I was driving from Jamshedpur, Jharkhand to Baharampur, West Bengal to visit my maternal grandfather’s remnant family after some 40 years.
Google map ‘Directions’ had put the journey at 335 kilometers in six hours ten minutes’ time. That looked a bit suspect, considering that the best I had ever achieved on a highway trip was around fort-five kmph. The first leg of the ‘directions’, after exiting from Jamshedpur, read:
“Turn right onto Ranch-Jamshedpur road / NH 32 / NH 33; Continue to follow Ranch-Jamshedpur road NH33; Pass by Rohit Enterprises (on the right in 300m) – Go 10.6 km … Turn Left”
I was not sure about the hint of “Pass by Rohit Enterprises (on the right in 300m)”. Was it 300 meters from the time of turning into the NH33, or was it 300 meters just before turning off it to the left?
After keeping my eyes peeled for about 12 km, I realized I had missed Rohit Enterprises. By that time, I had already passed a road branching off in the left. It had branched out as a dust-track that turned into a macadamized road a little further on. At that spot, construction was going on for converting NH33 into a four-lane road, and the doubtful initial look of the track had given me the misgivings, making me to pass it. Now I realized that it might have been that one road. Stopping the car at a Petrol Pump, I asked for the road to Bandwan, which was going to be my first port-of-call so to say, that is, the first remarkable place en route. The man I asked, in turn asked his colleagues. Finally, one of them told me that there were two roads to Bandwan – one further on, and the other behind me. Remembering the dust track, I turned back the car. Before reaching it, though, I noticed a small village on my right side (on the left side of my onward journey) with a road coming out of it that joined the highway. I stopped the car, walked over to a nondescript shop and asked some men lounging there for the way to Bandwan. Pointing to that village road, they said it went to Bandwan. I started the car, crossed the highway and drove into the village.
It was a concrete road, as they build them under the ‘Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana’ – just wide enough at its widest for two narrow vehicles to cross. Soon I came across a small truck parked on it. I asked the driver and he said I should keep going on the road and Bandwan would be about 30 km. I drove on, making slow progress, as the road snaked ahead with a bump every few meters. I passed only one auto going in the opposite direction that barely managed to cross me without scraping the side of the car. The village was quite big and it took a long time for its dwellings to thin out. Then the road forked into two, causing me a dilemma. Resolutely I took the left fork. After some time, the road entered another village. I asked again for Bandwan, and was told to just keep following the road. As the uneven road snaked ahead monotonously, I wondered about how far it went. I stopped a third time and the man said I just had to keep following the road. But the road kept forking out and I persevered by always choosing the left fork. I crossed a number of villages, each smaller than the previous one. By this time, the ground had become undulating, and the foothills of the Dalma range were appearing. The map had shown a large green patch as wide as 20 km, covering the range, and I seemed to be approaching it. The scenery was getting more and more desolate with uneven arid land strewn with large boulders, scrawny trees and lifeless shrubs, and the villages were getting rarer. The road became very narrow with the frequent curves too sharp to negotiate with a car even at crawling speed.
Suddenly I realized that I could not turn back the car if I wanted to. The vertical edges of the concrete road, with almost no margin on its sides, jutted sharply above the ground, making it impossible to maneuver the car for turning around.
On this road one was doomed to only move forward!
I had come from the highway some 10 odd kilometers by a rough estimate, when the concrete road ended and a narrow track of loose crushed stone began. Looking ahead, I saw a hundred meters farther on the road rise steeply over the flank of an embankment with a very level top that ran right across at a height. ‘Oh God! Is it a highway?’ I wondered.
