WE SHOULD NEVER have booked to travel on the 945 am Gujarat State Road Transport Company’s (GSRTC) bus from Ahmedabad to Mandvi in Kutch. The distance between the two towns is about 390 kilometres. According to Google maps, the journey should take seven hours by car. Allowing for stops en-route, a bus should take no more than an hour longer. The 945 bus from Ahmedabad took eleven and a quarter hours, with no more than a total of an hour stoppng at various bus stations along the way. Why, you may wonder, did our bus take so long despite the fact that we encountered no traffic traffic congestion at all and we were not involved in any accidents.
The first three hours of the journey, our bus travelled through small towns in the great plain of Gujarat that were far from the direct and shortest route. Many of these places, such as Lakhatar and Surendranagar contain stretches of largely intact historic city walls. After visiting these places in what was effectively a huge detour, we rejoined the direct highway at Dhranghadra. We had travelled a little under 100 kilometres from Ahmedabad in three hours.
At Surendranagar, the driver and conductor left the bus and were replaced by a new crew. The new driver spent more time chatting to the conductor who was sitting to his left and behind him. Most of the time, the driver had his head turned away from the road to see the conductor. He would take frequent brief glances at the road ahead in between his lengthier glances at the conductor. Despite this seeming lack of concentration on the road, he drove well, something that cannot be said of many of the other road users. Some of the overtaking I observed was just short of suicidal.
For a while, we drove along the very good 6 lane highway barely making any stops to pick up or drop off passengers. We had a ten minute break near Halvad, just long enough to buy some snacks and to use the toilets.
Soon after re-joining the motorway, the bus, which was moving quite fast, was overtaken by a Royal Enfield motorcycle. It was being driven by a young man and a largish lady was sitting side saddle behind him. The cyclist was sounding his horn repeatedly, more than necessary, and the lady was smiling sweetly at our bus. I thought that she was just having fun, but as the bike passed the front of our bus, it swerved in front of it. The bus slowed down and stopped and the smiling lady climbed on board and purchased a ticket. She told us that she had seen our bus leaving from Halvad and chased after it unsuccessfully. The young man had offered to take her on his bike and then chase after the bus that he wanted to catch.
We crossed over the Surajbari river bridge, and entered the former kingdom of Kutch, now part of the State of Gujarat. For several kilometres we drove through an estuarine area with acres of saltpans punctuated by tall white pyramids of freshly harvested sea salt. This area is one of India’s most important salt producers.
The highway, from which, amazingly, we had not yet deviated, was heavily used by large trucks. The flat countryside was filled with industrial plants, some quite large with chimneys belching clouds of smoke which were stirred up into interesting shapes by the strong prevailing wind.
As the sun began sinking into the hazy (polluted?) sky on the western horizon, we pulled into Gandidham. This city, established just after 1947, is built on land donated by the Maharao of Kutch, the last ruler of the Princely State of Kutch. The city became home to many Sindhi Hindus who had fled during the Partition from nearby Sindh when it became incorporated into the newly formed Pakistan. Gandidham is not far from the port of Kandla, about which you can learn much more from my book “Travels through Gujarat, Daman and Diu” (published in India by pothi.com as “Gujarat Unwrapped”). I guessed that the heavy truck presence was because of the industrialisation of this part of Kutch and activities at Kandla.
It was at Kandla where we received information that made our hearts sink. The conductor told us that from Gandidham onwards, it was going to take us another three hours to reach Mandvi. Instead of taking a direct route, our bus had to visit numerous villages to drop off and pick up passengers. He explained that being a state run bus, this service is like a lifeline; it is almost the only way that people could travel between these places by public transport. We trundled through the darkness, stopping here and there. I felt sorry for the driver because many other road users travel along the unlit country roads either without lights or with only dim front lights switched on. Of course, cattle and other animals, who routinely share the road with human traffic, are completely without lighting.
All along our route, we saw animals on the road. Cattle and goats are routinely herded along or across roads of all sorts, even the high speed six lane highways. If my knowledge of ornithology was less rudimentary, I would have been able to describe the rich variety of birds that we saw along our route.
In the road lit up by the lights on our bus, I saw a dog which was lying dead at the side of the road. Another dog, maybe a companion of the dead one, was standing close by looking at it sadly or maybe disbelievingly. It was a tragic sight.
Some weeks earlier we were on a car in Hyderabad when I noticed that drivers were making sudden manoeuvres to avoid something lying in the middle of the road. It was a cat that had been knocked down. Lying on its side, its legs were moving frantically in the air as if it were trying to run away. This fleeting image of an animal in the throes of death affected me greatly. I can still see that poor creature in my mind’s eye.
Eventually, we crossed the River Rukmavati and drove along the riverside next to substantial remains of the impressive wall that used to surround the city of Mandvi. We disembarked at the almost deserted modern bus station. While we waited for the car that was going to collect us, a cow wandered past us investigating bits of rubbish on the floor, hoping to find something worth eating.
Though tiring and exceptionally lengthy, our bus journey through the flat countryside between Ahmedabad and Mandvi was far from dull. Our fellow passengers ranged from westernized Gujaratis in European style clothing to rustic looking folk: women wearing saris and salwar kameez, and men attired in very baggy trousers that resembled dhotis and turbans or headscarves. Mobile phones kept ringing and there were many loud conversations. Outside the bus, we saw many vignettes of small town and village life through the filthy windows of our trusty bus.
Next time we visit Kutch from Ahmedabad, we will follow the advice of our GSRTC bus conductor:
“Go by private bus”.