“Some beautiful paths can’t be discovered without getting lost.”– Erol Ozan
It was the end of February, in the year 2002!
I had just moved into a rented apartment in the heart of Varanasi city. The apartment was vacated by our Plant Manager, who had been transferred to a different location, and I pounced on the opportunity, the moment it was on offer.
I was working as an Area Sales Manager (ASM) for Coca-Cola, handling a few districts of Uttar Pradesh, the most populated state of India. The business was very seasonal in nature and over eighty percent of our annual sales took place during the three months of summer, between March and June. The season was widely accepted to begin with the auspicious festival of Holi (usually in early or mid March, and end with the first shower of June (usually around middle of June). In that month of February, we were preparing ourselves for the impending season, and hoping that our aggressive sales targets would be met.
The festival of Eid was that weekend, and Friday was declared as a public holiday. Since there was not much pressure of the season yet, and everyone had warned us that there would be little space to breathe once the season began, I had this idea of taking a small break and use my long weekend more productively. I informed my reporting Manager, that I wished to visit my family back in Kolkata, for the three days, when our office and factory would remain closed. He did not approve my request initially, but when I pointed out that I wasn’t asking for a leave, rather informing him where I would be during the holidays, he reluctantly advised me to make sure I was back at work on Monday. I promised him I would be back, and he seemed surprised that I wished to go on a Friday and return the following Monday.
So that Friday, I packed a small bag and set out for this trip to my home town Kolkata, a distance of almost 700 kilo meters from the city of Varanasi. I started as early as five in the morning, with the expectation of covering this distance in about ten hours, at an average speed of 70 kms an hour. This story will be about this once-in-a-lifetime journey, but before I begin, I need to mention two other happenings that would play a significant role in this fateful trip.
THE TALL, BLACK BOY!
That January, I had purchased the first car of my life, a shiny, black Hyundai Santro. I was warned against purchasing a car on a Saturday, considered an inauspicious day for buying anything metallic. Being against all such ‘meaningless’ superstitions, I had insisted on purchasing the car only on a Saturday. The Hyundai showroom salesman had also initially suggested that I take delivery of the car on any other day, but when I placed the condition that it was either ‘I take the car on Saturday’ or ‘I go to another dealer’, he did not want to lose out on missing this sales opportunity. Eventually, I managed to take delivery of my new car on that Saturday itself. A shiny new Black Santro with a number plate UP65-7933!
My distributor had also insisted that the first thing I should do, was to do a ‘Puja ritual’ at a local temple called ‘Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple’ a revered temple for the Monkey God Hanuman. Many religious Hindus and those influenced by religious Hindus, would carry out a similar ritual, and feel good about a holy protective shield on their precious assets. But of course, being a declared atheist, I had laughed this proposition away, just as I had brushed aside the suggestion of not buying on a Saturday.
As luck would have it, this new car that I purchased on a Saturday, would end up facing an accident thirteen hours later, that very Sunday. This happened entirely because of my poor skills as a novice driver, and I have no one other than myself, to blame for it. I had hit a truck, loaded with cement, from the rear, and the bonnet of my car had to be changed entirely. But I will leave that story for another day.
THE ROAD TO BALLIA
Three weeks after I got possession of my new car, and about a week after it came back from the workshop, with a new bonnet replacing the damaged old one, my reporting manager Mr. Arora, suggested that I make my maiden trip to the district of Ballia, the farthest district in my territory. Ballia town was 170 kms from Varanasi city and I was yet to make a trip to this district, so it made sense to pay a physical visit, meet the distributor and prepare them for the impending season. Ballia town was the main commercial center of the district that had a population of over 3 million, and the distributor was known to be influential, financially stable and cooperative with ‘The Company’.
Ballia became popular when one of its most famous sons, became the eighth Prime Minister of India. Chandra Shekhar held the top position in Indian Parliament for a brief period during the early 90s, and he was definitely the most famous personality from Ballia district. Our distributor Mr. Dinesh Singh, could well be the second most famous person in that district.
