Peace. All of us want it all the time. None of us get it most of the time. Bijoy happens to fall into the latter category and decided that it was high time he got some peace in the office. How? Send three of us far away on a long, long drive. Where? Shantiniketan, the abode of peace, as it were. Originally, the drive was planned to trace a line all along the Indian coast, but due to time constraints (surprising, as we’re never doing much anyway and have all the time in the world), we had to cut the drive short. However, Bijoy was determined to send us along the sea, so it was planned that we’d cut across to Vizag on the eastern coast and continue to Shantiniketan via Konark and Kolkata.
How was the team decided? Well, Rohin was the first choice, as he had done a cross country number last year, which went on to become a big hit. Aman. The name says it all, no? ‘Aman on a Drive For Peace’ has a nice ring to it and besides somebody needs to take the ‘rock album cover-like’ photographs that Bijoy wanted. And me, well, Bijoy probably lost count of the number of times he’d seen me nodding off to sleep and decided that I should make myself more useful. Any sea-going voyage requires a ship and for this one, we got the Honda Accord, a luxo-barge if there ever was one. And it’s strong enough to not fall into pieces while looking for peace.
‘Life is a highway,
I wanna ride it all night long.’
– Rascal Flatts, Life Is A Highway
Day 1: Mumbai-Solapur-Hyderabad
At four in the morning, the only peace you can find is in sleep. But there I was, alone on Marine Drive in the Accord with only a few minutes to go till I met the other two who wouldn’t let me be alone for the next seven days. I caught my last glimpse of the sea at Haji Ali and thought, ‘See you on the other side.’ Journeys, in the search of peace or otherwise, are best started early, so we were on the road at four thirty sharp. Day one had the longest distance, almost 800 km, but since the roads were good, we saw no reason why we couldn’t do it in a day. And we did make good time; Pune passed in an unmentionable three-digit speed blur and we were on the road to Solapur before we knew it. ‘Hmm, not bad. Looks like this is going to be easy,’ I thought, and almost immediately I hoped that I wouldn’t have to eat my words.
Truckers’ wisdom, as I now call it, was our major source of entertainment for the first part of the day. One good line on the back of any of these lumbering, smoke-belching giants is enough to keep you laughing for the next few kilometres. How is this, for instance: ‘Avoid Child Labour. Save Rain Water’. Closing in on Solapur, we came across the first of many splendid sights that we would see during the course of this voyage in the form of the Naldurg fort. Even from a distance, it was easy to see that it was huge; we went around it from a distance and its ramparts showed no signs of ending. Strapped for time as we were, it wasn’t possible to go in and explore the place, so we continued towards Hyderabad, the first bull’s eye in our map book. Given the good road conditions, the Accord was more than willing to make short work of distances. The big seats kept us cosseted, while the climate control kept us cool and fresh.
It was dark when we rolled into one of Hyderabad’s traffic jams. Like any other big city, it was full of lights and noisy, its congestion indicating the ‘progresses’ that this cyber city has made. While we were trying to find a place to stay, we came upon Mohammed Lokmaan Khan, rickshaw driver by day, hotel tout by night. And a very persuasive one at that. He saw us getting out of a place where no accommodation was available, whipped out a few hotel brochures and offered us a ‘special discount’ if we were to stay at any of these hotels. Since we didn’t know the area, we decided to follow the chap to the hotels. We found one, and after dumping our bags in our rooms, we headed out to find a good place where we’d find authentic Hyderabadi food. A phone call to a local friend took us to Siddique’s, not too far from where we were staying, and a few tikkas, roomali rotis and chicken legs later, we waddled back to our rooms. Day one, all okay. Would it be peaceful tomorrow? ‘Don’t waste your time on jealousySometimes you’re ahead, sometimes you’re behind…
The race is long, and in the end, it’s only with yourself.’
– Baz Luhrmann, Everybody’s Free To Wear Sunscreen
Day two: Hyderabad-Vishakhapatnam
We woke up early and were on our way to the Charminar before the city had a chance to wake up and slow our progress. Hyderabad’s old city area is a maze of narrow streets lined with one old building after another, much like what you’d imagine Aladdin to be living in. After we were done with being distracted by a dozen or so Contessa convertibles, all wedding cars, we were on our way again. We went through one lane after the other, until we got a peek at the Charminar through a gap in the line of buildings that led to the famous four spires. As Aman got ready to take some shots, I leaned against a wall and looked at this symbol of the city, a city that was still groggy as it stirred to life.
