“Road trips aren’t measured by mile markers, but by moments.” – Unknown
I had packed a sandwich with a couple of cheese slices, the only food item I had found in my fridge. I was sure I would take some breaks on the highway and there would be plenty of options available for a quick grub, whenever I was hungry. I did bring along a bottle each of Coca-Cola and Thums Up (An Indian cola brand, also owned by The Coca-Cola Company), both large PET bottles of 2 litres, well chilled. We used to get our company’s products at a discounted rate for employees, and my fridge was usually stocked with Coke products. It still is, despite not having enjoyed any discount for over sixteen years. Apart from the colas, I did take with me two packs of cigarettes, each packer with ten sticks inside. The brand I smoked back then, was called Wills Navy Cut, a popular brand particularly in my hometown Kolkata.
My car did not even have a stereo player at this point. Back then, only the higher end car models came with a cassette player fitted, while mine just came with an empty slot for me to fit in later. One of the city distributors had an automobile accessories shop, and he had warned me against buying the stereo from anywhere else. Unfortunately, for various other priorities, I had not yet been able to visit his shop and sort out this important matter, which became more and more a necessity, with every passing hour of this trip.
The trip started very well, and I was in understandably high spirits, especially for the first half an hour or so. The traffic was almost non-existent in the city at this early hour, and I drove through the ‘chowks’ and intersections with encouraging ease, wishing it was like this during the normal hours, on other days. There was no Google Maps back then, and I was not one to carry those road maps, so I depended mostly on the road signs and when still in doubt, I would stop the car and ask a passerby which way to continue. The questions were mostly generic, like asking for the direction towards the highway and people were generous enough to guide me as needed. In less than an hour, I was on the highway and from here, it was supposed to be a fairly simple and straight road for hundreds of miles.
GRAND TRUNK ROAD!
I was to take one of India’s oldest roads, the Grand Trunk Road or G. T. Road, as it was popularly known. This grand old road was initially built by Chandragupta Maurya of the Maurya Dynasty, back in the third century BC, but the main credit for rebuilding and operationalising this road goes to Sher Shah Suri, the Sultan of Suri Dynasty during the sixteenth century AD. The Mughals and the British had also carried out the rebuilding process at different points in time. The ancient road stretches almost 2,500 kms and connects Kabul in Afghanistan, to Chittagong in present Bangladesh. Back in 2002, the part of this road connecting Varanasi to Kolkata, was called National Highway No. 2, was about 700 kms long, and would traverse the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar (now also Jharkhand) and West Bengal, the state where Kolkata city lies.
I was keeping myself occupied by humming some popular Bollywood songs, while I manoeuvred the steering wheel, in the absence of the much needed music player. I believe I was in the middle of singing the song;
‘Raah pe rehte hain, yaadon pe basar karte hain
Khush raho, eh le watan, hum to safar karte hain’
[We live on the roads, we live with our memories, stay happy everyone, as we continue our journey]
.. when my car suddenly went over something with a loud cranking noise and a destabilising jerk. It shook me from my romantic stupor so suddenly, that I stopped the car on the side of the road, and inspected the car to make sure there was no damage. The car seemed fine, but this halt gave me a chance to look closely at the road behind and ahead of me. The road was simply terrible, to say the least. There had been some rain in the last one week, and that had probably made the road even worse than what it usually was. But from where I stood, there was a tar road ahead with pretty much a ditch or a pothole every few metres, and the sight continued as far as I could see in the horizon. I told myself to drive cautiously and made a mental note of not going above fifty kms an hour under such poor road conditions, for the sake of my new car’s well being. I lit up a cigarette, arched my back, and then went back to my driving routine, now at a slower speed and with some added caution.
It took me almost four hours to reach Sasaram, a town in Bihar, incidentally also the place where Sher Shah Suri was born. Sasaram was about 130 kms from Varanasi, and I was about an hour late from my initial estimate, but I was confident that the highway ahead would allow me enough opportunity to make up for this hour’s delay. It was just after 9 am, when I stopped my car for another bit of stretching and finished off my sandwich, drank some Coke, and lit up my post breakfast fag.
