01 January 1970

Delhi To Duliajan: My Longest Road Trip

Weekend Reads

Delhi To Duliajan: My Longest Road Trip

What made me embark on this voyage? Almost everybody from the Buddha to ibn Battuta has a reason to travel.

A young boy playing in above normal rain water in a paddy field in Assam at Duliajan.
A young boy playing in above normal rain water in a paddy field in Assam at Duliajan. Getty Images

This beauty saw me through a road journey from Delhi to Duliajan, Assam, without even requiring a tyre pressure check. I drove 2400 km in four days, with night halts at Azamgarh (Uttar Pradesh), Darbhanga (Bihar), and Boingaigaon (Assam). For company, I had Shubhransu Dash, a longtime friend. He’s a man of few words, so conversations with him are distinguished as much by their concision as with their precision. 

What made me embark on this voyage? Almost everybody from the Buddha to ibn Battuta has a reason to travel. I had less of a reason and more of a ruse—hand over the keys of my beloved Chevy Spark to my brother-in-law, who works at a tea factory in Assam. Although the car has been my magnificent companion for fifteen years, I had no choice but to follow the norms laid down by the road transport authorities. 

‘Sir,’ said Shubhransu (that’s how we address each other), ‘you’ll have to give up your moha for material things.’ I couldn’t agree more. ‘Indeed, sir,’ I replied. ‘We’ll have to give up even the body, which is the closest to us. When even the body isn’t actually ours, how can anything else in the world be?’ Strangely, though, my grip on the steering wheel tightened a bit as I was repeating what the sages have always said. There’s someone within us who doesn’t want to let go, no matter how many lessons in detachment the hidden deceiver is made to take. 

We were dead set on completing the journey in four days and three nights. So, every hour spent on the road was precious. The time spent idling, either due to traffic snarls or due to roads mimicking those in hell, had to be made up for. To our great surprise, the smoothest roads were found in Uttar Pradesh.

Day 1

I picked up Shubhransu from Mayur Vihar Metro Station around 9 a.m. on October 25. On the Yamuna Expressway, stepping on the gas with unchecked vigour is nothing short of heavenly pleasure. So, I made the best of the opportunity, even intermittently touching 140 kmph. However, considering that a hatchback is not really meant for this kind of speeding, I settled at 100 kmph. Barring the lunch break at Fatehabad to savour home-cooked stuffed karela and parathas (thanks to my spouse, Harsimran!), I didn’t stop until we reached Lucknow, at 4:25 p.m. There, I couldn’t help but pull over at a wayside dhaba, for it’s a sin to leave the city of nawabs without galouti kebab and Mughlai parathas. Carrying the takeaway of mutton kebabs, I headed straight for the Purvanchal Expressway, cruising on which was like riding a magic carpet. At 8:45 p.m. we were in Azamgarh. At 800 km, it was the longest day-long drive I’ve ever had. 

Day 2

The next day, around ten to nine, we recommenced our journey. I was behind the wheel again. Google Maps showed a left turn to Balia on the Purvanchal Expressway, but there was none! Maybe there was a turn under the expressway, but how on earth could it help us? Therefore, we had no choice but to take the exit towards Buxar. Here, the roads suddenly changed, promising to wreak havoc with the spine. At a place called Kumkum Patti, we had the sweetest milky tea we could have asked for. 

‘Bhaiya, aapko kam meetha daalne ke liye kaha tha,’ I said to the teaseller. ‘Ji, kam hi toh daala hai. Ismein aur doodh milaa doon?’ Looking intently at the kulhar in my hand but without betraying any sign of regret, I said, ‘Rehne deejiye.’ I realised that preferences don’t matter when you are on the road. 

In Bihar, a two-lane road automatically becomes a four-lane one. Even if you are in your lane, you need to exercise the greatest caution, for man and beast (whether crossing the road languidly or approaching zanily from the opposite side) can astonish you with their determination to claim the right of way. Thanks to the fantastic highways of Bihar, I could not cover even 400 km that day, although Shubhransu took the wheel towards evening. We decided to halt at Darbhanga, where the hotels have already started competing—price-wise—with those in Washington DC. However, after a thirty-minute search, we found one that was serai-like, clean as well as economical. But it didn’t have a restaurant. 

