Another 2000 kms to go to complete the expedition. Two more days to go. As per schedule, halt tonight at Indore and reach Koteswar late evening on 30th. With this plan in mind I had scheduled a 5.15 departure. When I woke up at 4.15 am the Goswamis were also up. Tea, biscuits and lot of talk happened. Time slipped by. I got ready and found that JD was waiting with elaborate instructions about the food they had packed – fish curry done in Assamese style, chicken curry, rice and salad. His critical advice was that I should respect the food. JD had instructed his driver to spend the night in the apartment complex so that they could pilot me out of the city early in the morning. Accordingly, we left slightly before 6 am and in 20 minutes it was time to take leave of JD on the highway. His driver gave me the right instructions to reach Mughalsarai.
I normally do not stop for meals. The fruits, sweets, peanuts and biscuits that I keep on the passenger seat next to me are munched on whenever I feel the need. But today was different. The thought of tasty food waiting to be feasted upon kept slowing me down. I kept thinking about where I should have my lunch and what I should set apart for dinner. And, it was when it was not yet time for breakfast! It must be the constant thoughts of the food. I started smelling it too. Gradually the smell got stronger. I stopped about an hour after Arrah and examined the carry bag containing the food. The chicken curry had started leaking. I did not have another container to put it into. Once I opened the bag I could not resist any further and the excuse was that the curry was leaking. The rice and chicken curry with salad (which was not leaking!) was polished off! Passersby would have found it strange that someone was having a hearty lunch at 8 am. The food was too good to be described, and I was unhappy that it was over. I repacked what was left over – the fish curry – to ensure that it would not leak.
The lunch stoppage, another for fuelling and the congested access to the Mughalsarai railway station saw to it that I left the city only close to 11 am. I had nearly 800 kms more for the day. Exiting Mughalsarai itself took time. But the real misery started after Mirzapur. In fact, I was looking forward to getting to Mirzapur for it was NH7 all the way thereafter to Jabalpur. It turned out to be the worst stretch on the expedition and possibly what I have traveled on in India. Moving on from Uttar Pradesh to Madhya Pradesh was heart rending. The roads became fiendish. The maintenance, or rather the lack of it, appalls you. It took me close to 5 hours to travel from Mirzapur to Rewa, a distance of 160 kms. The road on the Rewa ghat section is in such a state that vehicles that have met with accidents and/or broken down litter the entire stretch. To further add to that, an accident on a hair pin curve piled on an additional hour to the misery. While being stuck on the ghats I phoned up Jethi, my batch mate who had done the ORH arrangements for Plan A (Indore) and Plan B (Bhopal) and confirmed that I would be halting at Bhopal.
Plans changed almost every other hour after Rewa. The road became even more miserable between Rewa and Katni. More exasperating was the stoppage at a level crossing gate at Maihar, when almost an hour was lost. While waiting for the LC to open I opened up a conversation with the driver of an ambulance. He said that delay at the LC could last more than an hour and that this condition has been persisting for years. A road over bridge was being constructed, which possibly made people expect better transit over the LC in the future. He described the road up to Jabalpur as ‘devilish’. However, he gave me courage saying that the small vehicle will be able to transit the distance faster than the heavier ones. It was little consolation. Once the LC opened the approach to the other side was so narrow that it took me courage, skill and plenty of patience to get across without scrapping either side of the car. The axle breaking experience from then on almost broke me. Even 10kmph was a challenge. I rang up Jethi once again and asked if I could get an ORH room in Jabalpur. The kind and helpful soul that he is, a positive response came almost immediately, confirming the room number in the Jabalpur ORH.
I toiled on. There did not seem to be any indication of the end to the miserable road. How on earth would an administration want to maintain infrastructure like this, particularly when the Madhya Pradesh government promotes tourism with such fanfare? The area I was traveling in was part of the most promoted tourism centers. The craters on the road and dust were too much to handle after some time. I stopped the car by the side of a truck that was parking for the night. I asked the driver of the road condition ahead. He told me that it was worse than what I had already experienced. He advised me not to travel to Jabalpur in the night due to the road condition and as I was alone. He told me that the road to Jabalpur from Katni would consume 6 hours, distance of 80 kms! I could not believe this. Hence, after a while I stopped again to recheck with two people on a scooter. They reconfirmed that the toad to Jabalpur was in a worse condition and that I should halt at Katni, unless it was an emergency. I did not want to create an emergency by getting stuck on the road in the middle of the night. Jethi, who was in constant touch with me enquiring of my progress, came to my rescue yet again. At the shortest possible notice he confirmed ORH accommodation in Katni. I reached the ORH at about 11 pm after the attestation by the Station Master at the railway station. I felt safe and comfortable for the first time after entering the state of MP.
The day had been a story of regressed progression – Indore to Bhopal to Jabalpur to Katni. The ORH arrangements had to be moved back. I was far short of my target for the day – about 625 kms. I had virtually added another day’s journey to the expedition in just one day. Thus, the four days I had announced for the East-West expedition would now consume anther day. Despite all this, I was happy in the thought that I escaped the ordeal without a breakdown. And, if it had not been for the assistance of Jethi I do not know what my state would have been. I guess God will not test you beyond your strength. And this day, Jethi had been my strength.