Less than ten minutes after crossing Sasaram, I came to a forced halt, which changed the course of this road trip significantly. The road ahead, the glorious G T Road, had a massive traffic ahead of me, and it seemed to have stopped moving completely. There were cars, buses and trucks all lined up in front of me and none showed any indication of any movement. I spent the first twenty minutes or so waiting patiently, like the good, law abiding civilian that I was, but soon, my patience started to wear out. Eventually, I stepped out of my car, locked it, and decided to take a walk ahead to gauge the actual situation. I did consider what would happen if the traffic started to move, but on careful observation, I convinced myself that was very unlikely.
I walked a fair hundred meters, then another hundred meters, before deciding that it was too far from my physical asset, and reluctantly turned back. During this exploratory walk, I could see nothing other than a massive queue of vehicles of every size, without being any wiser about the cause of this disruption. I found my car and felt relieved. I stepped in and drank some more Coke. After another twenty minutes or so, I even locked my car and descended by the sides of the elevated highway, and found myself a cover good enough to take a much needed leak.
THE WORLD STANDS STILL!
To cut a long story short, over the next four and half hours, I barely managed to move half a kilo meter. There were sporadic movements every twenty five minutes or so, and we would move slowly for the next few minutes, usually a distance of thirty odd meters, before coming to another halt for the next twenty five minutes. Since it was moving once in a while, I could not think of leaving my car and going somewhere, and when it was about 1:00 pm, it occured to me that I was surviving on one sandwich since five in the morning. A tremendous hunger pang took over soon, and the sensation became pretty uncomfortable after a while. But having no viable alternative, I hung on, continually sipping from the bottles I had, and trust me, drinking a carbonated beverage with an empty stomach, is not the wisest thing to do. At 2:30 pm, I was still pretty much within the same vicinity, and I had run out of the colas I had brought along. I didn’t feel too well, my throat was dry and my body was completely dehydrated, despite the 4 litres of cola I had taken, but the high sugar was negating the hydration element and I seriously regretted my decision of not bringing along a couple of bottle of water instead.
Almost around three in the afternoon, I noticed a TATA Sumo, a popular SUV model, slowly creep from behind and start making its way from the side of the road. The highway was elevated, and there was a slope on both sides of the ‘metal road’ that was raised from the ground level down below, which was almost six or seven feet lower. The Sumo was taking a bumpy ride along those slopes, which was not easy either, considering the fact that those sloping sides had their own ditches and troughs, which could be very deep, since the slopes were not made of concrete or tar. But the relatively powerful engine of TATA Sumo carried on with caution, though there were moments when there were gasps from the bystanders, as the Sumo looked like it might tumble over. But it held on till it went out of our sights. I took a decision that I had no other choice, and I will follow the same route.
It turned out to be a far bigger challenge that what I had imagined and I struggled to maintain my balance and avoid the deep ditches which could damage my car seriously. A small car with a low chassis was not meant to take such a tortuous slope route, and disaster struck soon, when one of my wheels stuck into a large and deep puddle of water, and the bottom of my car ended up touching the ground, thereby making the wheel lose contact and keep hanging in air. As I tried to force the accelerator, the wheel kept rotating freely, throwing up jets of water from the pool, but the wheel couldn’t make the necessary contact to gather the friction, that was required to move forward.
Eventually, some truck drivers came to my rescue and it was their help, both manual push and lift, as well as pulling the car by running the engine of a truck, that finally brought the four wheels of my car back on solid ground. One driver warned that it was too risky for a small car, and suggested that I should try to keep the left wheels on the concrete road, and the right wheels on the mud road, thereby providing some uniformity. I tried it and the only risk was that since the concrete was at a fairly higher level, my car seemed to be inclined at a 30 degree angle, which made me feel very unsafe as a driver.
I continued in that inclined position cautiously, for at least a five kilo meter stretch that took me close to an hour. It felt like I was performing at one of those circus shows stunts, usually called ‘Maut ka Kunwa‘ [Well of death], where a motorbike or car driver accelerates his vehicle and rises up a well like structure, using centrifugal force. Let me share a video clip of this below.
