On the map, it’s just a trickle of brown line stealing up the length of the peninsula. Starting from the tip at Kanyakumari, and gathering up Bangalore, Hyderabad, Nagpur and Jabalpur as it arches into Varanasi. But out on the ground, NH7, the longest highway in the country, is likely to become a guiding cord as you traverse through the heart of India. It’s an everstretching carpet of asphalt unrolling before you, easing your way through stone and scrub, sand and soil. There were four of us on this road trip: photographer Joydip Mitra, my sister Shweta, our driver Feroz and I.
Our journey began in Hyderabad. We drove north, making a detour to halt at the temple town of Basar, made our way through Maharashtra to stop at Nagpur, tiptoed over the line into Madhya Pradesh to access Pench, backtracked, ploughing through the dusty Deccan Plateau, to stay at Tadoba, before we ambled into northern Andhra Pradesh again. The seven-day driving circuit was fabulous in every way. Recollections come in a mosaic-like montage: the sight of Mitra babu hurriedly stamping out his cigarette before hunching over his lens, or Shweta sleeping in the backseat with her head swathed in an orange dupatta to keep the light out; the signboards on the road that so amused us; the green and red colour paint for trucks they seem to like in eastern Maharashtra; the constant whizzing sound of motor vehicles; the undulating, long jeep rides in Pench; and the blue, baby blue eyes of a leopard. We travelled in April and the sun beat down warmly on us, much too warmly at times. The road was a long line of changing landscapes.
We encountered magnificent rock formations, roads so thickly canopied, they darkened the tar; and parts so arid we could’ve imagined ourselves marooned in a wild, unfriendly land. For the most part, though, the journey was enlivened by the people we met: hospitable chai wallahs who pushed forward stools while they brewed us a cup; farmers on bullock carts filled with hay observing us with shy interest; truck drivers riding colourful steeds, slowing down so Joydip’s lens could capture their splendour; groups of people who responded to requests for directions in helpful and utterly cacophonous choruses. We broke journey once to have lunch at a roadside dhaba. The food – tomato subzi, dal and roti – was being made fresh for us.
At a table sat a man with a hauntingly beautiful face. He was a truck driver on his way to Bangalore, a sardar shorn now of his tresses, and he told us why. During the riots of 1984, when he’d watched his brethren being slaughtered, he’d gone to a barber to have his hair cut so that he wouldn’t be identified as a Sikh. Moved by a touch of humanity and a great deal of commerce, the barber complied. At Rs 500, the snip was expensive, but what price would you place on a life? Listening to him sent shivers up my spine. So casually on the roads of India can we sometimes be touched by other lives, others’ experiences. Travelling the road also brings you music, songs you haven’t had time for in ages. The dusty inroads of Vidarbha were spent swaying along uneven tracks, humming with Mohammed Rafi as he mourned unrequited love in another age. But our empathies lay with Kishore Kumar and his timeless proclamation, Musafir hoon yaaron…
ON THE ROAD
It’s best to leave Hyderabad early, both to avoid traffic within the city and the harshness of the sun. At least 60 per cent of our drive was on NH7; we stayed on it till Khawasa in Madhya Pradesh. We took a detour to touch Pench, and returned to NH7 again till we veered off to Tadoba. We returned to Hyderabad via Karimnagar. The road is smooth for the most part (barring road work on some stretches) and has quite a bit of traffic. The route is dotted with petrol pumps (most of which have restrooms), auto repair shops and food stops. We drove an Indica that, in spite of its inconvenient high-angle accelerator pedal, gave us a smooth drive. It proved slightly inadequate in the rough tracks on the inner roads of Vidarbha (on the way to Tadoba), and its AC only barely alleviated the heat of April, so you might prefer a 4-wheel drive.
In Tadoba, we chose not to drive in the park with it – partly to save the car from the wear and tear, and also to benefit from the uncluttered vision the open jeep gave us. The two national parks on this itinerary are closed during the rains (June-September). The roads inside the parks are rough tracks. The jeeps on hire are open ones, so be armed with hats, scarves and sunscreen. This route is dotted with eateries offering food and tea, petrol pumps, and shops that do motor repairs and such for the most part. It’s only when you leave the national and state highways to reach Pench or Tadoba that you may be slightly inconvenienced – you have to drive on dirt roads and there are almost no roadside eateries.
About the author:
Sheet Vyas is a serial hobbyist, she includes among her interests reading, writing, blogging, music, wildlife and a few other staples along with her hobby du jour.