Wednesday, August 23, 2006


Chapter 2


The bus to Kerala was due at 7.00 p.m. It was already 7.30 p.m. I felt hot and bothered. I waited with increasing impatience for the much-looked-forward-to luxury contraption to arrive. Yes, I was told it was luxury. I said to myself, “The traffic must be bad,” but, I wondered why they couldn’t factor this in when they made the schedule. I kept gazing nervously at a procession of big buses with monstrous rear-view mirrors. As each monster wove into view and the clamouring crowd grew thinner only to swell when the next batch of buses arrived I started to panic. Mine was nowhere in sight.

The fiasco outside Centre One had created in me an anticipation of some event about to happen, as all journeys are destined to be. All my journeys to the south have been fraught with adventure, or, rather misadventure. There was the time when wife, son and I had braved through South India on a less than shoe-string budget, changing buses at Goa and then at Mangalore. Then we were at the station and found that we had misplaced the ticket. We had survived all.

Meanwhile, where was the bus? It is nearing 9 p.m.

Finally it arrived, more than two hours late, a monster of a bus painted a fluorescent green, with two monstrous rear-view mirrors sticking out in front. I was in for another shock. It wasn’t a luxury bus as the tour operator had promised. The name “luxury coach” was a mere euphemism. This one was also a “video coach” meaning it played a movie video cassette. The only luxury was that I could lean back and sleep if I was a good sleeper. The anticipated misadventure was about to begin.

Then I remembered having spent a night in a bus full of bed bugs on a trip to Goa. Being bitten by bed bugs is not a pleasant experience, no, not to me. Those blood sucking gadflies know where it hurts and, unerringly target those areas for special treatment. They get themselves lodged into clothes, socks with such ease that dislodging them would take days, if not weeks, and your house is not safe after that. Just one pair of these crawlies is enough to populate the entire house.

The bus would take me through Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, in fact, through the heart of South India. An ambitious highway project called the Golden Quadrilateral was going to link the major metros cities of Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta and Chennai in the shape of a quadrilateral. And this road passes through India’s best cities, possibly, the very heart of India. My excitement was great, as I had wanted to travel this route on a bus for a long time, taking in the sights and sounds of the Deccan Plateau and the twin Ghats – mountain ranges on the east and west costs of peninsular India. Ghat literally means “knot” and rightly named because these ranges are in the form of irregular knots. The Eastern and Western Ghats are these two chains of mountain ranges on the east and west coasts of India.


The Golden Quadrilateral was about ambition, about what India could do. For this very reason I had always wanted to test it. But it wasn’t free of controversies or corruption. An honest officer Satyadev Dubey was allegedly killed when he blew the whistle on certain murky dealings. More of this later in this account. The Bombay-Pune stretch of the Golden Quadrilateral was an expressway with eight lanes and I was soon enjoying the smooth ride. Unlike in other parts of the country where even the prestigious National Highways were without accident and emergency assistance, I could see a plethora of neatly stencilled instructions and telephone kiosks along the way. There were also these big signs where the road branched towards Khandala, Lonavala, and Khopoli – the weekend getaways of Bombay citizens.

I could see faintly to the left of me the blue hills of the Western Ghats, a sight that would accompany me all the way to Kerala.

The huge fluorescent green bus hummed gently and I sat back in my seat to enjoy the view. It was dark but I could make out the outlines of the familiar areas I was passing through. The modern India, the malls, the business process outsourcing units, and the call centres were behind me. I was in authentic pastoral India forgotten by law makers and money managers alike.

The mountains of the Western Ghats were ahead of me. The bus climbed laboriously over the twisting roads of the expressway towards the Deccan Plateau. The ghats, or knots of hills, ran down the entire western coast of India towards Kerala, on the southern tip of peninsular India.

The Deccan was actually named Dakhan before the British Anglicized it to Deccan. Dakhan means south, or, dakshin in Sanskrit. So what we refer as the Deccan Plateau may actually be the Southern Plateau. For the Mughal and Afgan invaders, anything south of the Vindhya Mountains was south. That gives rise to the theory that anything south of Vindhya Mountains situated in Central India is South India. The Hindi spoken in Hyderabad is still known as Dakhni, or, roughly translated, language of the south.

The inhabitants of the Western Ghats are called Ghatis, a hardy people. They are mostly farmers, and goat and cattle herders. The people of the coastal areas are Agris, Kohlis and Kunbhis. They are mostly farmers and fisher folks. Traditional rivalries existed between these tribes for ages. Education and modernity, in a very loose sense, has only affected them after the development of New Bombay into a modern city.

As the bus passed through Panvel I could see the estuaries, the rivers and the creeks of the district of Raigad. Panvel had seen a lot of development recently as it is a station on the newly constructed Konkan Railway. This railway connects the northern part of India to the south along the Konkan coast, passing through Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka and Kerala. This district was famous for the forts of the Maratha emperor Shivaji. This guerrilla warrior and emperor was, and still is the region’s hero and many a road intersection in New Bombay – where I live – is named after him.

The bus’ tires were whining smoothly below me and the slipstream felt cool on my skin. The long wait was over and my excitement mounted as I thought of discovering the “Golden Quadrilateral” and other regions of South India. The bus would cover Pune over the expressway and then enter the golden quadrilateral. Before that there was a break in journey for food and essentials.

