one, the narrator often changed the hue to suit his own personal likings. It was my story as well as his and then again it was neither’s. It also included so many other characters as to be a great epic, which we sometimes thought it was. With its drama, action, tragedy and romance, it had all the ingredients of a blockbuster bollywood movie. It was like the Northern Lights, continuous, yet ever changing, consisting of so many hues, always moving but not going anywhere, beautiful like a dream, appearing only to disappear when dawn broke. Once the great story started, there was no stopping us, the tale went on and on, while ‘RD’ sat mesmerised, only to wake up every now and then to interject, participate or make a remark. He would watch spellbound as we would alternately laugh and cry, revealing to him a kaleidoscope of emotions which he would not witness again for another month. And so he sat rapt in attention while we continued to sing our song, tell our story, live our lives through our tears and laughter, and the words continued to flutter and fly in the wind, flitting in and out of the car window, mixed sometimes with a truant note of music from our car stereo and bathed in the golden glow of the cabin light of our car, bobbing up and down as the car continued its journey across the dark highway, towards home.