I am just loving it!

I have been on the road all across Maharashtra for the past ten days and I must admit, in typical Hinglish-speak, I Am Loving It!

It is election season in Maharashtra again and my mind goes back to the Eighties when I covered election campaigns in the rural areas, getting to the villages strap-hanging in buses, asking for lifts from farmers driving tractors on the highways to take me those places where the buses would not go and then being dropped off at the nearest bus terminus again riding pillions on mopeds driven by villagers chivalrous enough to give me a ride.

It never occurred to me that I was living dangerously or risking life or limb in any manner. I was obviously a city-slicker to the villagers; I could not speak their language too well (each region had its own colloquialism that would quite defeat me those days)  and sometimes I just could not gulp down the goat’s milk they offered (in fact, I had to struggle hard to keep it down)  but they always took me to heart and I returned home in one piece each time.

Much the same is happening now (though no one has yet offered me goat’s milk again) but life on the road is much more comfortable. I do not strap-hang in buses any more, I do not have to hitch-hike any longer because I travel in my own car. And I travel alone at all hours of day or night leaving villages well past dinner time and getting home only past midnight. I do not even have to think twice about my safety on the road.  Friends and family, too, never worry when I am on the road in Maharashtra.

Which is a far cry from the time I decided to travel by road from New Delhi to Dehradun some years ago when I needed to get to my aunt’s funeral ceremonies on time. I and my sister arrived at New Delhi railway station from separate parts of the country and decided to meet up there before going ahead to Dehradun. A friend I called in Delhi for help with a car got blown out of his mind.

“Why do you need to travel by road? I will buy you tickets for the train or even Indian Airlines, if you wish it. But just don’t think of going by road!” he pleaded.

I did not understand – Maharashtra had quite spoilt me and the thought never even occurred to me that I was risking safety travelling by road through Uttar Pradesh and Uttaranchal. It was a foggy winter afternoon when we set off and our driver would not allow me to stop for even a bottle of water. Angry as I was at that I soon realised why – as dark fell, predators arrived on the road. They would stop  us at every corner and say, “Aapko parchi kataani padegi. We initially paid out more in these illegal extortions than we did at the regular toll stations before my driver decided no more.

But then there was another danger on the horizon: somehow these illegal extortionists seemed connected with each other and word had gone round that there were two women travelling alone after dark and they could be fair game.  How my driver divined that I do not know and what followed after was straight out of a Bollywood potboiler.

He decided to stop at a chai ka dukan on the highway and sip some hot tea along with a whole group of men who had overtaken us in another car. But before that he stopped in the dark shadow of a tree and asked us to get down below the seat in the back of the car. He covered us with blankets and brought out our bags from the boot and placed them on the back seat.

“Don’t move, no matter what,” he warned us grimly. “For as long as it might take me to get back keep still and do not talk. Do not even whisper to each other.”

We  could only hear some murmurs outside our car that sometimes got closer and it seemed awfully long before the driver returned and started the engine. “Don’t get up as yet,” he warned. “Its not yet safe.”

When he finally gave us the all-clear we were in the hills of Dehradun, the fog had cleared and our car was closely tailing that of the Deputy Collector which was making swift progress with its red beacon clearing the way for all.

“I met the driver at the tea stall,” said our own. “I told him I did not have any fog lights and needed to keep close to him. But even he does not know the nature of cargo I have in my car.”

I and my sister were too shocked by the events to say anything, even to being described as ‘cargo’. When we got to our destination, our cousin was pacing up and down before his gate, having posted relatives all across the route to his home to look out for us. “Where were you?” he said, his tension visibly showing. “You should have got here hours ago! We were so out of our minds wondering if you were in trouble.”

He was not impressed when we related our tales of woe. “I agree with your friend. I don’t think you should have travelled by road at all. But next time if you do want to travel by road, do so while the daylight hours last.”

We did that on the return but I promptly forgot that warning once I got back to my own home state.

Last night I finished work late in one village and decided to head back to base immediately rather than stay over in the nearby small town another night. What a safe journey back it was — past midnight. The only incident happened when we lost our way a bit but this driver did not have to go through any subterfuge in hiding his ‘cargo’.

It was as though Dehradun had almost never happened.

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