On the map it’s just a trickle of brown line that runs the length of the peninsula. From the tip at Kanyakumari and collect Bangalore, Hyderabad, Nagpur and Jabalpur as it curves towards Varanasi. But on the ground, NH7, the country’s longest highway, is likely to be a guiding light as you travel through the heart of India. It is an ever-pressing carpet of asphalt that rolls out in front of you, making your way through stone and brush, sand and earth. There were four of us on the road: photographer Joydip Mitra, my sister Shweta, our driver Feroz and me.
Our journey started in Hyderabad. We drove north, taking a detour to stop at the temple town of Basar, making our way through Maharashtra to stop at Nagpur, sneaking onto the line to Madhya Pradesh to access Pench, winding back, plowing through the dusty Deccan Plateau, to stay in Tadoba, before re-entering northern Andhra Pradesh. The seven-day circuit was fantastic in every way. Memories come in a mosaic-like montage: the sight of Mitra babu hastily putting out his cigarette before leaning over his lens, or Shweta sleeping in the back seat with her head encased in an orange dupatta to block out the light; the signs on the road that amused us so much; the green and red paint for trucks that they seem to like in eastern Maharashtra; the constant, whooshing sound of motor vehicles; the wavy, long jeep drives into Pench; and the blue, baby blue eyes of a leopard. We traveled in April and the sun was beating down on us, way too hot at times. The road was a long line of changing landscapes.
Read also:A trip to Pench National Park
We came across beautiful rock formations, roads so densely covered that they darkened the tar; and parts so dry that we might have imagined ourselves stranded in a wild, unfriendly country. But for the most part, the trip was enlivened by the people we met: hospitable chai wallahs who pushed out stools as they brewed us a cup; farmers on ox carts full of hay observe us with shy interest; truck drivers driving colorful horses, slowing down so Joydip’s lens can capture their splendor; groups of people responding to requests for directions in helpful and extremely cacophonous choruses. We once broke the journey to have lunch at a roadside dhaba. The food – tomato subzi, dal and roti – was made fresh for us.
At a table sat a man with a hauntingly beautiful face. He was a truck driver on his way to Bangalore, a sardar now shorn from his locks, and he told us why. During the 1984 riots, when he had seen his brothers slaughtered, he had gone to a barber to get his hair cut so he would not be identified as a Sikh. Moved by a touch of humanity and a lot of commercialism, the hairdresser did it. At Rs 500 the clipping was expensive, but what price would you put on a life? Listening to him sent shivers down my spine. So passing by on the roads of India, sometimes we can be touched by other lives, the experiences of others. Traveling on the road also brings you music, songs you haven’t had time for in a while. The dusty entrances to Vidarbha were spent swaying along uneven tracks, humming with Mohammed Rafi as he mourned unrequited love in another era. But our empathy lay with Kishore Kumar and his timeless proclamation, Musafir hoon yaaron…
ON THE ROAD
It is best to leave Hyderabad early, both to avoid the city traffic and the harshness of the sun. At least 60 percent of our ride was on NH7; we stayed on it till Khawasa in Madhya Pradesh. We took a detour to touch Pench and returned to NH7 until we turned to Tadoba. We returned to Hyderabad via Karimnagar. The road is mostly smooth (except roadworks in some stretches) and has quite a bit of traffic. The route is dotted with gas pumps (most of which have restrooms), auto repair shops and food stops. We drove an Indica which, despite the awkward high-angle throttle, gave us a smooth ride. It proved somewhat inadequate in the rough backcountry lanes of Vidarbha (on the way to Tadoba), and its AC barely alleviated the April heat, so you might prefer a 4-wheel drive.
In Tadoba we opted not to drive it into the park – partly to save the car from the wear and tear, and also to take advantage of the clear view the open jeep gave us. The two national parks on this route are closed during the rains (June-September). The roads within the parks are rough. The jeeps for rent are open ones, so come armed with hats, scarves and sunshade. This route is dotted with eateries offering food and tea, petrol pumps and shops doing engine repairs and the like for the most part. It is only when you leave the national and state highways to reach Pench or Tadoba that you may experience some inconvenience – you have to drive on unpaved roads and there are almost no eateries along the way.