Sunday, December 30, 2007

Train of thought 3.5 - Water everywhere

Note: This is one of a series of posts about this journey. Other episodes of this trip are here: numbers 0, 1, 2, 2.5, 3, 3.5, 4, 4.5, 4.75 (in order).

**
Tiredness brings about a dreamless, quick sleep, and with it a calm, clear-headed wake up. So much so, I dont quite mind or resent the slightly clouded window to my left. I raise myself slightly, and still half-reclining upon my berth, look out the window.

The squeak-to-a-halt provides a good excuse for getting off. Barauni, the boards tell me. I immediately recollect the Gwalior-Barauni Mail of a few years ago. If your're the sort who'd like to sample the messiest, filthiest train ever, you'd need look no beyond the Gwalior Barauni Mail. Still, the platform at Barauni has no evidence of squalor-levels that would befit such a legendary train. There's a coat of mist all over as I peer out from the door over the length of the platform. The hot-water+tea-bags+milk-powder is being distributed, so, the 'tea' is slowly imbibed on a stroll on the chilled platform.

**
I'm on the Eastern-UP-and-Bihar belt now. Everything there is is drowned out, literally, by the floods. The entire landscape is a huge water body occasionally pockmarked by land patches. There're stretches of water in every direction. Houses, or parts thereof, peep out like gyroscopes. Huts, and parts thereof, float atop the water. Occasional temple spires stand out, as if to reassure people that there is, indeed, a steady divine presence in all this upheaval. The railway track looks terribly frail, perched as it is upon hardly-adequate-seeming ledges amid water on either side.

The towns, when they do come, are hardly reassuring. Washed-away houses are lumped together now. Decrepitude is wholesale here. What emphasises the direness of it all is the fact that you can see the human cost of the flood. Every railway platform is brimming over with refugees from the water. They're camped upon the railway platforms, they arent quite waiting to go off on the next train. They're waiting for they know not what - there're makeshift tents and huts, cramped, stuffed amid the limited space there is. The railway platform affords the advantage of being at a slight elevation compared to the rest of the town. However, those who are unfortunate to get pushed to the edges of the platform find themselves getting shoved closer and closer to water levels by the upstream crowds.

It's a bleak, foggy, sunless morning. The rains, thankfully, have ceased today. The mind's eye is dimmed by the sights around. The makeshift tents are just feet away from where I stand at the door. People line the tracks outside the stations, in the countryside just as well, in areas where the track but is a temporarily safe bank from the advancing waters. The track is a thin line, almost like a tightrope, with water all around it. The train almost seems to tiptoe on it, hoping to get it over and done with.

**

There are, as you may have imagined, fellow passengers around my hardly-occupied seat. There's a young Army jawan, hardly 22 or so, there's a young lady with her dad, and a couple of other middle aged men. The jawan asks if I've friends in adjoining compartments. No, I tell him, I dont park at my seat because I'm at the door, that's all.

So, does he get to actually fight, shoot people, I ask, with more than a hint of sarcasm that he doesnt quite catch. Oh yes, says he, he's headed to either Sudan or Afghanistan, right after the vacation for which he's headed home. The UN forces, he adds. I remember Heller writing something like - "Young men out there figting for what they've been told is their country". It just seems way too cynical to actually quote the same, so I desist.

So, has he killed any man so far? Nopes. But he's had plenty of target practise, and workout with guns. But does that prepare him to kill a flesh-and-blood human being? To exterminate a life? The instinct of self-preservation, he is sure, will take over, so what he does need do is have his reflexes and skills ready. When it's him-or-you, you'd rather it's you than him.

What if you get cold feet? Killing isnt easy, I suppose. Well, you can back out before you get sent. Once you're there, you have to go out and fight. If you back off on the battlefield, folks on your side have orders to shoot you. The fear of death can infuse great quantities of courage into you, he adds.

Death is an occupational hazard, aint it? Well, he's had only a modest education, and this, fighting is his only chance of being of any significance in life. This is the only way he can rise above himself, he adds. He is a big man in his town because he's a soldier. If people think wars arent necessary, well, too bad - someone's got to do the job.

Somehow, speaking of death in the specific seems strangely, eerily different from speaking of it in the abstract, armchair-expert way.

**

The train wades onward. The water slowly, agonisingly recedes, subsides. The trackside crowds steadily thin down. In an hour and a half or so, all that remains is the wetness in the air. There is impoverishment around, you see the villages and houses are still ramshackle - even railway stations have shriveled down to one-chamber shacks with single-track-no-platform. But it's almost a relief to see that this is the normal course of affairs, that it's not an abrupt fury of nature that has afflicted these lands.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Train of thought 3 - Entering the cow belt

Note: This is one of a series of posts about this journey. Other episodes of this trip are here: numbers 0, 1, 2, 2.5, 3, 3.5, 4, 4.5, 4.75 (in order).

**
Delhi passes by in a haze. The crowds at Hazrat Nizamuddin are perhaps only milling slowly, in a gooey slithering flow. But when a long things-to-do list is flashing through your mind, when you're rushing through the 14 hours you have in the city, you can be forgiven for thinking that the entire capital is as frenzied as the almost-panting insides of your head.

One meet-up happens late in the evening, over French-fries-dipped-in-honey and jasmine tea. The friend is good enough to offer shelter for the night in his room. The already small room, being packed with books and cutlery and cooking vessels, has just about enough of a clearing on the floor to harbour the two of us. The other meeting is pushed to the next morning, when a young lady has to be woken up to be reminded of the said meeting.

So, it is after a good couple of hours of agitated activity that New Delhi station is rushed into, minutes before the half-past-9 departure. Soon, I am hovering around the platform to stock up and try to fulfil the morning's nutrition needs. A sandwich, a cool drink and my bag all vie for the patronage of my hands.

**

There is, surprisingly, a diesel engine up front, as the train shrugs past Delhi's outskirts. These arent the high rise, prosperous locales. Small matchbox-houses in rows of Lego-blocks are packed in a tight fit. Most have red-and-grey exteriors of raw, unpainted walls. Occasionally, patches of agricultural fields pop up, sometimes chimneys jut out, bang in the midst of a sea of unpainted concrete.

Sometimes, the compact, packed rows of houses yawn, revealing clearings of black fluids in still lakes or flowing rivulets. Buffaloes look like rocks jutting out of the water. Green rotting vegetation blankets nearly the entire surface of the water. Soon, the sea of dusky black that is the Yamuna wallows beneath my feet.

There is this state of uncertain urbaneness throughout. Locales dont quite seem very sure as to who precisely they are. Must they live up to an image of posh, upmarket citizens of a capital city? Are they almost-slums, the stepchildren of a grand metropolis that really is a world away? UP-villages like they were a few decades ago? Sooty, intent industrial areas like those that fringe every city? Hinterlands like they were before Delhi began its monstrous growth?

Sahibabad, Ghaziabad and even far exterior towns like Hapur seem to harbour a confused mix of all these identities. The bare, rugged neighbourhoods look impoverished but not frail. There's the weariness and disarray of the greying, bare buildings, but there's also the ambition and wannabe-ness of occasional isles of swankiness. There're expanses of aspiring industries, there're flashy, pervasive billboards that annouce upward mobility to be.

