It was in those early days of the mid-1960s’, that the state of Rajasthan, India was inching its way towards putting all her roads, and highways in place. The building of roads meant, the extraordinary effort came from the supporting groups like, Geological Survey of India that worked in tandem with the state government. Geologists were in high demand. They put tenacious effort under the scorching sun and the results had been loud and clear – ribbon-like roads that snaked their way through the desert and dunes, touching small hamlets that typically scattered around water well or an oasis.
Peacocks and wild desert birds were plenty that visited the camps like the way we see crows in Calcutta.
Geologists examined the rocks and did a feasibility study of an operation before it started to roll. My father, Mr. Dinabandhu Lahiri, was a junior geologist in those days and was an effervescent living being by nature, was most eager to help the effort. Mr. Dhavan, his then-boss was slightly autocratic in nature; however, he had an intense liking for my father which he kept under his rough exterior hood.
Among numerous, one incident was as exciting as a thriller. Rajasthan is a dry area, the rainwater hardly poured compared to the other parts of India, especially in the southeastern or western sections. Well, when it did rain, the menace of nature, aided by the terrain, and sand posed a death trap for many motorists and workers who happen to venture into this inhospitable landscape. From the records of the event, the work had almost finished for the day to prevent sun burning and the clock was nearing 11 am when the rain gods thought of unleashing its water reserves to the perched land beneath.
Along with Krishnabahadur, a hard man from the mountains from Nepal, driver, and friend, my father decided to explore a section of the road plan which was to be built in the next couple of months.
Within an hour, the layered sand embankments started to slowly give in to the fast-flowing torrential river which sprouted absolutely from nowhere. My father was at the wheel of the Jeep CJ-3B model, which had a four-wheel drive and an auxiliary gear that compounded the torque factor of the engine by several ounces. The Jeep started to inch her way towards a muddy bank. Behind her was the trailer with supplies for the exploration work. Engine growling on second gear, high raced, the wheel started to skid. In those days, there was no ABS (anti-lock braking system), nor there was a limited-slip differential to lock one wheel and provide power to the other wheel.
So the raw skill of the driver and the grip the vehicle could master were the only potent weapons to fight the nature’s fury.
Before my father could engage the auxiliary gear, the most powerful of the gears, the trailer’s left wheel careened sideways into the muddy river as the Jeep crossed the shallow river. The nose of the Jeep kept at sixty degrees, as the river pounded the bumper and the radiator.
Twisting the steering wheel from side to side, the vehicle reached about three-fourths of the fast-flowing river and rose high as it mounted a whirlpool, perhaps created by a sinking piece of sand and rock. The duo had no option other than to cross the river perilously and there was no turning back. By the next fifteen minutes or so, the river had increased its volume of water as the rains had increased to a crescendo.
Imagine, the situation – the canvas on top hardly able to keep the driving rain, the huge open sides had become by now conduits for the deluge of slanted rainwater hitting the driver and co-driver. Wet to the bone, my father navigated the Jeep on the other side and perched the front wheels on firm ground and leveled the vehicle but the trailer with its heavyweight kept on pulling the Jeep as it lay submerged in the river water. The only chance lay if they can somehow make it over the tongue of the hard rock which made its way backward and met the landmass behind. The spinning wheels, dug in further into the sandy and muddy earth, preventing any movement from its sullen grave. A new problem had started – the Jeep started to sink slowly in with its quarter of a ton weight. Krishnabahadur knew what was coming in. If they stayed in the Jeep, death was inevitable. The Jeep was caught in quicksand, and the soft sand, made even lighter by the river was engulfing the Jeep, inch by inch. Putting the vehicle in gear, my father switched off the engine. The Jeep had listed on its right side, so the open gap was the only way out, and both of them climbed on to the canvassed roof and sat on its side.
Surprisingly, the Jeep sank about half its self, till the windshield and stopped going underneath. Perhaps, a rock below the earth prevented its descend. The river was in full spate and had eaten the other side completely, and widened itself as both saw the six to seven feet of the escarpment, breaking off and being consumed by the river.
They hung on for about an agonizing hour or two, maybe more, when the water started to recede. The desert’s torrential rivers are like apparitions, they come and go incredibly fast, devastate the landscape and dry up, only to leave behind skeletons of its plunder. With Krishnabahadur in tow, shirt torn off, baked in the mud they climbed the hard rock and all they had for a companion, were few Khejri trees, standing tall from its sandy base spread across over the immediate vicinity. Both of them clambered the rock and held on to one of the trees, and settled below it, completely exhausted. The night had fallen by now. They looked around, and there was no sound of the river, only a cool wind wafted across the sand. About a kilometre away, the main road could be seen across the river basin which looked bleak and dark with no sign of a vehicle or a human.
My father knew they had to spend the night here. The sky had become a mix of black and violet, and the stars were clinging to this huge skyscape like sparkled jewels. The white and blue light formed patterns to my father as they had dozed off, looking at it. None of them remember how long they were under the tree when they were startled by the sound of clanking jewelry and hushed undertones of the unmistakable Rajasthani language – was it Marwari, or Malvi, or maybe Dhundhari? …my father could not make out, but in the mild glow of the lanterns, held by few sari-clad figures, both saw they were surrounded by about ten women with tumblers on their heads who had gone to the river to catch the water and were returning and stopped dead on their tracks seeing my father and Krishnabahadur. My father was the first to break the silence, “Dekhiye, ham government officials hain, hamari gari pani mein dub gayi hai, aur baha gai hai..aap kuch madat kar sakoge ?“..in English it meant “We are government officials, our vehicle has drowned in the fast river, and perhaps rolled away..can you help us?”
Perhaps, they had taken pity to these rain-ravaged souls or may have seen my father and host of geologists several times who kept traveling in Jeeps. Whatever it may have been, they agreed to help. Both were brought to a small village and were given water which I am sure, they had gulped down like a hosepipe. The compassionate people of the village also gave my father and Krishnabahadur, ‘chapatis’, or wheat bread with their vegetables, had also asked to leave the village before the first rays of the sun are seen…the entire village had only children and women but not a single male. They later learned that the village belonged to a tribe where the males apart from their daily chores travel to distant places for livelihood and return by the first light of the day. Thanking profusely, both set off ..and the river bed or the area through which the river had passed about four hours ago was water less. They trudged on until, about after an hour, met the rescue team in the form of a pickup truck that was sent by the camp office to track my father and Krishnabahadur.
The next day, a search party found the misshapen, and partly broken Jeep, which had cartwheeled and had been dragged across the river bed about six miles from where it got stuck by the wrath of the river. The Jeep was recovered and the trailer was found, broken off from the Jeep another mile or so away. Those days, polythene was very rare but due to foreign collaborations, many officials from the western countries met my father and he had a couple of these from them, kept handy for keeping important documents.
The entire effort of my father was fruitful, as after the study, the report he had made for days before this day was neatly packed by him in polythene. He recovered it from the broken Jeep.
My father as gratitude had promised the village women that he will try his best to speak to the officials if a concrete bridge could be built and with a lot of participation from every quarter, and study made on the annual floods, the bridge was finally built to the delight of the villagers of the twenty villages that surrounded that area.
Months later, my father visited one of the villages with my mother and sister which was about fifteen kilometres from Kishangarh to meet the villagers.
He was welcomed like a Messiah, a liberator.