This day it was a drive from the City of Destiny (Visakhapatnam) to the City of Joy (Kolkata). Another early morning start saw me covering nearly 900 kms in just over 11 hours, thus averaging 80 kmph in the day; truly creditable, I thought, for the condition of the road. While planning the segment between Visakhapatnam and Siliguri I had sought the advice of Deep Banerjee of Indian Roadies. He had assisted me with directions during the Trans-Siberian expedition, which I had benefitted from. This time too he had suggested the route via Durgapur, instead of Kolkata, which meant that I would take a detour just before Kharagpur. That would have required me to drive over 950 km this day to reach a place where decent and safe accommodation would be available. I was not certain that I would be able to do that distance before nightfall. Hence, after given the suggested route a lot of thought, and justifiably long consideration, I plumbed for an overnight halt in Kolkata. The off-side, as Deep explained with great patience and in detail, would be the roads I would have to take the next day via Berhampore and Malda. I decided to brave that for, I thought to myself, an early morning start would help me navigate most of the congested roads before ‘the beehives’ were stirred awake.
The advantage of Thulasiram’s apartment is that it is just a short distance away from the highway. Overnight the car had been washed and spruced up by Thulasiram’s handyman. Even though I prefer early morning starts I have one grave apprehension of that time too. Unnecessary and unwarned steel barriers are placed across highway roads by traffic police. Most of them do not even have fluorescent paint or stickers on them. As is to be expected many of them are knocked down by trucks and buses and remain strewn on various parts of the road. It is absolutely unsafe for the traffic police to indulge in such life threatening activity. Unless the barriers are pre-warned, they should not be put there. In any case they must be placed only during the daytime, when it may be of use. Such ‘miscreant’ activity by law enforcing agencies must be put down with a heavy hand. Similarly, NHAI puts up road diversions without intimating traffic in the opposite direction that they are likely to encounter traffic on the same side of the road. Such negligence must be countered and I am surprised that no NGO has taken up these issues nor have any PILs been filed to protect lives of innocent citizens.
The early morning drive was a breeze and I was able to reach the Ichchapuram check post at the border of Odisha in slightly over three hours. The check post is one of the messiest in the country and it has remained thus over the years; expect the introduction of GST to ring in changes. The only difference was that the condition of roads had improved in Odisha quite dramatically. When I did the All-India expedition in 2010-11 the roads from the border to the other end bordering West Bengal was in appalling condition. The transformation is most welcome and pleasant. The other change has been the transit through Bhubaneswar and Cuttack, which used to be a nightmare in the past; this has been sorted out with the commissioning of a large number of flyovers. I had lived and worked in Khurda Road railways division in the mid-80s. I still shudder to think of the terrible road infrastructure between Khurda and Bhubaneswar.
When I passed Kharagpur I spoke to Deep Banerjee to let him know my coordinates; he had promised to pilot me to the place he had arranged for my stay in Kolkata. He was surprised by the progress I had made and then I too realized that I may have been able to make it to Durgapur without a struggle. It was anyway too late to make any changes in the itinerary for the rest of the day. Deep gave me extensive directions and ensured that I didn’t miss him at the appointed place – I am terrible with directions and road instructions, and hence, it would not have been a surprise to me if I had missed him.
The Vidyasagar Setu announced Kolkata. Deep Banerjee spared so much of his time to guide me to the NPG Hotel in Rajarhat New Town. The drive through that part of the city was a revelation; the New Town is indeed a very modern part of the City of Joy. Deep had bargained and settled for a decent tariff for the hotel. After checking in and making sure that I am comfortable he ordered sandwiches and coffee, for he was most concerned that I had not had any solid food throughout the drive that day. When I told him that that is always my routine it fell on deaf ears. He still wanted me to have the snack he had ordered. Comfortably settled in the room we had a long chat about events, situations and many anecdotes. He was just them involved in assisting a gentleman who was on a drive around the globe in a battery operated car. After listening to the incidents involving the person I desist from describing him as a gentleman any further! Deep had so chosen the hotel that the highway access to the route to Malda was less than 500 metres from it. I cannot but marvel at the extensive research Deep had done to assist me in this leg of the expedition. Thanks Deep and Indian Roadies.