On the road

I have always thanked the gods for the existence of cities and bright lights. A few days wandering around UP and Uttarakhand have made me particularly grateful for the wonderful highways to Punjab and Haryana, full of loo-stops and Vaishnav dhabas and over-fed children.

At first when K, my photographer friend, and I got to Lucknow we were just charmed. All the silly cliches you have heard about Lucknowi tehzeeb does not prepare you for the sardonic folks of that town.

At the bus station, a man who is walking around with a microphone announcing bus arrivals and departures pauses for a moment to talk to us. "Meri baat sun leejiye. Counter No 4 tak jaaiye aur apne ticket praapt kijiye. Apna yaatra shuru kijiye."

Everything about that town seems OTT, wierd and wonderful. Like the strange sweet made of milk kept overnight in the moonlight, whipped with khus and spilling over bowls. We saw people eat two giant bowls as if it were nothing. Which it was.

My colleague in Lucknow who is an old-school journalist must have us see the ravages that politicians are putting UP through. In the heart of the city, we are shocked to see acres of land set aside to build an Ambedkar Maidan. The giant statues of Mayawati, Dr Ambedkar and Kashi Ram are under miles of purple satin still. All around is activity. What seems like kilometres of wall is being built with excellent sandstone. Through the breaks in the wall, we see something that finally explained our colleague's agitation. A herd of sixty life sized, elephant sized elephants in marble. And this is only one element in Ambedkar Maidan, which strangely is also going to be one giant paved surface without trees or grass.

I am reminded of a conversation that I had with Spellcheck last month at the Taj. We were trying to imagine what the people of Agra thought then when Shah Jahan was emptying his purse building the Taj, feeding his megalomania.

After half a day in Lucknow we take a taxi to Dehra Dun. There are no buses and trains available over the weekend. Minutes outside Lucknow the greyness begins. K and I are fairly calm travellers, unbothered by quick changes in plans (the Lucknow trip was meant to be a day trip) or by a driver who was either dyslexic or composing prose poems in his head. We only grinned when we realised he had no sense of direction and when he kept stopping and asking us the name of the place we were going to.

But both of us began to get more than a little depressed. The roads are mere ribbons and the few buses we saw were running empty. Where people were, it seemed, there they stayed. We were told that certain stretches of the journey were best not attempted at night and we were easily convinced. Hours would go by driving into a white wall of fog and we would not see a soul on the road.

All the towns looked alike and dull but every hour or so there would be something wonderful. Like the X and XII coaching centre which called itself Science Fiction Institute or the fabulously decorated cycle rickshaws or miles of tin trunks.

We did not see Bareilly's bazaar or drop our jhumkas there. But we did fall into the clean beds of a very professionally run hotel with gratitude. When we were somewhere near Hardwar we were so behind schedule, we knew Dehra Dun (so incredibly close) would ruin all our plans. We had to get back to Lucknow for the event that was to begin at 2 pm the next afternoon.

I was not prepared for Hardwar. I was looking out of the window bored, turned my head and was amazed to see the full sweep of the ghats, the Ganga and the familiar skyline of temples and dharamsalas. To understand the attractions of Hinduism all you need a stunning river or an attractive tree older than your grandparents. I walked around feeling faintly coffeetable-bookish. Everything is pretty and enjoyable. People are warm and friendly though inclined to ask, "which country madam, which country?"All the food looks good to us whose last meal was dinner the previous night. We ate in the overpriced Hari Ganga Haveli.

A few hours later we were back on the road. Now it was dark again. No matter how dehydrated we felt neither K and I trusted ourselves to drink any water. No use pretending to be intrepid because we knew that no way were we getting out of the car on those empty roads to pee.