**

There follows what what your high school textbooks would tell you is the 'fertile Gangetic plain'. Wispy blue-white skies up above, swaying sugarcane and paddy and tufts of green. Open horizons that stretch on, unblocked by edifices. Innumerable canals and clear water streams tempt you to dive right in, right out the train door. You try in vain to recollect the poem - all you manage is to weed out two lines - 'All in the golden afternoon, full leisurely we glide' and 'beneath such dreamy weather', which more than suffice to send you into a warm, contented tizzy, as you lean back against the door balustrade in a comfortable recline.

**

Most towns are tiny oases of habitation amid vastnesses of agricultural land. The green of the fields wades into some of the towns too. The black water bodies and buffaloes are ubiquitous in the towns. Most towns have houses sprinkled liberally, comfortably spaced. Moradabad, Shahjahanpur, Bareilly and their ilk know there's plenty of space to go around for the entire town and more.

At Shahjahanpur, there's an ancient, ornate, deep brown bogie, one that was exclusively used by the colonial masters in another era. This rusting bogie is in apparent disuse for decades, and is parking in a just-as-aged shed. There're families that have made this shed their home, with this relic of the British Raj grandeur for backdrop. Their cooking for the day goes on in the underbrush-clad ground nearby.

As the diesel engine squeezes through rising sugarcane fields on each side, it flits through an empty, unpeopled station - Kakori. I momentary expect so see something to signify the events of all those years ago. What was I expecting to see, anyway? I realize there really shouldnt be any expectations that I should be having of the place. The Shahjahanpur - Lucknow down train remains blissfully in 1925, knowing it doesnt quite have a need to pop up in public consciousness now.

Kakori lasts maybe a minute, with my train rushing on to make up for the one hour delay. There's the town railway gate, keeping out the raring-to-go autos and carts and rickshaws and ramshackle vans - the fields and open skies begin abruptly, right after the railway gate.

**

Most stations have a barrack-like stiff-upper-lip spareness and minimalism - nothing extraneous or extravagant in their structures. Collectorgunj flashes by, a tiny single-room-single-platform station that is a faint but sweet memory of all those years ago. It's not been too hot, the sun's been gentle all through. Still, the evening makes the slanting golden sunbeams quite pleasant. Lucknow station is profusely bathed in mild honey-orange sunrays when the train squeaks in.

Post Lucknow, more sugarcane fields, more farmlands, more open spaces. Only, the skies' shades of blue deepen. Slowly, imperceptibly, a blanket is spread over the sky upstairs. I come back to my seat - the white lights inside the bogie are slightly jarring after an entire day at the door. I stare away at the darkness through the cloudy, muddly glass window - content in having to do nothing whatsoever at all.

Dinner happens. Tis tempting to go sleep, though it's just 9 or so. I decide to get to the door to get some fresh night air. There's plenty of that, yessiree. "Bhai saab, yaha pe bahut stoning hoti hai" the TTE attempts to dissuade me from door-parking - I wave him away. I stare into the darkness and up at the white pinpricks that are the stars, taking deep breaths of the cold night air. Varanasi is a while away - that'd be a good place to sleep off.

There's a mild flash outside, like a cigarette lighter. Tis not the stars, I see. There's another flash outside, and yet another. Before I know it, there're tiny, glowing lamps all around me outside the door. No, there're no houses or human presences. I wonder if I'm dreaming, if I've been transported into a fairy tale.

I take deep breaths - I cant believe this - there're seas of fireflies flickering atop trees along the track! The row of trees, lit up in mild flourescent glows, stretches on either side of the two doors, like rows of glittering Christmas trees - tis a 10 minute long performance. This isnt a biting glare, but a gentle, warm flickering and twinkling. The momentary frenzied I-dont-believe-this excitement slowly gives way to a peace, a gratitude - an ah-I-m-lucky-to-have-seen-this feeling - that leaves me thankful to the universe for having served me this surprise.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Train of thought 2.5 - Dilli Door Asth

Note: This is one of a series of posts about this journey. Other episodes of this trip are here: numbers 0, 1, 2, 2.5, 3, 3.5, 4, 4.5, 4.75 (in order).

**

The next town appears fairly big. The train ploughs through some 6-7km of its suburbs. Most of these suburbs are populated by stone quarries and grey dust. Rows of grimy trucks are kicking up mud, stuck in a traffic jam in the midst of a field. There are also, as someone put it, sons of toil covered by tons of soil.

The station is a pinkish building, making perhaps half an attempt to give itself a sandstone look. There’re arched doorways and windows – faded white semicircles that taper into onion-domes. There’re tall, dark, wine-bottle-y window panes that narrow upwards into a rocket-like shape. You’d almost think the station is all smooth curves and no edges. No storeys, just the ground floor spread flat over the length of the platform. A clocktower barely manages to peep out over the ground floor terrace.

The sunny, muddy, cow-laden platform at Kota Junction unfolds under my feet.

Signboards that could be tagged ‘career, bright, future, excellent, 100%’ fill the railway station. IIT, CBSE, GATE, IAS – some boards manage to fit all the abbreviations. The town has something for everyone.

The attendants head towards a waiting cart, and purposefully carry the day’s lunch trays onto the train. The red flickering display board makes a mention of the Haldighati passenger due later in the evening.

**

The train’s running an hour late. But we’re on twin tracks and an electric engine, so we flit through the fields, perhaps just over a 100km an hour.

There’s a bridge across the Chambal, with a bund downstream. At 15-20feet, it’s not quite a dam – the river threatens to dunk it underwater anytime it desires.

A hill range unfolds itself parallel to the track. This one’s rather disorderly – with edges like shards of broken glass. There’re stones strewn in the valley, that see to it that nothing can grow in the rough, stony terrain.

This is the Chambal valley, which used to be India’s prime dacoit zone. The dacoit zone begins here, and spreads across the vicinity of Jhansi-Lalitpur-Gwalior. There’re no trees, no people, and hardly any vegetation along the vast span of the ravines. The mind imagines horses thundering down the hills, but the eye only meets a hard, rocky, silent backdrop of loneliness.

**

The train speeds past a dusty, open air station. The platform is unoccupied. There’re no people, poles or roof-shelters – nothing other than the floor going flat out. There’s just the station master who’s just come out of his single room. The man in white holds out a faded green flag which stubbornly refuses to sway or flutter. The only other presence other than him is one forlorn, frayed board at the very edge of the platform , marked Ranathambore.

**

I have some company at the door by now. There’s this young man, some 25 or so, who’s had my window all the time I’ve been at the door. He's in the corridor near the door, but doesnt quite want to stand at the door.

“Dilli jaa rahe ho?”

I nod.

The usual where-from-where-to questions follow, with a where-re-you-really-from added for good measure. I’ve gotten used to the irritation of the where-from-where-to questions by now. When you’ve never quite belonged to any one place, and travelled without anything resembling a purpose, you really can have any number of equally valid answers for each of these questions. I mention at random one place apiece for each question. It's hardly any effort to skip all the qualifying that’s perhaps necessary.

