Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Alto K10: A Dhantenan Road Trip (log of days 2 and 3)

On Dec 25 we woke up at 4 in the morning, feeling like young gorillas. The Disprin had worked wonders with the fatigue and all the three of us were rearing to go. Aaron didn't have Disprins, but he too was excited to make up for the lost time the previous day. His sole aim was to reach Calcutta early, ring the doorbell, wait for his granny to open the door, and pounce on her. And for that to be achieved on time, we had to cover up a long distance on day 2.

Leaving Hotel Garuda Residency and finding NH-5 was pretty easy. We tanked up the car and set off. By the time we left the town, it was nearing 6.00 in the morning. My wife kept paying the toll along the way and saved the receipts. I will make a list of those as well. The road was fantastic like we found it between Naidupeta and Ongole. (On day 1 we found that between Ongole and Vijaywada, the road is being broadened, so you can expect the average speeds to come down a bit.)
After Vijaywada, the road in entire Andhra Pradesh is just amazing till the Orissa border, at Ichhapuram. We reached Ichhapuram around 3.00 in the afternoon. Before that we faced some stiff peak day traffic while crossing Vizag, but that wasn't much of a bother because Vizag is a beautiful town. It has the distinct smell of the sea from the right and the sight of the hills to the left. We could see boards pointing to the port and planned to visit it on our way back. Last time we did Vizag in 2007 Jan, we did a trip to Araku, but missed visiting the port.

Vizag is 386 km from Vijaywada and we reached around 11.30, clocking real good time. But it took us about 45 minutes to cross the town. We reached this distance in 25 liters of petrol. I was happy with the FE overall. Sayantani sounded pretty optimistic about doing Bhubaneswar, which is 429 km from Vizag. But memories of our last trip loomed large in our minds. Last time, in 2006 December, we suffered for about an hour at Ichhapuram, and to do Bhubaneswar, you have to cross Ichhapuram again. It was a chance we had to take.

As expected, at Ichhapuram, trucks entering Orissa had lined up and blocked the left side of the road. We had to move to the other side and keep going. Very soon we realized that even the other side is blocked by ongoing traffic. I really didn't understand how the oncoming traffic managed with their road being blocked as well, but for me, trying not to be sandwiched between those huge trucks was the primary concern. Luckily for us, this impasse lasted only ten minutes as the idle truckers doubled up as traffic cops and helped clear the traffic. All this without the help of the administration. The few policemen at the checkpost were busy getting their palms greased.

So we entered Orissa without much ado after all. What next? According to the map of the GQ http://nhai.org/gqmain_english.htm, only 37 km of the entire stretch is under construction and the rest is done. But if you cross Berhampore, you are suddenly taken off the road into a village that leads to another village. The condition of NH5 in Orissa is so pathetic, you wouldn't know where you are going. There are long traffic jams on narrow roads. There aren't any milestones to tell you where you are. The villages of Rambha, Balugaon, and Ganjam have three railway crossings between them, and getting stuck at any one of these can make life very miserable for you. By the time we crossed Ganjam, about 100 km from Berhampore, we realized that the NHAI map is seriously misleading. Bhubaneswar was still about 90 kms when we came back on the golden quad, but by then it was already 7.00 and very dark. We finally reached Bhubaneswar at 8.30 that night.

We should have listened to Arnab of IndiaHighways and checked in to Ridge Residency on the highway. The room they showed us was pretty rundown and we thought of finding a proper hotel inside the city and went in. Unfortunately, we missed out on the last room at Arya Residency, a decent hotel in downtown Bhubaneswar. What we eventually settled for was so pathetic, we ended up rather grumpy. The room was small, the toilet unusable, and the bedspread kinda creepy. The food came at 11.00 in the night and by the time we slept off, we had already started fighting with each other.

Day 3, Dec 26

The Disprins we had downed the previous night freshened us up the next day. We left early to avoid any more fights and the moment we hit the road again at 7.30 that morning, we felt very excited. According to our calculations, we had another 400 km to go. But hey, what does the milestone say? It says Calcutta is 493 km! How come? And then came many confusing milestones, one after the other, saying very contradictory things. The next one said 421, another 491, and yet another 405. Because all were pointing towards Calcutta, we kept going. And then the milestones got uniform.
We knew that the Orissa-Bengal border is also going to be a painful experience at Jaleshwar, but this time Jaleshwar was a breeze. The roads all the way from Bhubaneswar to Jaleshwar are being constructed, so do NOT believe the NHAI map at all. All you get is a single lane, with the other one being used by the local farmers to display their harvest.