Then, right in front of us, a chap in a vest and a blue checkered lungi, looked on as his overloaded cart tumbled over, sending utensils and foodstuff flying all over the place. He looked at the mess and glared around, perhaps looking for someone to blame or maybe to dare anyone to laugh at his misfortune. Then he looked upwards, his shoulders slumped and he sat down to pick everything up. It was an almost surreal moment, this fellow picking up his goods as the first rays of ultraviolet fell on the monument in front of us. A man ceding to fate, hoping to salvage whatever he could as the ornate structure bathed in the soft brightness of a foggy morning. Hyderabad in the morning is really something, the rising sun over the city’s skyline lined with minarets and domes, with a haunting tone emanating from a mosque in the distance. So clichéd, and yet soul-stirring. Peaceful? Yes.
Shots done with, we headed out of the city on our way to Vizag, another 600-odd km away. As we hadn’t had breakfast, we were hunting for a place to have a quick bite, when Aman pointed out a Punjabi dhaba. Trust a sardarni to find a dhaba in the middle of Nizam land! And I’ve never had better parathas in my life. Sitting in the morning breeze and filling our stomachs, I caught myself looking at the Accord. The morning light accented its aggressive lines, the silver paint reflecting the light ever so softly, reminding me of the Charminar. Just as we were done with breakfast, the weather went from warm and sunny to cool and cloudy, easily the best climate we’d seen in quite a while. It’s amazing how much of a difference good weather can make. Everything is suddenly more cheerful, more beautiful than it has a right to be. You don’t even mind crawling behind truckers as they duel for position on the road at around 8 kph. Oh, and that day, we saw more overtaking on the road than I’ve seen in an entire season of F1. And it was almost as exciting too.
By afternoon, we were on the banks of the Godavari river, which is so huge that it can easily be mistaken for the sea. We crossed a bridge over the river into a city called Khammam, a city that we’d never heard of, though it was quite big and populous. From there, it was onto Rajahmundhry which will stay in our memories for the eye-wateringly bright red shirts and lungis that the rickshaw drivers over there sported. Why? Exactly, why?! Around five in the evening, we hit the Golden Quadrilateral which we hoped would quicken our pace considerably. It is interesting to see the way life has woven itself around this symbol of a new India. There was no shortage of people simply sitting on the dividers watching vehicles whiz past, while cattle feasted on the grass that grew on the medians. People were engrossed in all kinds of chores, from cooking to drying clothes, or just generally hanging out. The dividers, ironically, are places where people meet, and ideally, isn’t this how it should be? Shouldn’t differences be a point where people meet and discuss, rather than segregate and alienate each other? Only then can peace have a chance, right?
It was again dark when we entered Vizag, and at once, we could feel the relaxed vibe of the city. Maybe it was the familiar feeling of being close to the sea, maybe something else, but we unanimously already liked the city. After checking into the hotel, I happened to go to the parking lot, which was next to the beach. I looked at the dark waters of the Bay of Bengal and mused, ‘There you are. What took you so long?!’
‘I’m gonna trade this life for fortune
I’ll even cut my hair and change my name’
– Nickelback, Rockstar
Day three: Vishakhapatnam
The Accord had started showing some signs of brake fade the previous day, so we decided to take it to the good folks at Sundaram Honda in Vizag for a check-up, where it was found that the rear brake pads needed to be replaced and that the pads would be available only the next morning. None of us complained one bit, as that meant using our planned one day break in Vizag, instead of Kolkata, something we were only too happy to do. So the next day, while Rohin was at the service station, Aman and I went off to the beach right behind our hotel, cameras in hand. A sole lighthouse, a high wall and a rocky beach that stretched into the distance... perfect fodder for thought. It really is difficult to put into words the calming effect of the sea on anyone who goes to it. The sound of its waves clears your head just like it wipes away something written in the sand.
