Rishikesh or the land of tranquillity, as I often refer it to as, never ceases to amaze me. Three things that I love about this place are—the sound of a gargantuan river in spate, the dip in Ganga where the ice-cold elixir-like water seeps through your pores to calms your senses; and the fresh air that sweeps down the mountains carrying the smell of incense sticks and pine with it. Once a year I take a vacation and make it a point to visit the town to purge my overworked mind and body.
Normally, for me travelling for work can never be fun. After all, the `work` factor involved forces one to ignore the prettiest locales and focus on the quest for bread and butter.
But one such trip to Rishikesh was in connection with work for a story that I was pursuing. But the beauty of it was that the story unfolded while I went about chasing it. Here is how it happened-
The incident dates back to 2010, I was zipping along (on what was then) one of the most amazing pieces of tarmac on the Northern side of the country - on the Delhi-Dehradun highway, en-route one of the most tranquil sites on the planet – Rishikesh. My driver and I had left Delhi on a Sunday morning and had to return the same day covering 500-odd kilometres in one full circle of the clock.
Beyond Modinagar, the stretch had eroded a bit due to overloaded trucks, bumper monsoons and lack of maintenance. But whatever time we lost covering the potholed stretch was made up post Khatauli, until a massive jam stared at us at Purkaji. As so often happens on our highways, a lorry had overturned and blocked miles of traffic on either side.
Waiting for the traffic to open was like waiting for Godot, with high chances of me missing the Rishikesh meeting and ruining an entire day for nothing.
But a friendly chaiwallah (tea seller) in Purkaji told us that there was an MDR (major district road) that could take us past the jam. And while the detour on the lateral road would take us through hinterland into Haridwar via Kankhal, we would miss the Roorkee dhabas (road side eateries) that offered sumptuous fare to hungry souls. Nonetheless, with the morsel of information we headed East, towards where (the chaiwallah hadn`t bothered to inform me) lay the river Ganga.
Well, I`ve seen Ganga within bunds and without bunds and let me assure you the latter is petrifying. But the river in spate, spilling on its sides is a different scene altogether but more on that later.
My eyes hurt from seeing trucks and concrete-jungle ever since we left Delhi, but the detour quickly took us out of Purkaji kasba (hamlet) onto a rural road that had the occasional tractor, buffalo-carts and minibuses. We made steady progress and carried on dodging carts, bicycles and goats that were bewildered to see a car honking away as if all hell had broken lose.
Either we took a wrong turn or the chaiwallah had played a cruel joke on us—the scenery slowly began turning from lush green to brackish transparent.
Receding waters of Ganga greeted us a few miles thereafter. After which there was water for as far as the eyes could see (save for the road). We were forced to slacken speed. And a few kilometres later we had to pull over.
There was a vast expanse of water to the left of us, there was a vast expanse of water to the right of us, and only a jet-black stretch of road tore right through the milky expanse, as if a painter had drawn on a blank sheet of paper an arrow-straight line with a thick brush.
A few paces ahead, kids swarmed near a culvert with makeshift fishing rods made of bamboo poles and fought for a seat on the broken bridge`s parapet. All I could do was stand, and watch. The driver understandably was apprehensive about going any further. We hadn`t sighted a vehicle in quite some time, which he knew wasn`t a good sign. He said it could only mean that the locals knew the road ahead wasn`t motorable, or worse, there was no road ahead!
The amateur fisher-boys responded to the car`s horn and came running to us. Their assurance that this actually was the right way to Haridwar didn`t comfort my driver but I, by then, had lost all hopes of arriving in Rishikesh on time, hence didn`t care less.
I stood by the roadside and let the atmosphere sink in.
We were out of mobile coverage, which meant no call/SMS to check if I was on course for the meeting. However, as I said, I couldn`t care less.
But minutes later we heard a buzz in the distance, a speck appeared in the horizon and soon it turned into a moped which sputtered and stopped right next to us. The simpleton on the moped wondered as to how we had managed to reach the desolate stretch. He listened with intent and then guided us on our way forward on the road that had gushing waters of the Ganga brushing by its sides.
We learnt from him that beyond the next kasba Laskar, we would have to head westwards beyond the sugarcane fields and sugar mills and reach Kankhal. Somewhere along we crossed a washed away milestone that read something like – ‘Haridwar - 20 kilometres’, but I didn`t want the city to approach. I never wanted the road to end. I wanted the waters to continue flowing by the roadside and the hyacinths to stretch all the way along.
As modern legends have it, the car churned miles every second. And few minutes after my meeting was scheduled to culminate, our car came to a screeching halt outside the Inspection Quarters at Rishikesh. We were on time and not at all behind schedule, they said. The person I had to meet was stuck in a jam on the highway, they added!