Day 3

The next day, to make up for the lost time, we hit the road pretty early (6:40 a.m.), with me behind the wheel. After about a half-hour drive, I felt as if we were passing through the mountains of Dhanaulti. The roadside trees suddenly morphed into conifers, the mild sunshine warming my eyelids like a balm. The last time fog had mesmerized me like this was twenty years ago. 

‘Sir, are you sleepy?’ I heard a voice coming from far away. 

‘No,’ I shot back. But Shubhransu was right: I was somewhat heavy-lidded. Another lesson learnt: When driving, you become defensive, but letting go of adamance is prudent. Therefore, after a few minutes of vacillation, I let go of the steering wheel and handed it over to Shubhransu. 

It was October 27 already, and we were determined to enter Assam the same day. We stopped by Belbari for breakfast, only to be given puris without the sabzi (‘Sabzi khatam ho gayi hai,’ the attendant at the sweetmeat shop had said). Reminding ourselves about the dictum on preferences, we quietly rolled the puris and ate them, without as much as looking at the sweet brown chutney made of rasgulla chashni, which was supposed to make up for the missing sabzi. 

At a quarter past one in the afternoon, we arrived at the beautiful Phulbari in West Bengal, where we had a delicious fish-and-rice thali at a dada-baudi restaurant. (‘It’s Phulobari,’ said my brother-in-law over the phone. ‘Don’t follow Google for pronunciation.’ Sage advice I thought.) The place holds special significance for me because it’s part of Siliguri, the hometown of Sumana Roy, who comes across as a true sadhika in her writing. It does not just places that give their energy to individuals, but developed individuals also impart their energy to places. And there lie the fundamentals of pilgrimage. 

A few minutes before 3 p.m., we stopped at Jalpaiguri for tea. The teaseller was more resourceful than he appeared, with a lottery booth, a grocery store, and a tea shop all rolled into one. Each unit of his enterprise had customers, and he was attending to everyone simultaneously.

After tea, I got behind the wheel. Near Alipurduar, the roads began to challenge us again. When it became dark, I asked Shubhransu to take over. We had been advised to avoid driving after dusk in Assam, but we didn’t want to stop before Boingaigaon, or the journey would be extended by one more day. Because the car heater was out of repair, the windshield became foggy. We had to stop every few kilometres to wipe it clean. One of those stops was near a tiny wayside temple, whose loudspeakers were perpetrating their agelong enmity with the eardrums of unsuspecting travellers like us. Perhaps the missing priest was testing the loudspeakers from miles away. 

We now felt it would have been better to have had our night stop at Alipurduar, but there was no point in turning back. Bongaigaon seemed too far away. The darkness in Assam felt much denser than in Delhi. Having waded a few more kilometres through the dark, we saw a roadside shop with a thatched roof. A cup of tea wouldn’t make us any slower than we already were. More than the tea, it was the mother and daughter’s energy that replenished our dwindling reserves of determination. Two beautiful women minding a wayside shop on a highway with not another soul in sight—was it a dream? In India itself, there are countries where women feel safe regardless of the hour. And that’s the India I want to visit again and again. I closed my eyes and saw myself bowing to Mother Kamakhya. ‘May every woman on earth feel as protected as these two, Mother,’ I thought. Thereafter, I began to think of Maya, the Great Illusion that the scriptures keep referring to. The Shakta poet Rāmprasād Sen has this to say about the world:

this world
is nothing but a bamboo box,
so I roll about in it
                my bazaar of bliss.

Earth, water, fire, wind, and sky:
these five make an ordered world.
First gross matter
then consciousness, together
produce myriad forms
                like suns, multiplied
                on water in earthen bowls.

(translated by Rachel Fell McDermott, Singing to the Goddess: Poems to Kali and Uma from Bengal)
If you know how, bliss can be found in the bazaar, too. There’s the knowledge that is acquired, and there’s also the knowledge that is arrived at. For several years, the arrival kind is what I’ve been seeking.

Once on the road again, the car didn’t stop until we arrived at Salbari Point, Bongaigaon. It was 8:50 p.m. Our elation at having met the day’s target knew no bounds.

Day 4

A cold bath at five in the morning reminded me of my grandfather, who, despite claiming to be an atheist, never failed to sing ‘Hari ka naam lene se, teri kya jeebha ghasti hai’ as he poured mug after mug on himself. That morning, as I poured Bongaigaon’s cold water on myself, I too sang the only two lines of the song that I remember. 

