The Road from Jamshedpur – Part 1

The beer felt good in my throat after two and a half hours of spine rattling torture in the back seat as we drove through endless destitution and desolation, the aircon barely keeping up with the heat that was still baking everything around us even in the approaching dusk. It was good to take a break at the little dirt floored dhaba setting amidst nothing but dusty plain and dustier road. The truck drivers who had stopped for tea and a bowl of dahl paid us little notice but our driver’s nervous pacing by the side of the car was distracting. He called Vijaya over to explain that we had only a few hours to get through the ‘jungle’ before darkness swallowed up everything and us with it. Through Vijaya’s translation we learned that the ‘jungle’ was 90 km of bad (I didn’t know how it could get any worse) road onto which dacoits throw tire spikes to halt cars and trucks in order to rob their passengers. Hearing this, I knocked over the rest of my beer in my hurry to get back into the car and be moving again. Apparently the police were helpless to do anything other than place armed check points at each end and post one or two patrols along the road. Since we seemed to be the only car among the hundreds of trucks, we felt like the lame gazelle in a herd being stalked by lions. For the next two hours, four pairs of eyes were glued to the road looking for the metallic reflections of tire spikes or any furtive movements in the high brush crowding the edge of the road.

This was the only time in the entire trip that the driver used the headlights continuously. Otherwise, they were only switched on when it seemed that the oncoming trucks were determined to mount us. The road WAS worse. There was no hint of pavement ever having been laid, only 90 km of dirt and holes from which the front of the car would struggle out only to have the rear fall in. The incessant banging of our heads against the roof at least served to distract us from the torment in our twisted spines.

We made it through without incident and were now four and one half-hours into what was originally billed by our hosts in Jamshedpur as a four-hour trip. We had subsequently learned when booking the car that it was more like six hours. As the last door of the car was closed, Alex commented on the new estimate. Hearing this, the driver volunteered in a very definite tone that it would be seven and one half-hours.

We were in this dilemma because the meetings in Jamshedpu rhad gone on interminably and we had missed the afternoon train to Calcutta. The next day’s morning train would get us into the unbelievable chaos of Howrah Station in Calcutta far too late to drive across the city to Dum Dum airport to catch the once-a-day flight to Singapore. That would mean spending Sunday in Calcutta and flying out on Monday, too late for critical appointments on the other end. We had been in the company town of Jamshedpur for the last two days. Our business was with the huge steel mill operation that dominated, with innumerable smoke spouting stacks, the view from any window in the town and covered every possible surface with a coating of the by-products of the massive steel making operation. The trip to Jamshedpur had started with a 6:00AM departure from Calcutta’s Howrahstation by train after picking our way through the misery of thousands of people rising from their rag and cardboard beds and performing their morning scratching, splashing and spitting. Crossing the Howrah Bridge to the west side of the Hooghly River at that time of morning had meant that we were one of the few cars on the span. Still, the side rails of the bridge seemed to bulge with the progression of buses leaning perilously with their loads of hanging riders, bullock carts, hand carts, sacred cows, and pedestrians all moving with no regard for lane markings through the homesteading hawkers and beggars.

Jamshedpur is located in the southeast geographic finger of Bihar province that nearly separates the states of West Bengaland Orissa. Bihar is one of the poorest states in India yet this corner contains nearly half of India’s mineral wealth including iron ore for the steel mills. Here, as virtually anywhere in India, the irony that is a hallmark of the country is obvious to even a casual observer. In this remote corner dacoits operate freely, government sponsored Cowherd Schools operate to allow young boys to attend school with their cattle and less than 400km behind us a descendant of the original Bo tree under which Buddha attained enlightenment still stands on the same spot.

Back on the road we found the traffic had changed from the daylight hours during which it had been largely us and bullock carts on the road. Now with the onset of darkness the road was filled with thousands of trucks. An endless train of trucks in both directions plied back and forth between the steel mills of Jamshedpur and the junctions outside of Calcutta. There was no room for trucks to pass one another in either direction but they did, and so did we. After the first few hours the fear subsided and I became mesmerized by the process and found myself disappointed when we completed a maneuver with more than a few inches to spare.

