Sleep became impossible after 2.45 am. I had a severe cold and the nose got completely blocked, which made breathing difficult. Hence, I retrieved the nasal drops from the car at that hour. I was hesitant to use the anti-allergic medication the previous evening fearing that it would make me drowsy. I worked a bit on the blog and got ready for the early morning start. The air was nippy the previous evening and hence, naturally, it was cold in the morning. The sparse early morning traffic helped me get on to the highway to Guwahati in quick time. The roads were, by and large, in good condition. I had breakfast on the move, in the car. Cashews, almonds and figs, as also chocolates and peanuts kept the jaws and the gastric juices busy. I normally do not like to break the momentum once I start driving, unless it is unavoidable. And that is why I carry supplies on every trip.
At many places, particularly on SH 7 temporary barriers were set up by local people, especially youngsters, to demand money from trucks and cars. I refused to stop and the stickers on the car also helped because many thought it to be an official vehicle of sort. I even got a few salutes from traffic policemen as I passed them; the same was smartly returned!
I had decided to take the Bongaigaon route to avoid the Boxirhat border crossing, where I had a bad experience in 2010. Goons, hand in glove with the local police, fleece passengers travelling in ‘foreign registration’ cars. It is said that cars stolen in the rest of the country pass through to Nagaland through that border and hence, is easy money for the anti-social elements. Resale value for such stolen cars is high in Nagaland, I understand. About an hour short of Bongaigaon I decided to call up an old friend, Surinder Kumar IPS, who had been posted there when I was on the East-West expedition in June 2013. I had first met him in 2010 when he was posted as Principal of the Police Training Academy in Dergaon, where he hosted me a few times during the travel in Assam. As luck would have it, he told me that he was still posted in Bongaigaon and invited me for Holi lunch at the Central Reserve Police Force Camp near the Bongaigaon refinery. His elaborate directions, as is his wont, left me in no doubt about the location of the Camp. The celebrations had quieted down and anthakshari was in progress when I landed up. Surinder introduced me to all the officers and even gave me time to address them. The Commandant of the Battalion, it turned out, had been a station master in the railways before joining the CRPF. I joined in the fun, except that I politely refused colours. I never refuse a hot meal when it is offered and I tucked into the lunch and sweets with abandon. Surinder’s son and his friend plied me with questions right through the lunch. They wanted to know every detail of the trip including the financing and routing of an international drive. I was happy to supply the information since it motivates youngsters to travel and understand other communities.
Noor Mohammed, who is part of the Alfa Serene fraternity, gave me the contact number of Padmanabhan, who lived in Guwahati and could host me there. In a short while I had calls and messages from Padmanabhan, wanting to know the logistics support I wanted in Guwahati. Even though I had accommodation booked in the Maligaon railway rest house I thought it would be a good idea to meet another person and accepted the hospitality offered. Paddy, as he is affectionately called by his wife, is the Managing Director of Numaligarh Refinery. His wife works in Guwahati with the Reserve Bank of India. It was a bit difficult getting to their house, but once I got there I was immediately bathed in warmth and affection by the couple. They did everything possible to make me comfortable in their excellently maintained house. We exchanged notes about our families and professions. Paddy took over as MD of the refinery less than 10 months ago after having served Bharath Petroleum Corporation for over three decades. Their daughter works for Deutche Telecom in Bonn, after higher studies in London School of Economics, UK. Paddy explained a few CSR initiatives of his company, particularly the one where the refinery contributed a boat to operate a mobile medical camp in places that could be reached only by water.
The first week of the journey has been completed travelling over 3500 kms through six states of India.