We were only 600 km away from our destination, although Uncle Google was sure that it would take us at least fourteen hours to cover the distance. At 5:54 a.m., we made the earliest start of the four-day journey. Again, I took the wheel. In retrospect, this early start proved to be the greatest favour we did to ourselves during the road trip.

Provided it isn’t riddled with potholes, the road can be an effective tool for meditation. But if it’s too smooth, it can become soporific. Intermittent cavities aid alertness. Thankfully, Indian roads promise a wide range of inconsistencies.

Two hours later, we stopped for tea and idli-like rice pitha at Barama Chowk, Nalbari, and then again for breakfast in Guwahati. This time, we got puris with matar. Puri-sabzi seems to be the favourite breakfast in and around Assam and Bengal. For twenty rupees, you get five puris with unlimited sabzi, so there’s no reason to complain. We didn’t.  

While pulling out of Guwahati, we took the road to Shillong. After 20 km, a right turn put us on the road to Nagaon, after which we hit Asian Highway 1, ‘the longest route of the Asian Highway Network, running 20,557 km’ (according to Wiki). In the Bihar-to-Assam stretch, this road was—as they say in Punjabi—makhana. After a late lunch at Kaziranga National Park, we took the Jorhat Bypass and then the Assam Trunk Road. The road after Jorhat had its blueprint made in hell. Somewhere near Teok, a few lethal craters in quick succession made the car bounce so dangerously that it seemed to be pulled by bungee ropes from below as well as from above. Stunned, I stopped. Despite me, a flurry of swearwords directed at the PWD and corrupt contractors escaped my mouth. I was sure the car was badly damaged. Shubhransu stepped out to check. 

‘All is well, sir,’ he said, calm as ever. ‘Allow me to drive now. Please relax in the meantime.’ He climbed into the driver’s seat. We were 140 km away from our destination, but there was no way we could get there in under four hours. 

‘What the car withstood just now was incredible,’ Shubhransu said. ‘Another hatchback in its place would have been dismantled.’

‘The car is worthy of worship, sir,’ I said. ‘When I get home, I’ll bow before it and shower it with flowers.’ Even as I spoke, I was thinking about the great J. C. Bose, who proved that metals, too, are alive. In The Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda writes:

The great scientist pointed to another Bose instrument.
‘I will show you experiments on a piece of tin. The life force in metals responds adversely or beneficially to stimuli. Ink markings will register the various reactions.’ 

Deeply engrossed, I watched the graph which recorded the characteristic waves of atomic structure. When the professor applied chloroform to the tin, the vibratory writings stopped. They recommenced as the metal slowly regained its normal state. My companion dispensed a poisonous chemical. Simultaneous with the quivering end of the tin, the needle dramatically wrote on the chart a death notice. 

‘Bose instruments have demonstrated that metals, such as the steel used in scissors and machinery, are subject to fatigue, and regain efficiency by periodic rest. The life-pulse in metals is seriously harmed or even extinguished through the application of electric currents or heavy pressure.’

Therefore, all these years, not only have I been lavishing love on my car, but she has also been reciprocating. Why couldn’t I see that earlier? Can one ever achieve the sensibility to feel what matter feels? Time and again, knowers of inner silence have said that it is possible. A truly loving person has a love for both the living and the supposedly non-living. The knowledge that inevitably leads to this kind of love is the only knowledge worth pursuing. And I haven’t even started. 

Passing through Demou, Sepon and Lengerigaon, we took the Moran–Naharkatia Road. A turn suggested by Google took us to a fairyland village, fast asleep. Everything there seemed otherworldly. An impassable pit on one of the village roads forced us to turn back. At Naharkatia, we sought directions to Duliajan from a man who has just finished taking a leak. The route he suggested sounded labyrinthine, so pointing to the map on my phone, I asked him if we could follow it without getting lost. 

‘Show me,’ he said, almost holding the phone. Mindful of his recent activity and unwashed hands, I took care to ensure that he didn’t actually touch it. ‘Yes, the map is right,’ he said. 

After that, we didn’t stop until we got home. I looked at my phone. It was 11:46 p.m. The mission was well accomplished.