The Familiar Meander

By Samahit Bal

Reading has always been a significant part of my life. Writing too, albeit destiny’s harshness in not offering enough bandwidth for writing. However, wrote this piece in sweeping meanders of 1996 while driving with my sinuous loops from Delhi to Bhubaneswar. Pragativadi was kind enough to print this out then.

Twenty-five summers have whistled past since then, altering the landscape and the protagonists as well. Some unknown thrill intrigued me to inject some new thoughts and re-present the experience with today’s context at the backdrop. Thanks to the Executive Editor of Pragativadi for his nod. The lived experience of traveling to the other end of the country to buy a Maruti car and driving all the way back to Bhubaneswar is, funnily enough, the crux of this.

Manoeuvring into unknown terrains may have become a routine thing for this generation folks. As they say, if you do not know where to go any road will take you there. In fact, no motorable road is “unknown” now, or at least Google makes you feel so. Add to that, the improved road network and other associated amenities that intimidate the adventure lovers to get behind the wheels and go full throttle. I don’t think anyone now bothers about what to eat, where to make a pit stop, etc. which used to be the prime considerations those days if you even wished to go on a long drive. Said that I got going, not knowing an iota about the travel route.

Hailing from a small city like Bhubaneswar, buying a car those days meant shedding a fortune and waiting endlessly. But, purchasing the same in Delhi used to be a different ball game altogether. It was way cheaper and more importantly the ease and faster delivery caused an adrenaline rush as I was contemplating a sweet surprise to a very dear friend. The stretch of 1958 kilometers consumed my 49 hours and about 100 liters of fuel. When I look back and recount those miles and mileages, the ordeal of driving all those kilometres that gave me shiver down the spine, now gives me goosebumps, pleasant ones though. The decision over preferring the Kanpur-Hazaribagh route to Madhya Pradesh- Raipur one pinched me really hard. But then, was worth every penny of it.

Got lured by the price- cheaper by eight grands- and of course the excitement of almost walking in ad out with the car from the showroom and a promise by a BJP politician friend to facilitate the purchase. However, as destiny would have it and as many politician would predictably do,   our friend vanished into thin air. There was this gentleman called Ashok Khanduja who helped us through the booking process at Classic Motors. Those days, Maruti cars required catalytic converter and unleaded petrol to control combustion and hence pollution, something that was almost unheard of in Bhubaneswar.

Just when we thought we did it, we got to know that the dealership of Classic Motors ran into some litigation roadblock. With a heavy heart, we turned to Vikash Traders- another automobile dealer in the vicinity. However, the waiting time was 9 months! 9 months for the delivery? Well, you heard it right- not for a baby, but for a Maruti Car !!!   The ordeal is not over yet. In the meanwhile, the price had undergone three revisions, sadly upward. Ultimately when the car rolled out of the showroom it had made me poorer by another eight grands. The packer and mover asked for yet another 8000 rupees as shipment charges. This is when I decided to drive the car home, if not for anything else at least for avoiding the large sum that my friend would have had to cough extra for transporting. And then, what about the surprise that set me going all this while?

Unknown road and without a navigator! This may sound like a thing of distant history. As I said earlier, there was no one who could stop the adrenaline rush. It was I, me and myself, and of course the newly purchased Maruti. The feeling was that of a Hermes, the Greek God of travel. Tagged the temporary number to the windshield with an adhesive tape, stocked some packaged fruit drinks and grapes and glued the ears with the Walkman headphones. I am sure Hermes must have envied if he was watching me from up the heavens. Oops, forgot to mention that there was a sacred offering by a friend’s sister, like any Indian would do, of lemon and green chillies as a mark of keeping the car out of harm’s way. A couple of hours before the stroke of darkness, I set out from Delhi with a well-laid out ( ?) plan to have the first pit-stop in Kanpur. At around 2.00 am reached Kanpur. Went to Hotel Mayur for allowing my legs some well-deserved rest. The rack rate was Rs 2700/ for the night. Would you believe, Rs 2700/ in 1996 for me who went to Delhi to buy a car so that I could save Rs. 8000? Settled myself on a cot at a dhaba along the GT road. That was super fun, I must tell you.  However, all the star gazing went for a quick toss in the morning while my eyes chanced upon people. Folks were roaming around with guns and pistols in their hands. I was like, ‘is this for real’? My raised eyebrows restored back when I got to know it was a common sight in the state of Uttar Pradesh, as almost every household owned arms like we owned a TV set or a transistor. When I dug deeper with my insatiable curiosity, came to know that the rally of gun-holders was because it was the date for renewal of the licenses. You must have seen to believe. It was almost like an army of civilians marching on the road with a variety of arms in their hands. Scary, yet a treat for my eyes!

