While it was always a long haul from the estate to Delhi and beyond and vice versa, all through the 1980’s from the time we bought our first second hand car in Delhi till such time as we left Assam in 1990, we undertook this journey on quite a few occasions. Every single time we did, we’d enjoy the five day drive from the centre to the easternmost corner of the country.
Barring the couple of times we had to take a different route on account of the annual floods in UP which would make the roads impassable, our route was predetermined. We’d cover almost 600 Kgs every day, which back in the day meant a good twelve to fourteen hours behind the wheel on roads which were a class of their own. The standard routing heading out on annual leave was Estate – Guwahati – Siliguri – Patna – Lucknow to arrive in Delhi very late in the evening on day 5. The reverse trip would be along exactly the same route. The trip, every single time that we undertook this, used to be an adventure and a unique experience for Kitty and me while for the kids there just could not have been a better education. Not that each trip was not an education for us too since every couple of hundred Kms one could not only just see but also feel the change in topography, vegetation, people, language, food …….. a list which could simply go on and on. In short we LIVED India.
Regardless of the road conditions and the distance, to me driving always was and continues to be a pleasure so that the entire 12/14 hours behind the wheel was the lone preserve of yours truly. There was only one trip, 1988 I believe it was, when on insistence by all and sundry, we had a driver accompany us. With me refusing to hand over the wheel to him, the whole way to Simla and back, Sanyasi did nothing but to sit on the rear seat, twiddling his thumbs and keeping himself busy entertaining the kids. His only useful contribution being to keep the Gypsy clean, which he would do most diligently every evening wherever we stopped for the night.
Those being the days when we were constantly short of money and always looking for any which way to save a penny or two, I took the conversation I had with my father-in-law as being nothing short of a windfall. It started with Kitty’s Dad curious to know the details of the route we would be traversing to get back to the estate. This followed with him asking me where we would be staying at each night halt. Hotels! The least expensive ones we could find, just so long as the bed and the loo were clean.
On being told that on day three we would be in Patna, in what sounded like music to the ears he tells me “Why would you need to stay in a hotel in Patna? Don’t you know that my first cousin (the gentleman was a Brigadier in the army) is posted there. He’d be delighted to host you all for the night.” Who were we to look a gift horse in the mouth and so Kitty immediately took down Brigadier Kapur’s address in Patna – #12, BAILEY ROAD! There being no mobiles we could call in case we needed direction, she also noted down the gentleman’s landline number.
It being obvious that we’d be well looked after in the Brigadier’s home with a drink or two preceding dinner and wanting to get there by early evening so as to make the most of the expected hospitality, we headed out from Lucknow by 5 O’clock which was a good two hours ahead of our usual daily departure time, to find ourselves just a couple of Kms short of Patna exactly 12 hours later. The road from Lucknow as one approaches Patna city, skirts Danapur cantonment. Assuming that the Brig would be stationed and living in the army area we turned into the cantonment to be told that Bailey Road was a couple of kilometres further up, the first intersection we’d come to as we entered Patna. A short distance away after turning into Bailey Road we hit the residential area with the houses all on one side of the road starting with #1. Past #9 there was a large open area on which stood a large statue of Hanuman with a huge temple behind the statue. Driving past this gap the next house we saw was numbered #17. Since the one we were looking for was missing, we just assumed that #12 would probably be further down the road and continued driving on, all the while checking the numbers on the gates (some totally unreadable). Having driven all the way to house #200, there was nary a #12 in sight. So back we came. Same story, there was #17, then Hanuman glaring down at us and as we crossed the gap – #9. That first rather long drive all the way down Bailey Road was followed by number of repeats of the first to try and locate the elusive #12.
With the time getting on to 8 O’clock, not finding what we were seeking, the kids becoming fidgety and all four of us getting more frustrated by the minute, having asked quite a few passer-byes whether they knew where this damn house was, the only answer we got every single time was “On Bailey Road there is a Hanuman statue, #12 is right next to it”. It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack. In desperation I drove back to the cantonment and headed to the Army Mess. At the entrance the first officer I bumped into was a smartly turned out Captain whom I asked whether he knew a Brig Kapur. “Don’t know him personally, but do know that he lives in #12 Bailey Road”. I wanted to scream! Nothing else to do, but to head back to that damn road.
