Saturday, July 12, 2008
The Great Indian Journey 1
BOMBAY TO BIHAR – A ROAD LESS TAKEN
A journey I thought I could share with readers of indiavikalp so travel with me all through next week everyday as I take you on a nearly all-India tour through eight Indian states.
DRIVING THROUGH THE NIGHT
By Manuwant Choudhary
Going on a journey is like starting life afresh and so it has been for me.
On an unscheduled visit to Bombay I land up buying a Hyundai Sonata Gold for a steal. Perhaps, I am a beneficiary of the high real-estate prices in Bombay where parking space could cost Rs.15 lakh. I live in rural India where we have enough parking space but few cars.
Like my father would often tell me a story of an American farmer who visited India once and when he visited a farm here he told the Indian farmer, “Back in America on my farm it takes an entire day to drive from one end of the farm to the other.”
The Indian farmer replies, “I know what you mean. Even I own a car like that.”
One reason I bought the car was because that is exactly what my father would have done if he was around. He passed away four years ago. So I dedicate this journey to him.
But I am not my father and buying the car was the easy part, the tough part was how to drive up north to Bihar – a three thousand kilometer journey!
Of course , Bombay has been home to me and I think it is India’s best city but its politics has gone all wrong. Now Bombay isn’t cosmopolitan as it was. Even when I was a journalist the Shiv Sena government changed the name of the city from Bombay to Mumbai and few protested. I did. So to this day I call Bombay, Bombay.
What I like about Bombay is its professionalism, respect of the individual and friendships. A few friendships can last a lifetime.
So in Bombay I can say there are free dinners! At the Taj Mahal Hotel I met up with college friends and over dinner I was asked what brings me to Bombay. As I explained that I’ve bought this second hand car and tomorrow I drive back to Bihar, I could feel the nervousness in the air.
Just then at the table a friend confessed, “I don’t know where Bihar is?”
We just laughed.
We were at the Taj Mahal Hotel whose founder Jamsetji Tata a hundred years ago found out where Bihar is, built his Steel Plant and an entire city at Jamshedpur and from a single venture built an empire, including the Taj Mahal Hotel where we were dining. But yes, Bihar has gone down. A person I met in the UK even called it a `Black Hole'.
I had just two days to arrange a driver who would get me out of the city and with the help of friends at Mercury Travels my driver arrived at 4 p.m.
I was on the road and even as the sky-rises faded in the background, I asked my driver his name. “I am Shankar. I actually work for Madame who is the Times London correspondent in Bombay. But since she is away and I am on leave so I agreed to drive you.”
When I introduced myself that I too was a former television journalist, our conversation wouldn’t stop. I knew this journey would be short.
Getting out of Bombay on a Sunday was relatively easy and within an hour we were on the Bombay-Ahmedabad Highway. The road was bumpy and pot-holed but periodically we came across toll booths where they would charge anything from Rs.5 to Rs.50!
I was expecting to be travelling on the Golden Quadrilateral from Bombay to Delhi but the only thing that made me feel I was on such a freeway were the payments at the toll booths.
We crossed Surat while it was asleep. Memories came flooding back when I had taken a train journey to Surat in 1994 when Surat reported a plague outbreak and an entire people fleeing their city.
By midnight we were hungry and spotting a roadside dhaba having a Punjabi name we stopped but when we got inside all the waiters were Muslims in their white skull caps. We were happy that at least we could get chicken here. I called a waiter and placed my chicken order. The waiter came beside me and after looking around suspiciously he said in a very hushed tone, “Sir, we don’t serve chicken. It’s a pure vegetarian restaurant!”
We realized we were not in free India but in Narendra Modi’s Gujarat.
After our vegetarian meal in a Muslim restaurant we were on the road again and my telephone messages would not stop until I stopped , a dear friend protested I must stop somehere. Its not safe! Robbers!!!
But as our car moved through the darkness we could not see a single hotel and at 2 a.m. we came across a well lit dhaba. I could see my driver needed rest so we pulled up alongside the dhaba, put on central locking, pushed back our seats and just crashed for two hours.
4 a.m. we were up and on our way to Ahmedabad. It was still dark and I was worried we may still come across the robbers. Suddenly, we saw Tata Sumo vehicles drive speedily ahead and safari suit clad men get out from them and force highway trucks to stop, demanding money in threatening loud voices. Robbers!
As our car slowed down we saw them in the headlight and they seemed a little embarrassed at seeing us. They were cops!
But one of the most beautiful sights in India is the sunrise. Light cutting away the darkness and slowly an orange flooding the fields amidst the happy chirping of the birds. A new dawn.
It reminded me of Mahatma Gandhi’s India.