Madrasi hoke Hindi to achhi jaante ho.

“Haan. Thoda bahut seekha hai.”

Yeh Braj Kshetr hai. Pata hai? Krishnaji yahi pale the. Agla station Mathura hai.

I'm aware, indeed, that Mathura is in proximity, so I nod.

He pauses awhile, wondering how to continue conversation with a man who persists in looking outside the door.

Braj Kshetr ke log gaaliyon ke liye mashoor hai, pata hai aap ko?

The man’s attempting to break the ice. I do an “Achha?”

Arey? Aapko pata nahi kya? Saare UP-Bihar se zyada bhayankar gaaliya yahi pe sunne ko milegi aapko.

I stand with my back to the opened door, acknowledging that the monologue had potential to get interesting.

Ek kahaani sonata hoon Braj Kshetr ki gaalibaazi ke baare me. Ek banda Braj Kshetr jaana chahta tha. Mathura se sau kilometre door aake poocha – Braj Kshetr jaa raha hoo. Jab aayega to kaise pata chalega?

To logo ne bola, aage jaate raho. Jahaa par log bhayanak gaaliya denge, wahi Braj Kshetr hoga.

Aage jaata hai. Ek board laga hai – Braj Kshetr. Phir bhi aadmi se poochta hai – bhai, Braj Kshetr jaa raha hoo. Jab aayega to kaise pata chalega?

Toh doosra aadmi Braj Kshetr ka board dikha ke bolta hai – “Eee boarad kaa teri maa ki choot me laga hai?”

The man, verily, employs a sledgehammer to break ice.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Train of thought 2 - Morning Calm

Note: This is one of a series of posts about this journey. Other episodes of this trip are here: numbers 0, 1, 2, 2.5, 3, 3.5, 4, 4.5, 4.75 (in order).

**

The window-glass to my left dulls the white lights coming in from the platform. The diffused haze wakes me up. Uh, where am I? There’s this disoriented whaa-what-am-I-doing-here sensation. The eyes creak open. Memory flickers to life. There’s still a moment of disbelief – am I *really* doing this trip?

My sleep-fogged, confused mind demands other questions to be asked of it. Another beam of light seeps in, much sharper than before. The train squeaks to a stop. 'What town is this?’ - appears a suitable choice to engage the still partly dormant mind. Surat? Memories of one past trip make me wish it is. The green of the radium in my watch glows 5:40. Vadodara.

**

I wade out of, err, bed. Ugh, my calves almost feel sticky from the lack of exercise. I need a walk on the platform. The platform is tiled with people sleeping upon newspaper-sheets-turned-mattresses. Been there, done that, yessiree. I skirt the sleepers and walk on. It’s still dark. The tubelights blaze away relentlessly, but the slumbering multitudes are unperturbed.

The diesel engine detaches itself. The coach attendant explains ,”Cant stop long enough to change at Panvel or Vasai. The local trains, saab. They cant wait for us.”

Another unattached diesel engine coasts past, with its name ‘Cheetah’ written in large, friendly letters. The chill from the night is still in the air. There’s the sweatshirt around me. There’s the warmth of the bed tea(well, almost) that’s in my hands.

**

Sometime due north, the dark sky gradually fades until it is a lighter shade of bluish white. There’re rust-golden colored industrial edifices that wield chimneys. Canals and rivulets are dreary patches, wholly unlike the clear water bodies on the Konkan that made you want to dive right in.

The fields and villages are dotted with tractors that have retired for the night. The train curves around grassy mounds that look like massive pin cushions. These aren’t thick forested hills - these are stubbly hillocks that have been liberally sprinkled amid meadows and farms. Nothing is cramped or stuffed – even the two-tracked railway line has plenty of space for itself as it freely scrawls across the landscape.

**

Buildings in most towns have dull grey coatings. The decrepitude of most of these edifices suggests that their purpose isnt residential. The train slows down near another such town, one that doesn’t seem to have been refurbished in ages.

The platform harbours no rooms, no offices or stalls - only vendors who idly watch us go past. Another engine slumbers on the adjacent platform, its name ‘Prachand’ written in, you guessed it – large, friendly letters.

As my train leaves the unpeopled platform, the name board of the station comes into view – ‘Godhra Junction’.

**

The grey dissolves, the towns recede. The only habitations you can see are houses amid farms, almost like dots on a huge canvas. In a while, rocky cliffs come into view ahead.

As the train scrapes between the first of the cliffs, you see a turret topping the two cliffs on either side of the track. A pair of ornate, carefully crafted watchtowers herald the entry into an enclosure of cliffs. The train winds past subsequent hillss on either side – the rock faces are formed into carefully carved ramparts flanking the track. There’s vegetation and undergrowth amid fragments of these crumbling battlements. As the train enters the curves here, it looks like it is tucking into the remnants of a fortification or castle.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Train of thought 1 - Due north again

Note: This is one of a series of posts about this journey. Other episodes of this trip are here: numbers 0, 1, 2, 2.5, 3, 3.5, 4, 4.5, 4.75 (in order).

**

Not too much sleep. Sigh. I push back my overgrown hair and crumple my blanket into a heap. I look out into the dull grey of the water to my right. It’s just after 6, but the halogen lights atop the adjoining road bridge are still on. The blunt orange drips down through the half-sunlight, and winks back upwards from the water surface.

I am tired, sleepless after the exertion of the last evening. There still are 8 days to go, and here was the dank Nethravathi, intent on enveloping my first morning in gloom. The decrepit, unpaved, almost bombed out looking Kankanadi station that follows doesnt do much by way of looking cheerful.

When the milk powder + hot water + tea bag come by, the cup verily overflowed, so to say. Sigh, I know I wouldn’t be getting anything resembling proper tea for a while.

Not the most promising of starts, then. Still, the hot water of the mix warms my hands. As I slowly sip the drink at the door, I protectively hold on to the cup.

**

Stations on the Konkan Railway are all far away from the cities and towns whose names they bear. Most of them stand aloof, all by themselves. Murudeshwar has a distant mountain range for background and emptiness for foreground. Ankola is a small raised stage amid paddy fields that go flat out on every side. So is Karwar, except that it’s also at the mouth of a tunnel at the foot of a huge hill. All along, there’re no crowds, there’s hardly any sort of milling and activity that you’d have been accustomed to see at transit termini.

There’re brief glimpses of the sea, occasionally atop grand bridges. The river Gangavali comes by, but it refuses to sport the profusely green-draped look that it did when I saw it from the road. Goa comes by, and the track tucks into hamlets and villages that seem to have folded themselves away from the rest of civilization. The damp wetness of the morning is gone. The sun’s up and shining as the train brushes through glades and vegetation.

**

Past Madgaon, the train goes deeper into the Western Ghats. The green gets denser, the hills go higher. Streams and rivulets sparkle away in the mild afternoon sunlight. Viaducts pull away the ground beneath my feet, revealing yawning drops underneath. Wide, deep valleys open up. There’re tunnels that are areas of nothingness that distort my sense of space and time – the longest spans more than 6km.