Just as an answer to my prayer, a ramshackle covered van loaded with stuff rolled down the rise. I waved at the driver to stop and asked him for the road to Bandwan. Hurriedly, he replied that I had to go straight up (the way he had come down). I asked him if the road was good and he replied that the road was earthen for some time and then good. Dreading the look of my path, hard and rocky uneven earth in which rainwater streams had made deep furrows loosening the stones in the soil, I gingerly drove up the rise. Leveling out on the flat top, as high as four-stories at that point, I found myself on the top of a deep concrete canal, over the embankment of which I had climbed. The canal, probably belonging to the Subarnarekha Multipurpose (Irrigation) Project, was V-shaped with a truncated bottom some twenty odd feet deep. No water flowed in it. Its sides were black from dried algae of years. At its top edge on the near side ran an earthen road under construction. My road cut across the canal over an ancient concrete bridge, and then ran downward on the other side, soon vanishing from sight. I crossed the bridge but hesitated, as I could not see any continuation of the road. However, my wife remarked that she could see the road far away, and asked me to drive on. Suspicious as I was, I stopped the car just after crossing the bridge, at the beginning of a slight downward slope. Getting out of the car, I sauntered ahead to inspect the road. There was no road any more. Rain ravaged furrows on the gently sloping ground snaked ahead downward for about fifty meters. Then, reaching a perimeter marked with some trees and bushes, the ground fell steeply a few hundred meters to the distant land below. Apparently, we were at the top of a small mesa or hillock. Looking around, I could not see any road in any direction. ‘From where the hell, had the truck come?’ Anyway, it was not the time to brood. The northern sky had become ashen gray and a strong wind, chilly and moist, had started blowing. The light, bright a while ago, had began to dim, and visibility was falling. With a tremor, I realized that beyond the point where I had parked the car, the ground was too small and too steep to maneuver the car to turn it around. Had I not stopped, but driven farther, I would have had to reverse the car up a steep slope. I went back to the car and explained the situation. Incredulous as she was, she agreed that we go back. Carefully I turned the car around and went back over the bridge.
I had two options – either climb down the way we had come, to the ground below (and then do what?), or turn to the left and drive on the road at the top of the canal. I chose the second option. The road was under construction. About five or six feet wide, it ran just two feet from the edge of the canal. On its other side, the edge of the embankment that fell to the ground below, there were heaps of granite boulders kept for paving the road. I could see some construction workers at a distance. Carefully I drove on, maintaining a few inches distance on my right to the heaps of the boulders, leaving about two feet to the edge of the canal on the left side of the car. I must have driven some five-hundred meters when I reached the workers. I asked a young fellow supervising them whether the road went to Bandwan. He replied in the negative and pointed to the ground below. At this point, the ground was at least a hundred meters below. On the ground, I could barely see a grey streak, apparently of a crumbled road a meter wide. Pointing to that the man said that was the road to take. I asked him how to reach it. He pointed to a spot behind me where down the flank of the embankment a footpath ran down to the ground below. I just could not believe the fellow – he expected me to take the car down that? I decided to return the way I had come, which turned out to be easier said than done! My wife suggested that we turn around the car. I could not – the road was barely wide enough for the car. Turning would mean negotiating within a meter or so, on either side of the road, one falling into the deep canal, and the other falling over the steep embankment. I asked my wife to instead get down and guide me to reverse the car.
It had become very somber by then. In the North-West, the menacing gray shadow had crept up and darkened the sky, sending a gusty breeze that drove a few sharp spitting raindrops. My wife got down and started guiding me to back the car. Luckily, the stone boulders were on my side and I could see them in the rearview mirror. Guiding me, my wife walked on the other side on the edge of the canal, which passed a meter from the wheels. Carefully I backed the car all the way to the bridge, risking either knocking into the stone heaps or knocking my wife off the edge of the canal. The labour supervisor followed me, constantly urging me with a strong sense of pride and ownership to go down the trek he had shown. Finally, as the rain picked up, he yielded and rushed back to his group, which had begun dispersing. It took me twenty minutes to get back to the bridge, I guess. My wife, wet by now, was too happy to jump into the car. I backed it over the bridge and then went down the rise over which I had climbed from the ground below. As I turned to the left onto the broken stone chips track, the rain came lashing down with full vigour and fury.
I drove on. Through the rain and the mist forming on the windscreen, I could barely make out the road. I drove more by the seat of the pant, relying on the crunch and rumble of the care tyre on the gravel and stone chips. The ground rose a little and then kept falling, with the canal embankment rising higher and higher. Then the road got lost amidst trees and dry bushes growing denser. I was on a lonely road with no traffic for tens of kilometers ahead or behind, and no room to turn the car for returning. At any rate, returning would mean losing almost three hours to get back to NH33, if I did not lose my way again.
