When your car heats up, there’s precious little you can do than wait for it to cool down. Especially if you are on the 2.85-kilometre-long Jawahar Tunnel that connects Srinagar to Jammu, and the snow is threatening to cover the entire road in the twilight as vehicles queue up in convoys.
There’s no doubt Robert Louis Stevenson’s thought ‘to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive’, has occurred in a very literal sense to anyone who has ever undertaken a road trip in India.
In February 1980, my father, an Associate Professor of Arabic at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, had been invited by the University of Kashmir as a member of a faculty recruitment committee.
Instead of flying in from Delhi, he decided to see how well the family’s beige Fiat (a second-hand car bought in Madurai and sent by train to Delhi), so far used only within the capital, would fare if it was driven all the way to Srinagar. Mum was the co-driver. And so, sandwiching the three of us kids, co-driver and a campus Gurkha watchman for security, the family simply took off from Delhi on an eventful two-day journey (with an overnight stop in Jammu) that was replete with jaw-dropping moments.
Flush with the success of the Kashmir trip, my parents decided to repeat the stunt again, by driving down to Salem a few months later, to attend a nephew’s wedding. Crossing the Chambal river on the floating pontoon bridge to enter Madhya Pradesh was perhaps one of the most breathtaking episodes on the journey, as was the daytime drive down the Chambal ravines infamous for dacoits and random gunfire.
It’s a year that we still talk about with awe, and not a little wonder at our foolhardiness, in packing everything into the Fiat and just setting off without a care in the world.
My mother had an even earlier start to this sort of car-crazy daredevilry. Her businessman father decided to drive to Bombay from Madurai in 1956, because he had heard great things about the city’s Christmas lighting. She was one of the team of three children (of a family of 13 siblings) and five grown-ups who went on the off-beat three-day trip in a Chevrolet and Vauxhall.
Rites of passage
In the pre-liberalisation days, the Indian family could fit itself into the prim confines of a Fiat or the slightly more commodious Ambassador car. Today, the same portmanteau set of individuals has a wider selection of automobiles that aren’t just a means of transport, but super-performance machines that will charge your phone, satellite-navigate you to the edge of the Earth and even cool your drinks while you are figuring out the hieroglyphics on the dashboard. And look, it has a camera to stop you from self-destruction while reversing!
Road trips have always been part of the Indian family vacation, especially for those who used the holiday to visit relatives or undertake a half-baked tourism project.
Fitting an overhead carrier and buying a tarpaulin sheet and rope to secure the baggage was just one of the many annual road trip rites. The other ritual was a visit to the local office of the Automobile Association to get road maps that had clearly marked Travellers Bungalows for pit stops.
The ‘TB’ figured prominently on family road trips, because true to its name, it’d be the only place which would open its rooms and toilets to travellers.
The Indian road trip today has benefited from the vastly improved network of highways. It is easier to find swanky motels and restaurants attached to souvenir shops, miles away from civilisation. A well-maintained toilet complex on the highways is the new norm. People don’t have to rely on guide books alone — there’s a big online community available for those who want updates on road conditions and best route plans for their trip.
Somewhere in the journey towards globalisation though, the Indian road trip community seems to have taken a detour towards air travel and time-bound package holidays. Cheap flights have created a sort of disdain among travellers for the older modes of transport. Road travel helps you observe life outside the machine. You get to see milkmen on motorbikes balancing their pails and rifles with nonchalance in Indore, or a weaver pulling out his solar-operated point-of-sale (PoS) machine in a desert settlement outside Jodhpur to seal a deal.
Sometimes though, it looks as if the vehicles wouldn’t mind a little holiday themselves. In October 2017, after a 14-hour car journey from Salem to Hyderabad, that we agreed was the best ever in recent times, we spent a terrifying five hours on the city’s PV Narasimha Rao Expressway, while the skies opened up and our hired Innova ran out of petrol.
After arranging for fuel with the help of our hotel, all we could do was sit back and recall the times when our vehicles had given us a reason to smile (much later) with their antics. We remembered watching our supposedly parked Fiat trundling off downhill after we had spent the entire day driving it to look for the best bathing spots in Courtallam’s waterfalls.
No matter what the destination, you end up finding yourself when you are on a road trip.