At hour five the driver pulled into another trucker cafe. However, as Alex was leaving the car the driver shouted and pulled him back while at the same time reversing the still running car, missing only by inches the two men approaching from behind. The group getting up from their bench in the shadows only had time to move a few steps towards us before we were speeding away. A half mile further on we found another (and better lit) dhaba. After a simple traveler’s meal of masala tea, curries, and roti for a ridiculously small amount of money we returned to the car with armloads of bottled water, something no one ventures without on even short trips. Before getting underway again we made a pact that one of us would always be awake to talk to the driver. We had personally observed the fact that a man can only absorb so much terror and after five hours the mind goes numb and begins to doze.

Sometime in the night I was jostled awake by the driver back tracking to find the bypass around Kharagpur the only city between Calcutta and Jamshedpur. We had stopped here briefly on the train two days ago. Our train car had been like much of the rolling stock in the Indian railway system, of indeterminate age and looking as if it had been patched and repaired by blacksmiths instead of mechanics. This was a first class air-con car with three seats on one side and two on the other. The vinyl covered seats reclined a few degrees and had fold down tray tables. It was on these tables that the waiters deposited trays containing a few over cooked vegetables, a pale sheet of an unidentifiable omelet, powdered coffee or tea and a gulaab jamun. Indians love sweets even for breakfast and gulaabs are a favorite in the Calcutta area. They’re made from milk boiled down until it can be formed into a ball, flavored with cardamom and soaked in rose water syrup.

Our car was full of businessmen on their four-hour trip toJamshedpurand the mighty steel complex. The air-con blew full blast for the entire trip and was aided by big overhead fans one of which was above my seat. Meat could have hung in this car for days without spoiling. I had to frequently get up and go forward to the platform between the cars to warm up. It was in this area that I first experienced the infamous eastern toilet aboard a train. There was no bottom to it and as I gripped the piping with white knuckles I could see the rail bed rushing by below. I didn’t see how anyone could squat here with his trousers around his knees and yet stay balanced on his soles as the train bucked and rolled so I gave up and went back to my seat. On a second try I found this toilet occupied and turning to the one across the way discovered to my immense joy, a more conventional facility.

The train paused in Kharagpur alongside the longest train platform in Asia but it was pretty quiet at mid morning. Apparently in the evening it is extremely busy as trains from the west and south all pass through here on their way to and from Calcutta. It is here that the roads and rails from Calcutta split to continue on to Mumbai and Chennai.

At midnight we were approaching Calcutta from the west when the driver called back to the dozing Vijaya. It seemed that while he knew how to get toCalcutta, he no idea where our hotel was or much knowledge of the street layout. There were gasps all around when it was discovered that Vijaya had never been to Calcutta. All he knew of it was that his grandfather had been robbed as he stopped to light a cigar while getting off the train on a pilgrimage. So we proceeded intermittently, stopping under any available light to look at the tiny map in my guidebook.

A short time later on the narrow back streets that led into the city, we had to slow to pass a stopped truck that left us little room to pass. Suddenly men appeared completely blocking our passage and surrounding us. The driver spoke to the goondas through a narrowly opened window and they parted to let us through. If our car had had license plates from the neighboring state of Bihar, we would have been shaken down for money. Fortunately, we had West Bengali plates.

Realizing that if we wandered around much longer we might as well go the airport instead of the hotel, the driver stopped and walked across the road to where two taxis were parked to get directions. As they were going in our direction anyway, they agreed to lead us. Only after we U-turned in behind them and they had started off did we discover that one was pulling the other with a piece of rope and could only manage about ten kph. Fortunately it didn’t take long to find ourselves on one of the narrow access roads to the Calcutta Bridge across the Hooghly River. The project had run out of money before the access roads could be completed and the bridge is impossible to use during the day but at midnight there was us and three other cars. Unfortunately, none of them were our taxi-guides as a police patrol had stopped the illegal tow at the abandoned tollbooth. We were on our own again.

After a half-hour of wrong turns, U-turns and another taxi guide, we arrived at our hotel at 0115 in the morning – eight hours and forty-five minutes after we began our four-hour trip. As I laid down for a quick three hour nap, I remembered leaving Singapore three days before on a Royal Brunei flight to Calcutta. Just before takeoff I was startled out of my complacent disregard for aircrew announcements when the audio taped seat belt instructions ended and a Muslim prayer for travelers delivered by a somber voiced mullah filled the aircraft for the next five minutes. I found it a little disconcerting to think that an airplane flight needed a prayer before takeoff. But as I fell rapidly asleep, I felt the prayer must have been working full time throughout the last three days.

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