Nothing stood between the resolute central Indian sun and the grey-brown tarmac that shimmered in all directions. Heat rose in waves in front of my eyes and made mirages in the distance. The whole area, the entire town, was empty. I had driven half a day in the choking heat to be here where the only thing moving was a lone sadhu. Despite the whole wide area that looked like a scaled down Rann of Kutch around me, he chose to stand right in my path. He stood still for a long moment, head tilted slightly upward as if harkening to a higher call. Then he launched abruptly into a bout of upper body exercises. I sat in the car and watched. Surely I could have just turned around and headed back but what about all his efforts? See, all said I am fair guy.
Shoulder now supple he walked towards me with a peppy gait that masked his advanced years.
“Girodhpuri is closed,” he informed me something I knew already. The security staff of Jaitkhamb, the main attraction, had quit which forced the management to shut it since two days. No pilgrims, no business, no shops.
“But I can show you where the guru meditated when he attained enlightenment,” he continued. “It’s just a couple of kilometres from here.”
He got in the car, a wiry man with the sturdy deportment of a yakker or maybe all that exercise in the midday sun. My eyes nearly popped out when he buckled up without being asked to – I have to scare, plead, threaten and finally emotionally blackmail to make my dad wear it.
“You never know,” he said. You never know.
He also took me to a pond where the guru washed his feet before he began his public life and a rock with his feet imprint. He introduced me to the basic tenets of a sect where everyone was equal, where alcohol, meat and tobacco were anathema. As dusk fell he invited me into the hut of a goatherd where I was treated to tea and steaming toothsome samosas.
On the face of it the sadhu was a chatty navigator, an emphatic educator, a philosopher and a raucous friend. In every sense an unforgettable fantastico. Then on slightly profound level he gave me, as Proust would say, new eyes.
The joy within
A wandering minstrel I met on the suburbs of Gwalior sang for me the most soul-stirring rendition of a Kabir Das dohe and in return wouldn’t accept my offer of money or a ride but some fruits for lunch. Once I lost my way outside a wildlife sanctuary and a random cabbie drew out the detailed directions and he kept calling me till I reached my destination. I could go on… on about what inventor adventurer Robert Fulton Jr. calls in his epic ‘One Man Caravan’, ‘the inspiring factor in travel, the welcoming hand of the interested stranger.’ Then the joys of the open road are not limited to what is out there, there are quite a few to be lapped up behind the wheel as well.
As the engine purrs alive, fingers clutching the steering, the bulbous knob of the gear obeisant in our palm, we know that liberation is coming. Slowly we ease the handbrake, nudge the accelerator and are on our way. To that other place where we are happier. Whether it is your own anonymity or the goodness of the people, here we are not judged. Nobody tells us what to do nor is anything held against us. Disappearing in the rear view mirror are not just the things we have seen but those we want to leave behind. The hauteur and the pettifogger falls by the roadside, painful memories fade. The social detritus of the many facades we are forced to wear, of the many roles we are forced to play, fly out of the window. Behind the wheel we hide no more, we have nothing more to hide. Play some music, any music. Exhilaration. Your heart is pounding but strangely you have never felt more at peace. With yourself and the rest of the world. Behind the wheel it is easier to forgive. Yourself and anyone else. And whatever you need to forget will soon be forgotten – you are on the open road and the joys are many.
We have only recently woken up to this ‘relief in change’ and we are embracing it with a zest like nowhere else. Before the 90s long drives and getting away from it all were mostly for the millionaire or the misanthrope. There was only so much the Maruti 800 could take and only so much we could take in the Ambassador. Since its operationalisation in 1995, the National Highways Authority of India has developed over 90,000 kilometres of makhan-like roads across the country. The automobile market also opened up and now we are unstoppable. Fuel prices may cause us to skid now and then but we cruise on unwavering, more determined than one on the wallaby. And in a land of astounding geographical diversity, jaw-dropping landscape and awe-inspiring peoples, the joys know no bounds.