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Blessings of Arunachala: A Serialized Travelogue - Part 1 of 12

Parag is a software developer turned writer who loves travel, the open sky, animals, books, and writing.

Tollbooth Cop

I was waiting at a toll booth some 120 kilometers south of Pune on the Pune-Bangalore highway to pay the toll and proceed onwards to Belagavi (earlier known as Belgaum). It was my first stopover on a solo car trip from Pune to Tiruvannamalai.

There were four cars ahead of me waiting to pay the toll. The tollbooth attendant seemed to be rather slow that day, taking more time than normal, but I was fairly relaxed because there was no pressure to reach Belagavi by a specific time.

However, what I soon saw from the corner of my eye diminished the inner peace that I was enjoying. Watching a traffic cop walk towards your car is never a pretty sight anywhere in the world. This traffic cop wasn’t just sauntering. He was walking rather determinately in my direction.

I wondered if I had broken any traffic law on my drive up to there. The drive had been pretty slow, I had not sped and I was certain I had not jumped any red lights. It was daytime, about 10:00 AM, so there was no question of my headlights not being turned on in the dark. It was all good, but it didn’t prevent me from becoming restless as he closed in. I quickly ran a checklist of the car papers in my mind. I had checked them all before leaving from Pune. All the papers were in place.

As my adrenaline rose, my teeth clenched a bit, the eyes squeezed smaller, and I started scratching the little stubble I had grown to appear tough on the road. My eyes were fixed straight ahead to avoid any eye contact with the approaching cop. However, I continued stalking him from the corner of my eye.

Knock… knock. I looked up at him, feigning surprise, and pressed a button to roll down the window.

“Yes sir,” I asked, or maybe squeaked. I honestly don’t remember.

“Where are you going?” He asked me in Marathi.

It was a question I wasn’t very comfortable answering to a stranger, even if he was a cop, especially because I was going long-distance.

“Is there any problem with the road ahead?” I asked politely, evading the question.

“No. I need a ride. My duty just got over and my bike’s in the garage for servicing. I need a ride back home. How far are you going?”

His round face, earnest eyes, and the simple way in which he laid down his cards without any hint or any silent threat to comply, helped me lower my guard.

“I am going to Belagavi but will stop for lunch at Kolhapur.”

“Can you drop me off about 40 kilometers from here? You won’t have to get off the highway. There’s a bus station on the highway, I’ll get down there.”

“Sure, please come in.” I unlocked the central lock and moved my backpack to the rear seat, which was already full of stuff for a month-long trip to Tiruvannamalai.

I noticed he had a water bottle and a plastic bag, both of which he placed on his lap as he pulled the door shut and locked in the seatbelt.

I asked him if he was comfortable. He nodded. And I started the car. With the car, the audio also came back to life. The car cabin filled with the melodious voice of Kishore Kumar, a popular Bollywood singer from the 70s and 80s, ending a song and beginning another. “The Best of Kishore Kumar” has been my favorite collection since my grad student days.

“Ek ladki bheegi bhaagi si…” one of the most beautiful songs of this legendary singer, had me lip singing with it. I glanced sideways and noticed the cop smiling and bobbing his head front and back—mostly in rhythm with the music.

Song: Ek Ladki Bheegi Bhagi Si -- Kishore Kumar

“Kishore Kumar che gaane changle ahe na?” I asked him in Marathi.

“Ho lai changle ahe,” he answered, echoing my sentiments that Kishore Kumar’s songs are really nice.

And off we went. I switched into the center lane, driving neither too fast nor too slow, for it would have been really weird to get a speeding ticket from a cop sitting inside my car.

“I actually have two bikes. My son-in-law has borrowed one of them for a few days and I’ve given the other one for servicing,” he said, explaining why he needed to hitch a ride.

“Accha,” I said, turning my head slightly to the left.

“Kootli bike ahe?” I asked, curious to know which bikes he had.

“Ek Hero Honda ani ek scooter.” He had one Hero Honda motorbike and a scooter.

He continued to tell me more about his vehicles. The scooter was very old, but the Hero Honda was a relatively recent purchase. He stressed that he was very careful about servicing his two-wheelers on time. “They are both in tiptop condition,” he said with a flash of well-earned pride beaming across his face.

I nodded.

A Swarm of Bikes

“Ek ladki bheegi bhagi se…” ended and “Nakhrewali…”, another gem by Kishore Kumar, poured out of the stereo.

