Please note: This narrative is the third in the series of travel essays on my Sikkim to Himachal highway journey. Read the First Episode: Leaving Sikkim for Himachal – Serendipity or Choice? and the Second: The 500-km Drive Through Bihar: Corn Harvests, Marriage Certificate at Hotels, and Truck Slogans, too.
Can We Ever Feel Safe in Uttar Pradesh?
After a disappointing evening stop at a Bihar highway restaurant where the waiter offered to prepare lemon water from the same mineral water bottle he was trying to sell us (my partner S had tea and an omelet), we arrived at Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh (UP).
Actually, we had searched for hotels in Buxar, the town on the border of UP and Bihar, but we didn’t find one with pictures of rooms or a rating above two. Most hotels on Google had selfies taken outside of them by locals, and reviews were incredulous (“wow,” “staff behavior not good,” and “the whole floor is wet and i almost slipped walking on it many times. It was at 4 am in the morning when I realised this.”)
So we buckled up and drove for two and a half hours to Azamgarh — a decently big town on the way, called two hotels (asked if arriving at night would be safe), and chose one that was cheaper: still fifteen hundred rupees but whose owner promised neat and clean rooms. But we got a room whose bathroom and linen were questionable, the drinking water jug was empty, the glasses dusty, and the air-conditioning switched on as if a ramshackle tractor suddenly jolted to life.
The old attendant at the hotel (the owner wasn’t present) who said the room was fully-equipped asked me, “What was my relation to S,” and when I said he was my husband and showed him our marriage certificate, he said the hotel should be safe, no. Please don’t think he worried if the hotel would be safe for us; he worried if the hotel was safe from us: to him, a man and woman who could possibly be related to each other in some horrendous way apart from the virtuous bond of marriage could damage the hotel. We brushed and slept off, ensuring the blanket didn’t reach close to our faces and assuring ourselves that we would leave in the morning and the hotel would be a bygone. Though the fleetingness of a long highway journey can baffle some, it assures and liberates me: I am here now, but I won’t be the next moment.
The next day we got out of the hotel by ten am. But another mystery struck us: the cover of one of the wheels from the car was missing. When S asked the receptionist (the old guy’s shift was over), he said, “We don’t know what happens at night, Sir.”
The parking was across the road and open. We couldn’t remember if the wheel cover was intact when we parked the car the previous midnight. While I felt guilty about being reckless to arrive late at night and park outdoors in my home state UP — a state that could never convince you of its safety, S’s solution was simple: we would get the wheel cover affixed in the next car service (we have already done it). The simplicity and clarity with which S approaches even the most unexpected issues are like a clear sky after a clouded and thunderous day. (Here are 14 things we can care much less about.)
We had breakfast: a kachori (stuffed snack), peas curry, and two tea in mud cups and got back onto the 340-km-long Purvanchal Expressway that connected Buxar to Lucknow. Most of our journey was on it. The previous night there wasn’t another car on it for miles, and the highway was eerily empty in the morning, too. In the dark, I fretted if we were safe and chided poor S (whose spirits were high on its smooth six lanes) for not being serious enough. “While growing up we couldn’t drive in UP after the sun set. Even during the day, everyone must avoid the isolated jungle roads.” (armed dacoits waiting in ambush*, if you were wondering). Though most of UP’s famed dacoits have been captured or killed, how else did he expect me to be if not astounded (by the lit expressway) and stiff (from dangers I was used to)?
The terror was not from childhood alone. Once when I was working in a bank in Bangalore and was visiting my parents in our hometown in UP, we hired a taxi to go to Haridwar and Rishikesh. Those twin mountain cities are the favorite travel destinations of a UP resident because not only do they sway him with their cold air and green views but also serve well to cleanse him of his ill doings (a dip in the Ganga river, if you were wondering).
When the driver took an empty road curling beautifully along a river, I breathed in the fresh mountain air and leaned back in the rear seat. But, sitting next to me, my mother freaked out, “Where are you taking us from? No one else is there on this road.” She clutched my hand (she was worried for her daughter in the prime of her youth) and coaxed my father to do something. My father called the taxi’s office, “Your driver has taken us on a jungle way. Not another car has passed us in miles!” The driver — who perhaps had taken the empty road for its scenery and quiet — was reproached, and after a while (or when the road ended), he took on a much busier route. When we were back on a dusty, loud, jammed highway, my mother finally breathed and let go of my hand.
I must have absorbed some of my mother’s dread. But on the Purvanchal Expressway, as cars swished past infrequently, as I realized the highway was high-speed and that we were bypassing all towns and villages, blinded by the expressway’s streetlight, I concluded we must be okay. At 100/120 kilometers per hour, which bandits could stop you without fearing an accident, and how could they? And were any of them even left after the Yogi government wiped them off? I relaxed. That was at night. In broad daylight, we were kings, of course, and once more, we repeated the “quickly find a pump and exit the highway and fill petrol” routine and drove on, confused if there were storks or cranes and neel gai or cows in the fields. Fully thatched huts — so small that I couldn’t tell if they were used to store cow’s fodder, cow dung, or harvested grain — lined the highway.
We truly were in my state Uttar Pradesh.
*From Dacoits To Gangsters, How The Pathogen Of Crime Mutated In Uttar Pradesh – This article by Outlook lists many dacoits active in Uttar Pradesh at various periods: some of whom were present around my home town. It is also mentioned that if a farmer in my district had a good sugarcane produce, his son was to be kidnapped for certain. Now you may appreciate some of my dread.
Are you able to leave behind your past fears? Have you ever been to Uttar Pradesh?
Feature Image is from the state of Haryana through which we drove in 2021. On this nerve-wrecking drive through UP, I did not click a picture, unsurprisingly.
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