As I get off at some of the smaller stations here, human habitation is farther than ever before – Vilawade is perched atop a high ledge between tunnels, Rajapur Road between two rocky faces, Vithalwadi Road amid thick forest cover. Some stations are beside waterfalls, some atop valleys, but none close to any extensive human presence. At some of the railway stations, fish flap around in the inter-track drains.

Droplets of rain come down, intensifying slowly. There’s wetness in the air. Everything appears washed, cleansed. The water dulls the greyish-steel top of the train bogies. The train ambles ahead on the sole, lonely track in the bright orange afternoon sunlight.

The train attendant asks me to move from the door for a moment. As I move away, he does a heave ho, emptying the day’s quota of waste food, bottles and packaging into the Sahyadris.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Train of thought 0 - A man, a plan.

Note: This is one of a series of posts about this journey. Other episodes of this trip are here: numbers 0, 1, 2, 2.5, 3, 3.5, 4, 4.5, 4.75 (in order).

**

“Daphne Dolores Moorhead,” opined my friend Wodehouse “was as full of curves as a scenic railway.” After the numerous scenic railways that I saw during an 8 day ride on the Indian railways, the possible charms of ol' Daphne verily boggled the mind.

The journey's beginnings lay a month or so before the actual ride, when I rediscovered the joys of map-gazing. Map gazing, if you aren’t aware, is an activity wherein you spread a map out, move your gaze along routes, imagine your journeys, and go places.

I would, since I was 6 or so, carefully unfold and open the creases of what would call itself a ‘political map of India’, and spread it upon the floor. I’d sit half on the floor, half on the map, moving my fingers up and down the barbed black lines that were railway tracks. With a railway time table for reference, I’d spend hours together ‘driving my train’ - deciding what train I’d be, where I’d stop, what sort of landscape would suit the vicinity of, say, the Ratlam-Kota stretch.

I’d imagine what ‘Collectorgunj’ or ‘New Bongaigaon’ stations would actually look like. I’d just *know* that the Chattisgarh Express really was a passenger train masquerading as an Express, and ponder over why trains must go all the way around Solapur-Daund-Bhusawal to get to Delhi.

So, twas a vacant evening a few months ago. While doing some mindless surfing, I trawled some travel sites. While flipping through the IRFCA and the pics therein of places and routes unseen, I was reminded of the mapgazing of all those years ago. Before I knew it, I was staring away into an India map on my laptop. I spent the next couple of hours on mapsofindia.com, and sat back in the sort of peaceable contentment that is brought on by not necessarily having to do anything at all.

Earlier that evening, I’d had a conversation with a friend when I’d suggested that being able to surprise yourself is the best way of making your life much more beautiful. That came together with the thoughts of mapgazing from all those years ago. Both these, catalyzed by a fairly long drive in the dark, formed what some writers would call a heady brew. The seeds of an impulse quickly took root, a plan was formed, and there I was, ready to try something I’d never done before, for no reason other than that I simply felt like it.

In 15 minutes, I was at my laptop, buying tickets that would take me places I didn’t know anything about, to take a trip I that had pretty much no purpose to it, and yes, expending a fair amount of my credit card’s limit in the process.

It’d be 8 days, because that was the amount of time and money I could manage. I’d sleep and reside on trains, and spend most part of those 8 days at train doors. I wouldnt stop to stay and see any place, but would move on to catch the next train right after I got off the previous one. I’d see none of the destinations themselves, but I’d catch all of what was in between them.

In the month that was to elapse before the start of the ride, I wondered if pragmatism would kick in sometime. I occasionally mulled over whether I’d be tempted to chuck it all - to just sit back to watch movies and read books and relax, rather than spend early mornings in bleak waiting rooms, at damp train doors, waking up amid a new set of strangers every day.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

There and back again - 4

Km 933 Mangalore, 5:05 am

Wake up with my limbs feeling completely jaded, worn out. A cold water bath dispels the grogginess and weariness only temporarily. Tempted to stay over another day and rest until the next morning, but there's no money or time for that - besides, pride intervenes.

Km 936 Kankanady circle, Mangalore, 5:50 am

“Which way is the Bangalore highway?”
“Saaar, Bangalore is very far. Take a bus.”

Km 982, Stop, 6:55am

300km to go, and the left wrist almost feels like it’s been wrenched free. I want to go sleep. Roads have worsened, patches of mud and piles of stones abruptly populate midst of tarred stretches. Soon the road begins to resemble that god-awful NH4A(Panjim-Londa-Belgaum), which, as you know, is the undisputed stinker-prince of National Highways.

No ups and downs, or descents and ascents – only the trees around rear up and occasionally form a canopy. At times the vegetation is so thick, you can’t see more than two or three trees deep.

The houses and cottages and their clumps that form villages perch on the roadside – the unending jungle as their backyard, and the by now very narrow highway as their verandah.

I park in a small clearing, acknowledge the receipt of a curious glance from the local milk girl, lie down on the bridge over a brook.

Km 1009, Breakfast!, 7:50am

Subramanya Vilasa. Store room, kitchen and eating area all in one huge hall.

Hunger, thus far blocked by other bodily aches, is soothed by 5 large idlis, 4 huge dosas and a big tumbler of coffee. All for the grand total of Rs. 25.

The satisfied feeling of a full stomach is so enlivening, the creaky joints and the countdown currently at 275 are driven out of the head. I leave a 50 buck note and take a walk, and find myself attempting to hum a tune.

An auto goes past, with the words on its hood,"Baare figure, andare togombaro Pulsar"

Translated, that means: "I tell her - come with me, o figure. She says - go get a Pulsar"

Translations just completely spoil it! Pah.

Km 1042, 9:25am

Again! Uncanny, the ability of the Sahyadris to throw up scenes that completely astound you. My road is between two enormous, grassy peaks that rear up on either side of me, both of them stretching on and on - upwards as well as on all sides – it’s the enormity of it all that overwhelms you. These two distinct peaks seem to be infinite, everywhere.

There’s absolutely no traffic – I go lie down on a stone flanking the road, and stare unbelievingly at the peaks and their cloudy halos.

As good a place as any, I say, to catch a nap. Tale for grandchildren and all that. Dreamless sleep for more than an hour, uninterrupted by passing truck-roars. Bliss!

Km1074, Sakleshpur, 11:30am

The ghats end. But not before increasingly deteriorating roads, whose effect manifests itself in four overturned trucks over 100-odd-km. As the ghats approach their end, there’re boards on the roadside homes advertising the fact that fresh honey and coffee beans are for sale. I stop for a break in what seems like an immensely dense cover of green, almost like a green tunnel.

I’ve to bid goodbye to the Sahyadris who’ve been my companions for four days, showing me a world of beauty and depth and enormity that completely amazed me. The awareness, the reaffirmation of the beauty that makes everything worthwhile, ends up changing at least some part of you deep within.

Km 1080, The plains!, 11:50am

Finally, the roads get better. Flat, straight, and as fast as you’d want them to be. That’s at the cost of the forest and the hills that now seem to have been with me for ages, who now give way to fields and flatlands that let you see as far up the horizon as you want to.