Beach Road is a beautiful sea-facing stretch that houses assorted installation artwork, ranging from statues to a plane commemorating India’s victory over Pakistan in the 1971 war. There are also many eating joints and everything echoes a chilled out air that only a seaside town can pull off. Sort of like a quieter Marine Drive but for one notable difference – a submarine docked along the shore. Vizag is also the headquarters of the Eastern Naval Command, and Beach Road houses the only submarine museum in the country, which of course, Rohin had to check out. So we followed a gaggle of Bengali tourists into the huge whale-like vessel and were instantly dumbstruck by the sheer amount of cables, pulleys, knobs and switches in the claustrophobia-inducing interior. Half an hour was a bit too much and I can’t imagine how submariners spend three months in this vessel at sea. A weapon of war is now a tourist attraction, and perhaps this is how all weapons should ideally be used, right?
As evening made its way to the east coast, we found ourselves on the beach again, just spending time by the sea, trying to take pictures in the dimming light. Pictures were just an excuse I guess, all we wanted was to listen to the sound of the waves, more powerful than any rock band and yet more soothing than Beethoven. When our stomachs rumbled louder than the sea, we figured it was time to grab dinner and we went out looking for a place called Sai Ram Parlour, a typical South Indian eating place and typically brilliant too. Curd rice, masala dosas and filter coffee completed our last day in Vizag, and as we drove back to the hotel, we promised ourselves for the umpteenth time that we would come back to this city to do full justice to it. Something’s right with the world today,
And everybody knows it’s wrong!
– Aerosmith, Living On The Edge
Day four: Vishakhapatnam-Puri
The next day, thanks to the quick work by the Sundaram Honda guys, we were on the road to Puri. The section of the Golden Quadrilateral in Andhra Pradesh was quite good, though general road manners were absent like in most parts of our country. Memories of the peaceful beach were long gone as Rohin regularly had to swerve to avoid oncoming bullock carts and trucks in the fast lane in addition to the usual people/animals crossing the road. There was even a cycle rickshaw parked in the fast lane whose rider woke up and stretched his sleep away just as we passed him. Seriously. All this can be pretty taxing when you’re trying to keep up a steady pace and it gave the Accord ABS system a thorough workout too. But things really went for a toss once we entered Orissa.
The road into the state was through an unmanned toll booth, and we wondered why vehicles were going the wrong way. Deciding that the other drivers were just being their usual idiotic selves, we continued on the correct lane only to see that the road was blocked by huge mounds of hay which farmers had laid out to dry or whatever it is that they do with hay in the middle of the road. Gah! Turn around, drive back and get onto the wrong side which was now the right side. The Accord, however, was totally unruffled and remained as serene as a frozen lake.
Just as we passed Hay Central again on the other side, we saw the road go from perfect to non-existent. And it stayed that way until we reached Bhubaneshwar, capital of the state. But it looked like any one of the many towns that we’d crossed in the last few days, so we drove right through it and promptly got stuck in a truck jam. Progress thereafter was very slow; it took us three hours to cover 100 km. In the middle of all the madness, the Accord turned 10,000 km old, though we didn’t really celebrate it. At last, we reached properly surfaced highways, which took us to a turn-off which said ‘Puri.’ Now, according to our calculations and the map book, the turn-off was not to come for another 50 km, but if this turned out to be a shorter route, we sure weren’t complaining. After the arduous past few hours, good food and a warm bed seemed like the only thing we needed in life. However, what followed next was the most difficult and, somehow, the most exciting part of this whole misadventure. The road looked like its erstwhile role was that of a minefield, and one which had no unexploded mines left. This meant that it was in a state that would do a WRC special stage proud. Add to that pitch black evening, and Captain Rohin at the wheel, and you have a special preview of next year’s Raid de Himalaya. At first, we were sweating bullets about the low-slung Accord’s ability to cope with such terrible roads, but were pleasantly surprised since it hardly touched the ground, and even when it did, it was nothing to worry about. The Accord went this way and that, constantly seeking an angle to overcome bumps and ditches, eventually emerging unscathed in Puri.
