Night Bus To Bengal

“Are you tired of standing, pera hor? Would you like to sit on our laps?” said one of the diku men insinuatingly, in passable Santali. Being petty tradesmen, they knew enough Santali to cheat the people.
Night Bus to Bengal

Dumka Bus Depot, Jharkhand. A large crowd of Santals have been gathering here since afternoon, some with bags, some with bundles and some with little children, mostly infants and toddlers. The last bus to Bengal will be leaving at nine o’clock. It is bound for Kolkata city in West Bengal but the Santals, who are migrating as agricultural labourers to Bengal, will be getting down at Bardhaman. They have been waiting at the bus depot since afternoon. Perhaps they missed the day bus. Or did they? Perhaps that bus was so over-crowded they decided to wait for the night bus. There’s always a shortage of buses in the Dumka bus depot but not of bus-agents. These dikus[1] have spread over our beloved land, fattening on the sweat of the Santals, just as the politicians have done. The bus-agent promises the Santal a seat while taking his money but who gets the seat finally? All the seats are reserved for diku traders and Kolkata passengers. This happens every time yet the Santals never seem to learn…they still crowd the buses like herds of sheep or cattle.

Perhaps, for the young Santals fresh from villages, there is some magic in the darkness of the journey to quench their thirst for adventure, their wander-lust and their dreams of wealth. So they begin their journey to Bengal starry-eyed, dreaming of the new world they will enter, dreaming of the new radios and wristwatches they will buy, dreaming of the new Hero cycles they will ride through the village marketplace like Lokhon Murmu, the swashbuckling hero of Gidi Mele-Mele, Koel Hale-Dhale.[2] Such dazzling dreams! Such giddy heights of joy! For such is the stuff of dreams that sustain them through their long days and nights in Bengal. But for those Santals who are burdened with little children, there is only the race to escape belly-hunger. Why else would they leave their beloved land and travel like animals to Bengal, standing all night in a bus? Such a miserable journey! And just as sleep begins to lull their tired minds, the bus-conductor jolts them awake with his rude shout: “Bardhaman is here. Get down, all of you!”

It was a Saturday night when three young friends named Sani Hembrom, Suman Baskey and Nabin Murmu came to the Dumka Bus Depot for their journey to Kolkata. Being the sons of middle-class Santal families who lived in the town, they had booked their seats in advance. Sani and Suman were going to Kolkata to write an exam while Nabin, a student, was returning to his college after a holiday. They bought a bottle of xxx rum at the FL Shop nearby and drank some of it while waiting inside a tea shop. When it was time to board the bus, they sauntered towards it with light steps. But on seeing the large crowd, they stopped. There were people packed inside and on the roof of the bus, while some were clustered like a beehive at the door. The Diku passengers had entered well in advance and were seated comfortably on their reserved seats. The three friends then located their seats but, to their dismay, found three young Santal women seated there. The young women appeared to be Bardhaman passengers.

            “Oh, pera hor[3],” Suman spoke to the young women in polite Santali. “Please don’t sit here…these are our reserved seats.”

            “We paid the conductor too, didn’t we? He told us to sit here!” shot back one of them sharply.

            “Where’s your ticket?” asked Sani equally sharply. “The seat number is written on ours.”

            “So what? We have paid the money and we won’t get up!”

The three friends realized that the young women would not give up their seats without a fight. Perhaps they would have surrendered meekly if a diku had ordered them, or if they had been spoken to in the diku language. But, knowing the men to be fellow-Santals, the women were not willing to budge. It is common practice for most Santal men travelling to Bardhaman – the youngsters as well as the elderly – to enjoy the breeze by sitting on the roof of the bus. Only those with little children stand cooped up inside. After the friends failed to get their seats from the women, they appealed to the bus-conductor. He managed to evict the women after a heated argument. One of the women then started berating the leader of their group.

            “That bidhwa herel[4]… while taking our money, he spoke so sweetly. Yes, my dear, I will get the front seat for you, he said. Where is Tombe’s father now? He was so sugary then, now he sits happily on the top of the bus. Tell him to come down and speak to the bus-conductor. Otherwise, he must return our money!”

Then Tombe’s father was called down from the roof. In great trepidation, he pleaded with the bus-conductor: “Conductor sahib, you had promised seats for all the women. Please, give seats at least to those with little children.”

            “Why are you cracking jokes, bhaiyya? Don’t you see the bus is houseful?” replied the conductor with rough jocularity.

            “Then, please return our money. We won’t go by this bus.”

            “If you wish to come, then come. If not, then don’t. But the money can’t be returned. Once the ticket is made, it’s made…this is a sarkari bus, you understand?”

Tombe’s father returned to his group forlornly and informed them, “The money can’t be returned.”

