On the road again

Holidays in a rickety car at a time when nobody had heard of motels, mobiles or GPS

Last Sunday, on Karthigai Deepam, Tamil Nadu’s festival of lights, we decided to go for a drive after dusk, as a grey-blue night prepared to descend and a slightly watery pre-Poornima moon hovered above. We were on the outskirts of Chennai, driving on interior village roads that unspooled lazily along paddy fields and lines of palmyra standing guard. Every hundred metres or so, as we crossed a hamlet, the darkness would be punctured by pinpricks of light from the myriad earthen lamps that flickered outside huts, lined walls and streets, framed kolams or festooned temples. Traversing the soft grey gloaming that festive evening illumined by tiny flames and serenaded by cicadas and frogs was quite magical.

Driving holidays are my favourite. Bundled into a car, your many essentials and must-carries jammed into the back seat, like a tortoise carrying its home, off you head into the unknown. As we look a bit askance today at the idea of sharing the insides of a sealed aluminium container with hundreds of sneezing and sniffling others some 30,000 feet in the air or using iffy toilets and god-knows-when-they-were-washed blankets in trains, many people are just driving off to Kochi or Coonoor if they want to get away. I approve.

One of my nicest memories is of taking our beat-up Fiat and eight-month-old infant and heading to Goa, driving on and off the ferries that connect the islands, parking in dark green village roads for makeshift lunches and Cerelac breaks. Or the time when five of us, on a driving vacay in Rajasthan, hurtled over Jaisalmer’s dusty yellow roads to get to Sam in time for the sunset. That done, we found a tiny restaurant on a hill that overlooked the blue cityscape spread below and ate dal bati churma.

There’s always something just a little bit unpredictable about getting on the highway and heading off, and the unpredictability factor was much higher a few decades ago. Our car was not exactly state-of-the-art nor were the roads and none of us had seen a motel or highway inn outside of Hollywood movies. And there was certainly no GPS. You took your chances. You carefully followed the NH or SH numbers you had traced on the map and then you met a truck driver at the dhaba who told you about a wonderful shortcut, only forgetting to mention that it crossed a dry riverbed. So, there you were, your car stuck in the mud, dusk well underway, and no signs of life as far as the eye could see. Until a bunch of farmers, resplendent in white dhotis and short kurtas, sickles held casually aloft shoulders, came by and laughingly pulled the car out and set it back on the road.

On the map you marked the little towns where you would stop for the night and once you reached began the search for a hotel or lodge that looked halfway habitable. Lunch was mostly impromptu, at whatever roadside dhaba popped up when you got hungry, but sometimes the best and safest thali would be the Veg Refreshment Stall in the town’s railway station. Some of the most unforgettable meals were unplanned, like when we were driving through Madhya Pradesh and our car broke down. By the time we temporarily fixed the leaking radiator (with chewing gum) to get us to the nearest town, it was well past 3 and we were starving and there wasn’t a single place open. Finally, in desperation, we stopped at a tiny ramshackle stall, the owner asleep on a charpoy. We woke him up and without a grumble he agreed to cook us something. The rough bhindi fry, the chopped onions, the dal and phulka smelt of heat and dust that day and tasted like manna.

There’s something about these off-track drives that is satisfying in an elemental way — I feel intimate with the earth, with the fields and trees that race past, with the sunlight pouring into the windshield. It’s impossible to fret about deadlines when you’re on a country road and you have to stop the car for a herd of goats to move lugubriously out of the way, their bells ringing, the shepherd clucking, the whole process taking many slow minutes. You just wait. And watch. And breathe. And the pandemic and anxiety and stress seem very far away.

Where the writer tries to make sense of society with seven hundred words and a bit of snark

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