“annus horribills”! Could there be any better phrase which so beautifully hits the nail on the head to describe the year 2020. Towards the end of that miserable year, the pandemic related travel restrictions and frequent lockdowns which had kicked off in March had begun to really wear me down. Compounding my dark mood was the fact that I had been left with no option other than to can my annual Europe and North America business related ‘pilgrimage’ which had been scheduled to kick off in August and which had been minutely planned down to the last T.
By January ’21 with my wanderlust kicking in, the soles of my feet had begun to get very itchy. The fallout of that, in line with my nature, was a spur of the moment decision! With the only travel option being the wide open road, I decided to head off on a long somewhat unplanned drive in the general direction of north India. I had only a couple of agenda points spurring me on, that along the way I link up and reconnect with old colleagues and friends whom I had not met in ages and that I also wend my way to the borders of Delhi to show my solidarity with the farmers agitating there for months altogether for their legitimate rights. Having suggested to my wife that she might want to come along and having been told in one breath that not only would she not to accompany me, that in her (unsolicited I may add) opinion in view of the circumstances prevailing, I was an idiot for even considering the intent. Which left me to do what I had, in any case, been aiming to do – to venture out on my own!
Aware that my friend Robin, he of the stinky stockings and his wife (Amrita) were already there on their holiday I first headed off to Goa, enroute breaking journey in Mangalore where I checked into the absolutely beautiful Mangalore Club which is strategically located on the waterfront. That evening having gorged on the excellent seafood which that clubs kitchen dishes out, next evening I drove into Candolim, directly to that charming shack run by Stella Mascarenhas which is tucked away in an isolated corner of that beach and one which we have been using for years. Having linked up with Robin and Amrita, it was four days of lazing around in the sun and letting our hair down (not that Robin needs any prodding in that direction) which in simple terms translates into bar and restaurant hopping.
Tanned red as a lobster, the next stop was Poona for an overnighter at the Poona Club. Almost as soon as I’d checked in, there was a call that there was someone waiting for me at the Club reception. Which led to a lovely evening spent with Nazima, the wife of a very close friend (Niaz Ahmed) of my Assam days and her lovely daughters Asma and Zaima, reminiscing about Assam in its heyday.
Having planned to spend a couple of days with Jeetu and Kirti who after Jeetu’s tenure in Assam, have settled down in Jodhpur, the following day was a long haul drive to my enroute stopover in Ahmadabad. Driving into a hotel rather late in the evening, I was out the next morning at the crack of dawn. Half way across to Jodhpur I got a call from an unknown number which turned out to be Jeetu’s son Vijay suggesting that instead of me driving directly to Jodhpur, why would I not consider taking a diversion to spend a couple of days with him. Which of course led me to ask that since I had no clue where he was, where exactly was he suggesting that I take a diversion to? All that Vijay had to tell me was that he was in Jawai Sagar (which I had never heard of) and that this was a Leopard Reserve on the shores of a lake. The icing on the cake being that he owned and ran a resort there. Would anyone ever need any prompting when made an offer of this nature? Without a moment’s hesitation, I braked and promptly changed my destination in Google Maps to navigate in the direction of Jawai Sagar where I then spent two wonderful days enjoying Vijay’s hospitality. Which translates into us getting pickled in the evening and gorging on Lall Maas . As for the spotting of the Leopards which Vijay had promised would be the highlight of the visit, when I did get to see the fellows through a pair of binoculars , I had to burst his bubble of happiness telling him that I see more of those guys on my daily walk up the hill near our house. Win some/lose some!
On to Jodhpur for two relaxed days with Vijay’s Mum & Dad. Turned out to also be one of the few places where I ended up doing some tourist type sight-seeing. Jeetu, post retirement having worked as the Director of the Meharangarh Fort for many years, he had organised a guide who took me around making it a very special tour. The one big surprise was that even after all those years since they moved on from Assam, leaving behind all those trappings and chic style of the bungalows, evening tea with Kirti continues to be the whole nine yard affair. No short cuts for the lady. Wonderful!
Driving on from Jodhpur I approached Jaipur with some, not unfounded, trepidation. That stemming for the fact that my last interaction with Bahadur Singh an ex boss of mine from my Assam days, whose house I was making a bee-line for, had been far from being the most pleasant of experiences. Need not have given it a second thought. Bahadur and his daughter Sangeeta went way over the top making me feel not just wanted and comfortable, but also giving me a great time. Three wonderful days during which I also managed to meet and spend a couple of hours with Himmat, my crazy as a coot friend and was delighted to see that regardless of Himmat having been through a series of serious health issues which have him confined to a wheel chair, his steel grip on my hand when he literally shouted out an order that I “sit down and have a drink with me” is as strong as it was back in the day.