My boss, Mayank Arora had also purchased a new car recently, A golden Fiat Palio, and he expressed his desire to travel with me to Ballia, since he had also not been able to visit it due to the massive distance. I was delighted with this suggestion; Ballia was too far for a lonely drive, and it would create a better impression if two levels of management went to visit a distributor in a faraway district. And of course, Fiat Palio was marginally more comfortable than Hyundai Santro!
The last point was rendered invalid soon, as my manager insisted that we make this trip in my ‘new car’, since he was keen on testing it out, and what better than the road to Ballia? I was pretty convinced, that considering the poor condition of the roads, he simply didn’t want his Palio to suffer. However, as a gesture of faith, he suggested that since it would be a long drive, we should use the services of his driver, a young guy called Amjad, to drive us this two way distance of over 350 kms. So we set out in my car one fine morning for Ballia town; Mayank Arora the Manager, Mr. S K Verma, who was the Senior Executive handling Ballia as an acting ASM, Amjad the driver, and yours truly, the new ASM.
To say the roads were bad, would be an understatement. There were points where the roads simply did not exist. It was all pretty fine till we crossed Ghazipur, the closest district I handled outside of Varanasi. Then we took a turn towards another of my districts, Maunath Bhanjan, or Mau, the stronghold of another well known politician back then, Kalpanath Rai.
Without going into Mau town, we took a diversion as we continued towards Ballia, and that was when the condition of the roads severely deteriorated. It became a very bumpy ride and while we were all complaining, the car came to a sudden halt, and Amjad got down first to take a look. The rest of us followed suit, and soon found that the rear tyre to the right, was punctured for some reason. As Verma ji and I lit up a cigarette each, Amjad opened the boot and took out the tools and the spare tyre, often called ‘Stepney‘.
I was grumbling a bit at the sight of my new car with a flat tyre, and I believe I must have blamed Amjad for careless driving, for a fleeting moment, when Mayank explained to me that the roads were terrible and it could have happened to anyone. I watched with disinterest as Amjad used the ‘jack‘ to lift the car, and then changed the tyre. It took about half an hour and I barely observed what he did, but once it was ready, we jumped back in and continued the bumpy ride to Ballia.
The rest of the trip was eventless and we stayed the night at Ballia, and returned to Varanasi the next day. Dinesh Singh was elated at seeing all of us together, not very common for an upcountry distributor, and he turned out to be a perfect host, who also promised us all his cooperation during the months of sales season. Meanwhile, Amjad had taken the initiative to get the flat tyre fixed, at a workshop in Ballia that same evening.
Another two weeks after this Ballia trip, one Friday morning I started from my apartment’s parking lot, with the plan of driving 700 kms to my hometown Kolkata, and drive back the same distance before Monday Morning. I was a bit nervous, as my confidence on my own driving skills was still somewhat low, and the distance seemed to be enormous. Almost everyone who heard my plan, tried to discourage me, but I explained to them how homesick I was feeling. In hindsight, I realised that this had less to do with homesickness, and probably more to do with my desire to show off my new car to my family and friends. This was perhaps exacerbated by the fact, that I grew up in a family without a car, and as naive as I was back then, I felt it was important for me to make this statement.
It was exactly 5 a.m. when I started, and the expectation was to reach Kolkata latest by 4 p.m., thus having enough time to socialise with family, get a good night’s rest and then spend the whole of Saturday with my friends, before starting on my return journey on Sunday, and reaching Varanasi back by that evening, to be able to join work on the following Monday morning. The plan seemed immaculate.
Little did I know what lay in store for me!!!
Not sure about the need for poster sized picture of one neta and hyperlinks for other netas. Maybe the remaining parts might reveal some political angle to this story.
Primarily to allow readers who are not familiar with the two netas of the older generation, to get some knowledge on them, if they seek so. Both Ballia and Mau were pretty much defined by these two gentlemen back in those years.