Sunday, June 13, 2010

Driving North for the summer - 1

Home stretch

Earlier this summer, I went on a slow-driving vacation covering most of the National Highway 17. The NH17 is one of India’s longest highways, running along 1400km of India’s west coast from Cochin to Mumbai(although the purists will point out that it plies, in fact, from Edapally to Panvel).

The NH17 wades through vast coconut groves, coasts through plains, climbs the enormous Sahyadris, and deposits one at the edge of the snarling metropolitan traffic of Bombay. All along, it stays tantalizingly close to the shore of the Arabian sea.

The NH17 is among India’s best loved roads. Many friends began their vacations with a drive along the very pretty Bombay-Goa stretch of the NH17. Those who didn’t take the road went along the just-as-beautiful Konkan Railway that runs alongside. The NH17 was also the stretch where I spent many weekends on motorbike-trips a few years ago.

A drive along the NH17 was, in a way, a homecoming, a return to roads once traveled and loved.

No seasides on this highway

Calicut in Northern Kerala is where this journey begins. For the purely practical reason that I stay in Calicut, I skipped the southernmost 200-odd kilometers of the NH17 from Cochin to Calicut.

Calicut is a seaside town, but you wouldn’t know if you passed Calicut along NH17. You pass along clumps of coconut trees, along the yawning Ferok river, along quiet cottages, but the sea remains hidden from view.

For all of NH17’s charms, its one shortcoming is that it offers very hardly any glimpses of the sea. It passes within a few kilometers of the coast throughout its 1400km length. But like a jealous lover, it snorts stubborn refusals when asked for an introduction to the Arabian sea.

Another English channel

North of Calicut, coconut trees cloak the highway in a cool, protective shelter from the summer. You see the open sky only where occasional rivers puncture coconut groves.

At Mahe, some 60km away, the highway is chock full of alcohol shops. That’s because Mahe is a union territory(it’s a part of Pondicherry), and has lower alcohol prices. Mahe was a French colony – but the only symbol of its French past that you can see from the highway today is the St Theresa’s church that comfortably dwarfs the coconut trees around.

Thalassery town is across the Mahe river. Thalassery was British and Mahe French, so the Mahe river wedged between the towns is oft nicknamed the English Channel.

One billboard for a real estate company announces – ‘Thalassery - the cradle of Indian cricket’, referencing a mostly forgotten bit of trivia – the fact that Thalassery is widely held to be the first place in India where cricket was played. The 200th anniversary celebrations of the Telicherry Cricket Club in 2002 went mostly unnoticed too.

Driving by the sea

Thalassery’s chief attraction is that it has one of only two drive-through beaches on NH17. But there are no signs or boards to prepare one for the arrival of this beach. It is rather abruptly, then, that I find myself on a half-kilometer stretch of the highway on a ledge right above the sea. There are no crowds, parked vehicles, picnickers or swimmers that you’d expect of a popular beach. Mine is the only vehicle parked on the highway.

Buses, trucks and cars whiz by in a tearing hurry. Some of their passengers peep out, and make frantic efforts to see as much of the vast open sea as possible before the road disappears into the interior of the town.

I shift into first gear, crawl alongside the sea, and gaze wistfully into infinity in the late morning sun before the highway veers me away from the sea-view.

The seen and the unseen

The highway traveler goes places, but never really gets to stay long enough to appreciate any one place in depth. He has to form an appreciation of each place purely on the basis of the meager clues afforded by the surroundings of the highway. Such are the implications of choosing to take a highway vacation.

On the NH17, most towns and places worth seeing lie off the highway. Now, for instance, a signboard, like a dangling carrot, tells me that the seaside fort at Bekal is 9km off the highway. Yet another tells me that the ancient pagoda-like Malik Dinar mosque is off the highway as well.

But the highway does give enough clues about what is changing. As I go further into Northern Kerala, green crescent-and-star flags and red hammer-and-sickle flags slowly reduce in number, until I find Kasargode town full of flashing saffron flags for a BJP rally. Vegetarian restaurants start to appear instead of open air chicken-grill-displays.

The shade of coconut trees diminishes. Shrubs and undergrowth hardly compensate for the lost shade, as the summer heat beats down directly. The car interior starts to get stuffy. Soon enough, I go across the Karnataka-Kerala border, traverse the immense Nethravathi river and enter Mangalore.