Yet another long day, yet another evening and yet another town. But it was a sea-facing town, even though we were tired, driving down to the end of yet another sea-facing road was an enticing idea. Besides, the Accord’s 2354cc block of velvet showed no signs of fatigue, remaining as seamless as the day we got it. And it was returning a respectable 8.2 kpl too, in spite of the caning it was being subjected to. So we really had no reason to not explore the place. Soon we were on an absolutely deserted, pitch dark road which ran along the sea, apparently headed to nowhere. So we stopped and turned around, and as we did, the Accord’s headlights lit up a part of the sea and the beach and this was a sight to behold. Slightly scary and totally awesome! We made our way to Hotel Vijoya International where we were supposed to stay for the night, and exhausted as we were, it was straight to the dinner table and then to bed for us. I had a nightmare about Orissa’s roads... ‘Heavy rings hold cigarettes,
Up to lips that time forgets,
As the Hollywood sun sets behind
– Metallica, The Memory Remains
Day five: Puri-Konark-Kolkata
We tried getting to the famous Jagannath temple in Puri, but as soon as we were near the temple, we were chased by a priest on a bicycle, wanting to take us for ‘darshan’ for which we would have to leave our cameras, shoes, belts and whatnot behind. We certainly didn’t want to stand in a mile-long line with our pants threatening to fall off just for a three-second glimpse of the deity. However, we parked the car some way from the temple and walked towards it. We came upon a big open space in front of the temple filled with people, shops and cows. The whole atmosphere was like any other temple town of today and reeked of commercialised devotion/marketed divinity to the core, so we humbly took our leave. Besides, we were looking forward to seeing the Konark temple and soon enough, we were off through the foggy forested road that led to it. En route to Konark, we had yet another unplanned halt when we stumbled upon a pristine beach that had scores of small crabs as the only sign of life. The cameras and tripod came out double quick, and we spent the next hour watching Rohin breaking into jigs and Aman running to and fro from the camera for our group shots. We chased waves into the blue/green sea and then running from the waves when they bounced back. We also tried to pay the crabs a visit, but knocking on crabholes that contain sharp claws suddenly lost its appeal. There was nothing around except the sea and the sand, and of course, us three BSM nuts, but we still had so much fun that we almost lost track of time. Who needs pubs and the like when you have a beach all to yourself?!
However, the Konark temple was waiting for us, and we had to leave for Kolkata too, so we left the beach behind. As soon as we reached the outskirts of the temple, Suryamani Malla, an authorised guide who spoke funny English, offered us his services, which we accepted since neither of us had a clue about the temple. The first glimpse of the main temple fails to prepare you for the sheer knockout blow that you get when you climb the first mandap called the Natya Mandir. You already stand high above the ground and the temple still towers over you. What a sight it must have been when all of it was still standing. The total height of the temple was 229 feet when it was built, but most of it has collapsed due to the ravages of nature and invaders. The temple has no idol, hence no worship. It’s just the structure that attracts people, and very rightly so. One long look at the stone temple is enough to knock a lifetime of peace into your head. The carvings around the temple depict the way of life in the times when this temple was built, and in that sense, it is an important archive of a long-lost culture. Rabindranath Tagore, whose Shantiniketan was our destination, once said of the temple, ‘Here the language
of stone surpasses the language of man.’ Which reminded us of the long drive ahead to reach Kolkata. So, with another place on the ‘have to come back here’ list, we left the temple behind.
The drive to Kolkata was another long haul over Orissa roads, and the transition to West Bengal roads was a welcome relief. Again, while nearing Kolkata, we managed to get lost. But this was different. We took a left turn, realised it was wrong, backtracked, took what we thought was the right way, realised we were wrong again and then totally lost our bearings, somehow ending up on the opposite side of the road which turned out to be the right way! We’re still scratching our heads on that one. It was a good wholesome meal of fish curry, rice and parathas for us before we hit the sack. Tomorrow, Shantiniketan.
‘This is my life,
It’s not what it was before.’
– Staind,So Far Away
Day six: Kolkata-Shantiniketan
Ok, we reached Shantiniketan not knowing what to expect, but we sure as hell didn’t expect it to be closed! Yes, even after all our meticulous planning, we landed there on a Wednesday, the one day that it is closed. We even missed out on seeing Tagore’s home that has been converted into a museum. But all was not lost. We could still go inside and roam about to our hearts’ content minus the student crowd, which suited us just fine.
