Long Drive5 mins 164 5 mins 164
It happened in the winter of 1995. I was posted in Agra and had travelled to Lucknow for a business review meeting at my regional office. Instead of a hotel, I preferred to stay at my friend Deepak’s house. I still remember that chilly winter night that day.
A couple of colleagues had come over to Deepak’s house and we were into our third peg of Johnny Walker black label. The room had become stuffy with the smoke of cigarettes and trays of peanuts and wafers lay half-empty on the table. The doors and windows being closed due to the chill, the atmosphere inside had become warm, if not hot; warm enough for us to divest ourselves of our coats and sweaters.
It must have been close to eight-thirty when the shrill ringing sound of the landline in Deepak’s house rose above the chatter of friends in the room. Deepak rose to take the call, listened to the voice on the other side for a few minutes, turned around and raised his hand at us, a signal for us to quieten. The room was quiet now, with smoke hanging around us like fog. From his anxious enquiries, I could gather that something bad had happened.
Deepak finished the call and slumped into a nearby chair, tears rolling down his eyes. His brother-in-law had passed away, he informed us. The silence in the house deepened. No one, except me, knew his brother-in-law. He was married to Kiran, Deepak’s elder sister, and I had met him many times. Major Rawat served in the Indian Army and was currently posted in Raipur (then part of MP state). They had a son about eight years of age. He must have been below forty years of age then, and to my recollection, he was a fit and healthy young man.
Major Rawat suffered a massive heart attack at home that evening and died almost instantaneously. After fifteen minutes of the exchange of vital information about the deceased Major, we talked about how Deepak can reach Raipur. There was no flight to Raipur then, and the only way to travel was by train, bus and car. Trains were few, hence ruled out. Bus service was pathetic and so this option was also ruled out. The only option was to drive a car or hire a vehicle. None of the taxi services was ready to drive to Raipur.
Once it was clear that Deepak had to drive his car to Raipur, other issues surfaced. His own car was almost a wreck and unfit for the roads, especially for driving about 1200 odd kilometres. Yes, Raipur was about 1200 kilometres from Lucknow and, as we gathered, one has to negotiate the treacherous Amarkantak range of mountains en route. We needed a roadworthy vehicle. We reached out to our friends and colleagues and finally zeroed in on one of the field officers who had just bought a new Premier Padmini. He willingly offered to lend his car but expressed his inability to accompany Deepak as he was just learning to drive!
We then hunted for drivers, but no one was available at such short notice. Deepak was not in a mental state to drive. I volunteered. The car arrived, and we hastily packed our bags and drove to his parents’ house. His parents were in shock and we left them in the care of Deepak’s younger brother. His mother insisted that we take Deepak’s Mama (maternal uncle) with us. We drove to his house and picked him up. I asked him if he could help with the driving, but he had never driven a four-wheeler. I was at the wheels, and none of us knew the route. All we knew was that we had to reach Allahabad and from there ask for directions.
By the time we left, it must have been close to ten in the night. Once I hit the highway, I hit the pedal hard. It was winter, and it looked like the fog would set in that night. The roads were deserted, and I drove at high speed, my brain still muddled with the black label. Deepak had fallen into a silent stupor in the rear, and I made small talk with Mamaji. We reached Rae Bareli at a good speed, and from there we had to take the road to Allahabad. It was foggy and deserted, and there was no soul visible around for help. Using my limited resources and judgment, I took a turn I thought was the correct one. It was the wrong turn and soon I was driving on a road which was bumpy and endless.
I drove through the night with only a sense of direction to guide me. I had taken the wrong road, but I could see from the milestones that we were heading in the right direction. It was early morning when we reached the outskirts of Allahabad. The two occupants were fast asleep, but I was wide awake and tired, more with the stress than physical.
I stopped at a roadside Dhaba and woke up Mamaji and Deepak. We had breakfast and tea, gathered details about the route we had to take, and started. Deepak was feeling better, so he took the wheels, while I caught up with sleep in the rear. In a couple of hours we reached Shadol and further ahead we stopped near the foothills of Amarkantak range to refresh. From there I drove up the hills and across the mountains. I now knew why this stretch was considered treacherous. The roads were winding and turning like a serpent. There were sharp hairpin bends and winding slopes. Somewhere in this range was a famous temple and a wildlife park, but we did not have time for such diversions. I kept driving at a moderate pace, never letting my foot leave the brake pedal.
It was nearly eight in the evening when we reached Kiran’s house. We had been driving non-stop, halting only for petrol and food. This has been my longest drive ever, and what a drive! I thanked God for bringing us home safe and sound. We had reached in time for the cremation that was scheduled for the next day.