Just after four o’clock in the afternoon, I managed to cross the massive congestion of trucks, cars and buses, and arrived at the source of this entire debacle. There were two big trucks that had completely gone turtle, one sliding halfway down the slope on the other side. There were at least five other trucks that had ended up with damages, from the aftermath of this collision. There were bags of rice scattered everywhere, cargo from one of the upturned trucks, and much of the rice had freed itself from the bags and was lying on the roads. The other truck was carrying some machinery, and most of it now lay displayed on the G T Road, while some had slid down along the slope, to the ‘valley’.
Simply put, it was a real mess! These trucks had taken up the entire road, and there was no space for vehicles to squeeze past them. Looking at the situation, I also realised that this would need recovery vehicles, perhaps cranes too, to clear those trucks from the road. And looking at the road on both sides, which had traffic stuck for almost ten kilo meters by then, I was suddenly proud of my decision of taking the ‘Maut ka Kunwa’ route. I wished them luck inaudibly, thanked some truck drivers vocally, for making some way for my car to sneak back on the concrete road, and then stepped on the gas!
HELP ME, STRANGER!
I had estimated to be at my home in Kolkata, by this time. And here I was, stuck in the middle of Bihar, four hundred kilo meters away from my final destination. I suddenly noticed a shop like structure with a thatched straw roof, and that made me remember that I was out of food and water for close to five hours now. I stopped my car and approached the shop, which had little to offer, but I ordered a cup of tea and munched on a few cheap biscuits, and felt a lot better. The lady offered me a bottle of ThumsUp and I gracefully accepted. She handed me the glass bottle, I took a sip and inspected the bottle for a moment, and to my horror, I saw the fading print on the bottle which said ‘Best Before Date’, a company printed information on the time within which a product should be consumed. The date printed on the bottle was almost fourteen months past the date I was sipping it on!
I threw away the drink inside, rinsed my mouth with some water from the well, and requested her to drain her stock, which was of another eleven bottles. She was reluctant, but I offered her the price for all those bottles and she agreed and the two of us opened each bottle and drained them individually. I felt that I had done my duty, she felt I was crazy, and we were both happy for different reasons.
As I prepared to take my leave, she walked up to my car and asked me politely;
“Babu, udhar kidhar jaa rahe ho?” [Where are you headed that way?]
“Kalkatta ki taraf” [Towards Kolkata]
“Woh to bahut door hai, abhi mat jaiye, andhera ho jayega” [That is very far, don’t go now, it will be dark soon]
I laughed at her and explained that I will be cautious, and that I had seen the worst already in the last five hours. Nothing could make it any worse. Neither the darkness, nor the bad roads.
She stared straight at me and lowered her voice;
“About thirty kilo meters from here, there is a forest that you will have to cross. If you can cross that forest before it gets dark, go as fast as you can. But if you think it will get dark before you can cross that forest, I insist you stop and return here for the night. That forest is dangerous!”
I was enjoying her words, like a child listens to fantasy stories, of dragons and ghouls, of werewolves and leprechauns. I started the engine, peeked my head out of the window and asked her what was in that forest, that made it so ‘dangerous’.
“Daku! Bandook waale!” [Bandits, armed ones!]
I tried to dismiss her with the same confidence, but I must admit, the way her jaws tightened as she mentioned this part, I could tell that she was not messing with me. Whether it was true or not, I was convinced that this lady believed in what she had just said. I thanked her again and waved at her, while I drove back towards the road. As I ascended the G T Road one more time, I paused and looked at the stretch of road ahead. It was free of traffic and completely full of potholes and troughs!
I drove cautiously for the next hour or so, carefully manoeuvring past the ditches on my way. There were splashes of muddy water every now and then, but I could clearly see how my driving skills had improved during this one day’s drive. My new car looked like it had come from the swamps in the Amazon rainforest, and some of the mud splatters were reached my glass windows as well. And that was when I saw the dark assembly of tall trees in front of me. The forest that the lady had warned me about. I took a moment’s pause, to look up at the sky. The sun had long disappeared and the light was following it fast. I knew that darkness was not far away, but after reconsidering my options, I found no reason for going back thirty kms to the shop hut for a nightcap. Besides, spending the night in a forsaken village hut, was not the most aspirational options either. So I pressed on the accelerator and headed on towards the looming trees that lay ahead. Face your demons, or bandits, in this case, head on!