After Jaleshwar, as we entered West Bengal, the roads were fantastic once more. But there was something strange that I noticed in this state. All the way from Andhra to Orissa, at all the toll gates, there are smiling, nice people collecting the fees. They wish you happy journey, smile generously when you say thanks, and make the next leg of the journey that much more pleasant for you. In West Bengal, somehow, NONE of the toll collectors had a smile on their face. They didn't make eye contact, they didn't respond to my "thank you sir" even once, and they had no helper standing outside to collect the toll and make the entire process more efficient. Poor Bengalis don't love the jobs they are doing because all of them perhaps think they are cut out for superior, intellectual things. Everyone is grumpy and full of some strange attitude, and the experience of an outsider is nothing short of entering a city infested by rude Parisians.

We reached Calcutta by 4.00 in the afternoon after a lazy day's drive. The Alto, as I mentioned in my first log, behaved superbly. It is a fill-it, shut-it, forget-it car, and responds to the throttle pretty quickly. For 3.93 lakhs on road in Bangalore, it is a real value-for-money, go-anywhere car. Now it has to take us back to where we really belong: Bangalore.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Alto K10: A Dhantenan Road Trip (log of day 1)

The last-minute change of vehicle meant drastic changes to our entire plans. The Alto K10 is new, faster than the jeep, but can we take it from Bangalore to Kolkata? And what will happen to all that luggage we packed for a road trip to South Africa? This is one of the smallest hatchbacks in India and the luggage is meant for a Bolero. My wife (who was about to pack for a one-year-long road trip) was very dejected at the proposal, but I was secretly excited for two reasons:

  • she will learn to pack lean
  • I will get to drive the young and peppy Alto K10, which forever wants to fly

I quickly took the Alto to the nearest accessories shop and got sun films for the windows, a local stereo, and an entry-level roof rack that I didn't intend to keep after this trip. We were supposed to start very early on December 24, but I spent a long time at the accessories shop at Tilaknagar and came home really tired. When I reached, I was shocked to see that the first bullet point hadn't been addressed at all.

"What man? I thought you were packing everything into one bag?"

She had an evil grin on her face: "But then you got a roof rack, didn't you? Don't worry, I unpacked your three pairs of shoes and offloaded all your trousers. You have to survive with only two pairs of jeans for 21 days."

"But why still four bags?"

She had no explanation. She had packed things from one bag into another and when she finished, the number of bags was still the same and so was the bulk. We went off to sleep really late with a lot of apprehension about the size of the car...will it go?

Dec 24: Our journey started at 5.30 instead of at 4.00, and by then the fog was setting in. We had decided to give Old Madras Road the skip and took Hosur Road instead. The drive till Dharmapuri was slow because of the fog, but after a bio-break, we reached Vellore around 9.00 in the morning. Our target was to go from Vellore to Chittoor, and then touch Naidupeta at least by 11.00 in the morning. That seemed absurd right now, but so far, the Alto K10 seemed to be doing faster speeds than the Bolero. It is very easy to maneuver and if you are negotiating a zigzag overtake of two vehicles, it manages it with elan. I would never even dream of doing such maneuvers in the Bolero given its high CG. After a quick breakfast at Vellore, we hit Ranipetta and took a left turn towards Chittoor. That little distance of 43 km between Ranipetta and Chittoor was beautiful and quick. Beautiful because of the landscape all around and the winding road. Quick because there was hardly any traffic. Before Chittoor, we took a right turn toward the Tirupati road (also known as Chittoor bypass). We finally reached Naidupeta at 1.00 (350 km from Bangalore), way behind our original schedule. Rajmundhry seemed impossible that day, but Vijaywada, another 386 from Naidupeta, was within reach.