Why must a highway through the ghats be that bad? NH17 goes through much tougher terrain, and refuses to admit abrasions and lacerations on its surface. The cost of it all is what’s most tragic – all the deaths, all the accidents are so completely pointless, all the more so since they result from what are primarily pleasure trips.

Mysore-Bangalore and Pune-Mumbai, which were graveyard stretches, became much, much safer after doubling(though people still manage to find ways to kill themselves on these two roads) – why cant we fast track the doubling of every national highway around?

The trouble is, road safety is grossly underrated, perhaps because we assume accidents to be an unavoidable fact of life. Also, perhaps because we always think accidents happen only to someone else. Unfortunately, we’re all someone else to someone else.

Km 1117, 12:35pm

Past Hassan, past the intersection where two years ago I had hopped off a bus to Bangalore and lorry-hopped my way to Mysore. I dont stop at that intersection - I go past it and on.

The almost contemplative, meditative calm of driving on an even, beautiful road fills you with immense peace – all you do is look at the skies, watch the clouds, allowing no thought of what purports to be real life, as the bike coasts by, refusing to make any demands on your attention.

I’m much less than halfway through by noon, but the road here puts me at ease. I stop again, in the midst of a completely open space. As soon as I stop, the calmness, sereneness of the drive give way to the fatigue and exertion that have been in the background so far.

I go to a hut in the middle of a neighbouring field, ask if I could sit down. The old man points to the corridor where I go ahead and lie down for a while. His wife offers some water, which I refuse, and proceed to draw out my Bisleri.

Km 1167, 2:30pm

Break. Walk around, sit down at roadside beedi shop. This is sometime after lunch at a Kamat’s restaurant – where I gorged on what seemed an exorbitantly priced 90-buck meal.

Highway still fast, calm, peaceful. Towns, fields, villages, houses, people, cars, buses – everything flashes by, everything flits by – nothing’s a bother, nothing any trouble.

Km 1224, 4:10pm

Raindrops on the visor. No sweat, will drive on.

Am overtaking a truck, who decides to overtake a car that I cant see. Truck does a late swing into me. Reflexes are jaded after 4 days of constant attention, but manage to respond in time to ensure all’s well.

Km 1264, 5:10pm

Past Nelamangala. Mad traffic. Jam. Stuck. Agony of driving inside a city. Both wrists coming apart. Body pain decides it’ll go ahead and scream. In slow traffic, pain and bodily sensations get magnified, everything needs to be done with greater deliberation.

There're views of the city that provide comfort – Bangalore isnt flat, it’s largely up and down, so there’re spots where you can get a view of large swathes of the city, almost from up above.

Km 1284, Channasandra, 6:30pm

Home. I strut around for sometime, putting on my best ‘of-course-I’m-not-tired’ air.

I give up after a while, and pop off to sleep.

**

There and back again - 3

Km 556, Panjim, 5:35am

Am still half asleep. Muscles and bones lodge complaints. The crawl-in-first-gear along the shimmering bluish-black of Mandovi gives some succour. The sharp tang of the wet morning air dispels sleep. The clouds look a dirty grey – I only hope it isn’t a sign of rain.

Some way on, there’s a small descent from flat ground, as the horizon opens up to reveal an enormous water body - the Zuari river, looking almost like an exit from a cave or a shell. The bridge is crossed in customary first-gear-crawl mode, even as the first shades of orange line the deep blue above.

Km 591, Madgaon, 6:20am

Refuel. Quick calculation indicates that mileage has shot up to 80. While I’m reeling from astonishment, I realize I’ve included the 30 or so kilometers of the engine-off-and-descend-ghat routine in my calculations. The mileage, then, turns out to be 77, which is still a personal best.

Km 627, 7:10am

Stop atop the first ghat. I’ve passed some Goan villages that clutch the highway’s hands on either side. There’s been a long, straight moist plain that has rushed headlong into this first ghat.

While you’d creep around the hills and go past them before, you go right through them here. You wriggle through the midst of what appears a clump of green from a distance. The ghats turn out to be thicker, deeper, more intense than the ones before – there’s an enormous green mushroom-shaped hill right across the ravine in front of me. Then there’s the usual effect of omnipresence of these ghats – with colossal green-tops spreading out, stretching on in every direction you care to see.

Km 651, 8:10am

The border, under a sunshade of green. There’re busy, bustling shacks that are checkposts. Almost abruptly, the ghats recede, but stay in the background. The road’s straight, fast, as it courses between fields that lie in the lap of the hills.

Km 662, The Kali bridge outside Karwar, 8:25am

The majestic Kali is vast enough to look like the sea has been in spate and flooded the land. Just as I begin the slow-crawl across the bridge, there’s a barricade – a police team checking everyone.

Cop looks at papers, writes down my name-address. He mentions that there’s been a burglary in town, and that the suspects got away on motorbikes, hence the checks.

“Where’re you coming from?”
“Poona.”
“Eh? Poona would be MH12. You’re MH14.”
“MH14 is Pimpri Chinchwad New Town, saar.”

I’m exasperated at having to explain that to the gazillionth man to ask the question. I am immediately issued a suspicious stare.

“Where’re you going?”
“Bangalore.”
“Why don’t you take the other highway?”
“Eh?”
“NH4. Kolhapur-Belgaum-Hubli-Bangalore. What’re you doing on *this* highway? You’d save 450km doing that one.”

Now, how does one explain that one is rather insane when it comes to travel? That one chooses routes because one has never seen some places, because one wants experiences one has never had before?

I try telling him, nevertheless – but I suspect it all comes out as a series of incomprehensible noises. By the time I leave, the cop must have been certain he’d cracked the burglary case.

Km 664, Karwar, 8:45am

After unsuccessfully attempting a restaurant-with-glass-façade that tells me it doesn’t serve South Indian food, I weave amid the pedestrians in the town market to get to a sweet-stall-plus-restaurant.

Couple of idlis and dosas, and of course the obligatory caffeine intake. Every meal, every snack on this trip is so very satisfying, so fulfilling, it eases my stomach to be able to imbibe it all. This, even when the taste is rather bland. Perhaps it’s because it’s all enormously tiring, and my body welcomes every bit of energy it can get hold of.

Sometimes there’s this ‘what-am-I-doing-here’ feeling, I begin to wonder why I’m doing all this, what’s the point of what I’m doing – day after day of completely exhausting travel, of allowing snatches of sleep and food to be the only interruptions in continuous travel, of keeping my muscles and bones taut more than 12 hours a day, of keeping my eyes open and mind awake when the body commands them to retire to sleep, of knowing that all it’s going to take is one small mistake to end it all. I don’t quite have a definitive answer to why I’m here, why I’m doing it all. At least, not at this point in my experience. Maybe I just want to prove a point to myself. Maybe I just want to look cool because I’ve done something that you, gentle reader, will not have thought of doing.

Maybe I don’t need an answer after all – it’s enough that I am able to forget myself, able to dive completely into the profusion of nature, people, homes, of every shade, every flavor around me, able to allow the Sahyadris to fill me up with sensations that are new, refreshing and awakening, and exhaust, tire, spend, splurge myself completely.

