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Memories of my travels between 1972 and 1982

Driving in India

Many people who drove to India did not like driving there:  they stuck to the main roads and often drove at night when they could go faster.  Me, I loved driving there, especially on the Deccan Plateau and in the South.  I wanted to go quite slowly so that I could take in everything that was happening around me.  We bought a passable road map in Delhi, a large single sheet affair.  We tried to get city maps from the Tourist Offices before we got to the cities, because the cities were where finding your way about was more difficult.  We became adept in picking out people who might speak English in a crowd so that we could ask directions, and we learned to ask in open questions so that we could not easily be given the answer "yes."

This is adapted from something I wrote in 1973, after returning from India; it's mainly about the southern half of the country.

The land in winter is hard and dry, cultivated at all times of the year, as far as the thin soil will tolerate.  That year after poor crops and the failure of the previous monsoon, the earth was often cracked and barren, the rivers almost dried out, the many plants faded and drying.

You could feel the lazy atmosphere of the south in all the towns and villages, which were well spread out sprawling through the countryside, unlike the north where the houses were built as close to each other as possible.  The bazaars were laid out in a more formal fashion, the houses were generally low, the temples and churches large and dominating, the suburbs of the towns drifting into the villages.  The roads were quiet and often divided the villages through the middle; the villages themselves were not always small, often having shops, and a school where children sat in neat rows in a bleak sun-baked courtyard; there might also be a temple next to a small, square, green-watered tank, with steps for bathers leading down an all four sides; if the village were large enough there would also be a larger tank outside for irrigation and drinking water, where the women would bathe and lay out their laundry to dry in the sun.  The road brought wealth and modernity to these villages, brick houses, family-planning advertisements, bus-stands, pull-ups for lorries which advertised the style of cooking, coffee-houses, coke-signs, toddy-stalls, fruit-sellers.

The plateau would stay level for half a day's drive and then suddenly rise or fall by a few hundred feet, where we could stop and look over the surrounding area.  Then again we might come to a more fertile patch with lusher fields where plantations of palms took the place of open scrub.  We would be waved down by a man selling tender coconuts, who chopped a hole in the top with a hatchet, and let us drink the cool juice and eat the small amount of flesh inside.  The greenery would signify a river, which we would cross by a hump­backed bridge beside little temples.

Sometimes we would come to a railway crossing where the gates were always closed at least fifteen minutes before the train was due; a small queue would collect and children would jump up and down at the windows of the cars trying to sell oranges; and then the old train would slowly pass amid the hissing of steam and the ringing of bells; the driver standing sweating at his cocks and dials was often a pale-skinned man, looking out of place in this scene; and then finally the wooden carriages and guard's van would pass, full of darker men in white shirts and turbans.

Often the road would be under repair: gangs of men laid a new surface directly on top of the old one, ensuring that the faults of old were not lost; the women sat cross-legged breaking rocks and carrying the stones in baskets to the men.  Sometimes there would be groups of other women who wore gaudy flounced skirts, with heavy silver jewelry around their necks or attached to a head-dress, and giant ivory or bone bangles up to their elbows; they worked always by themselves, sat by themselves, and when we passed they waved vigorously and laughed loudly amongst themselves.  I once asked an educated man who they were. 'Do not concern yourself with them,' he answered.  'We call them Jungly Gujaratis. They sometimes come here looking for work. They are nothing.'  I think they were Gypsies.

We learned to drive where we could on the smaller through roads instead of on the busier national highways.  The roads always had one track of asphalt and very little traffic.  There would be a local bus, and perhaps a local lorry loaded with both goods and passengers.  Officials toured in jeeps and there were very few private cars outside the larger towns and the tourist sites.  Most people travelled on foot or on bicycle, or, more usually, slowly and patiently by bullock-cart. When we came up to pass them it was never clear whether the animal would move aside to the left or the right.  Sometimes we would pass a long queue of them, following each other step after step along the road with the drivers asleep in the back, until we came to a little town which had a sugar factory perhaps, and then there would be a long queue of carts moving slowly in the other direction.  But generally the driving was easy. I had last driven in the dirty streets of London; now I found a freedom unknown on the road at home, a lack of hurry which allowed me to anticipate other peoples' movements.

For the most part we did our own cooking, with fresh coffee for breakfast and tea later in the day.  We liked to shop in the markets and bazaars as we passed through them but otherwise there was cheap street food in the towns.   In this way our food was never expensive; if we felt the need for something more substantial or for some fresh meat, then we had to wait for a city and the more fancy restaurants.  For lunch we would have bread and tomatoes, and cucumbers which were always available.  We ate a lot of fruit, mainly bananas and oranges, both of which came in several types and qualities; occasionally there would be pineapples and papaya and guavas, or more exotic things whose flavours were strange and whose names unknown.

Shopping was always an interesting business.  When we were in the larger towns we could find a colonial-style general store where we could stock up on tins of meat, cheese and milk.  Most towns had at least one shop which sold a version of sliced bread, and you could usually get eggs; for some reason the largest eggs were the cheapest and the best; and duck eggs, which were more local, were bigger, cheaper and better still.  Coffee was sold fresh from the roaster in many of the smaller towns of the South.  For fruit and vegetables we would go to a central or local market, enjoying very much the process of selection, bargaining and decision; the coolies did not mind if we did without their services; and the sellers were always interested in us, interested to see what we would buy, whether we could tell what was of better quality, and how much we would allow ourselves to pay.

By preference we would have liked to camp in the open, but this was often not possible: foreigners, particularly foreigners outside with a vehicle, attracted far too much attention.  Instead we used the bungalows run by the local P.W.D, or the Circuit Houses, which were there officially to house officials on tour, but they were often happy for us to camp outside or they could rent us a room for a couple of rupees a night.  These rooms were very bare and dusty; the compounds were occasionally green and surrounded by trees, but more often it would be bare earth and piles of stones and empty asphalt cans.  Outside we did not get much more privacy than beside the open road, as there were always dogs and local kids, but if they became too insistent with their stares we could always retreat inside the Land-Rover or into the room.  Eventually we tried to camp more and more in the open, finding our spot late so that we would not be seen by anyone passing who might implore us to go to a hotel - we did avoid areas that were notorious for dacoits such as the badlands on the rivers south of Agra.  An example is here. 
It wasn't all pleasant of course.  You had to learn to put up with the poverty and the squalour that poverty brings.  Towns and cities all had areas for the poor and outcast and these were often to be seen by the roads.  Sometimes for no very obvious reason we'd go through what appeared to be a dying town, where the people were all in rags, where the puddles housed all sorts of filth, where the pye-dogs roamed the streets with their insides hanging out, where flies were the dominant animal.  Shocking as these moments were, they could not take away from the overall exhilaration of driving through the smaller towns and byways.

The photographs on this page were taken in January 1973 in the Nandi Hills area near Bangalore; by K Helevuo, in my possession.