The bus was thankfully not crowded and I was happy that we were going back, relieved that there wouldn’t be another unpleasant encounter with Vani, and I got my favourite window seat in the two-seat row. Vani occupied the aisle seat and Mohan sat with Nirupama in the row immediately next in front of us. The sun had already set and the sky had become dark gray. Vani sat silently as though she’d been shocked by the way we’d been asked to leave the hotel. Mohan looked unaffected but there was a hint of disappointment on his face. He purchased tickets to Hubli for all of us and leaned his head on the backrest. I understood that he was in no mood for conversation.
When the bus exited the town, either side of the road was covered with thick growth of trees, shrubs, and grass; in between patches of lands had been lined with coconut trees and areca nut trees which the creepers of betel leaves and cardamom had entwined. In the sky the silhouette of birds returning home could be seen. I too felt like a bird returning to the safety of my home.
In less than a quarter of an hour, it turned pitch dark outside. The nightfall was quickened due to the thick woods and soon the lights inside the bus were switched off. There was nothing to see through the window but the weak light from the headlights of the bus that reflected from the asphalted road and bleakly illuminated the vegetation by the roadside. My eyelids were getting heavy and I was too exhausted to resist sleep.
It must be around nine o’ clock when we reached Mundgod, a small town known for the Tibetan refugee camp. The conductor announced that the bus would stop for dinner. Mohan rose from his seat and patted on my shoulder, beckoning to follow him. My eyes were still drowsy with sleep. The restaurant was small and over-crowded. Mohan and I lit cigarettes and looking at the crowd, watching the restaurant, Mohan said, “We won’t be able to get a table all for us in the hotel. The girls can’t have dinner here,” I was neither hungry nor bothered about the girls now. He thought for a while and said, “Give me a minute, I will see what can be done” and walked to the cash counter of the hotel.
I saw him talking to the person at the cash counter who looked like he didn’t like to lift his head from the vouchers he was writing. He was fair skinned, as tall as Mohan and clean-shaven. He wore a white bush-shirt over his equally white panche. After some time Mohan seemed to have succeeded in getting his attention and now he talked to Mohan gesturing upstairs. I thought there might be another dining hall upstairs. Soon Mohan returned but walked to the window of the bus to talk to Nirupama and only thereafter he came to me and announced, “Come on Harsha, we are going upstairs”
The girls soon joined us behind the half pulled up sliding shutters, at the landing to the upstairs where earlier I had found a waiter standing with a key in his hands. When we reached upstairs, I found about a dozen rooms lined up along the balcony. Now I understood that it was not the dining hall that Mohan had been after, but rooms to stay overnight. My heart began to sink realizing that I had to spend another night with Vani, but at the same time I also had a glimmer of hope that Mohan would let me stay with Nirupama as he’d promised me at the beginning of the trip.
Mohan was talking to the waiter a few paces away and gave him some money. As the waiter started climbing down the stairs, he shouted, “Make if fast Maani!”
“We’ve been very lucky Harsha, the manager of the hotel didn’t ask too many questions and gave us the rooms,” Mohan said in a soft tone as he approached me.
“But we’d tickets to Hubli”
“Oh, not a great deal for the girls dear,” he touched my shoulder suggesting that we go into the room. Both the girls were sitting in one room obviously waiting for us. The lodge had been recently constructed and the room was small, barely eight by ten, furnished with two steel cots placed apart and old styled chairs and table made of ordinary jungle wood. The sheets were clean and so was the bathroom.
The waiter returned with a half bottle of Hercules Rum, Rotis, a bowl of Dal Fry, fried chips and plates and glasses – all cluttered on a tray and placed it on the wooden table. It was the repeat of the previous evening, Mohan and Nirupama being too eager to go to their room. In trying to keep up pace with them, I drank too fast and got strong kicks equally quickly. I had to slow down with the result that when Nirupama and Mohan left the room, I was still drinking.
Vani had finished her dinner of just half a Roti and was already lying on the bed. However, she had not talked of joining the two cots and she looked very tired. I went on drinking till I emptied the bottle. I was afraid to go near her though watching her voluptuous chest rise and fall, a burning desire had crept into me and was relieved that I had a separate cot. I removed all my clothes, killed the lights and lied on my bed. I felt as though every thing around me was revolving and I knew at once that I was sick. I didn’t whether Vani was asleep or not but wouldn’t dare raise her. Nausea set in and I struggled for nearly half an hour to resist retching, but failed at last. As soon as I went into bathroom, I threw up noisily.
When I groped awkwardly back to my bed, I heard Vani’s voice, “Are you okay?” but I didn’t care to reply. I was feeling a lot better and as soon as I lied on the bed, sleep overcame me.
* * *