Km 666, 9:30 am

The road in Karwar heads straight into a hill, and at the seemingly last moment, sidesteps it to creep around it – and before you know it, you’re between a cliff and the deep blue sea.

I was tempted to stop by for a splash, but figured the Om-shaped beach at Gokarna would be a better choice. Besides, a swim break right after one for breakfast may not be apt on a long 380-km day.

Km 705, 10:30am

Break. Beside a stream – the Gangavali. The green enormities on every side enclose me and the Gangavali in a warm embrace. That’s not a tight or claustrophobic hug, it’s a gentle cuddle still leaves us both unconstrained to flow on as we wish. There’s absolutely no human presence around – it looks like the ghat has been this way forever, remained unchanged over millennia, except perhaps when somebody must have come by to put a smear of tar across it.

What is astonishing is that there are so many such islands, oases of superlative beauty, of calm, of a this-makes-the-rest-of-life-worthwhile feeling. Just as amazing is the fact that these stand out amid what really is a 900km-long aesthetic experience. Each entity different from the other, each marvelous in its own distinct way, all collectively quite overwhelming.

Km 712, Outside Gokarna, 11:05am

Goddamit. The highway sidesteps the town yet again. The Om-shaped beach that I was so keen on a splash in, turns out to be some 12km off the highway, and I’ve no option but to skip it.

That’s the tragedy - although both the NH17 and the Konkan railway are commendable engineering feats for having found ways through and around the Western Ghats, their major shortcoming is that they give most towns a miss.

Km 758, Honnavar, 12:20pm

Slow crawl across the Sharavati – I look at the railway bridge that looked like it was crossing the sea when I took a ride upon it the last time. There’s a market going on upon the banks – the bank of the receded waterline is teeming with multitudes bustling about. I take a break upon the bridge.

Km 774, near Murudeshwar, 12:45pm

The rain stops, but the Sahyadris open up. It’s almost like a giant hand has been enclosing you in its palm, and has opened its fingers to let sunlight in. Motifs recur all the time on this trip – but they’re still engaging enough to completely hold your attention. The hills tuck themselves in behind the railway line in the distance.

Km 790, Bhatkal, 1:35pm

Lunch. Drizzle. Hoping.

Km 824, 3:15pm

The sea! The highway is a promenade, a walkway beside the crowded, lively waterfront. I instinctively slow to first gear and look beyond the crowds at the stretch of blue that dissolves into a different blue of the sky. The road goes on for quite a distance before swirling out of sight to the east.

Km 873, Udupi, 4:30pm

A rectangular arch with the name ‘Udupi’ inscribed in carefully calligraphed letters to my left. The highway skips this town too. I stop amid the drizzle at a one-room eatery – raving hunger is quenched by generous helpings of idli, dosas, bonda, and of course coffee. Yes, yes, I know it’s a very diverse and imaginative menu I’ve been having on this trip – thank you very much.

The bill comes to 30 bucks – I leave 60 bucks on the table and walk out. The waiter comes running after me, stuffs 30 bucks into my hand – “Saaar, you forgot to take your change.”

Km 911, Suratkal, 6:10pm

I’ve been driving in the rain since Udupi – I try pushing my helmet’s visor up, but the drops sting. It would be much more fun if I didn’t have the killer private buses to sidestep and evade. Still the jacket and kneepads reassure one.

The road and the surroundings get red around the Mangalore Port trust – there’s dust all around. There’s grey too – it’s an industrial area. Traffic around me congeals slowly until we’re all in a traffic jam – for one half of the highway is blocked for repairs. The NHAI attempts to comfort me with a board that reads “Today’s pain, tomorrow’s gain.”

My aching wrists and wailing back and the fact that it’s nearly sundown don’t make it any easier. We all crawl away to glory – barely managing 20kmph.

Km 930, Mangalore, 7:15pm

Finally. After an age of inching on, the city shows up. The roads are of concrete and not tar, so as to resist the rains better. The surface is a comfort after the agonizing ride of the last hour or so.

Km 933, 7:25pm

My hotel! I fling bag and helmet, throw self upon bed, and sink into very badly needed sleep. My stomach had been pleading for nutrition, but my eyes were clamouring for respite too. I pick a pre-dinner nap, for it is the more pressing need – there’s 350km to do tomorrow. Now, does this qualify as masochism yet?

Auggh, dammit, I need sleep, I need food, and there seems so little of it all, there seems so little time to grab it all. I need a full day’s rest, and there’s no way I’ll get it. I also need new muscles and ribs. And wrists. And knees.

Friday, June 08, 2007

There and back again - 2

Km 239, Lote Parashuram, 5:40am

Hotel Pagoda Retreat agrees to give me bread-jam-tea at a half past four, in lieu of the complimentary breakfast I’d have got if I’d left after 8.

I leave in air that is wet with dew that slowly swells into a drizzle. A winding path up a hill and an engine-off-and-coast-down descent welcomes me back into the Sahyadris. The river sprawled below like a gash of spilt milk deftly sidesteps the town of Chiplun.

Km 301, 7: 05am

First stop of the day. Between a clump of rocks and a river. I haven’t been able to find out if this is the same river there was at Mahad and Chiplun, or the one that has also peeped out from behind the hills to say hello at a couple of other places. The village across the river is blanketed by green. There’s a temple tower much higher up than the village, seemingly unconnected, unreachable.

The patch of road is like a bicycle handle – it’s a straight stretch, but the road bends away on either side. The sparse traffic bows into the straight, zips on, bends ever so slightly before swinging away out of sight into the other end.

I call to confirm my hotel in Panjim for tonight. Uh oh, Mayfair’s out of rooms, sorry sir. Why don’t I try Neptune, who don’t reserve rooms, but why don’t I show up this evening, they’ll surely have rooms vacant.

Km 312, 8:05am

Some operative words are more effective than others, and often it has little to do with what they are supposed to be describing. I see a board mentioning ‘coffee bar, lounge and restaurant’, and am tempted to stop there for a second breakfast. The first is still filling me up, so I decide against it.

Coffee-bar-lounge-restaurant evokes a vision of delicacy and cleanliness that’s so much more appealing to the traveler so much more than, say, Garden restaurant, or Family Garden restaurant, at least after you’ve seen enough of the latter two.

Km 341, 8:55am

I was expecting a look at Ratnagiri town, but the highway refuses to oblige, showing me only a detour indicating that the town was 11 km away from the highway.

Km 353, 9:15am

I decided to try a one room home-plus-hotel – a run down nameless place with jars of Parle G and a kettle of tea on display. I decided to see if it was as decent in practice as I thought it would be in theory. Decent in theory, but not extraordinarily so, because this sort of establishment doesn’t have to hire inept cooks like most dhabas, or garden and family restaurants have to – it’s very likely to be homemade stuff, the cooked by wife and served by husband types.

I sit on one of the two tables in the front verandah – there’re freshly slept in charpoys in the other half of the verandah. There’s a TV in front, the table underneath which doubles as a cash counter and a shelf holding chikkis, biscuits and some of the household’s wardrobe.