The three friends had been watching this drama unfold in silence. As the tension grew, they also asked the bus-conductor to return the people’s money. But the man turned a deaf ear. This angered Sani and spurred him to sudden action. He led the angry crowd to a nearby thana, while Suman and Nabin stayed behind to keep watch over the bus. At the thana, the policemen ignored the people’s complaint and refused to take action. Being part of a corrupt system, they also had a share in the money earned from extorting these unlucky passengers. However, as the anger of the people mounted, the Daroga started getting worried. He finally summoned the bus-driver and conductor to the police station and ordered them to return the people’s money. This was probably the first incident of its kind in the history of labor migration from Dumka to Bengal.


The parents of little children and the elderly took back their money. But the young ones, who were intoxicated by their starry dreams, decided to stay on. Sani, Suman and Nabin also returned to their seats in triumph. They were seated on the right side of the aisle, while two diku traders, who had the appearance of low ruffians, were seated on the left. The long delay had frayed the tempers of these two men. In the aisle, between these two groups of men, stood the three young women who had been evicted from their seats. It was no longer as crowded as before. Soon the bus left Dumka and speeded towards the Dumka-Suri Road. On leaving the town, its body-lights were switched off and darkness flooded the interior. Nabin sat in the window seat, Suman in the middle and Sani next to the aisle. They took out the bottle of xxx rum and had more swigs from it, before settling down to sleep. Since two of them were appearing for an exam the next day, they needed a good night’s rest. And xxx rum was no stranger to them. In fact, sometimes they drank it even before entering an exam hall because it relaxed them and made their minds worker better.

Suddenly, the three friends were awakened from their sleep by some strange sounds in the aisle, some rustling followed by loud shrieks. It appeared that the two dikus on the left had been emboldened by the darkness and were groping the three young women standing in the aisle.

            “This dirty diku sod…he’s lost all control! He’s tickling me here and there…I swear I’ll elbow him if he doesn’t stop!” shrieked one of the women.

            “Are you tired of standing, pera hor? Would you like to sit on our laps?” said one of the diku men insinuatingly, in passable Santali. Being petty tradesmen, they knew enough Santali to cheat the people.

            “No, you just want to grope us!” snapped back the women.

On overhearing this exchange of words, Sani, Suman and Nabin were perplexed with mixed feelings. The women clearly seemed furious at the men’s behaviour but it was common knowledge that village women often flirted with diku men. In fact, any diku who spoke to them in Santali could twist them around his little finger. Knowing this, the dikus usually had a low opinion of Santal women and spoke of them with contempt: “These Santal girls are so cheap. Just say a few words in Santali, buy them some paan and promise them some jelabi! After that, they will let you do whatever you want.”

But Sani, who was angered by the men’s audacity, growled at them in the diku language:

            “E bhai, kahe paresan karte hai…ghar me bahan-beti nahi hai kya?”[5] (Why are you bothering the women…haven’t you sisters and daughters at home?)         

Tum se matlab…bahan lagti hain kya tumhari?” (What’s that to you? Are they your sisters?)

This insolent reply clearly showed that these diku men were hardened by past experience and confident of getting what they wanted.

A war of words quickly flared up between the two groups but before they could come to blows, the bus had reached Panagarh. So peace was restored and the passengers on reserved seats got down for a meal at the line-hotel, while all the standing ones rested their aching limbs on the empty seats.


Baba Ka Dhaba was the most popular line-hotel of Panagarh. All kinds of food and drinks were sold here, though the prices were on the steep side. While the other passengers ordered food to eat, the two groups at war ordered liquor to drink. The war that had been interrupted festered in their minds and perhaps they drank with the intention of reopening hostilities on the road ahead. Having eaten and drunk to their fill, the passengers entered the bus again and shooed away those occupying their seat—almost like shooing away so many goats or sheep. Those with seats were seated again while those without seats stood again, including the three Santal women. And the two diku scoundrels started groping them again.

This time, liquor had made the men more brazen. As soon as the body-lights were switched off, one of them pulled down a woman upon his lap and started fondling her in a manner that modesty forbids us to describe. The women also started screaming in terror. This time, Nabin was the one sitting in the aisle seat. He was a young man with a notoriously stormy temper. He had been simmering for some time over the imperious manner of the two dikus. At this point, he could control himself no longer. Springing up swiftly, he punched the diku sitting near him with all his might. He continued to punch the man several times, landing some four-five blows on the drunken man’s face. Then, Sani and Suman also jumped up from their seats. Suman held the other diku inert, while Nabin’s fist made forceful contact with his face. The sudden violence of this attack stunned the two diku men and disarmed them completely. The iron fist of a Santal had made them see stars in the darkness. All this happened so swiftly that most of the other passengers failed to notice it. The few who did notice it also remained silent, perhaps cheering on the three friends with this thought: “Thrash those dirty pigs some more!”

Soon after, the bus reached Bardhaman. The conductor roared at the top of his voice: “Bardhaman is here! Get down! Get down!” Then all the Santals, who would soon join the labor force of Bengal, started climbing down from their places, either inside the bus or on the roof. Their tired bodies became energetic and their spirits rose again. So they stood, holding their belongings and searching for family members in the crowd. Old friends met and greeted each other joyfully. Seeing the glow of happiness on their faces that moment, it was difficult to imagine that these same people had just endured a long journey of six hours, standing like cattle inside a bus. Perhaps in this was seen the endurance of the Santal people: No matter how long and weary the journey, they always had the strength to go on and they never forgot their laughter.


