March 27, 2006

Romancing the road

Third, and final, instalment of the series Veeresh Malik and I did on our road trip to Jaisalmer and back appeared in the Hindustan Times on Wednesday March 22nd. You are ordered to read it by clicking on this link.

Your comments are welcome.

OK, OK, it's not an order.

It's a command.


Postscript: The link above doesn't work any more (April 6). So appended below is the article.

And then there's that fabled romance of the road, that wide-open freedom that comes from getting behind a wheel and taking off. In the US, they sing hosannas to that feeling. "Get your kicks/on Route 66", warbled Nat King Cole, saluting the highway sometimes called "Mother Road" and "Main Street America". Slicing through the American heartland, Route 66 was for years the only way to drive Chicago to LA, until more modern roads relegated it to memory and website (, among others).

Yes, there's nothing quite like a trip by road. In an India waking up to that anew, you can imagine that there'll soon be Indian hosannas as well.

"I drove and sang and ate/On that old NH-8." Well, something like that.

Bombay to Ahmedabad and on to points north, you do indeed ride on NH-8, part of the famous Golden Quadrilateral. There's a certain excitement in doing so, just by virtue of the hype and hope around these new roads. I mean, check these lines from a short National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) write-up in my Eicher Road Atlas of India:
    When highways start giving the look and feel of runways, you would love to take a long drive.

    Like taking to the highways from Delhi to Mumbai -- a quarter length of the entire Golden Quadrilateral, and experiencing the thrill of driving on world class roads.

    You just can't miss the smooth, wide 4-lane divided carriageways, even 6-lane at places. ... [W]hen you pay toll, that's value for money.
The very idea of world class highways in India, runway smooth, connecting our cities as they never have been before, is beguiling strange.

But if you're searching for nascent romance, NH-8 north from Bombay offers a curious mix. One stretch is a spectacular new expressway -- NE-1, between Baroda and Ahmedabad, which rates two of four pictures that accompany that NHAI write-up. Very nice, but sterile and faintly boring. I'll return to that.

Much of the rest, write-up notwithstanding, is still shabby two-lane. More interesting than runway-like roads, more of a challenge to drive on, but romantic?

Well, start with getting free of Bombay's long urban fingers. This is a particular ordeal. Potholed stretches alternate with great dusty construction efforts, including shoring up the hillsides that the road cuts through. I mean, what are you to make of a sign that warns: "Falling Rocks, Drive Carefully"? About what you make of the sign I saw on the way to the LoC in J&K once: "The road ahead is mined. Drive Carefully."

Mines, rocks, same difference. Drive carefully as one or the other sends you into oblivion, that's all.

Out of the city, there's less construction, but NH-8 doesn't improve much. Pull left to overtake a slow truck that's in the passing lane, and the rocky ride tells you why the truck is there in the first place. Rumble strips when you pass through towns are so violent, you suspect parts will fall off your car. ("The parts falling off this car are of the finest British make": my all-time favourite bumper sticker).

Yet for this shabbiness, you get charged tolls all the way. (Unless you're a VIP, but that's another story). Rs 25 here, 15 there, 35 somewhere else. You wonder what all this money pays for. This bumpy ride? Well, then who do you complain to about what doesn't seem like paisa-vasool at all? Where's the "world class" and the "smooth, wide 4-lane" road?

You run into that, of course, at Baroda, where you enter NE-1. Yet on that superb 100 km stretch, there are other dilemmas. As the thuds and bumps turn to a baby-smooth rocket ride just by virtue of passing through a tollbooth, you wonder first about this small puzzle: the toll, which is the peculiar figure of Rs 61. Wouldn't a round figure be easier? You also notice how few trucks there are, suddenly. The contrast to miles of weaving behind overladen trucks, trying to overtake, couldn't be more striking.

There are so few trucks because nearly all of them turn off at Baroda, to follow the old NH-8 to Ahmedabad. (First step towards the obsolescence that befell Route 66). It's likely toll-free, or cheaper than Rs 61 at any rate, but presumably as pocked with bumps and thuds as its southerly reaches.

So in return for paying a toll, you shoot along NE-1 at speeds you never thought you would achieve in India, in largely solitary splendour.

And as you cruise at 120, two thoughts come to mind. One, can those venerable Indian jalopies -- the Padminis, the Heralds, the Ambassadors -- get up to these speeds? In itself, that question signals a sea-change from earlier eras. Two, the sparse traffic. Can tolls from cars alone -- from so few cars alone -- pay for this splendid highway? Are there not ways to attract HCV traffic onto this road; would the fuel savings not offset the toll paid?

Imponderables, of course. Though there are the occasional Padminis and trucks, clearly unable to keep up with the zipping Corollas and Octavias.

At Ahmedabad, we veer away from NH-8 and the GQ, taking state highways to Mahesana, then Palanpur, and northwest into Rajasthan. Two surprises await.

First, the state highway to Palanpur is also excellent. It's every bit as smooth as NE-1, and slower only because it isn't a limited access road like that one is.

But what's more surprising than that is the road on the last leg into Rajasthan, slicing northwest from Disa to Sanchor. In our entire journey to Jaisalmer, this stretch is the worst, about 70 hellish kilometres of gaping holes gouged in the surface of the road. The trucks coming towards us, as trucks do on such roads, give us not even an inch of "side". So each time, we have to drive onto the shoulder and hope it won't crumble. A nightmare, and not just because we are on it late at night.

Joining NH-15 at Sanchor, back to some smoothness again and silently checking that all bones are intact, it strikes me that that stretch was a throwback to days gone by. That's the kind of road I took buses to college on, in the '70s. (Back when buses were usually how you took to the road). There were no better highways, then.

Is it disappointing to find roads like that so easily today? Hardly, because I find I'm filled with nostalgia. There's romance there, all right.


Anonymous said...

Dave Barry's funnier. :)

Anonymous said...

THe link to your Hindustan Times article doesnt work. It says "Data not Found"