There we saw an epic-sized banyan tree, the biggest I’ve ever seen. I could almost picture Rabindranath Tagore sitting under it, writing one of his famous poems. The campus is huge and there are the various faculty departments spread out, like any of the modern IITs and universities, but it is indeed more peaceful than any other campus I’ve been to. The campus has pieces of sculpture made by the students installed all over, and in unusual places. Some were prominently displayed, while others were hidden, almost as if their creators wanted people to catch a glimpse and then go closer to take a proper look. Thanks to the lyrics of a boy band song written on one of the outdoor blackboards and banners of various students’ political unions, the place lost a wee bit of its enigmatic appeal in my mind, but we did see a few students sitting in the grounds, studying. They still teach students under trees here, an old tradition holding out in the face of change, and not doing too badly for itself either. Amartya Sen calls this place home and many other illustrious names have been trained for life at this place.
Shantiniketan is covered with a charming patina of history, but more important than what it is, is what it stands for. Now, I’m the kind of person who is prone to looking for a deeper meaning in my everyday commute, so you can imagine what this phenomenal drive has done to me. Standing in the shade of Tagore’s beloved trees, I thought about whether we had accomplished what we had set out to do. Had we managed to find peace? Well, peace was to be found everywhere we looked, all along the way. But when our journey finally ended, the satisfaction of completing the longest drive of my life with my BSM team mates was the greatest peace I could think of. I could’ve locked myself in my room and meditated, but that wouldn’t really help, would it? Isolating oneself is not finding peace, as we often wrongly assume. You can only find peace when you open your mind to the sights and sounds of the world. And that was exactly the purpose of this drive. You can’t really quantify peace, but it comes to you in different forms. From sitting in the Accord at three digit figures to listening to the roar of the waves, from watching the people in the hinterland live their simple lives to joking around on the beach, from craning my neck to catch a glimpse of a bird in flight to hearing my camera’s shutter click and knowing that I’ve got the image that I’ve wanted... the list goes on. Right now, sitting in front of the computer, the sights and sounds of those 2,850 km seem almost dream-like. Only a few moments have passed since Bijoy asked us, ‘Would you do it again?’ The answer still echoes in my head: Yes! Yes!Yes!
Standing in the corridor of Kala Niketan, taking in the whiff of moisture settled on dusty wood, I could sniff the tranquillity. Even Aman and Kartik’s giggles were drowned by the cold breeze blowing from the north, fondling my hair, the grass and the structure’s sloping roof. Shantiniketan still had a smattering of peace in its atmosphere, nearly a century after Rabindranath Tagore set it up as a world learning centre. Shanti, as in peace, was something we were looking out for. But even after 2,850 kilometres through parts of southern and eastern India, it seemed like an illusion.
Over the last month, most of us in office were affected by what happened in our city. And each one of us had someone we knew, directly or indirectly, placed in the line of fire. For days on end, all of us went through a mix of emotions, for never before had we experienced our peace being shattered so close and affect us personally. Questions were raised, even more questions followed, but answers seemed so far away that the horizon was no longer visible. Could this drive help us fight our own ghosts?
After six arduous days on the road, I think I found some answers, if not all. Peace, it seems, needs to be imbibed at the grassroots level. We, in the cities, have gone ahead and demanded answers, but for the population of mofussil India, they had their own problems to sort out. From figuring out their crop yield to waiting for the next rains to getting electricity to their villages and giving their children a bright future. The demons of India’s progress, it seems, have been far from cured. It’s strange, but human life in India is rarely ever valued. People were driving their bullock carts, motorcycles and tractors all over the place – none of them ever cared about their own safety or others’. The Golden Quadrilateral is still incomplete in several patches. Everyone, it seems is on a different trip, with different priorities in life. Peace, it seems is last on that list. Arm-chair commentary is rather easy to make, but implementing solutions is rather difficult. Peace has a price to pay, and it’s a cost we must be willing to bear, without blinking an eye.
– Rohin Nagrani