We reached Vijaywada at around 6.00 and entered the town. That is an average of 77 km per hour, quite a bit more than we could achieve during our last trip to Calcutta in the Bolero GLX. By 6.30, we had checked in to Hotel Garuda Residency, which is bang opposite the star-rated Gateway Hotel. We had carried lunch on the first day, so the stops were mostly under trees. I gradually started appreciating the packing by then. Everything was neatly arranged and planned, from the route map, the food, to the medicines (we Bengalis frequently need digestive pills...some say even after a yawnful of oxygen intake) and back at the hotel the clothes to wear and slippers. The Alto K10 behaved pretty well during the journey and hit 100 kph at 3000 rpm very easily. Despite the load, it touched 120 kph at 3500 rpm, but then there are many toll booths on the entire stretch to not let you be very adventurous. The fuel economy was pretty decent at 16.49 kmpl, and given the frequent third-gear chases, I feel it is very, very frugal indeed.

The Alto K10 has an amazing third gear. The manual says you shouldn't go beyond 119 kmph in third gear. Keeping that in mind, I made it zoom till 100 kph in third gear, much to the shame of many SUVs on the road, who are all mostly aggressive drivers to say the least (I, for a change, am a "nice" SUV driver...I never am aggressive...I never nudge cars off the road...I never swerve towards other cars trying to overtake just to make them scrape the median and topple to the other side only to be thrown into the air by a truck...I never switch on all my six lights while driving on the wrong side, blinding oncoming traffic...chhheeeee!!). Opposed to that, if I gradually try to speed from 80 to 120 in fifth gear, it takes a few seconds longer. Such decent behavior will obviously return more than 20 km per liter of petrol. But for me, the thrill of the sudden lunging forward in the third gear is too tempting to resist.

The food that night was awesome: kalmi kebabs, butter naan, and daal, followed by a couple of usual digestive golis and a couple of Disprins. I will talk about the effect of the Disprins later. Now for some sleep.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


“although I don't know if I should send an email to this account of yours, here I am, sitting in front of this email window, composing an email, a letter, or whatever nomenclature we attach to it now. some people hyphenate e-mail, even we used to a couple of years back, until the American Heritage Dictionary said it's okay to use it without one. do I care?”

she: hey
me: hey
she: nothing, emni
me: I am in the middle of an email
she: writing? reading?
me: nobody writes to me. you know. I'm the one who writes to people. you saved all my emails in a CD once.
she: yes I did. nobody wrote such beautiful emails to me ever. so i saved them. and now you don't write.
me: I do.
she: but not for me.
me: brb

"I really don't know if I do. I don't know my preferences like I don't know my mind. Do I like the Congress or the BJP? Do I hate both? Do I like the Communists? Or do I like a socialist ideology? Am I a capitalist? A consumerist? I never have a stand. I squirm at the thought that I have to belong somewhere, in some group of likeminded people who flock together, drawing courage from the fact that I'm not alone. What are you, a conformist? You too, like me, seem so confused. Not about your gods perhaps, because you are clear in your belief. That's one thing I'm clear about as well, only we don't see eye to eye. But when you look me in the eye and say "go away" while am still trying to unbutton you, I don't understand you. I feel you don't mean it. And you ask me if that is all I wanted of you when you very well know that it isn't a destination by itself. That is a physical manifestation of what I feel for you always. What do I feel? A strong urge to be near you. And we have achieved that."

me: hey
she: yes?
me: what would be the noun form of unnecessary?
she: isn't it an adjective? like unwanted?
me: yeah, for example, I want to say Am sure about the unnecessariness of gods in my life. what do I use?
she: LOL
me: what?
she: you made gods sound like unwanted appendages.
me: to me, yes, but to others they are necessary for various reasons.
she: is a tail an appendage?
me: no, it is necessary. Huko Mukho Hyangla had two tails, but was continually perplexed about which one to use to swat the fly.
she: for him then?
me: for him, yes...one can be called an appendage.