Then on to Delhi which turned out to be one of the highlights of my travel. Having total empathy for and supporting their just demands, this was the one stopover which had been pre-planned and decided on long before I set out from home and was in fact one of the reasons which had spurred me on to head northwards. Spending a couple of days with the agitating farmers sitting in protest at the borders of the capital for months altogether trying to get their message across to a deaf government, interacting with them and listening to some very interesting stories and sharing their pain was surreal. An experience like none other. I was more than overawed by their sheer determination and tenacity and had a ball interacting with quite a few while sitting around with them adding my two bits to the cause by helping groups of farmers shelling peas and peeling potatoes for the many langars which they had running nonstop 24 hours a day. Not that was in any way unexpected of the Sikhs who as a community, as an unwritten rule, never allow any person to go hungry. Regardless of whether the person be friend or foe!
As I drove on further northward towards Punjab, the many langars I had partaken of at the Delhi border culminated in the most delightful one which I was just simply fortunate to stumble on to. Heading towards Chandigarh where I was planning on spending a couple of relaxed days with some friends, enroute I was stopped in my tracks by the farmers who, so as to make a further point to that stone deaf administration, had organised a chakka jam. The result was that I, like many other folk on the road, found myself stationary and stranded for three hours at the non functional Panchkula toll plaza which the farmers had decided to blockade with their tractors for three hours. To spur them on and to express solidarity with their just cause, residents of the many villages which dot the landscape and can be seen on either side of the highway anywhere in north India, brought in huge khadais, carried in some firewood and soon had a fire going in the middle of the road to cook and drum up the most delicious Kadhi Chawal and Suji Halwa to feed the thousand or so agitating farmers as well as the fifty odd travellers who were cooling their heels for 3 o’clock which was the time those folk had decided and announced that the blockade would be lifted! While this particular langar was special in so many ways, the bottom line is that the richness and flavours of the food in any langar stem from one simple fact – that those earthy folk feed from the heart!
Beyond Chandigarh my destination being the Kangra valley on the foothills of the Dhauladar Range, enroute I did a quick overnight stopover in Amritsar so that I could pay obeisance at the Golden Temple and express my thanks for everything that has been bestowed upon me and my family. What more could one be wishing for then all that bounty which has come our way unasked.
The beautiful Kangra Valley is home to an almost forgotten tea growing area in India. Within that valley, close to Palampur, is the Wah Estate, owned and managed by the Prakash family the scion of which, Surya, is a youngster who seeks my advice and whom I, in a manner of speaking, mentor in the finer aspects of tea making. Adding to the flavour is the absolutely delightful home stay that they run on the estate. Which added up to four lovely days relaxing at The Lodge at Wah, going for a couple of treks and soaking in the atmosphere of this unique property lorded over by the snow clad Dhauladar.
Dehradun was a ‘must visit’ in my unplanned itinerary to catch up with Prabodh, a retired very senior army officer with whom I’d forged a friendship way back in 1977 when he was doing a commando diving course in the Naval Dive School in Cochin where I had been sent by Malayalam Plantations to ostentatiously fatten me up. Post ’77 having been in touch with him only intermittently, the freewheeling drive was an opportunity for us to catch up. And catch up we most certainly did.
Heading back to Delhi following the Dehradun sojourn, after a couple of days doing nothing in particular, I started to wend my way homeward, though this time taking the central route back via Jhansi and Nagpur. That particular drive found me on what is undoubtedly the best highway I had encountered in all my travel where I was able not only to put my foot down on the pedal, but also managed what on most Indian roads is unthinkable – put the car on cruise control! Enroute to Nagpur, having received an invitation from out of the blue to spend the night with a friend of a friend, instead of spending the night in the CP Club which is where I was headed, I ended up spending a very interesting evening with Shiraz Doongajj a delightful Parsi gentleman who has a farm abutting the Pench Tiger Reserve
The next morning, bright and early on to Hyderabad to foist myself on my close though much younger friend, Ahmed. Two days which turned out to be my second ‘touristy sightseeing’ stopover of the trip. Ahmed is a trove of the rich history and culture which Hyderabad is famous for and put me though the most interesting two day encapsulated tour of the city along with a very detailed walk through the Golconda Fort which is so steeped in history, that walking through it with a very knowledgeable friend rambling away is almost akin to living that history. The tour guide role being played to perfection during the day, come he evening that role gets related far into the background, which is when my young friend really lets his hair down. All the way down! Leading to two very late ‘evenings’ with us pickled to the gills!
Since Ahmed was also planning to head on to Ooty where he is constructing his new abode close to Lovedale I suggested to Ahmed that instead of him also driving separately to the Nilgiris which he was planning to do, that he along with all his junk hop in with me, subject to him accepting one inelastic condition “my car, I drive!”, and so having decided to become deaf to his irritating passenger seat driving and irregular grumbling, we headed out on a very long stretch to Mysore. Reaching our destination rather late in the evening and checking in to a resort, we had a very pleasant and rather boozy evening. Heading out after a leisurely breakfast next morning, within three hours driving through the Bandipore and Muduhmallai Tiger Reserves we rolled into Ooty where I disgorged my Harrier of Ahmed and all his odds and ends which he had piled up the vehicle with. Half an hour later I was back home in one piece!
8,700 Kms of just about the most memorable drive one could ever embark upon!
In the bargain I also proved a point more to myself than to anyone else that lockdown or no lockdown, life can be made as interesting as one wishes to make it!