Heading west

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”.

DESTINATION SIKKIM

When I was in my teens, I found an old military survey map, paper glued on a canvas backing. It covered Darjeeling and neighbouring Sikkim. It intrigued me with its interesting contour lines and the nature of the landscape it encoded. Five decades have passed since my curiosity about Sikkim began. Today, what I had wondered about so long became reality.

Our host in Darjeeling drove us to the shared taxi stand near Chowk Bazaar. We paid for two seats to Gangtok and were led to a parking area filled with Tata and other makes of jeep. We were told that our Tata jeep would only depart when another 8 passengers were found. Soon a young Bangladeshi couple joined us. We waited and no more people turned up. Eventually, the Nepalese driver, Deepen, appeared. He told us that if we were happy to pay a modest supplement, the four of us could have the jeep to ourselves and, more importantly, depart immediately. We and the Bangladeshi couple agreed and we set off.

At first we drove along the Hill Cart Road, following the Toy Train tracks to beyond Ghoom, where we turned on to the road to Sikkim.

Most of the four hour journey is downhill along an often steep winding road with many hairpin bends, as Gangtok is at a far lower altitude than Darjeeling. We saw many beautiful flowers and ferns with huge leaves growing by the road as well as small forests of trees with very tall trunks. Occasional sloping tea gardens punctuated the luxuriantly verdant landscape. Many stretches of the road through the part of West Bengal through which we were driving are surfaced with tarmac from which numerous small hard stones project to make them safer when wet. I did not notice this type of road surface after we entered Sikkim.

For quite a distance, from Melli to well beyond the Sikkimese border town of Rangpo, we drove through the beautiful valley of the River Teesta that flows down from India into Bangladesh. The clear turquoise waters flow between wide white sandy beaches. From Melli to Rangpo we drove on the West Bengal bank of the river, looking across at Sikkim on the opposite bank.

After passing under a decorative arch with the words “Welcome to Sikkim”, we entered Rangpo and parked near to the visitors’ registration office. There, we showed our permit that we had obtained at Sikkim House in Calcutta and our passports. All three documents were stamped and their details entered by hand in a large book.

We continued our journey through a part of Sikkim in which the scenery was less spectacular than between Darjeeling and Rangpo. Also, the architecture of most buildings we saw lacked in aesthetic merit. Many of them are several storeys high.

Our road left the Teesta valley and began winding upwards through unattractive small towns in the environs of Gangtok city. As we approached the latter, the traffic became heavier. Most of the buildings we passed after entering Gangtok have at least 5 storeys and do not look particularly old. If Gangtok were on flat ground, the place would look nondescript. However, because the city clings to steeply rising hillsides, the vistas resulting from the piling of rows of buildings one above another are picturesque and impressive.

Some of the places we drove through were designated “ODF Village”. At first, I was puzzled by this. Then at one place, I saw the words “Open Defecation Free”. This means that emptying bowels in places other than toilets is forbidden.

The shared taxi stand in the centre of Gangtok looks like an ill-maintained multi storey carpark. We drove into an upper storey which was crammed full of jeeps. Some of them, including ours, shuffled back and forth like pieces in a badly made rubik’s cube in order to access a parking space. A lot of shouting accompanied these difficult manoeuvres.

Our drive unloaded our bag. He had driven magnificently with great skill and care, sometimes with his mobile phone in one hand. When we boarded, I had tried to put on a seat belt. He and the local taxi drivers we used on our first day in Gangtok told me that there was no need to use safely belts. It seemed to me that using a seat belt suggests to the drivers that I am not confident that they are going to drive well.

A local taxi delivered us to our hotel. Soon after this, we took another one to Lal Bazaars in central Gangtok. There, we ate lunch in the first floor Potala Restaurant. Some of the tables on one side of this unpretentious eater, were in compartments with curtains that could be closed to provide a degree of privacy. The steamed pork momos I ate were delicious. They are like Chinese dumplings but larger and with thicker doughy coverings, more like polish piroschki. Beneath the restaurant and under a metal roof, there is a long line of shoe polishers and shoe repairers, all sitting on the floor and very busy.

After eating, we climbed a long staircase with many landings. This is lined with all kinds of shops except for food sellers. The staircase leads to MG Marg, a wide almost level pedestrianised shopping street lined with many upmarket shops and a variety of cafés and restaurants. Many people were milling about, looking at shops or just enjoying themselves. Although not nearly as picturesque as the Stradun in Dubrovnik or the Pedonalja in Albania’s Berat and Shkodër, it serves the same purpose: a place to promenade.

After sunset, we returned to our hotel to await dinner. I am pleased that I am fulfilling my long held wish to visit Sikkim, but my first impression of Gangtok is that it is not nearly as attractive as Darjeeling. Despite that, it is beginning to grow on me.

Indian patriots in Edwardian London: against the British Empire

 

Here is something to whet your appetite!

IDEAS,BOMBS, and BULLETS

Indian freedom fighters in Edwardian London

Inside a house on a quiet tree-lined residential street in north London’s Highgate, a young Indian held a revolver in one hand and repeated a solemn oath promising to give liberating India from the British greater importance than his own life…

Pandit Shyamji Krishnavarma (1857-1930) was born in Mandvi in Kutch. He earned his title of ‘Pandit’ because of his very great knowledge of Sanskrit. In the 1880s, he travelled to England where he became an assistant to Professor Monier Williams at the University of Oxford. Krishnavarma’s studies of Sanskrit at Oxford earned him great fame amongst the Indologists all over the world. He also became a barrister. On hisreturn to India, Krishnavarma served as ‘Diwan’ in various princely states, before returning to England in 1897.

FACE

By 1905, Krishnavarma had become deeply involved in the movement to free India from the grips of the British Empire. That year, he purchased a house in the north London suburb of Highgate. He named it ‘India House’ and it served as both a hostel for Indian students and a centre for plotting the liberation of India from the British.

Between 1905 and 1910, when India House was closed and sold, this place became known as a ‘centre of sedition’ and the ‘most dangerous organisation in the British Empire’. I have almost finished writing a book, to be called “IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS” about Highgate’s India House and the people associated with it. 

Here is a brief introduction to my forthcoming book:

This is about a little known part of the history of India’s struggle for independence. It concerns events centred on a house in Edwardian London. It is a tale of bombs, guns, lawyers, patriots, philosophers, revolutionaries, and scholars.

A large Victorian house stands in a residential street in the north London suburb of Highgate. Between 1905 and 1910, it was known as ‘India House’, and was a meeting place and hostel for Indian students, many of whom wished to help liberate India from centuries of British domination.

In the 19th and 20th centuries before India’s independence, many young Indians came to England to be educated. This is the story of  a few of them, who came to Britain in the early 20th century, and then risked sacrificing their freedom, prospects, and lives by becoming involved in India’s freedom struggle. 

This book describes the true adventurous exploits of members of Highgate’s India House (including VD Savarkar, Madan Lal Dhingra, and VVS Aiyar) and its history.

I will give you more news about my book soon, I hope!