Breaking Bad, my friend, Mr. White, and I undertook a cross country roadtrip by SUV. Starting in Delhi on August 18th we drove along the Gangetic plains through Varanasi and Bodh Gaya, rolling eventually into Darjeeling after briefly stopping over for the night at Siliguri. Returning via Patna & Varanasi we arrived in Delhi late on the evening of August 24th.
Along our 3400 kms long road journey we traversed innumerable towns and villages, rice fields and flooded plains, misty mountains and gleaming grasslands, not to mention countless herds of goats, cows, bulls, errant strays dogs, and a host of other fauna, flaura and peoples…. all in a span of exactly a week.
We had supposed we’d have an exhilarating excursion, and it proved to be just so in every way we rode.
This is a macro-chronicle of our drive through the breadth of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and North Bengal. Stops were made at Varanasi, Bodh Gaya, Siliguri, Darjeeling, Patna, and Varanasi again.
Part 1: Delhi to Varanasi (800 Kms): Uttar Pradesh, the Bhaiyya Belt.
My phone alarm rang sharply at 5 am but it needn’t have. I was awake waiting to be further stirred out of bed. Mr. White came by my house at 5.30. As the two of us sipped on our cups of morning chai my dad gave us a vigorous lecture on routes and road conditions. Google Maps was declared thoroughly unreliable, in hindsight not an inaccurate judgment in so far as Indian roads are concerned. All the same our groggy senses savoured the drink’s sweetness just as well as they sieved out some very concerned fatherly advice. He’d driven the same stretch back in the 70s and was convinced we’d veer off into Naxalite territory.
Charged up and refreshed, we were set to hit the road! But right before we embarked Mr. White, touchingly, presented me with a “Mr. White and Jesse poster” from Breaking Bad, a replica of which he’d also bought himself. It bounced along with us, sat in the backseat, for the entire duration of our journey. And since we had made it a point for my to always call him “Mr. White”, as for him to address me as “Jesse”, the poster remains a veritable Breaking Bad roadtrip reminder.
Delhi, like many Indian cities, is as calm at dawn as it is manic during dusk. Instead of honks and swear words you hear an assortment of chirps and barks. In Lutyen’s Delhi, you can if you are lucky still spot a peacock or two. Being a late riser I also learned, much to my embarrassment, that the city is now home to not just a handful, but legions of breaking-dawn joggers in addition to a phalanx of avid cyclists. Not to be confused with those who use bicycles as a mode of transport.
We careened on through the city’s empty roads, crossed into Greater Noida, UP, by 6ish, and before it clocked 7 we were comfortably averaging 100 kms/h on the 165 kms long Yamuna expressway. It is India’s longest six-lane controlled-access expressway connecting Delhi with Agra. On either side of the dual-carriageway green fields stretched into the horizon, dotted by quiet smatterings of thatched roof huts. (It’s quite telling how they’ve managed to pave an expressway cutting through precisely nought major settlements. Certainly this is as much the result of calibrated engineering as of policy considering that the highway had been primarily constructed for use by Taj visitors.)
At a distance I could spot the odd farmer working his land, but seeing as there were no animals and no people to be seen it was apparent that the free-for-allness typical of Indian roads had been excised by the charge of a prohibitive price. Nor did we see any passengers perched atop the roofs of buses and trucks, (an all too common sight throughout the bulk and remainder of our trip). Well, almost none. It was as neat and developed a stretch as we were going to get.
And so southward and onward we zipped, passing signs pointing to roads ramifying off toward Aligarh and Mathura, until we eventually made our exit around Agra onto the older highway. By 9 am we were 200 kms down, and now chugging along on National Highway 2, also called the Delhi-Calcutta road and which constitutes a major portion of the ancient Grand Trunk Road linking East Bengal to Kabul.
Soon enough what with potholes, wandering ruminants and swerving trucks we were jolted back on course to fit in with the rattling cacophony that is so characteristic of highway driving in this country.
In the subsequent 7 to 8 hours continuing on down this road, we went initially through Firozabad via Etawah, bypassed Kanpur, stopping nearby only for a quick lunch of daal and paneer, after which we pressed on uninterrupted and untrammeled so that we could reach Varanasi before sunset. The toll-road linking Allahabad and Varanasi was nearly as good as the Yamuna expressway and we made it happily to the city’s outskirts by 5:30 pm.