Suddenly the road started looking not so great, after I bid adieu to Kanpur. I must have driven for over 2 hours to cross the next 15-20 kilometres. However, the anticipated exhilaration over the surprise to the friend has made me immune to any ordeal. Maybe I was too numb to even realise the travel-induced pain I was enduring. From Mughalsarai to Barhi, it was a 450 kms long stretch, read a signboard, with caveats of difficult passage through terrains. The stretch of road was not even clearly marked. Darkness made life even worse. Only when some vehicle would approach from the opposite side that you would realise the width of the road. A well-wisher at the dhaba that I stopped by had warned me earlier not to venture into the almost-deserted road after the descend of darkness. But then, who cares when you have a promise to keep! I threw some careless whispers at the gentleman, “well, I could not care any less. What more one can snatch away from me. Just a car?”. I had to flaunt my courage. Of course, I had to, when in an unfamiliar territory.  The gentleman’s words of caution were very specific though. “ Saab, aapnehinjaantehein. Yahanke log pahle driver kogolimaartehein, phirgaadi le letehein”.  Maybe I was plain lucky, was kept out of harm’s way all through the travel.

After reaching Hazaribagh, called my friend. Had to lie to him saying that I was calling from Delhi itself. And, my friend expectedly suggested me to put the car with a transporter and take the next flight to Bhubaneswar. All through the conversation, I was biting my lower lip !!!

As I was approaching Ranchi, saw an overturned truck carrying cooking gas cylinder. Fire all around with sporadic explosions. To my utter disbelief, onlookers were feasting on the explosion without any visible attempt to either arrest the fire or reach out to any fire brigade. I had to leave that behind as butterflies in my stomach were making me restless. After seeing one signboard written in Odia, I felt home. There was this soothing calmness that was so reassuring. My feet must have realised that as well. Without a hint, the odometer had sped up. Come on, it was my familiar territory, and why not. Let the (new) car loose on the road. By the time I reached Bhadrak, it had started raining. I felt like catapulting from a blast furnace to a waterfall. I did not even realise when I pulled over the car to the roadside, came out of it, and jumped in joy. Cannot really forget that dance in the rain. Folks that took shelter under a tree nearby must have gone bonkers seeing this weirdo doing what he was doing!

The car was dripped in mud and dirt by the time it reached Bhubaneswar. None who did not know, would believe that it was a brand new car! However, I had achieved what I had set out to and the surprise landed as a true ‘surprise’ to my friend. I had done it! The sense of accomplishment was overwhelming and got the better of everything. Amidst all these, I had invited the wrath of my parent for the sheer fact that I had driven the car all by myself from Delhi. They were terribly mad at me, telling me what should have I done, which road/route should I have taken, etc. But, I was (again) too numbed to realise what they were saying to me. Surprisingly, they too had a sigh of relief when they got to know that I was not hassled by any cop or any miscreant who could stop your car to extract some petty cash as happened in our state most of the times.

Twenty-five years down the lane, the friend is a bit estranged, but his wife and kids are in good touch with me. His wife ties ‘Rakshi’ on Raksha Bandhan every year.  I am sure we would catch up on some cross-road of life. Well, that’s life, isn’t it? At times strange, and at times funny!

This piece would perhaps be incomplete if I do not make a mention of one last thing. I never owned a car before I pulled off this adventure of Delhi to Bhubaneswar. I was a bachelor then. Maybe, that’s the reason why I could not care any less about jumping into such a thing what I would most certainly call an extremely risky thing. All these years later, after shouldering the  ‘responsibilities’ of a ‘family man’ now I would definitely not take such a risk. The friend of mine lives abroad. I am sure he must have purchased and/or used many cars. And, so have I. But, I do not feel the craving for such a thrill anymore. Life may have taken the right turns and time may have settled our nerves. I am sure we will pull along quite peacefully, whatever miles are left for us to travel by.

On a similar note, there was another friend who had once promised to buy a tempo-traveller and we were supposed to drive down to Ladakh. Well, the friend eventually purchased a tempo-traveller. But, strangely we lost the appetite for the trip to Ladakh in that. I do not think we would revisit that plan, ever. By the grace of the God, our 28 years long friendship is alive and kicking. I was barely 12, when I first saw him visiting our house. The small acquaintance grew with time into a matured and unconditional friendship. He is a political leader and a role model. He is the one from whom I learnt every trick of the trade as to how to run a printing press. Some people who know of us think our relationship has turned sour, seeing certain words that we independently express about quite a number of things. But, little they know that those are plain professional. Whenever time permits, we sit over to discus everything under the sky, with no strings attached. This Friday evening only when we pulled off some quality time to get together, this tempo-traveller topic cropped up from somewhere that provided the required fodder to me to pen down few words from the memory lane.

I generally do not let Pragativadi publish any of my photographs. However, I take an exception to this unforgettable and thrilling personal experience from the good old days and tag the picture with the said friends and their kids. Such was the tale, I cannot get tired telling!

Click here to read in Odia

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