There are days when nothing goes right. This day was one such. Indications of it came early when the GPS directed me from the rest house to the General Manager’s house, instead of on to the main road. Then I hit the busy railway gate of Kamakhya railway station and remained there for 15 minutes, instead of taking the alternate route to avoid it. At that time I did not know that greater delays were to happen during the journey to Malda.
The drive to Malda would take me about 12 hours, I calculated, to cover over 650 km. I have done the stretch many times in the past, including the forward leg of this expedition. Road conditions as well as the heavy freight traffic slow down traffic. Hence, I marked a 5 am start and made the rest house charges last night itself. Of the two routes to Malda I chose the Bongaigaon-Alipurduar-Dalkola route. Driving was alright till I reached the outskirts of Dalkola and I was maintaining an average speed of 55 kmph.
Dalkola is a busy three way intersection. One road comes in from the North East, on which I was, the other goes to Purnea in Bihar and the third is the Malda-Kolkota route. The last named, which is NH34, goes through the city of Dalkola while the Assam-Bihar link is NH31. As you drive in on NH31, NH34 is a left turn at the intersection. About three km short of the intersection there was an incredible traffic jam of freight vehicles in which the passenger vehicles were squeezed in. NH31, nearing the Dalkola intersection is a six lane dual carriageway. Vehicles for NH34 and those continuing on NH31 towards Purnea not only occupied every inch of space on the correct lanes, but also did so on two of the lanes meant for traffic in the opposite direction. I have always encountered some block at this junction during my drives in the past but this was absolutely the limit. I thought the traffic jam was caused by some accident or police checks. It was neither. It is corn harvesting time and vehicles of all shapes, sizes and vintage loaded with corn were wanting access to Dalkola. Not a single member of any traffic enforcement agency was in sight. Local enterprise kept traffic moving. It took me nearly an hour to clear that congestion and turn onto NH34. When I did that I thought that the worst was over. Not knowing the future has its merits. If I had known that 18 km of vehicle queue awaited me on NH34 I may have abandoned the car and walked away! Yes, the queue of trucks waiting to get to the intersection from NH34, from Kolkata, was 18 km long. After waiting an eternity in the queue towards Malda I followed an enterprising driver in a Scorpio, who took the road less travelled, and reached ahead of a part of the queue in the city. From there I did some aggressive driving and got to the top half of the queue from where I could see the reason for the congestion. Indiscipline and ‘might is right’ attitude was holding up traffic with no one in control. Not a single police man or anyone even remotely resembling them were anywhere in sight. Dalkola is an incredibly dirty city and with the congestion one gets to appreciate just that! After being stuck in queues for nearly two and half hours I slowly started moving on. I still had 125 km to reach the ORH in Malda. Light was fading fast and I am loathe to drive in the night for reasons of safety. Even during the daytime vehicles zip on the wrong side of the road and at many times I was taken unawares. Moreover at many places road works are in progress and there are no clear indications for diversion; vehicles head in your direction suddenly without warning of road on the other side being closed. In the night this problem gets magnified as the roads are unlit and whatever signages are placed are not visible. Shoulders of the concrete roads are thick without kerb stones placed to warn road users of the edge of the road. Many trucks lay on their side having misjudged the edge of the road. NHAI is culpable for poor warnings and inadequate safety measures during the construction phase of the project.
The accident I had yesterday in Nagaland had set off funny sounds in the car. It started as a whistling sound while accelerating. Higher the acceleration the higher was the whistling sound. After a while I learnt how to reduce the sound by controlling the acceleration. Nevertheless, the sound was definitely there. People on the road and drivers of other vehicles stared at the car. In some ways I got unwanted attention, but some vehicles moved to let me pass! Then came a grating sound. I was convinced that the car would not last till the end of the expedition. Moreover, the pick up of the car was also affected. I had to get it checked in Kolkata.
By the time I reached the Officers’ Rest House in Malda I was exhausted mentally. I had not had hot food right through the day. It had been figs, dates, biscuits, chocolates and candies. I yearned for a hot meal, but, at the same time, was inclined to go out to a restaurant after reaching the ORH. Fortunately, the caretaker of the ORH assured me a decent vegetarian meal and an omelette in 30 minutes. By the time I had refreshed and changed clothes the young man brought me rotis, dal, vegetable curry and omelette.
I made all the ORH payments since I intended to leave at 5 am for Kolkata. I needed some time there to attend to the car. By the time I went to bed I heard loud thunder in the distant and knew that it would be a stormy night. Would it delay my departure the next morning?