Tell someone that they ought to head to Jhumri Talaiya and in all likelihood, you’re going to sound rather insulting – if the person is bigger than you, you might even be nursing some bruises. The thing is, Jhumri Talaiya has become a Hindi metaphor for a place that is so far away from the rest of the world that it appears to have fallen off the map. It’s the Indian equivalent of Timbuktu, the back of beyond, the middle of nowhere, the end of it all. Funnily enough, when I asked my dad a few days ago if he’d buy me a lathe machine for my birthday, he replied with many unprintables and something that ended with Timbuktu. That got me thinking – if I couldn’t afford a lathe for myself, there was certainly no way I could land up in this town situated in Western Africa. However, I had wondered whether there was a place like Timbuktu here in India that has become an analogy for the ‘back of beyond’.
As these things usually pan out, I was given the keys to a spanking new Mahindra Thar and was told to go and discover a part of India not many people know of. It seemed like a perfectly good idea at the time – drive straight into the boondocks of India. Besides, you never know what you could run into there – maybe even a lathe machine that was being sold as scrap. Online maps say Jhumri Talaiya is a mere 2,027 km away from Mumbai. ‘Seems pretty straightforward’, I thought to myself, and so Joshua, Suraj (an old friend of mine who’s an ace with old British motorcycles) and yours truly set out in search of this place that has featured in numerous old Bollywood dialogues and several songs.
We decided to head to Jhumri Talaiya via Nagpur and then on to Varanasi, from where we would catch the Grand Trunk Road straight to a place called Barhi. From Barhi, Talaiya is about 20 kilometres away. Getting to Nagpur was quite straightforward. We stayed there for the night and left early in the morning for Varanasi. The highway veers through the Pench tiger sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh, a gorgeous stretch of road which is flanked by dense jungle on either side. All was well until I suddenly saw a wild boar run across the road. I stood on the brakes and the animal made it across unscathed. I gathered my wits and began to roll away, when Suraj shouted at me to stop. ‘What if the boar was being chased by a tiger? It’s best if we just stay here and wait,’ he said, frantically rolling up the window. Nothing came, even after 10 minutes of studied silence, during which I pondered the wisdom of having brought Suraj along.
As we learnt, driving through Bihar can be quite an eye opener. We paid tolls for roads whose surfaces hadn’t ever seen tarmac, and every time, instead of change for the money we handed over, small packets of gram were dropped into our outstretched hands. So, the next time you’re in Bihar, don’t even think of paying 10 rupees of toll with a 500 rupee note. And God help you if you need change for ` 1000 – you’ll be handed enough gram to feed everyone below the poverty line. And lest I forget, travelling through this state (and UP) in anything other than a vehicle like the Thar is a very bad idea, because the roads will simply pummel it into metal pulp.
The Talaiya reservoir greeted us as we drove along the twisty road leading towards the city from the Barhi turn off. Apart from being picturesque, this reservoir has immense historic importance – this water body is attached to the first ever dam that was built in India after the country gained independence from the British. Electricity is produced here harnessing the flow of water from this very dam. Further in, a blue board welcomes visitors. There are people everywhere, and at first, this town seems just like any other in the interiors of India.
Old army-disposal trucks ply these roads, albeit re-registered with private owners. Cycle rickshaws try to nuzzle past tiny gaps in the chaos and cows ruminate on garbage piled high in the middle of the road. People ooze out of every nook and cranny. Brandish a camera, and you’ll have people walk up and literally put their faces into the lens.
But then, just before I dismissed this town as merely another dusty Indian settlement, I began to discover the grand buildings standing beside the pothole-ridden road, their graceful old facades blemished with hoardings of underwear brands and the like. I drove around, wondering what forgotten treasure lay around the corner. Most of these structures seemed to have been built in the 1960s, judging by their architectural style. A few older British-built buildings also survived, but barely. There was an air of decrepitude that hung over them, which was sad to see – it was like seeing a well-loved elderly uncle slowly wasting away.
By now, we were dead tired, so we went in search of a hotel; we didn’t need anything fancy – just a clean toilet and a comfortable bed. Josh got off the Thar after I pulled up outside a hotel that looked promising, despite its gaudy glass facade. It wasn’t long before he scurried back to the vehicle with alarming urgency, as if he had walked into a murder scene. With a look of extreme bemusement, he told me that the hotel receptionist was sprawled across the lobby, drunk out of his wits. Our stay in Jhumri Talaiya was clearly going to be interesting if nothing, I thought.
We ultimately found a decent hotel and settled down for the night. I asked the gent at the reception about the history of the town, and his eyes lit up. With no further preamble, he rattled out the history of Jhumri Talaiya, like he’d been waiting to tell someone about it for quite a while.
The British, it appears, came here in the late 1800s, bringing progress to the region with their railway lines. I’m not sure how it happened, but at some point, they began digging into the ground (perhaps out of sheer boredom) and as a result discovered large deposits of mica. Digging deeper, they realised that the place was full of this mineral, and so began the rise of Jhumri Telaiya. How, you might ask? Well, Mica is a mineral that is used extensively in the electrical industry because of its excellent property of insulation. Besides, the sheen of mica makes it an important constituent of paints and cosmetics. Naturally, the demand for mica was high, and the British began mining the region for all it was worth, basing their operations in nearby Jhumri Talaiya. Local land owners began digging up their lands, and prosperity suddenly flooded into the little town.
