by Jerry Randall, photo by Prabhu D Doss
One of the finest pleasures I know on this earth is a little paper cup of steaming chai besides a dusty highway in India. While chai varies across the country, more cinnamon here, a dash of ginger there, it is unfailingly sweet and delicious – a shot of energy that’s the best possible restorative ahead of embarking on the drive ahead. I’m at my most content while sipping roadside chai during a mid-journey break, as the highway traffic rumbles past.
My passion for travel is fairly literal – to me the process of getting from A to B is as enjoyable, if not more so, than anything A or B might have to offer. I have no limit to how long I can stare out of a window and be entertained by watching the world drift by; every moment is a new place, a new angle on the world and a new trigger for the imagination. And within my chosen art-form there is no doubt that the highways of India are world-class masters of their art. They are the Fabergé Eggs of journeying, the Michelangelos of transiting.
Over my time here, for both work and pleasure, I’ve spent hundreds of hours travelling tens of thousands of kilometres of Indian roads from Kanyakumari to Kashmir, and I absolutely adore them. The bumps and the dust pass me by, small sacrifice in the return for the infinitely fascinating country passing the other way. The roads are a microcosm that contain references to everything that makes India special, there’s nature, culture, politics, communities, economics and religion.
The first pleasure to be derived is from observing the other occupants of the highway, a motley crew of varied and eccentric fellows. The talent for loading is of course on regular display: be-saried women with improbable volumes of cargo balanced on their heads; motorbikes carrying extended families, livestock or, even, other motorbikes on pillion; cars and rickshaws sinking under their human loads, the general rule being that if there’s not a couple of chaps sitting on the bonnet then there’s room for more; trucks overflowing with farm produce – great sacks spill over the top so they resemble loafs of bread baked with too much yeast.
The mammalian citizens of the road are equally prominent. Wooden carts pulled by pairs of oxen or, if in Rajasthan, majestic but dour looking camels. Diminutive donkeys plod the verges, stray cows saunter around before deciding the middle of the road is the perfect spot for a little nap. Goatherds carrying nothing but a lungi around their waists and a 6ft wooden staff usher their herds down the road – dozens of animals in close-packed formations that prove definitively that “goat” is a shape that tessellates perfectly. If you’re lucky, an elephant.
The ubiquitous trucks tell a story of the colour and culture of India. Migrations of bare chassis are a regular sight, their delivery drivers sitting precariously in cabs that lack everything but the basic driving controls. They are headed from their assembly plants to truck towns – local centres such as Sankagiri in Tamil Nadu where hundreds of workshops specialising in body panelling and paint work tailor each truck to its owner’s artistic and practical specifications.
The basic brown undercoats are embellished with designs, religious symbols, mottos, mantras and personal identification markings, all hand painted with considerable skill. Along the sides their All India Permit will be proudly announced with a flourish, in addition to a couple of paintings and slogans of personal choice, my favourite being “We 2, Ours 1”, a rather clumsily-translated Hindi slogan promoting family planning and birth control. At the rear fancy fonts instruct “Horn Ok Please” or “Use Dipper At Night”, both reminders of the highway etiquette of giving the vehicle you’re about to overtake notification of your oncoming presence. Some carry the rather sinister sounding “Best of Luck”.
Most trucks are named after the owner’s God of choice, with a signboard above the cab declaring the sentiment. The names speak of the diversity and pluralism found within India; spot a Murugan and he’ll be from Tamil Nadu, an Ayappan will be from Kerala, Guru Nanak from Punjab. Muslim drivers carry the slogans Masha Allah or God’s Gift. But it is the Christian trucks that tickle me, belching All India Goods Carriers called simply Peter, Paul or the Virgin Mary.
In turn the villages and fields by the road tell endless stories of rural India. Daily life is in constant flow, its hardships and its joys, its monotonies and its extremes, its googlies and its slog sweeps. Simple concrete village houses are normally converted into colourful advertisements, almost exclusively for one of three things – cement, mobile phone networks or panties.
Every self-respecting highway rider in India should have their favourite brand of cement and mine is undoubtedly Ambuja, whose distinctive yellow and blue adverts feature a giant hulk of a man (with massive biceps and a tiny little head) cuddling a full-sized hydroelectric dam. The artistic style is bombastic with nationalistic undertones that mean it would look completely at home in 1980s communist Albania.
The roads also speak of the political issues that are an inescapable punctuation to daily activities. Great billboards filled with the sullen faces of local politicians line the roadsides, each face scowling behind a bushy moustache. They all look roguish and completely unelectable, and I wonder what they’re actually like as people. How do they treat their wives? How much of their income goes undeclared to the taxman?
Signs of government corruption and political folly are regular, in a remote location suddenly the road will divert around the beginnings of an unnecessary and hugely over-engineered flyover. The beginnings are also the end – money having been siphoned off from the construction contracts into the pockets of the politicians who commissioned them, leaving nothing left to finish the projects. They stand as forlorn collections of concrete and prickly re-bar. The road, and life, diverts around them across some ruts and lumps and continues on its inexorable way.
The quality of the roads also ebb and flow with the integrity of the local governments, state-by-state but also kilometre-to-kilometre. Some stretches you’ll average 25kph through cavernous pot holes, but then you’ll stumble across a stretch of efficient highway and your spirits, and speedometer, will soar to the giddying heights of 80kph. Periodically a serried rank of green signs will announce the arrival of a toll gate. The signs give you a range of information, not least a list of exemptions that includes the President of India and funeral hearses.
On the days when the President of India isn’t riding with you, you have to pay the toll charges which seem obtusely chosen to guarantee loose change is in short supply. The man in the booth will offer rupee sweets or packets of Parle-G with a resigned shrug in lieu of coins. There’s often a guy who’s sole job is to pass loose change (or confectionary) from the car window into the toll booth and back again.
Toll gates also bring great hope, because they are a regular source of excellent chai stops. The best chai originates from simple huts signalled by a collection of men lounging on charpoys out front chewing life’s cud. The chai-wallah himself will be at his workbench, partially obscured by jars of biscuits and packets of paan that hang down from his shop-front like stalactites. Time to stop, receive that delicious boost, and prepare for the excitement of the road ahead.
I don’t know how many crores of bumps have resonated through my being over the course of my various adventures on Indian highways, but the number will be so large to be in a realm normally only familiar to astronomers and Mukesh Ambani’s accountants. And while I wouldn’t go as far as to say I’ve enjoyed every one of them, I have certainly regretted none and would ride them all again given the chance. Come to India for the destinations, but also come for what’s between the destinations, it’s a truly unforgettable ride.