We should have known that travel on the Potala Travels bus was going to be no ordinary journey when 10 minutes before the departure time, we were the only passengers in the bus, with the driver (or pilot as they are called here) absconding and his assistant bored. The luggage dickey seemed to have been made in a hurry by removing some key component from the bus. The seats looked like the owner of the bus had never sat there after buying it. The second half of the bus was crowded with items strictly usable in a junk yard. The luggage shelf had iron rods and peripherals of potential combat weapons. There was also a huge tyre on one of the seats for some reason.

All this, one might argue, is not much of a surprise. However, have you ever seen a pilot whacking his assistant with a black, rectangular bag hung around his shoulder? We did. I still am not sure why he did that, for the pilot seemed a jolly-good guy born to collect money from shopkeepers on the road to Tezpur and crack apparently-funny jokes with old housewives, while a pilot-friend manoeuvred the curvy roads. There seemed to be a joie-de-vivre about him which was directly in proportion to the girth he was surrounded by. The only explanation one can arrive at is it wasn’t that the lad hadn’t done his job; but it was a method the senior pro used to get his youngster up-and-ready for the real fight ahead. Yes, it was a pep-talk, a shake-it-up-guys kinda war-cry.

And then, the passengers followed, one-by-one, one character after one eccentric. There was a normal looking middle-aged man who was the first to arrive. In fact, he was the most normal of them all as he stayed glued to his seat, chanting rhythmic Buddhist prayers. Three young men followed. One of them was allergic to the mist covered afternoon outside and wanted all windows close to him closed. The problem was he and his friends were hell-bent on smoking regularly from cheap cigarettes. There was no choice for us, stranded in this midst of mist and smoke.

There were more merry-men to follow in the course of the journey, but the pride of place should go for the guy with the kid. To highlight his multi-dimensional personality, one could have called him the guy unshaven and in tatters; or the guy who smoked beedis at an alarming rate; or the guy who came drunk, and stayed drunk; or the guy who got down the bus before it started and was only found two kilometers down the road in a petrol bunk, before he got down again and turned up in all his splendour, now at a mechanic’s. He could also be called the man who came very close to being the first one to be ejected from the ultimate reality show – Potala Express – before it really began.

The assistant, now sobered and ready for the challenge that lay ahead, gave the go-ahead to the other pilot. After the bus started, some men of high standards realised that the boy was alone and his father, the man of high spirits, had vanished; this, after the father had gone absconding till he materialized at a petrol bunk. It was decided, after half an hour of searches and debates that there was no way the boy would travel alone; and that he had to join his father, wherever he was. So the boy was sent on his way. As luck would have it, when the bus reached the garage downtown, there was a shadowy figure small-talking with the mechanic. Voila! It was the father. “At last, he’s been found and now we can move.” But hang on, where’s the kid? Another round of searches and debates later, the father and son duo was united amidst no sound of sentimental applause. Bloody hell! We were still in Tawang.

On the narrow roads out of Tawang, the senior pilot, who wasn’t driving now, was collecting cash from shopkeepers for delivering parcels. The problem was, at each stop, he found a friend and felt obliged to share a joke. It must have been an issue of prestige for the home-town hero. Meanwhile, smoke from cigarettes and beedis gave a heady feeling inside the bus at a time when the journey was making no headway. Naga, who reckoned it was only because of Thus Spake Zarathustra (which he was reading), that the travel was bad, got a headache and asked the assistant to stop them from smoking. “Thand hai na yaar,” they said. “Go to the seats at the back,” the assistant admonished them. Such was his zest now that he even bellowed at the senior pilot, who seemed to be in the process of impressing a young lady with his canny sense of humour. We thought the assistant was a goner. But the tide had turned. The charge of the youth brigade was on its home stretch.

At Jung, the bus stopped at the very eatery where the Tata Sumo had stopped on our onward trip. I had a special dislike for this place and it had something to do with a Tzo-milk tea and the taste it had left behind. This was also a place where our very own Potala Express would get a working out. Even though we knew there was some problem with the bus, we hadn’t been able to pin-point it. I mean, which of them was the worst? So, as I got down and had a look at the crouched tigers mulling over something at the front of the bus with the assistant invisible below it, I became suddenly aware that this problem was surely capable of doing something as serious as toppling the bus over a crevice while we cringed with a violent intake of somebody else’s tobacco. The scientists were trying to arrive at a solution when one guy from inside the hotel came with a big hammer and a bigger iron rod. “Isse theek ho jaayega,” he said. And I can confirm that he did use both of them on the bus.

At the Sela Pass, we got scared. The bus would skid occasionally. Even though we knew it was just a game it was playing with us, we were scared. Visibility had gone down and the bus too was. Somehow, the hammer trick seemed to have worked as the pilot worked his way out of the dangerous curves. As one of the BRO punch lines said, he was gentle on its curves. There was, however, no way could one stop the profuse exhalation of poisonous gases from the lips of our co-passengers. There was no way we could open a window either. And after so eventful a ride, we still weren’t ready for what was to follow.

At Dirang, an old couple and their son came aboard. The odd thing was they didn’t just come on board, they brought their entire belongings with them, or so it seemed. I thought they were shifting homes. The couple sat in front of us and their luggage, everywhere else. The old lady had pushed her seat so far back that I had no choice but to go for knee-surgery if I stayed in that position for the entire journey. So I requested her, mustering all my politeness, to swing forward her seat. She agreed, but wasn’t sure where the lever was. I was, but couldn’t directly go for it. Some smart-ass who had designed it had placed it in front of the seat, and he apparently wasn’t a lever man as he had used crank-shaft technology. One had to rotate the ring so as to move the back of the seat. Einstein! To cut it short, the lady had to get up and give way by doing a mini-trek over her belongings so as to get the seat adjusted.

After I had fallen asleep, Naga was just at the threshold of breaking the barrier of insomnia, when he felt a pair of hands working all over his lower part of the body. Shocked at the sudden activity around him, he jumped up and did his, “kya hai, kaun hai,” routine. Again, to cut it short, fortunately or unfortunately, there was nothing carnal about that exercise. The old man had lost his cap while he snored and had woken up from his dreams to discover the loss of cover. He frantically waved his hand around in an attempt to recover it, and ended up scaring poor Naga, who would later go without sleep from here to somewhere close to Tezpur.

 I woke up just before Tezpur arrived and pinched myself, like everyone else. The assistant was meanwhile having a real problem with the old couple who simply wouldn’t agree to pay Rs.600 for the luggage. “600? No way,” they said. The assistant was unnerved, as he had been with a couple of youngsters earlier who refused to pay him half the money he asked. He went inside, had a consultation with his pilots. “Okay, give me 400 and no less.” “400? No way.” Consultation. “200” and it went on. I shook Naga up as we reached Tezpur. He was delighted at coming out alive from this. There can be mountains, snow-capped and all; there can be Tawang and its splendours, but there can only be one Potala Express.