Overnight, Jhumri Talaiya found itself on the world map. The little town became home to the ‘Mica Kings’, businessmen who were the largest exporters of the mineral in the world. These men, awash in new-found wealth, began building palatial mansions for themselves, and if the receptionist was to be believed, Mercedes-Benzes and other exotics once roared around the very same roads on which garbage now lay piled high. Telephone connectivity reached Jhumri Talaiya in the mid 1920s, almost certainly making it among the first few places in the country to be connected to the grid, and at one point the place had the highest number of phone connections in the country, with the maximum number of phone calls made as well. Life, it seemed, was very good.
The town, however, found an unusual enemy – scientific progress. Science was continuously working to improve current technology, and the world was changing rapidly. A man-made substitute for mica was found, and naturally it was cheaper to produce than by mining. Worse, the USSR, which happened to be the largest importer of Indian mica, for its space and defense programmes, was crumbling. Mining operations come at a very heavy cost, and this was being paid for dearly by the local wildlife. The forest department stepped in and stopped issuing mining permissions, which effectively killed many privately run mines, and after years of typical mismanagement and economic malaise, even the government-run mines closed down. That was it, then – the end. Mica was all that Jhumri Taliaya had, and with the closure of the mines, the town began dying its own, slow death. People moved out, the roads were reclaimed by garbage, the mansions began crumbling and the town fell off the map.
The hotel receptionist had by now run out of breath. The old man drank some water and slumped back into his chair, content. I dug a little deeper, asking him how the name Jhumri Talaiya became famous; the answer was quite delightful. Back in the 1950s, a popular radio show called Vividh Bharati began receiving a huge number of song requests from listeners in Jhumri Talaiya. Apparently, the townsfolk had decided that they would compete among themselves for the maximum number of requests sent; one man even managed to get his name mentioned on the show virtually every day. How about that for an interesting nugget, eh? I finally left the old man alone and decided to get a good night’s rest.
The next day, at the crack of dawn, we set out in search of the mines. We asked around, but nobody seemed to know what we were talking about. We went up to one shabby shop and had a bottle thrust into our faces. ‘Podka, saab’, the man informed us. We looked at each other; it was a little early in the day for that kind of thing, despite the very kind offer. We politely declined and continued our search, finally discovering that the mines are all within a radius of 30-40 km of Jhumri Talaiya. The Podka man had warned us about possible visits from Naxalites down the road, but we gathered our collective courage and set forth. On the way, we met Subodh Singh, who happened to be stretching his hands in the air after a good night’s sleep, and we asked him whether he could take us into the mines. Before he even answered, he was coaxed into the Thar and we were on our way.
Subodh took us in and gave us the grand tour. Various bits of rusting machinery were scattered about; with my hand, I wiped a copper plaque that was riveted on a boiler thrown onto its side. ‘Made in England’, it still proudly proclaimed. As we walked through the area, I noticed the office. It was as if work had stopped here all a sudden, and that moment had been frozen in time forever. The mine shaft had been sealed with two large padlocks, but just beyond its gate, I caught a glimpse of an old mining hard-hat. The ground shimmered with mica dust, giving the place a surreal glow; I could only try and imagine what it had once looked like, back when it was abuzz with activity.
Subodh said that the place was now looked after by a couple of retained employees, and as luck would have it, one of them strolled up to meet us. He told us how the mining was done, and that this particular mine was about 700 feet deep. The miners would enter the mine through the now-padlocked gate, and large buckets filled with the extracted mica would be pulled up a vertical shaft that led to the top of the hill, with pulleys and cables. About 50 people worked the mine per shift and there would be three shifts every 24 hours. Talk about a long, hard day at work, especially when the fruits of your labour went straight into the boss’ brand-new Mercedes-Benz.
As we bid adieu to Subodh and the caretaker, I thought about what the miners did to survive and feed their families when the mines closed down. It must have been very hard to have their only source of income abruptly snatched away – but then, that’s the way it crumbles, I suppose. The Mica Kings survived well enough, of course, because they had enough stashed away; they got into other businesses and got on with their lives, while their children were sent to the best schools and then settled down in other parts of the country. The town faded away, but it wheezed along as best as it could, and it’s still doing so today. Some say that mica is still being illegally mined (and I believe it), but otherwise, there’s precious little here – a few small hotels, lots of little motor garages (including one specialising in Shaktiman trucks) and the usual complement of small-town businesses. If there was ever an example of how time and tides change, it would certainly be the town of Jhumri Talaiya – it blazed a bright trail for a short while, and it was extinguished equally quickly.
It was now time to head back home. We stopped at Raipur, a large town, for a bit of rest after getting lost, all thanks to a policeman who pointed us towards a short cut. Suraj called room service for some tea, while I stared out of the window and Joshua yakked away on the phone. A short while later, someone knocked on the door, and I opened it to find a transvestite holding a tray, with three cups and a flask of tea. She had a low-cut top on, with skinny jeans, bright red lipstick and wavy hair. I was speechless; there is no other way to put it. I have known Suraj for a long time, and I have never seen him open his eyes as wide as he did on that day – and Suraj has distinctly oriental features. A transvestite room service waiter – now where in the world would you see that?
This just made me realise there are always things to discover in India. It doesn’t matter whether it’s finding the back of beyond, or finding a Bollywood model coordinator in the back of that beyond (we found one, yes) or having a man/woman with curly hair sprouting out of his (her?) cleavage pour tea into a cup for you – there’s always something out there in this country that you have never seen before. So what if I didn’t find that lathe or the Vincent Black Shadow that I had hoped I would discover lying in a rusted heap? I had just been to the actual middle of nowhere – how many people can say that? The writer was on a media invite from Mahindra to participate in the Thar drive.