Hurtling along the Mahendra Highway between Narayanghat and Nepalganj, I wondered about the wisdom of my journey. Once darkness fell, the trees and towns lined a road empty of all but ghosts. And I don't believe in ghosts.
Not even a cigarette glowed at roadside tea stalls as the real pitch dark of late night took hold. Petrol pumps sat untended. Houses were shuttered tight. We drove on, intent on arriving alive and laughing at our fears. For just what were we afraid of? Normally a long drive on a South Asian road at night is a series of narrow escapes and horrific encounters, not with armed men or bandits but with night buses and trucks driven by drunken maniacs.
In India, I once counted 16 major road accidents along a 100 km stretch in Rajasthan. The recent spate of buses plunging off cliffs in Nepal is another face of regional road terrorism. But no, we weren't afraid of our fellow drivers.
On the odd occasion when a set of glowing headlamps popped out of the murky gloom ahead, relief flooded through us like lava. Apparently, other drivers felt the same. High beams were dipped almost from the moment we hove into view, a far cry from the usual practise of blinding the oncoming traffic out of sheer idiot glee. We slowed down as we approached each other, flicked right turn indicators on and even honked horns as we roared past each other. The fear would pounce anew as the jeep jolted into fresh darkness, alone again, or so we hoped.
I suppose we were worried about Maoists or nervous members of the security forces. But in fact, we saw neither. There was one army checkpoint past Narayanghat and the few soldiers were too busy to spare us a second glance. No police gates were manned and the place where I have always got the most rigorous third degree, the Armed Police Force camp just before Kohlapur, had turned its lights off. The sandbagged sentry points were empty, no gun barrels pointed at us as we juddered by at a blazing 90 km/h. It was 11PM, Nepal Standard Time.
Not that that night was a significant downturn in the mood of the day. Even driving along a sunlit highway in this country is pretty depressing. From just past Thankot to Bharatpur to Butwal, the government has seen fit to turn the roadside into something resembling a war zone. Buildings deemed encroachments have all been levelled, smashed, even set on fire. Families squat in piles of rubble and cook over open fires. They sleep under shelters made from plastic and fabric. In the ruins of their own homes. Now I know that encroaching on public land, or someone's private property, is a bad thing. It is not to be encouraged. Yet did the official who gave the order to smash all those peoples' homes, shops and businesses wonder about the timing of the thing?
Conventional wisdom in times of national crisis is that people-non-combatants, civilians, potential victims of violence, budding recruits to revolution-need encouragement, tolerance, perhaps even bread and circuses. They don't need their lives devastated. I dare say more than a few people signed Maoist membership cards sometime after they watched their homes demolished.
In Nepalganj, at the end of the journey, we drove through streets that are usually grid locked with traffic, vehicular, human and animal. It was cold and the orange glow from the streetlights illuminated little. Shadowy figures at the edge of the pools of light turned out to be policemen, sticks tucked under their arms as they watched us drive by. A desk clerk jerked awake as we walked into our hotel.
Apparently, we weren't expected as there is a "curfew" along the Mahendra Highway. No traffic after 9PM or some such rule. If that's true, no one enforces it. Perhaps they don't have to. Fear patrols the countryside.
The next morning dawned with the usual cacophony of border town life. Creaking cycle rickshaws headed to and from the frontier. Businesses raised shutters and sweepers swept. In a cloud of dust, another day began. And we still had to get home to Kathmandu. This time, the checkpoints functioned and we wrote our vehicle details at least 12 times. The Armed Police checked our camera gear and asked tough questions in a disbelieving manner. .
It felt a lot more like a state of emergency. Not that there was any comfort in that. Fear doesn't sleep in the daytime. It just lurks out of sight and waits for a chance to wreak havoc once again. Just like it does every night