"We have been together, read together, bought music together, had coffee, spent nights in each others' company. Okay perhaps not the last one, but because I've always been with you even when alone, that thin line between what has happened and what hasn't has dissolved.

right now, the picture of you standing there in your black skirt with your back to the wall is vivid in my mind. The image is so real, you are moving in it, asking me to stare at your ripe little breasts from a distance. "No, don't come near," you are pushing me away with your forefinger, "look at me from a distance." And as you are trying to gauge my reaction, watching me devour your beautiful body with my eyes, I keep looking at the watch because time is running out. Our time always runs out before it starts. When will our time start? And then it has to end one day, but why can't it start? I have already made a fool of myself inside you last time, so all I wanted was a kiss. A proper kiss without you moving your head away. Don't, don't, hold it still for a second and let your lips part. Am parched. There you go, nodding your head and swinging your hair, which lashes me on my face like long, thin whips, leaving invisible marks that will never go."

she: but then, can you swat a fly with your tail?
me: huh?
she: you said Huko swatted flies.
me: I said he didn't. He didn't know which one to use. Gimme a minute.
she: hmm

"I miss you. I miss being with you right now. I miss lying still on your lap and looking up into the leaves and the stars beyond. Where was it that we sat like that, under a tree? I could see the Pole star very clearly that night, giving me a feeling I was somewhere really up north.

me: hey, where's the Pole star located?
she: how do I know? Whom are you trying to impress? Nobody's that gullible anymore, am sure.
me: hmm

"But do you get to see the Pole star from the north? In my imagination, that is precisely the case. I miss you when you stay incommunicado, perhaps looking for your answers, perhaps looking into your daughter's eyes and wondering if this thing we share is worth it. See? In my imagination you already have a daughter. You already are married. You already are behind that spotless, impregnable sheet of Saint Gobain glass, so near yet beyond the reach of my fingers. But all I want to see now is you walking through my door, which is left ajar in anticipation. I know you will come, perhaps without knocking. You never need to knock because all I have is yours anyway."

she: hey, he wants a Jeep Nukizer.
me: what is that?
she: oh, the ultimate off-roading machine now that the Hummer's decommissioned.
me: really? lemme check.
me: WOW, it looks awesome. so he is buying one?
she: I said wants.
me: I will be all alone tonight, do you wanna come?
she: WHAT? are you out of your mind? We are over all that, so please don't be weird.
me: but I love you!
she: how fucking lame can you get?
me: brb

"It isn't worth a Jeep Nukizer, but then you never needed a jeep. You probably need a quiet study. Let me go build that now, it takes a few seconds..."

she: you get me worried at times. why don't you buy some sex? I can't sleep with a man who isn't ready to take it further. I was a fool once, but not any more. I thought we understood each other. You make me feel sick at times.

me: hold on, hold on...someone's ringing the bell...brb

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Road Tripping

I know you will go awww when you hear that it is again a road trip to Calcutta, but after my dad's passing away, we have left a lot of things unattended there. He left some farewell notes that he had been writing since March, but to us it seemed like he died in a hurry. There were things to be discussed, stories to be heard, history lessons from the subaltern's point of view, of how Haji Mastan was killed, of how the Japs bombed Calcutta during WWII because the Americans set up a base there, of how jazz came with them, and nightclubs sprung up. It would seem to you that he timed his death in a manner that had a finality to it. He just finished his last manuscript a couple of days before he passed away. Like full stop, am done, here I go.

So the road trip this time is to go again in search of his vast mind, stored in the form of newspaper clippings from way back in the fifties and sixties, books purchased and collected over a period of sixty years, old and yellow letters exchanged with his friends (some of whom are not there any more), some new books that I brought him during my Penguin and OUP days, my old books, the books that I flicked from the university library (which he never reprimanded me for), books of history, music, and poetry, of Latin American music and culture, of Italian short stories, Picasso, and a humongous collection of Russian literature. It will take time to reach 2000 kms by road, but even more time to sift through all the material in the little time that I have.