The lady of the house is multitasking as cook, waitress and cashier today. I am the only customer. I have roti and a masoor dal masala. Decent, very plain, without a taste of the shady masalas that would have fed my worry. The woman’s given me 4 rotis, so I’m full enough to contentedly pat my tummy at the end of it.

The early morning wake-up jogs into memory, and I ask if I can take a nap on the charpoy within. The lady says why don’t I take it out into the outer half of the verandah, it’s cooler there. Peace. I nap there for slightly over half an hour.

Km 381, 11:15am

Another break. Another ghat. I see the valley underneath, the green top across the valley, and hills immediately above and beneath me. I am astonished, and not for the first time on this trip. These hills and valleys stretch ahead and behind you as far as you can see.

In fact, what you can see of them is absolutely no indication of their vastness – I know they stretch 300km behind me, and some 600km ahead of me. Having driven that distance one kilometer at a time, having experienced every one of those kilometers heightens the awe you feel - the sheer hugeness of it all makes you feel like you’ve had a taste of the infinite.

Km 440, Kankavli, 1:15pm

As I said before, it’s not easy to take a call on which places to eat at, especially since all you have is a split-second glance at a restaurant’s façade while biking. When I am keen on a fairly plush, high-end place, the number of cars outside it usually clinches it for me.

I spot this fairly grand looking mansion that is a resort plus restaurant, and decide that lunch is going to be at Neelam resorts. I also figure that the average Kankavli-an isnt going to shell out the sort of money I would flinch at, so prices shouldnt be exorbitant, which guess is confirmed by a glance at the menu. Turns out they’ve AC too, which justifies decision to stop.

I’m sorely tempted to try some seafood that’s all over the menu. I desist, and settle for dal-rice and curd-rice. Sigh – such is the fate that a South Indian upbringing consigns us to, although the reason I give myself is that I cant risk shady food while traveling.

Km 495, Sawantwadi, 3:50pm

When I’m not being seduced by the depth and enormity of the ghats, I’m being charmed by the trees and the path before me. Almost all through, the trees form an arch to usher me on. Sometimes, they’re bejeweled with the red, yellow and blue of the flowers upon them, which flowers sometimes fall onto the road and form a welcome carpet. Passing through the long arch of the trees of the Sahyadris is like a stroll through an infinitely large cool grove.

Next break is at Sawantwadi, one of the prettiest towns on the highway. I squeeze between the houses that almost spill onto the highway, before parking in front of the lake. All there is of the town seems centred around the lake that has a huge, almost fluid seeming mountain standing guard over it.

Km 527, 4:50pm

Goa. The green atop the hills gets thicker. The hills and the roadside villages snuggle closer to the highway, ensconcing it, as the green all around intensifies.

I stop to see a goods train carrying trucks pass atop the bridge over me. There’s the customary river to my right to stare into and across, and to tempt me to consider staying here forever.

Km 556, Panjim, 5:55pm

The hills open up to reveal open skies and underneath-lying valleys. There’s the bridge on the Mandovi – the first time I saw it, I thought it was an inland arm of the sea. I switch to first gear, crawl across the humongous river that, even in summer, is so wide it looks like it’s in spate.

Now, to find hotel Neptune. The landmark I’ve been given is National theatre. I get odd looks when I ask for said theatre. When I do find said theatre, it turns out the morning show is of Vicious Vixens(starring ‘the sensuous goddess’ Mona) and other shows are of Ghar me ho saali to poora saal diwali.

Neptune turns out to be a sterile, plain, colourless place – the white all over the bedsheets and walls makes it look like a hospital room. I need it only for a night, so I don’t bother too much. I’m not too tired, but I take a pre-dinner nap, for there’s 380km to do tomorrow.

This trip isnt about seeing towns, it’s more about seeing what’s in between towns, enjoying the middle of nowhere, so all I see of Panjim is on a short post-dinner walk along the Mandovi. Ghar me ho saali to poora saal diwali, unfortunately, will have to wait.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

There and back again - 1

Km 0, Pimpri Chinchwad New Town, 6:45am

Q: Why is Pimpri Chinchwad New Town like a ball outside off stump?
A: Because it can be well left.
****
Km 21, Pune City, 7:10am

Breakfast. And coffee to top the full-to-the-brim stomach. One major lesson from the starved, tired-out rides of last year - eat and rest well when driving all day. Go slow enough to take in everything there is. The plan, therefore, is to go slow, take my time, see everything, do no more than 350km a day.

The friend who accompanies me for breakfast says I look like a Mithun-movie-villain in my jacket. Unmentionable things are immediately done to him.
****
KM 33, Start of State Highway 60, 8:20am

Last view of the city. I see the lego-block houses from the perch on the hill which the SH60 ascends. There’s the NH4 bypass below that unwinds both ways and stretches away.

A sharp bend around the hill, and everything spins out of sight.
****
KM78, Just before Mulshi, 9:25am

Ghat, first of many to come. Niggle in the back, first of many to come. I park between two huge mud banks –the road makes the base of a big V with them.

Not a soul, not a vehicle, as I look down into the plain below, at houses sparsely sprinkled amid swathes of green. I wonder what life is like in a dwelling that independent, one that stands all by itself, in proud isolation.

I lie down under a tree, rest my back and look at the sky.

Right ahead is the Mulshi reservoir that the SH60 holds hands with as it walks over the next 10-15km, before the reservoir dissolves into a once flooded field. The hills around are almost Egyptian – the sharp edges give them a pyramidal appearance, with the space in between plunging into canyons.
****
Km 105, 11:15am

Absolutely vertical rock face to my left, flinging a long shadow across the road and beyond – the perfect place for a break. I lie down on a stone barrier above the drop into the valley below, and look up at the rock face. The rockface obscures the sun, even though it’s almost noon.

I join the NH17 someway on. The frenzy of the trucks and cars roaring by infects me – I’m soon taking frequent frantic glances at my watch and odometer to furiously calculate speeds, I’m going after lorries that I’d have let go sometime else. I know I need a break, so I can recover a more easy, comfortable driving rhythm.
****
Km 159, Just before Mahad, 1:10 pm

I pass by a restaurant with tables facing a riverfront. I stop immediately, disregard shady appearance that seems to almost guarantee bad food, and go in. Waiters seem to take their time, which is just as well, so I can look at the river and the glimmers within the water, almost like stars at night.

Turns out the guys can’t even make decent rice-and-dal, but I decide a splash in the water would counteract the bad food quite well.

“Nadi me us side naha sakte hai, na?”
“Saab, try mat karo. Poora chemical se bhara hai. Chutiya factory wala hai us taraf - sab nadi me chodta hai.”

At that point of time Ruchi family garden restaurant ceased to be a family restaurant.
****
Km 166, Mahad, 2:30pm

Bad dal rice needs to be supplemented, and I wonder if I’ll find a decent place to do honours. The resolution to feed myself well on this trip already seems in grave danger.