Driving through Uttar Pradesh was both a roll by bucolic and lush pastures as much as a bumble through endearingly scruffy towns. It was a bright day and the recurring vistas of red, purple and yellow sarees glistening, tilling, sowing, in the agricultural expanse had a mellowing effect over us.
At a surface-level I discerned a kind of sameness with UP towns and villages (as well as in Bihar to a perceptible degree, as I would later see). Inasmuch as nearly every village is made up of unpainted red-brick homes and mud huts, cow-dung patties caked and drying on trembling walls, cows tethered in house yards, men and women tending their livestock or working fields, cavorting children, teenagers sauntering in school-uniforms. Girls on bicycles. Every village had at least one large temple, and in many if not most there was a mosque visible too. Sadly but unsurprisingly a large proportion had a scummy pond or an open-air garbage dump abutting their limits in which plastics, sewage and pigs smilingly mingled and rotted.
Everybody seemed to own a mobile phone. Even some village school kids.
The towns were for the most part congested, the buildings dilapidated and tightly packed. In every town’s skyline, at most three or four storeys high, fluttered a fair few number of religiously coloured flags. Triangular saffrons punctuated by lots of greens. An imposing mosque rested regally between shacky and rubbly structures in places like Akbarpur and Firozepur.
Ram, Narayan and Muhammad, and all their avatars figured abidingly in names of hamlets, nearly all of which were suffixed by the words “nagar”, “-pur”, “-ganj”, not least “abad”: Narayanabads, Rahimpurs and the like were so commonplace in fact that their charmingly secular enunciations registered only later in retrospect.
As urban settlements drew near English lettered hoardings and western dress styles grew prominent. Sarees relented to salwaar kameezes and occasionally to pants and jeans. Words like “fashion”, “style”, “shoe”, “centre”, “jeans”, “college” among a plethora of others were consistently written in the Devnagri script across billboards and shop-fronts.
Whilst current fashions appear to dictate that young men on bikes don gamuchas round their necks and shades on their faces, many female cyclists, motorized and otherwise, have taken to shrouding their visage so utterly by a dupatta as to leave a tiny gap sufficient only for peering at the road on top which sunglasses are moreover placed. Not curiously, many girls also wear gloves coming up at their elbows. Like the dupatta-headgear this a type of self-styled protection against the dust but, most importantly, the sun.
The Ritual Highs of Varanasi
If at all there’s a place that can be described as “quintessentially Indian”, or more moving and exhilarating, essential and elemental, than any other, then, to my mind, that place would have to be Varanasi. It is the only city I can think of that can make the rest of India seem passé. I love it. And this was my 7th or 8th visit.
After weaving our way through hordes of pedestrians and two-wheelers the pair of us reached our hotel, one named Buddha, at about 6.30 pm.
By 7:30ish we reached Dashashwamedh Ghat, the river-bank where the famous evening Ganga aarti is conducted and so named from the belief that it was here that Lord Brahma performed a yagya sacrificing ten horses. (Dasha-meaning ten, Ashwa-medh, meaning horse-sacrifice). Unfortunately the high river levels from recent rains had put the usual boat tours under suspension and we had to content ourselves with a feeble, if meaningless view from right at the back of the throngs, both human and bovine.
(Mr. White for some bizarre reason had decided to walk around Banaras wearing a black hat, thus attracting the unwanted cajolements of touts who might have presumed him to be a foreigner. “Where you from?” they persisted. Mr. White’s crass retort in Hindi rather than have them shut up prompted a fresh spurt of offers: “want to smoke?” “want bhang?”)
At 8 am the following morning I went by myself for darshan (sight/attendance) to the Kashi Vishwanath Shiv Temple. As I’d been before several times I had a fair idea of the inner layout, and a better estimate as to the unrelenting nature of Kashi pandits. Not that this came of much help considering that I got fleeced still, even if this time I was able, somewhat, to contain my losses by leaving my wallet in Mr. White’s keep. Not least by only carrying Rs. 1000 on me.
Not being an especially auspicious day for Shiv the crowds along the surrounding gullies were considerably and mercifully sparser than I remembered from my previous visits. I left my phone and chappals for safekeeping in one of the many lockers set into the walls of a paan shop a few yards away from the shrine. I then set off in the direction of the main gate. No sooner had I trod on a few steps than I was intercepted by 4 pandits keen to escort me through my prayers. Saying “no” firmly was unlikely to work beyond a point I saw, at least then thought, the prevalent mentality determining it a pandit’s job to collect his income from visiting devotees. So I submitted myself in the charge of one young one making it clear that I was only interested in the most basic of poojas.