The jeep is ready. At 99000 km, the Mahindra Bolero GLX (with the XD3P Peugeot engine) still is strong as a war horse, quietly going about its duties. I don't hear a creak so far, but I can pat myself on the back for having treated it well. I got it new shoes at 47000 kms, rotated the tyres at every 5000 kms, got the suspension overhauled from time to time, kept changing the belts (there are four under this bonnet) and the various pipes at regular intervals. The nicks and cuts were tended to, it got regular touch-ups done, and now it has some new stickers too, and nice fog lamps. The upholstery is new and so are the alloys, so the overall experience is not that of driving a relatively old jeep.
This time the route will be almost the same as the last time, apart from a slight change on the first day. Instead of going via Old Madras Road, we will take the NICE corridor> Hosur Road> Krishnagiri> Vellore> Chittoor route. It will take us to Naidupeta via Tirupati and will be a tad longer than going via Kolar and Palamner, but because the Old Madras Road is being made now, we would like to stick to the Golden Quadrilateral as much as we can. We want to do Rajmundry (more than 800 kms) the first day (anticipating about 14 hours of driving), failing which we can stop even earlier at Eluru or Vijaywada. Photos and updates on Facebook will be done en route. There's a Belkin car adapter to power everything from a laptop to a mosquito repellent, so we even plan to have mobile tea, courtesy Sayantani, my navigator. She's been busy looking up the maps and surfing for hotels online, and has also managed to pack enough stuff for a journey all the way to South Africa. "You never know," says this lady who can be described in short as never-a-backpacker-when-you-can-carry-fourteen-pairs-of-shoes. How we will manage to put everything inside the jeep is another issue, and worse comes to worst we might even have to get a roof rack this week. A friend in Hyderabad has even been kind enough to offer his trailer to save my marriage.

Okay, I'm exaggerating. The luggage is well under control than it was last time. (For all you know, she might be reading this.)

The second day we would again like to cover a distance of about 750 kms, all the way to Bhubaneswar. Arnab Ganguly of IndiaHighways recently did this route and has posted some details of hotels and other resorts on the way, so am gonna keep his list handy. I have already passed on all the details to Sayantani. I received some good pointers about the first day's route from Raja Sekhar Kommu and Sriram Subramaniam of IndiaHighways, so those emails are being treated with more care than the Eicher atlas. Yes, we don't have a GPS device yet and probably will never need one in India. But then, we never wanted a cellphone either at one point!

So far so good. If we do Bhubaneswar on the second day, the third day's journey to Calcutta can be done in less than eight hours, giving us enough time to reach before sundown. Even if the first two days are a stretch, nothing can beat the beauty of the St Paul's Cathedral spire or the Victoria Memorial's dome catching the last orange rays of twilight. It will be sad to enter the vacant apartment my dad had so nicely maintained, but am sure he will be present in every particle of dust to have settled on the bookshelves.
Pics courtesy:
www.bl.uk for St Paul's Cathedral
rovinglight's photostream on Flickr for Victoria Memorial

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

An Evening in India

"Shroff is Punjabi," Tulika said with a period.
"NOOOO, this guy is so not a Punjabi. He is a Kannadiga."
"We'll ask when he gets here then?"

We four were at Pecos, listening to Jerry Garcia, as the waiter came and refilled our mugs. Tzameena had come back to Bangalore after four years in the US, Tulika had come to meet her from Pune, and their friend Tever Peer was always in Bangalore. I knew only Tulika, and the other Ts I was meeting for the first time. Being the only guy with three girls, the idea of another guy joining us soon made me brighten up. I didn't quite care about what language he spoke, Punjabi or Kannada.

The girls were being themselves, their squeals and cackles making me feel like a distant observer. Observe I couldn't much because of my shades, which I had to wear to cover my infected red eyes. And Pecos is dark, pitch dark. Some say the food tastes good there mainly because you can't see it. Or you don't care because the draught has already started dancing with your senses.

"Even the loo is the same," Tulika remembered. I knew she got nostalgic, but this was the first time I saw someone getting nostalgic about the dingiest loo in the dingiest pub of Bangalore. I say "dingy" but that's where I go back to. It has this deliberately retro, rundown look, with deliberate Floyd, Grateful Dead, Doors playing from old audio cassettes, to remind you that the world was a lot more beautiful before the iPod generation set foot on it.

