The Frontier Province, as it was then called, had a very good bus service in the 1950s and 60s. GTS, short for the Government Transport Service, was a well-regulated service — efficient, comfortable and cheap. It ran silver-coloured buses that accommodated about 30 passengers.
Every passenger had a seat to sit on. No standing or overloading was allowed. The drivers and conductors wore a uniform: a gray ‘militia’ shirt with two breast pockets and shoulder straps, shalwar of the same material, and an ivy-coloured beret cap. In winters, they also wore ivy-coloured pullovers and overcoats.
The conductor carried a ticketing machine, hanging over his shoulder, with which he punched tickets according to the applicable fare. And the buses ran on time.
The fare between Mansehra and Abbottabad was nine annas, which was proportionally reduced if you boarded the bus somewhere along the way. (16 annas made a rupee. This was before the decimal system was introduced).
The bus ran between the two towns every two hours during daytime, and the 15-mile journey took about an hour. Fifteen miles was a long distance those days, with a winding, single road and all the pick-and-drops on the way.
It wasn’t everyday that you travelled to Abbottabad, especially not when you happened to be a 15-year old student. You travelled only for something important.
In my case, that something happened to be developing and printing of a camera film.
I had acquired my first camera, I don’t remember how. Neither do I remember its make, but I vaguely remember it could take only 20 pictures. When I finished the first roll, taking random pictures of whatever caught my fancy, I couldn’t wait to travel to Abbottabad to have the film developed and printed.
There was no photographer in Mansehra. There was one in Abbottabad, close to Kaghan Café. (I wonder if the café is still there).
The photographer on one such trip asked me to come back after a few days to collect the prints. On the given date, I travelled to Abbottabad again, collected the black-and-white photographs, excitedly inspected each one of them and was mighty pleased with the results — even though they were all blurry and badly composed. I paid the photographer, I don’t remember how much, and hurried to the bus stop to take the bus back to Mansehra.
But, then, I discovered, to my dismay, that I wasn’t left with enough money to buy the bus ticket. I was short by a few annas. What was I to do? I didn’t know anyone in town. I hadn’t even informed my parents that I was going to Abbottabad. Telephones were inaccessible. And I couldn’t walk back 15 miles. Not in one day, at least.
Then, a thought flashed through my mind. If I walked four or five miles and then boarded the bus, I might be able to pay for the ticket with the money I had.
I decided to walk. I was hungry, but that didn’t matter. Ignorance is bliss, sometimes. It was the fall season, and a sunny day with a light breeze.
I walked from the bus stop to what is known as Supply, where the road forks towards the Pakistan Military Academy, Kakul. Instinctively, I knew I hadn’t walked far enough to be able to pay for the bus ticket with the money I had. And I wasn’t tired — yet. So, I continued walking.
The road from Supply onwards was quiet, with few cars and buses, no tongas, and hardly any foot traffic. On both sides of the road were poplars for as far as one could see — their golden yellow leaves trembling in the breeze, reflecting the afternoon sun. It was a beautiful sight. I had seen these poplars even before, several times, but always from a moving bus or a taxi. This time, I walked past those trees — each one of them.
I also noticed the well-appointed houses, or kothees, behind the line of poplars, on the right-hand side of the road. There were not too many of them then. On the left-hand side, it was mainly the line of poplars and the hills behind them.
I walked past the kothees, past Burn Hall School, and past the army stables. That’s where the line of poplars ended. By then, I must have walked about five miles. I was tired, hungry and thirsty. I did a quick calculation and concluded that the change in my pocket was probably sufficient to pay for the fare from that point onwards. But I wasn’t sure. I was tired. Rather than walking any further, I stopped at the nearest stop and flagged down the next GTS bus.
I entered the bus. The passengers looked at me as they always did at strangers. The conductor approached me with his ticketing machine and punched a ticket. I swallowed nervously, and waited for him to announce the fare. If it were more than the money I had, I would have to disembark with all the passengers staring at me. The embarrassment would be too much to bear. “Six annas”, the conductor said. I had slightly more in my pocket. I bought the ticket and slumped into my seat, relieved and happy.
Happy is a weak word to express my feelings of relief then. The bus moved, the passengers stopped staring at me, and I spent the remaining journey looking at the blurry and badly-composed photographs, as did the person sitting next to me.
When I look back at this little adventure, what stands out in my memory, surprisingly, is not the fear and anxiety of being left stranded in Abbottabad, nor being hungry, thirsty and tired. Not even the photographs. I don’t even remember what they were about. What is etched in my memory is the long line of poplars, miles of them, and their golden yellow leaves, trembling in the breeze and reflecting the afternoon autumn sun.
It has been many years since — far too many — and I have travelled to many places, both within and outside the country, but I haven’t really been able to walk away from those autumn colours.