To pass the time, like children who love to be spooked, we tell each other the collected lore of women travellers: Divya who bloodied the nose of this man at the bus stop. Bindu who stabbed a pencil through the palm of the creeping hand, the time Uzi had to pretend to read for three hours straight without making eye contact with anyone while listening to a girl in the compartment egging her male companions to attack the foreign-seeming Uzi, the time the train was stopped in Rajasthan, the time they turned out to be not rapists, the time they turned out to be so, a wonderful cliff where you lay in the sun for hours without anyone turning up.

Of course we had heard enough stories from male travellers on that stretch as well. R was visiting a newspaper in UP. He stepped out of his lodge on his first night there and walked a few metres. A phone call from his angry host stops him in his tracks. "Where are you? Stand there. And don't move" A bewildered R is dragged into his host's car a few minutes later. His enraged host, the newspaper publisher, tells him: "Do not go anywhere alone. You will get kidnapped because you are our guest."

We stop in Moradabad, astonished and embarrased and grateful for a dirty loo in a completely empty mall. Several more hours later we are back in Bareilly and the hotel kindly sends someone out to the railway station to get us some thing to eat. We gobble bread omelettes and collapse.

In the morning we crawl to Lucknow. It is our third day in the same clothes and we hate ourselves a little. K and I are now caricatures. Sunglasses on, ipods plugged in and we stare angrily out of the windows at dirty little town after dirty little town.

We get to Lucknow barely in time. We buy a change of clothes and find a ladies' room where pretty women are astonished to see us brush our teeth and wash our faces with such vigour.

We scrape into the beauty pageant which we are covering just in time, with our city-slicker good humour restored. In a clothing store inside a mall we are suffocated by fellow reporters and the practised tunes of beauty pageant contestants. A man weaves through the crowd with a tray full of teacups. "Chai leejiye. Peene ki koshish kijiye."

Some hours later we are done. We have some time before the train to see the town. We race into Tundays for a fantastic meal, pack stuff for our carnivorous significant others and pay Rs 145. The shock never ends.

I am glad no one told me in advance how wonderfully whimsical the Bada Imambara is. It is a set of grand fairy-tale buildings. We got there around sunset and saw people darting around the domes flying kites speck-high in the sky.

K and I gawked wondering how on earth a pair of big catfish with fine curling moustaches had found themselves engraved on these walls. Wish I had a guide or a book or something. I do know I want to go back and see them again.

In Delhi the next morning K and I are attacked by a horde of auto and taxi drivers at Nizamuddin station while we stand in line at the prepaid counter. As soon as we have our receipts not one of them will be in sight and we would have been harangued for nothing.

We take a leaf out of our Lucknow book. We unleash long, filigreed sentences at them. Yes, we need a vehicle, does he have a plane? No? How shameful. What, he was not talking to me? How rude. But I want to talk to him. He seemed so interesting and I have such a lot to say this morning. Where was he going? Wait for me. Bhaiya Bhaiya, wait.

5 comments:

What delightful wanderings! Lucknow sounds quirky in the best possible way.

Wish you'd posted some photos.

January 16, 2009 at 11:29 AM  

Makes me wistful.

Do you follow Malayalam literature? Have you read Hardwaril Manikal Muzhangumbol? M Mukundan?

January 16, 2009 at 11:31 AM  

banno love: I shall ask K for some pictures, I am a terrible photographer.

Sajith: Hello, hello, havent seen you in a while. This is so weird. We were having a conversation about M Mukundan yesterday. I was complaining about Nritham and my friend was admiring 'Adithyanum Radhayum Mattu Chilarum'. I shall look up your recommendation

January 16, 2009 at 11:44 AM  

You write so well, N ... fills me with envy!!!

January 17, 2009 at 9:30 PM  

"Chai leejiye. Peene ki koshish kijiye."
Tell me you made this one up.
But thank you for this lovely long account - I think it's better without photos, actually. Made me imagine much. Especially the empty roads through the car window, the sign for the Science Fiction Institute, the empty mall - and, on the outside looking in, the people who saw you sunglasses-ed and ipod-ed...

January 18, 2009 at 12:42 PM  

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