There’s much more to the highway than the roads and the travelers. On both sides of the highway runs life and in its midst, death. The highway, though, bears a silent witness. You never realize when a journey across the road becomes an unintended trespass into that, which lies beyond. Life, then, can never be the same.
A chance encounter with something sinister, staring you right in the face is one that leaves you with memories that haunt you for a lifetime. The cold winter night was ominous enough to keep us packed in our blankets as the car sped along the highway to Jaipur. On the back seat lay my little sister tugged into the arms of my Mom. My Dad, the experienced driver that he is, had his eyes set in the distance, his gaze piercing the winter fog that had engulfed us, looking back with a bland face that had no form. I sat beside him, the newfound navigator, looking out across the window that blared cold as the car lost its way deep into the remoteness of the highway.
”Shit!” murmured Dad, slowing the car down, steering it to one side of the road. I wondered if that was really necessary; there was no vehicle in sight for as far as the eye could wander. The mist had cleared. ”There!” exclaimed Mom. In the space between the seats, I could see her hand pointing towards something. It wasn’t really clear but appeared to be a distant hut with a faint lamp dangling across the roof that had well outlived its time.
The car neared the light. It wasn’t really a hut now, but a makeshift roadside dhaba or eatery as they are called in local parlance, the kind you see by the side of the highway every ten miles or so in this part of the world. And it was well-lit on the front facade which directly faced us as we parked the car, turning the jaded engine off.
It was then that I realized it didn’t all really feel right. Something, somewhere was just not right, the way it was meant to be. Maybe it was the rows of the familiar glass containers rendered dusty by the highway dirt or the woven khats that lay empty out in front of the dhaba or even the Doordarshan montage that played on an archaic Cathode Ray Rube TV Set lodged on the counter, bringing back the nostalgia of times bygone: I hadn’t really seen the montage and its haunting tune in ages. There was something very wrong about that place. Very wrong.
There are things that are right, things that are wrong, and things that fall somewhere in between filtered by the perspective of the onlooker. However, here, I knew, was something that was terribly wrong. Through the glass of the window, unclear as my inner self, I could see a woman sitting on the chair. A tall, well-built structure, her head covered, facing the television. I could well see she was all decked up in fineries as the window rolled down.
”Madam!”, shouted my father, ”Is this the route to the highway?”. A gush of wind, dead as ice entered through the window and I realized I was shivering. The breeze carried a muddy odor that bore the fragrance of a time long lost.
The woman, her back to the window, began turning her face. My pupils dilated in utter horror as her neck spun a whole 180 degrees; she was now facing us albeit only with her face that was stern and frigid, dead as the winter wind. ”You’ve lost your way!” she whispered, her voice barely audible.
Suddenly, out of nowhere appeared a man, a stout and plump figure, putting his leg on the very chair, oblivious to the lady’s presence. My heart was pounding fast– if we could see the woman, why couldn’t he? ”There!” he continued, in an authoritative tone, ”go straight for a mile and turn left to meet the highway.”
”There you go!” he yelled and the next thing I heard was the squeal of the wheels spinning fast with a jolt. We were back again on the highway a mile later as the man said. Gasping for breath, my father stopped the car in the middle of the road. ”The lady!” I screamed, ”did you see her?”. ”Her neck, ” my Mom shrieked, ”it wasn’t right!”
I wanted to speak so much but the words failed me. None of us uttered a word as we drove back silently.
Author’s Note: A true story from the author’s diary that draws upon an incident that happened on the author’s travels in Chittaurgarh, Rajasthan, India. Later, similar incidents stormed the media where lost travelers were misled by a woman by a roadside dhaba, drove to their death. The author still ponders over the identity of the man who saved his life that fateful day. Who, really, was this savior?