I was now deep into the Dalma forest. From the look of it, no one had travelled over the road for a long time (a hundred years? I was prepared to believe). The rain poured and drummed over the car roof. The windshield wiper wrestled with the stream of water, and I drove in first or second gear. I did not know where I was going but the road kept unraveling. Suddenly, the road opened into a clearing and ran parallel to and below a vast concrete span with deep sloping sides. It was the aqueduct of the canal. It dawned upon me then that had I kept on the road by the side of the canal, my travel would have ended at this point, because there it was, just the aqueduct with its bare sloping sides. Going below it, the road continued to climb and fall at steep angles. At places, the road fell into a ditch and rose again. Crossing them I was scared lest the car stalled. Luckily, there was no water or stream to cross. Just the road, loose stone chips and pebbles to mark its path, with no space on either side. Even where the ground was relatively flatter, the road ran at a height from the ground, making it impossible to turn the car. I do not know how long I drove, my wife scared to her wit’s end and I clinging to the steering wheel with a dogged determination to keep going – because I could not turn back!
The rain was beginning to let up, but a pall of gloom hung over the bleary landscape of dark leafless trees, brush, and bramble. The hills rose menacingly all around. We were locked within walls of misty hills, but the road meandered on and on. Soon we entered a dense grove of trees and it grew very dark with their shadows. In that darkness the road fell steeply into a deep ditch, some sort of a dry stream, and rose equally steeply on the other side. The slope on either side looked too steep to let the car go down. ‘What, if the car stalled on the rise?’ I would be some tens of kilometers from the nearest habitat, just some villages, to which I could not even walk back. I steeled my nerves and let the car roll down. It hit something, a boulder may be, with a loud bang. My wife stifled a scream of horror. I did not stop, but reaching the bottom, I pressed the accelerator. The car roared, groaned and skidded but managed to climb up, and then we had passed the ditch. Soon the road resumed a less undulated run and we wound on. After some ten minutes, another road, slightly wider, appeared from the right side and the two merged. Now we were on a marginally wider road that, neither macadamized, nor of gravel, was built with some hard dark crushed stone powder. It ran by the vertically cut-down side of a mountain, slowly winding through pools of water here and there. The ride became more comfortable.
We began to see houses, a few at a time. Then, before we could believe it, we were passing shops, and hawkers selling vegetables on the roadside. We entered a square bustling with road traffic and shops. This was Bandwan town. We had reached it after a trip of 55 kilometers that should have taken at most an hour, but had taken three and-a-half hours. During this time, I had not passed any traffic except an auto and a covered van!
Setting aside the Google map ‘directions’ printout, I asked for directions towards Bankura at a shop. The shopkeeper directed me to travel to Manbazar.
Thus I proceeded, alternating between the Google map ‘directions’ and asking street people for directions. All the roads were terrible, with crumbling surfaces full of potholes and a bump every few hundred meters. We kept getting lost. No one anywhere seemed to know the roads. Unfortunately, the Google ‘directions’ printout only mentioned road numbers, and did not name the places to be passed. We could not trace a single landmark it mentioned. At one crossing at a place called Kusthalia, a very helpful crowd surrounded us. Unfortunately, my wife showed them the printout and asked for NH60. One middle-aged fellow confidently pointed to the road to the left. The rest of the crowd, except a sadhu, agreed with him. Feeling the need to propitiate some unknown god, the sadhu asked to know if we wanted to make an offering (‘বাবু, পুজো দিবেন নাকি?’). The road on the left looked by far the most well maintained road we had come across. We could also see some maintenance activity going on, and I rather felt relieved. We turned into it and drove, feeling happy and comfortable for the first time. After some twenty odd kilometers I realized we had gone on for far longer than what the ‘directions’ had promised. Asking a passer-by for Ranigunj, our next destination, I learned that we had come the wrong way and would have to make a course correction.
So, we travelled on – on and on – until we hit the road to Siuri when the Sun was setting. At Mohammad Bazaar, some truck driver told us to take a road that would be good and short. Though the wider road promised speed, the promise did not last long. In the gathering darkness, I could barely make out the bumps and ditches. The road was terrible and I had to drive slowly and carefully. Finally, around nine PM I could see the arch of streetlights on the bridge over the river Hooghly / Bhagirathi, a landmark I knew from my childhood. It is a bridge whose construction I had seen when I used to visit my grandfather in the nineteen-sixties. I told my wife we were almost there.
Reaching Baharampur, I went round and round and finally I turned into the hotel parking lot.
It was 9:30 PM. I had travelled some 378 kilometers, including 40 odd kilometers of detour, in fourteen and a half-hour of practically nonstop driving, eating one slice of bread with bread spread and some fruits.
It had been one of the most dangerous road trips my wife and I had ever undertaken.
Indroneer / 05 March 2014