On the way I had passed several clean looking restaurants. For some strange reason the bus stopped at the seediest looking place. God, why they have to choose such a dump, I thought as I saw the fly infested and dirt-caked tables. The reason? Again, there was the tendency to put selfishness, cheapness, and certain skulduggery into even the necessities such as eating. I would see this more as I progressed on my journey. The bus drivers and restaurant-owners would form an illegal pact which would put passengers like me to much discomfort. The bus drivers would stop at the latter’s joints for free food and drinks, and even commissions, and when they enjoy their food and drinks, the passengers, well, who cares anyway?

This restaurant was the worst maintained eating place that I had seen in a long time. First of all, it was so dim I couldn’t see anything. Unkempt looking waiters with bleary eyes took orders. I got up to make the mandatory visit to the toilet.

What I saw made me cover my nose with my handkerchief. The stench of so much urine passed through bad plumbing was just too nauseating. Another observation: the toilet didn’t have bolts and, quite possibly, wouldn’t have been washed for months. Flies buzzed around everywhere.

The toilet attendant, a sleepy looking man was shouting, “baitho, baitho,” “sit, sit,” for no apparent reason. In his attitude I could detect contempt. Poverty breeds contempt? Didn’t he know that we Indians did our toilets sitting down? Did I mention the sights and sounds of India earlier in this account? His loud exhortation was one sound that I didn’t for the life of me understand. Such plaintiveness, a tired voice so immersed in the tragedy of his life, a foretaste of something quizzically strange that would prepare me to accept the huge diversity of cultures that lay ahead of me. No, I shouldn’t be judgemental here and must accept things as they are.

Note to myself: after all, the life of a toilet attendant wouldn’t be elevating stuff, not at least in a book about God’s Own Country. But I had to get rid of my city mentality; at least, there were cleaner toilets in New Bombay. Alas, this is rural India, and I had to respect the cultural and social milieu of the place. I was more than a little disturbed at this point as I took in the dusty yard where the buses were parked, the dirty toilets, the crudely assembled stalls where knick-knacks like plastic mugs, toothpaste, soaps, and towels were sold.

Why didn’t they have clean toilets washed with nice-smelling disinfectants? Why couldn’t they manage themselves like the hotels in Bombay that were, if not blemishless, was acceptably clean. These thought threatened to put off the excitement I had been feeling when I was inside the bus. But on second thought I was deep inside rural India, an outpost of the country that urban people as me tended to forget. Instant cleaning disinfectants that promise to clean to “sparkling, dazzling white,” and keep toilets odour free is unheard of here. The owner of this joint didn’t care as long as he could bribe drivers with free food and drinks to stop their buses at his restaurant, customer satisfaction can go for a toss. Since the toilets were irredeemably dirty, I saw many men relieving themselves in the yard and women a little further away under the cover of a bush.

Then we trooped into the bus and were on our way again. The road was bumpy and my neighbour, as a token of our enforced neighbourliness, tried to make conversation. He was thumbing through many Tamil magazines with the voracity of an addict, and eating quite a lot of fried, crunchy things from polythene bags.

“Where are you going?” he asked in Tamil accented English.

“Cochin,” I couldn’t say my English was accented. I would strongly deny it if anyone said I had a Malayali accent.

“That’s a lang way off. You will have to change puses in Pangalore. This pus goes to Tamil Nadu from there.”

“Long” was pronounced “Lang” and Bangalore was pronounced “Pangalore.” Most Tamil-speakers (I do not mean the educated elite, however) convert their “B” into “P.” This is a linguistic quirk down south. In a similar vein, a Malayali would convert “P” into “B” as in “Simple” into “Simble.” I write this as a simble - sorry, simple - observation of fact, not to deride or mock any linguistic community. Even I slip up sometimes.

“Well, I just asked as I am new to this route. I don’t know the golden quadrilateral so well.”

“What did you say? I am nat hearing properly pecause of the pus.”

He meant, “because of the bus.”

“The Golden Quadrilateral don’t you know? It’s the road we are travelling on right now,” I shouted.

“No haven’t heard of it.”

“Never heard of it?”


“What do you do?”

“I puild roads in Saudi Arabia.”

I said I had also worked in the construction industry in Saudi Arabia, not long ago. Construction was booming in the Persian Gulf, we both agreed. Then the road-builder grunted and went back to reading and eating. I knew his life. During my stint in Saudi Arabia, I confess, I was like him, a man lost in his project and his work and not bothered about anything besides. I was totally isolated from what was happening around the world by a system that not only blacked out news, but also the faces of women from newspapers, books and magazines.

Now this man was something of an enigma. He seemed like a voracious reader of magazines with bad printing and gaudy covers. The papers seemed of cheap variety and apparently featured sensational stories judging by their covers. It was obvious that he didn’t want to be disturbed while concentrating on whatever pulp was his addiction. Come to think of it the publishing industry was doing well in the south, may be, due to the high level of literacy in these states. By the south I mean the states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. I was glad to see that in the midst of the onslaught of television and the online media, the printed word was having a dream run in the southern states. Hail the printed word!

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