Motoring

On the razor’s edge

What it means to traverse roads in parts of rural North India that are either too smooth or too rough

A few days ago, I had decided to visit my ancestral home in eastern Uttar Pradesh. As the taxi neared our destination, I was re-introduced to that sardonic phrase: Gaddhe mein sadak.

It is hard to translate. The nearest phrase I can think of is ‘road-pocked hole’, an inversion of ‘pot-holed road’. It has been a while since I had encountered such a road. People often threw the phrase around in places around Delhi or capital cities like Lucknow, but the first time I truly understood what ‘gaddhe mein sadak’ meant was in Bihar, over a decade ago. One hour out of Patna, and it became apparent that I wasn’t travelling on anything resembling a road. The surface had been washed away entirely, leaving a series of uneven pits. Whatever remained of the tar road appeared like garnishing, sort of like chopped walnuts on top of a bowl of lumpy kheer.

Now, in Uttar Pradesh, I was confronting a similar road. It came as a bit of a shock after the highway, which was quite smooth. Too smooth, in fact. The driver had been complaining that the new method is dangerous. Tyres slide too easily, braking the vehicle takes longer. Apparently, the new roads being constructed are made of cement rather than tar. It is being said that some of these new roads are entirely made out of concrete. There is no under-layer of pebble or brick. Drivers, he said, are concerned about such highways, since everybody moves at higher speeds, and being able to brake quickly is vital. But then, who consults drivers when road construction is sanctioned?

This time around, I personally felt the pain and danger of the too-rough roads that connect various towns and villages. Whatever bits of tar and pebble had remained created uneven edges. My foot turned over one such edge, I lost balance and the next thing I knew, I was hopping around with a sprained foot for the rest of the week.

Along the way, I also discovered the unexpected benefits of travelling in over-packed tempos, which are the primary modes of transport in these parts, aside from state transport buses.

The thing is, the road is awful beyond description. In a relatively empty auto-rickshaw or tempo, you’re swung about and shaken wildly, no matter that you’re holding onto something for dear life. Your neck and spine are at risk. Your head gets bumped hard against the metallic frame of the vehicle. You could be jerked forward so hard that your knees smash into the floor of the tempo.

However, when there are six or sixteen (I counted; there were sixteen people. I will write more about how that went another day) in the tempo, you are all packed in so tight, there is no longer any question of anyone moving. I found myself safely squashed between two elderly ladies on the right and left, four ladies seated across and sundry gentlemen and children in the front and on the back seats. No matter how bad the road was, however the tempo lurched about, my spine was as upright as it would have been in a straitjacket. I suppose that was something to be grateful for.

The author is a writer of essays, stories, poems and scripts for stage and screen

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 5:49:58 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/motoring/on-the-razors-edge/article22807230.ece

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