Around 9 p.m. we crossed a house with a name plate which told us that the resident was a Mr ‘something’ Sinha followed by an ‘I.A.S.’ highlighted in bold letters. Wonderful! A governmental functionary who would likely know the lay of the land like the back of his hand. With nothing to lose I rang the doorbell. The rather grumpy looking gentleman who opened the door to me wanted to know what I wanted. Having explained the ridiculous situation to him and having been ONCE AGAIN told by Mr Sinha (I.A.S.) that #12 was near that Hanuman statue, I requested him to allow us to use his phone to make a local call. Looking at me rather dubiously he waved dismissively towards the instrument lording over a small table in one corner of the room. Kitty having the details in her diary, she came in from the car and proceeded to dial the number. After going through the motions a couple of times she turned to me to say that every time she dialled the first two of the six digit number, the phone was cutting off with the sound jumping back to the dial tone. Asking the, by now, rather impatient and more grumpy than before Mr Sinha (I.A.S.) whether he knew which particular area in Patna would be covered by this number, the gentleman pulled himself up to his full height and in a most haughty tone of voice made it known to me that ‘Patna is a VERY large city’ and that he was a senior officer in the government and not expected to be au fait with such irrelevant data. Thanking the gentleman, it was back to the car.
Totally pissed off with the state of affairs we had landed ourselves up in, I decided that there was now no option other than to, much as this was going to hurt immensely, dip into my pocket to pay for a hotel for the night. Which led to another foray down Bailey Road, though this time around with us on the lookout for an inexpensive hotel. Around 10 O’clock, turning into a side street a nameplate on a gate caught my attention. This one, and I remember this ever so vividly, read ‘Col Shamsher Singh’. Glory be, an honest to goodness army officer residing on this same god forsaken road! Regardless of it being so very late, throwing caution to the winds I knocked on the door to be greeted by a tall gentleman in a dressing gown, sporting an imposing moustache. Apologising most profusely for the late night knock on his door I blurted out my woebegone tale. Blew me away when he tells me “of course I know him, Brig Kapur is my Brigade Commander”. Could have hugged the gentleman had he not, in the next breath blurted out “he lives on #12”.
“Where, kind Sir, is this #12 Bailey Road?” “Have you seen that statue of Hanuman?” “Yes, yes, yes and once more – YES!” And then the mystery unfolded with us being told that when we got to the statue, we should go around the pedestal of the statue and that between Hanuman and the temple we’d find one very narrow slip road which would open up to a side street on which we’d find #s10 to 16! The geography lesson followed up with an admonition that since the slip road was very well hidden, if we did not keep a sharp lookout for it, we’d miss the road. Tell me about it!
So back up Bailey road but this time with a target ‘in sight’
Sure enough, there was that narrow little slip road well camouflaged behind the oversized pedestal of the similarly oversized Hanuman. A hundred yards down this squeeze we saw the high gate which proudly claimed that we were standing in front of #12 Bailey Road. Approaching the gate I saw that this was locked shut with a chain and padlock and that the large house, which the gate barred entrance to, was in total darkness. Having wasted five and a half hours of my life in getting to this elusive and ‘free for the night’ objective, with Kitty continuing a tirade that it was too late for us to be disturbing our to be hosts, I was not to be deterred. My clambering to get to the top of this tall metal gate resulted in all sorts of metal grating noises including a racket created by the ends of the chain and the padlock clanging on the metal sheet. Promptly a light came on and I spotted a menacing looking uniformed solider armed with a lathi advancing towards me at a fast trot. My shout of “I am the Brigadier’s cousin coming from Delhi” had the guy slow down to a walk with the lathi lowered.
I was told that the Sir and his wife had been expecting us all evening and had waited till ten O’clock before giving up to retire for the night. Now literally chomping at the bit in my mouth I was not going to let go and insisted that the chap ring the front door bell which he most reluctantly acquiesced to. After a couple of repeats of the door bell ringing exercise, the door opened to the welcome sight of a portly Brig Kapur in his dressing gown, with Mrs Kapur standing beside him, both looking decidedly peeved. Having been invited in, we were admonished with Mrs Kapur reminding us that Kitty’s Dad had called many times in the last couple of days for them to be advised that they should expect us by 5 O’clock. And that they had been waiting for us all that while since tea time.
Having apologised profusely, though not with as much sincerity as was probably expected off us, we blurted out the details of our harrowing evening up and down that road.
In response to “Why didn’t you just call? We could have given you the directions”
Kitty explained how she had tried but their phone line appeared to be out of order.
Was told that “No, there is nothing wrong with the line”.
On being asked what was the number she had been calling, Kitty showed them the entry in her diary.
“Who gave you this? That’s not our phone number”.