The bus reached Kolkata and stopped at Babughat, near the Hooghly. It was still very early in the morning and the passengers climbed down slowly in the half-light, holding their luggage. The yellow taxis of Kolkata started circling around them hopefully. Sani, Suman and Nabin woke up and, after stretching themselves, found their luggage. The two diku men also woke up. They seemed to have recovered from their drunkenness and sat quietly on their seats. Perhaps they were pondering over the night’s happenings as they felt their bruised and swollen faces. Noticing the other group was awake, the two dikus looked at them warily. The glances of the five men met. Then, in the tone of an injured friend, one of the diku men said to Nabin:

            “Henda ho[6], you hit me too hard. My jaws are still hurting and my eyes are swelling up. Yes, you hit me too hard but there’s one thing I don’t understand. Why did you hit us so hard? For whom? Who were those women to you?”  

(Translated from the Santali original by Ivy I. Hansdak)


[1] Diku (or deko) is a term applied by many tribal/ adivasi groups of Jharkhand to Hindus of the better class, often in a derogatory sense. It does not include Muslims and dalits.

[2] This was a romantic folk drama (also called jatra in Santali) which became a runaway hit among the Santals of West Bengal and Jharkhand during the 1990s. The literal meaning of the title is “The vulture watches gimlet-eyed while the nightingale plays hide-and seek.”

[3] Pera hor is a polite term used by Santals while addressing an unknown person who is supposed to be a Santal. By contrast, the dikus usually address Santal men and women as “manjhi” and “mejhen”.

[4] Used here as an expletive, the literal meaning of bidhwa herel is “a bastard, a man born out of wedlock”.

[5] These two sentences are in colloquial Hindi, as spoken in the Bihar-Jharkhand region.

[6] Henda ho is a colloquial term in Santali that may be roughly translated as “Hey, buddy”. It is commonly used among friends.


About the translator
Ivy Imogene Hansdak
is the younger daughter of (Late) Dr. Stephen B. Hansdak and (Late) Mrs. Alice Murmu of Mohulpahari Christian Hospital, Dumka, Jharkhand. She has completed her M. Phil. and Ph.D. in English Literature from JNU, New Delhi, and is presently employed as Assistant Professor in the Dept of English, Jamia Millia Islamia Central University, New Delhi. Her areas of interest are Subaltern Studies, Tribal Studies, Indian Women’s Writing and Indian Christian Writing. She has several academic publications in edited volumes and national journals, such as Mainstream Weekly and The Quest. She has two books to her credit: a collection of short poems, The Golden Chord (Writers Workshop, Kolkata: 2010) and an autobiographical narrative of her late father, A Doctor among the Santals (ISPCK, Delhi: 2012).

She started translating from English into Santali in 2012 and has one translated short story published in Sahitya Akademi’s literary journal, Indian Literature (by Sunder Manoj Hembrom). She has also organized two national seminars, Jagwar: Santal Literary Meet (January 2013) and Jagwar-2: Writing Memory, Writing Loss (February 2015), both at Dumka, Jharkhand, and an ICSSR-funded international conference, Tribes in Transition: Conflict over Identity, Resources and Development (March 2014), at Santiniketan, West Bengal. She has presented over twenty-five papers at seminars in India and abroad. She is also one of the members of the pan-Indian literary circle of Santali writers, publishers, academicians and other intellectuals centered in Kolkata, West Bengal.


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Sunder Manoj Hembrom is the son of Mr. Lal Hembrom and (Late) Mrs. Bahalen Murmu of Kendpahari village, Dumka, Jharkhand. He has completed his B.E in Mechanical Engineering from BIT, Sindri, and is presently employed as Senior Engineer at the Kanchrapara Railway Workshop, West Bengal. He started writing in Santali in 2010, and has published over forty short-stories in leading Santali literary journals, such as Jug Sirijol and Nawa Ipil. His first collection of short stories, Sengel Buru , was published in 2013 by SLCS, Kolkata, bringing instant literary acclaim and the “Jharkhandi Bhasha Sahitya Sanskriti Award” soon after. His next collection of short stories is expected to appear within a year. Most of his stories deal with social transformation among Santal tribals living in urban areas. His perception of certain grim realities of Santal life – such as witchcraft, alcoholism and the fear of the Diku (non-tribal) as the ‘Other’ – reveals him both as a moralist and a philosopher. He is also a sporadic translator from English into Santali, with seven translated short stories from world classics published in Jug Sirijol (by O. Henry, Guy de Maupassant, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekov, Maxim Gorky, etc). Finally, he is one of the Sub-Editors of Jug Sirijol and an executive member of the Santali Literary and Cultural Society (SLCS), Kolkata. In this capacity, he is a leading member of the pan-Indian literary circle of Santali writers, publishers, academicians and other intellectuals whose centre is Kolkata, West Bengal.
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