The Kashi temple is one of the most significant ones dedicated to Shiv. It had been razed and then reconstructed several times, and the last destruction was by the Mughal Emperor Aurungzeb who’d raised the Gyanvapi mosque in its place. The mosque and the modern Kashi temple, constructed by Ahilya Bai Holkar in 1780, share a common wall to this day. Given so extremely sensitive a setting there is robust police presence on the temple’s periphery. You’re frisked a minimum of two to three times before being permitted entry into the inner sanctum in which the Jyotirlingam resides.
At first my guide tried to lead the way but this quickly proved pointless for within a matter of seconds I found myself floating adrift, getting squished, pushed, and then completely swept up in the heaving, sweating, and by now above all the loudly chanting “Har Har Mahadev” multitudes, the bhakts (devotees) of Bhole Baba. Being an organic part of what seemed like a reverberating sea of over a thousand people I trickled thickly into the dim, minuscule inner chamber- or sanctum- that safeguards the Kashi Shivling. You could smell flowers and incense sticks and ghee, but what most overpowered the senses was the impregnable compress of humanity.
Of the lot of assorted saamagri (stuffs for ritual)- Gangajal (Ganges water), bel patra (leaves), flowers, milk sweets, etc.- I had clenched onto, a chunk was casually filched by the nearest segment of the clamouring crush. Not that I really minded seeing as everybody’s prayers and praise would heap up in but one place. All those present knew they had no longer than a minute inside. And so like the rest, in a bid to get right to the forefront to get a glimpse and feel of the divine rock, I squeezed myself through and past the masses of flesh and cloth. I struck a brief pose of genuflection before the Shivling, did a pranaam and chanted known shloks. Beside me were about 15 people prostrate in profound veneration as several more herded around and over them.
Behind the Shivling the two head priests were riding high crescendos in Sanskrit verse, their tones intermittently faltering with anger or disapproval. As my forehead made contact with the lingam, masses of Gangajal, yoghurt and ghee cascaded onto my face, neck and back. The haze was penetrated by a splashy THUMP. Had someone slipped and broken their leg? It was only when I looked up that I realised that the sound had sprung from a slap I received on my back by the priest ahead of me. “Move along”, he signalled. The chanting and smacking continued with percussionist synchrony, and before I could verbalize a protest a marigold garland was tossed over my neck- a perfect bingo!, Ganga jal splashed on my face, a red tikka drawn on my forehead just as the rest of body was altogether shoved out the exit to my right by the next batch of in-pouring bhakts. Now standing in the bright and open courtyard I inhaled the fresh air.
Despite the unrestrained madness I enjoyed my darshan thoroughly. Intense though the experience is time and again there is a magic to Kashi that is peerless. It is raw and powerful and utterly absorbing.
I was next taken on a rapidfire pranaam-session round the various satellite shrines within the complex, all the while shelling out cash to each pujari at every god’s abode. Mostly only 10s and 20s. My personal pandit was nice if self-serving enough to supply me the small change required for this purpose. One pujari rather ingeniously demanded I pay him more than I did others as he’d taken the trouble to do a special prayer for me to be wed soonest!
At the end of the tour the young pandit brought me to the Gyan Vapi well situated between the temple and the mosque; Into which it is believed the head priest during Aurungzeb’s reign jumped, lingam-hugging, in his efforts to protect it from the demolishers. Standing there, the point from where one can clearly make out the arches of the older temple underneath the base of the now imposing mosque, the pandit said to me in a voice of unfeigned contempt, “and that’s where they say the namaz loudly every Friday”.
Overly ritualised, I now headed to an ashram ensconced within the city’s narrow streets to visit a Swamiji with whom my family has maintained an association for decades. In order to get to his Spartan quarters however I had to go through a dank alleyway which had bats clinging to the ceiling immediately overhead.
A half-hour later I joined an immersed Mr. White at Dashahwamedh ghat, not so much in the river as in the fervent attempt at phone camera photography. Though it was not his intention to visit a single temple (as he’s an avowed atheist) he’d ended up going to one all the same.
He’d apparently run into the tout from the previous night. Persuaded into making a purchase, he’d trailed him into a warren of gullies that terminated at another Shiv temple inside which yet another resourceful priest had pressed some chlorophylled prasad into his blessed palm.