Om Prakash ‘Babaji’ Dubey relives his adventures on a drive from Panna to Mumbai while coming to the aid of a few stranded Germans.

Om Prakash Dubey spent 68 hours on the road in all.

First published:

An Oral History of the COVID-19 Crisis: ‘Samaritans offered food and water to those on the road; there was still goodness in this world’

This account is part of Firstpost’s Oral History Project of the COVID-19 Crisis in India. The Oral History Project aims to be an ongoing compendium of individual experiences of the pandemic, with a focus on one significant day in our respondents’ lives during this time.

My parents died when I was young. I’ve been brought up on the goodness of those around me. It’s why I never miss a chance to help someone in need.

When I heard that three Germans were stranded close to my house during the lockdown, I didn’t waste a minute. I drove my Bolero to their doorstep and offered them a ride from Madla in Madhya Pradesh (MP) to Mumbai, where they were scheduled to take a flight home.

The days leading up to our departure were frenzied, given the number of documents that had to be organised to allow us to make the 2,500 km roundtrip. Though we finally got permission to travel, I only had 52 hours to drop them and make it back home. It sounded tight, with no room for delay, but it didn’t bother me. I had made up my mind.

On 31 March, we set off at 11 am. We crossed multiple checkpoints while hopping across districts in MP. I soon realised that the papers we had were good enough. A quick glance, a little chat with the policemen and off we were. By evening, we had reached Bhopal and everything seemed to be on track.

All that changed when we arrived at the MP-Maharashtra border at 4.30 am. I knew the drill. I got off with the papers and walked to the policeman, only to hear a big ‘No!’ from him. He said a signature was missing. It was a little strange, since we hadn’t had any trouble until then, but here we were, stranded after over 17 hours on the road.

The Germans called the consulate hotline in Mumbai, and on hearing of our situation, the groggy gentleman on the line had just one solution — to pay a bribe. One of the ladies walked over to the policeman and handed him the phone. Even as he stared into the void, pretending to follow the conversation, she put some money in his hand. He simply shook his head. She thrust some more notes and the ‘No!’ changed to a ‘Go!’ in a jiffy!

A short while later, I hear a ‘psssst’, which meant a flat tyre. With most pumps closed, I was already troubled by the dipping fuel gauge and now with a worn out spare tyre, I realised that our plans could easily be derailed. After an hour, we drove non-stop and by the next afternoon, I had dropped them at a hotel in Mumbai.

But I soon realised that it had taken me 26 hours, which meant half of my time was gone! I immediately set off towards Bhiwandi to pick up a friend from Madla, whom I had been speaking with on the drive in. He was ill and wanted to return to MP due to the uncertainty around the lockdown. I decided to catch a wink at his place before setting off on the return journey.

Two hours later, I was good to go. I reached the first checkpost at 1.30 am on 2 April — just 20 km after starting out. I walked up to the policeman confidently and handed over my papers. I soon realised that it was going to be a long drive home.

I was taken aback when he mentioned they were invalid. He demanded fresh documentation from Maharashtra if he was to let us proceed. I pleaded my case, showing him fuel slips to substantiate my story about dropping the Germans. I even pointed out that I had been granted limited time to return home. But there was no way to convince him. He slapped his lathi on the ground and asked me to walk away.

The German lady, who had spent some time travelling in India, had given me emergency phone numbers. I dialled a journalist from Mumbai, whom I had apprised of the situation the previous evening. However, there was no response. I called a couple of times more and soon gave up, given the odd hour.

I fumbled with the chit and called the next person on the list — no response. The lack of sleep muddled my thoughts as I sat there by the side of the road, unsure of my next course of action.

Then, a glimmer of hope, as my phone rang. It was the journalist and she asked me to hand the phone to the policeman. When he saw me coming back, he once again slammed his lathi intimidatingly. He simply refused to take the phone. She insisted I try again, but it only aggravated him further. She hung up and said she would call back soon.

I returned to the car and asked my friend to rest on the backseat, since it didn’t seem like the situation would resolve anytime soon. His fever was rising and he really needed the rest. Trucks and cars were piling up; a few motorcyclists tried to sneak past the blockade and were promptly showered blows from the lathi. I watched from a short distance, uncertainty growing by the minute. I had never met the person I had just called — would she really help out a stranger at that ungodly hour?

For sure she did! It seemed like an age but after 20 minutes, my phone rang again. She told me to go to the checkpost again. As I approached it, the policeman I had earlier conversed with walked towards me, the lathi swinging by his side. I wasn’t sure what to expect, until he asked for my car  registration. I went back to the car and got him what he wanted. Soon after, I saw the barricades being pushed aside, as I sped off towards a glorious sunrise, relieved.

Right through the day, it was the same routine. I would stop at a checkpost, they would refuse to let me pass — at times without even looking at my papers. I would call the journalist and wait. And each time, the barricades magically opened. I realised that the person I was calling must have some standing. At one of the checkposts, the policeman was being blasted by someone from the control room for not letting me through, despite having all my papers in place. Honestly, I saw no reason for these obstacles.

All I wanted was to get home as soon as I could. I had been driving for over two days at that point, so whenever I felt I was nodding off, I would pull over and get some rest. All dhabas en route were closed, yet there were Samaritans along the highway who were distributing bananas, biscuits, water and at times, wholesome meals, to anybody who needed it. There was still goodness in this world.

The last of the calls happened at Dhule, the checkpost outside a small police chowky. All around were fields, with not a soul in sight except those waiting like me. The policemen would only speak in Marathi, a language I am unfamiliar with. I called me guardian angel yet again, and in the next 30 minutes, the policeman asked me to pass. By evening, I was across the border and on home turf.

The night seemed endless, but by morning, I was home. I had been on the road for 68 hours and was exhausted with the effort. I called the journalist one last time — “Maine aapki neend kharab ki, maafi. Par aaj ke zamane main, koi pehechanne wala kisi ki madad nahin karta hai. Aur main to aap se kabhi mila bhi nahin hu. Lekin hamari mulakat zaroor hogi. Aapka aabhar (I’ve disturbed your sleep, sorry. In today’s time, people who know each other don’t help out. And I’ve never even met you. But we will definitely meet soon. Thank you for your help.)”

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