"Yes," I nodded in agreement. I had to go twice already to prevent the beer from screwing up my balance, so I knew what she meant. The loo definitely was still the same. And then I discovered popcorn in my beer. I've had corned beef. Liked it pretty much, I must say. But corned beer? I thought I will let it pass as merely a typo when something strange caught my attention. The girls were aiming at each other's necklines and dunking popcorn like those deft NBA blokes. I forgot about the popcorn in my beer and watched in utter horror. The people at the other table were busy head-banging to Bad Moon Rising and didn't seem to mind one bit. Eventually a few of those got dunked into my shirt and I got into the spirit of the game. By then the tacos and crabs were almost over and the free popcorn too.

Shroff came in late. Short, bearded, my liking for him was almost instant. Some might want to argue that it was mainly because I was craving for male company all this while, but then, let's not argue about the "why" now. Fact remains I liked him. We struck up a conversation and then in walked Roshni, another friend of a friend. The conversation grew, multiplied, criss-crossed, and soon looked like a busy underground network. Meanwhile, we somehow managed to move from Pecos to Koshy's and the group had gotten bigger. We could see Prof Ram Guha sitting alone for a while before being joined by two of his friends. I contemplated going up to him for an autograph, but didn't have a proper diary/notebook in which to take it. I don't want to disrespect India's best-known historian by asking him to put his signature on a piece of napkin. Mr Prem Koshy (who was there too, looking dapper in his shawl) perhaps wouldn't mind doing that given that the napkin would have Koshy's written on it, but Prof Guha? Nawww. Some other time, then.

Tzameena couldn't drink at Pecos (because she hates beer), so she was filling herself up like a tank in a hurry. Tever was quietly taking pictures. Shroff found himself in the unenviable situation of being between two beautiful ladies who had joined us later. I remember asking him which one he was seeing, but because the question was put bang in public, all he could manage was an "ummm" with both the girls curiously trying to lipread his mind. Roshni constantly came up with novel catch phrases and kept us entertained. She was narrating a story of how some huge blokes once chased her in Ohio and all I could manage was a stupid laugh! I think the laughter was because she talked about their "size" meaning "bulk" and me doing some instant napkin math. But then, you hardly want to analyze the reactions of someone in high spirits.

We discussed nothing in particular but then almost anything under the sun. It was a motley group of unconnected people sitting together and enjoying each others' company, exchanging notes on almost every topic. A gang of 25-40 year old urban Indians. And as I went to a distance and listened to the buzz, to the topics they were freely discussing, I realized that middle-class, urban India has had a paradigm shift in its thinking since I last witnessed it. From gay relationships, live-in relationships, jazz bands, Bertolucci's Dreamers, anti-rightist political leanings, jobs around the world, Mahasweta Devi, latest mobile apps, motorcycling adventures, cleavages, and the need to care for your parents while they are still there, these people were already open and aware. They knew what they wanted, they had their opinions, and even after having enjoyed one evening of revelry they will go back to their respective lives, chores, and influence others who are probably not so privileged with information. This is not a judgment about whether it is good, bad, sinful, or inadequate to be what we are today, but just a huge exclamation mark a few points bigger than the normal font. I changed some of the names here to make them race-agnostic, but even if I put the real ones, you would realize that this can be a scene from any city in the world. Am I trying to make a point here? What started off as just a casual description of one evening spent with known and unknown people suddenly took a serious turn, giving the impression that I am trying to make a point in this article. I am not. I am not saying anything new to you. You perhaps witnessed this change yourself. I perhaps hadn't, being busy changing diapers. I have a vague feeling it isn’t a change after all because all this was so part of the Delhi I saw ten years back. My parents would perhaps argue that this was the scene fifty years back in Calcutta as well, when the fervor of Mao, French cinema, and unreal idealism gripped the youth of an entire city. In Delhi, when I saw it ten years back, these groups were not common, not from the dregs. There was always emancipation in small pockets, restricted to the college campus or intellectual dos. This somehow seemed more generic, more everyday to me. Am I calling this emancipation? Maybe not. Maybe just a change in some direction. Maybe just the illusion of a change. Maybe there was no such evening, or many. I, unlike the people I met today, am scared to have an opinion of my own, living in the comfort of the dark alley between two houses where nobody asks you uncomfortable questions.

I came home and raised a silent toast to all the people I met today and also to the ones that came after us and sat at different tables. We finally forgot to ask Shroff if he was a Punjabi or a Coorgi. But that didn't make any difference to the evening.