As the taxi jolts its way through the traffic, I see the landscape change. I am travelling from the capital to Bareilly. Everything around me looks grey, although it is 11 in the morning. The smog-laden air makes it difficult to see the sun. Google Maps tells me the distance is below 300 km, but the driver warns me that it will take over seven hours to traverse that distance. I am aghast, and already regretting my decision to come here. It has taken us almost two hours just to get out of Delhi.
The taxi moves through the smaller towns, and the bottlenecks in the journey start. Flyovers under construction for years together cause snarls in the traffic. Long snake lines of loaded trucks crawl over the roads. “Man karta hai gaadi chhod ke bhaag jaaoon” (“I wish I could leave the car and run away”), grumbles the taxi driver at having to move at the snail’s pace. He has travelled seven hours from Bareilly to Delhi the previous evening to pick me up. He is clearly exhausted. I wonder about the kind of life he has.
I soon see the green sugarcane fields and several tractors carrying cane. But the stretch of greenery finishes before I can have enough of the view. The stench of fermented jaggery assails my nostrils every few kilometres. The small towns are all trying to become cities. Completely unplanned construction makes the landscape look ugly. There are piles of uncleared filth and garbage beside the roads. The dust is making me cough. I need to take out my inhaler to counter my breathlessness. I miss the calm and serenity of the small towns and villages of India. Now every town is a wannabe city. In the process of expansion, their unique characters are being eroded. Now they all look alike: unplanned, congested, filthy and unimaginative.
Every hour, almost with regular periodicity, I cross a huge building with a big sign announcing a medical college or a dental college in the vicinity. Surprisingly they all seem empty, although it is a week day. Another money-minting ‘educational’ enterprise by some politician, bereft of patients.
Every few metres there is a red billboard enticing tourists to try the taste of Shiva Tourist Dhaba. And then I realize that there are at least ten different restaurants all calling themselves Shiva Dhaba. The owners have their mugshots plastered over them, and each one is a Pandit or a Sharmaji. Apparently there is one popular dhaba and the others are trying to ride on its bandwagon with minor tweaks. So there is one calling itself Shiva Mama Dhaba, another calls itself Shiva Tourist Plaza, another calls itself Shiva Punjabi Dhaba. And then I see the real thing. It is a mandatory stop according to the driver. Pure vegetarian. Clean washrooms smelling of agarbattis. Several buses and cars are lined up. The place is jam-packed and full of families. It smells of Amul butter and fresh parathas. And there is a not-so-subtle warning for travellers telling them: “Beware of fake copies of this dhaba”.
As we leave the dhaba after lunch, new billboards appear. Again red. This time there are photos of the chief minister and other ministers. All clad in saffron with big red tikkas lining their foreheads. They all invite pilgrims for a ‘Ganga snan‘. I ask the driver, and he tells me that Garhmukteshwar is the place where pilgrims came to have a holy dip in the Ganges on Kartik Purnima a few days ago. ‘It is on the way, we can stop’ — he says.
We stop on the highway at Garhmukteshwar, over the bridge across the Ganges. There are steps leading down to the river. A few boats float by. The mighty Ganges seems sluggish and has even dried down a bit. I find a few sellers with white plastic bottles. You can buy a bottle and fill up some Gangajal. The place is calm, but it would have buzzed with activity a few days ago. I click a few pictures, and find a solitary sadhu staring at me. I get back to my taxi.
School children clamber onto tractors and trailers on their way home. As the sun sets, my driver is trying to find his favourite chai wala who sells kulhad wali chai. He is visibly upset as the man has already packed up and left.
Seven hours later, I reach Bareilly, exhausted and dusty. I can’t even get nostalgic about fallen jhumkas in the bazaar. It is just another expanding town with traffic, malls and sweet shops. Does it look different from another town in north India? I doubt it.