This restaurant called Vithal Kamat, with enough cars parked outside it to assure me of some level of decency in the food. Turns out the menu has curd rice on it – all I need to offset worries of sad food!

“Yeh curd rice dena”
“Saab, alag nahi milenge. Yeh dish khichdi ki tarah hai, curd aur rice dono mix hoke aate hai.”
****
Km 176, Parle, 3:35pm

A globule settles on helmet visor. Another. Yet another. Rain!

Uh oh, if the monsoon beats me to Mangalore, I’ll have to pack up bike and truck it home. The day’s paper tells me monsoons are due to hit Kerala only around the 27th, so I’m hoping they won’t get it wrong by much. This is only a mild drizzle, and so is reassuring.

For now, I lie down inside a mantap of sorts, about which the local kids tell me,”Andar baith sakte ho, par bhagwan ke time me allowed nahi hai.”
****
Km 201, Top of ghat after Poladpur, 4:30pm

Rain again! This time it decides to pour down like it’s nobody’s business. I decide I’ll drive through it, particularly since the coming stretch is a descent from the top. I switch engine off, skate the bike down the ghat in the downpour. It’s 10km in silence, amid water pouring onto me, it’s like going down an enormous slide in a park.

In this ghat, as also others, you see up close the features of the hills that you’ve seen from a distance only a while ago. Silhouettes of peaks and gashes of green and grey resolve themselves into a thousand trees and rocks and hay and mud and tar. It’s the same thing on two altogether different scales, and you love both for completely different reasons.
****
Km 213, after descent from ghat, 4:50pm

I decide I’ll spend the night here, in the lap of the Sahyadris, amid the terraces that lace the enormous peaks. I park in a roadside village, and the temple is recommended to me as a place of stay. Good, good, say I. The guys seem disappointed that I’m not put off at the prospect.

I ask if one of the families will serve me food. In return for financial considerations of course, I add. No volunteers.

I’m approached by a newcomer, who introduces himself as the temple priest. Strangers staying in the temple is okay with him, he says, but he’s just an employee – the owner of the temple is an MSRTC bus conductor, who is out on duty, and may not approve.

I have to content myself with a walk alongside the village, and drive on.
****
Km 239, Lote-Parashuram, 5:40pm

I plan to get to Chiplun for the night, but I spot this resort of sorts sometime before it. A part of me tells me it’s going to be too expensive for me, but I check it out anyway.

Plush non-ac room for 600. Very neat, almost star-hotel-ic. Includes use of swimming pool. Yes! I take it.

I cool off over tea, and wallow in what calls itself ‘the best swimming pool in Ratnagiri district’. I look on from the water as orange fades to yellow to inky blue to deep black.


Sunday, March 18, 2007


The abode.
Top right is where the bed is.
Bottom left is where sleeping happens.
***


***


***


****


Friday, February 23, 2007

…. and where there’s a highway, what’s a little bloodshed here and there, eh?

Twas a dark and stormy night. Okay, not really stormy. One half of the National Highway 4 was barricaded for repairs. No warning boards. An area of darkness. You hear yourself crash much before you manage to see anything blocking the road.

At 75 kilometres an hour, the only sound you hear is of the metal slamming into asphalt. Of mud and gravel ripping through your clothing, of sand tearing into your skin and fusing into a mishmash of blood and flesh and earth and mud and pebbles, as you’re dragged along by the collapsing steed. That’s a lot of sounds, eh?

Poop. It doesn’t feel all that dreadful as you’re conditioned to believe – my knee and heel and everything in between all have a sharp tang emanating from them - but it’s more like irritation than agony. My perception is much heightened; I can sense more acutely the minutest sensation in my lacerated arms and legs – it’s a combination of a gazillion crawls, each different from the other. The ankle feels wet from blood trickling down it – it’s a bit of a change from the dry dirt that’s been stirred and mashed into my flesh these last few seconds; it also reminds me rather abruptly that my throat is parched.

I turn the key, and sit down on the road. I decide the nonchalant dude act is in order – nonchalant dude picks up bike, drives home, washes wounds, and doesn’t think about it afterwards. Aaaah, it’s a *little* tough bending my knee. Or for that matter lifting the bike. Or walking. Pfoo – I drag self from underneath bike, wobble towards the streetlight, recline on the divider, and stretch legs.

For the first time, I see my arms and legs. Aaaaaargh! How the hell am I going to clean all that up? There’s mud a mile deep into my flesh, all along the enormous openings in my skin, there’s red everywhere, lightened occasionally wherever the earth has pitched in, and garnished where the pebbles have volunteered. Aaaah – someone’s going to have to rub the wound a million times to get all that mud out of it.

I decide I’ll not think about it. On an impulse shut my eyes to try and do nothing but feel, sense as fully, as completely as I can the itch, the burn, the bristle in my arms and feet. Aaaah.

Gentle reader, you’re perhaps wondering if I haven’t heard of hospitals or doctors that I had decided to sit down in the midst of highways and bleed on to glory. I must point to the fact that it was a half past eleven, and so the only alternative to being nonchalant dude was to wait for reinforcements.

In due time, a solitary auto showed up. Chap picked up the helmet that had flown off my head on impact, the cell which had decided to do a triple jump from my pocket, and of course, parked the bike, which had dragged me along after having completed the formality of getting its face smashed in.

“Nah, don’t hold me, I’ll walk inside”, saith I once we reach the hosp. Aaah dammit, I haven’t the strength to speak – my vocal chords are stretched, and yet hardly a whisper emanates. Three staggering steps, as the auto guy apprehensively looked on, before he rushed to hold me. “Get a goddamn wheelchair”, I could’ve been screaming, but every word could only struggle out of my lips.

Aaaah man, I plopped into the wheelchair, it hit me as to how completely physically deflated I was. A while ago, it was almost as if no amount of bloodletting would do anything to me, and now, ah, I was so devoid of energy, or for that matter the will or the life to be able to do anything - the only resolve I seemed capable of making was to determine to do nothing, and let people take care.

Got hauled into a ward, it took a while to get all the mud cleaned – it was a strange sensation finally seeing the expanse of blood and flesh all by themselves; free of all the earth that I thought would never get away from it.

Pah – still cant speak- water please! No avail, I’m talking in hoarse whispers. Could I at least write my name? My right wrist isn’t going to jump at the idea, thank you very much. The doc let it pass.

‘Trauma’, wrote the doc, in large friendly letters. Gaah, trauma it seems – I contemplated a protest at being described thus, before surrendering to the superior, yet sweet forces of sheer fatigue that quietly embraced me.

**

Tis Immutable law time again!

One: The day you desist from wearing your jacket and shoes is the day you crash.

Two: Your insurance policy always expires two days before you crash.

Three: Time wounds all heels.

**

One does, however, look at the brighter side, which in this case was that one was compelled one to pick four wheels instead of two, which, you will admit, has its merits.

**
















Light at the end of the tunnel?

Monday, January 15, 2007


Where there's a will, there's a highway.


Boo!


Reflections on bus exteriors.




PS - Click on them pics to view them better.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Quizzes this weekend!

There be BCQC quizzes this weekend. Please to find details here .

Do pop in!