Just as the new song began, a bike sped ahead from the fast lane on the right. Then two more bikes followed suit from the slow lane on the left. The bikes from the left curved in and switched two lanes until they were tailing the first bike in the fast lane.

Three black bikes with bikers wearing black leather jackets and helmets with a dark visor. Two of them were riding solo while one had a pillion.

After a minute or so, two more bikes passed us, then one more, and then five more. In the next ten minutes, about thirty bikes had sped ahead.

It was quite a scene as they sped by on their monster machines, leaving my ten-year-old Maruti Swift hatchback coughing on the road.

What’s going on? I thought to myself. Was this one of those secret races a friend had once told me about? I had heard about these underground race clubs, their bike races, and the outrageous prize money they gave away to the winners. Was I witnessing one of those clandestine races?

The cop probably read my puzzled glances at the bikes.

“They’re going to Goa,” he said.

“I’ve seen these people very often at the tollbooth. Mostly as the weekend approaches.” the cop stopped to take a sip of water from his bottle.

“These guys are from Mumbai. They go to Goa around the weekend and return on Monday. Riding bikes long distance is a hobby for them.”

“These look like pretty expensive bikes,” I remarked as two more bikes whizzed past us.

“Yeah, they cost about 5—10 lacs. Sometimes even more,” the cop informed me, quite casually, as if every second person in the country owned expensive bikes.

Just like there are cat-people and dog-people, or coffee-people and tea-people, I think one can categorize road travel enthusiasts into bike-people and car-people. I am most certainly a car person, or rather a camper-trailer kind of person. Yet, I looked longingly at the bikers—mostly because of the lifestyle they enjoyed.

A life of travel was a long-lost dream of mine. As a grad student in Charlotte, I often dreamed of owning a camper van and travelling across the USA in it. I had even fantasized that I’d work as a software consultant and travel across Europe for a few years working on short-term software projects. After spending a couple years in Europe, in my dream, I’d eventually return to India and do the same here, spending large amounts of time in the northern part of the country in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand where I could live close to the Himalayas.

I had nurtured this fantasy for the entirety of my grad-student years, hoping for it to materialize in some form. However, my dream was nipped in the bud because of severe health issues which were eventually diagnosed as Crohn’s Disease.

These bikers reminded me of my dream life. I looking ahead on the road and remained conscious enough to make sure that the car didn’t swerve, but besides that, mentally, I was in my fantasy camper van.

The Earth below; the sky above; green fields with bullocks, a farmer or two with their kids playing the background; mountains of all sorts: large barren behemoths, green rolling hills with waterfalls and streams; rivers; lakes; forests; distant places rising up magically from the fog; remote villages with mud houses and villagers smoking hookahs on their charpoys; chats with folks from every nook and cranny of the globe; my laptop in my backpack, and working as a remote software consultant from my camper van. That was the life I had dreamed of as a student—and that’s where my mind went as I drove on the smooth patch of road between Pune and Belagavi.

Life doesn’t always match up with our dreams, yet, twenty years after I had sowed the first seeds of travel, here I was: on a solo 1000 km car drive from Pune to Tiruvannamalai - a place I had longed to visit after reading Paul Brunton’s book “A Search in Secret India.”

This was no small opportunity—and I was grateful for it. Immensely grateful.

We drove on quietly. I was lost in thoughts and my neighbor was probably tired after the night shift duty at the toll booth. I noticed him shutting and opening his eyes intermittently between yawns and groans. I was glad I gave him the ride. Night shifts can’t be easy on anyone.

“He bus station diste?” he asked me, pointing to some distant place on the left. I shook my head. I couldn’t see any bus station but I switched into the left lane and slowed the car from 80 to 50 kmh.

“He ithe baga,” he said once again pointing to what I now clearly saw as a bus station about 200 meters ahead. I slowed down even more.

The bus station was separated from the highway by a small service lane. I was figuring out how to get on the service lane, when he said, “ithe thamba, mi jato.”

He asked me to stop on the side. He said he’d walk across the service lane to the bus station. Crossing over from the highway to the service lane was simpler on foot since there was a small mud mound of about ten feet separating the two.

He thanked me as he got down, and I wished him well. He proceeded to the bus station, and I drove on towards Kolhapur and Belagavi.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Parag Shah 333

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