Daring Drive 2300km+

On that fateful rain soaked evening of April, Ayush was totally frustrated… he has been trying book a cab to go home for over 30 minutes… 4 cabs cancelled the booking at the last minute… finally he got a cab after harrowing 45+ minutes. Then and there, he decided to buy his own car at the first opportunity.

After a thorough research in terms of safety issues and performance, he shortlisted 3 cars – VW Taigun, Skoda Kushaq and MG Astor which were all within his budget. He checked out the respective dealers in Bengaluru and booked his test drive for the following weekend. Astor was not available for test driving at that point of time. After testing both Taigun and Kushaq, he favoured the latter but the Skoda dealership wasn’t very enthusiastic about delivery confirmation. VW dealer on the other hand was quite optimistic of immediate delivery. Next, the issue was about registration… he was averse to getting the car registered in Bengaluru not knowing how long he will be stationed there, on the other hand, he can’t keep driving a non-Karnataka registered car for long without getting harassed by the cops.

The solution was to get the newly launched BH registration… the GoI had recently started a new registration BH series which is valid pan India. This has been done for the people with transferable jobs in govt and private sector with offices in multiple cities (minimum 4 locations in 4 states). However, barring Delhi, none of the other states are issuing this BH series to non-govt employees. So, Ayush came down to Delhi in mid-May to book and buy the car.

We visited both Skoda and VW dealerships in Safdarjung Enclave and did a test drive of both cars. There was not much difference between Kushaq and Taigun but I liked the looks of Taigun better… also it was costing less with all the discounts thrown in by the VW dealer. Ayush preferred the Yellow color but was told that there is long waiting for that particular color. He was offered a choice of White, Silver, Dark Grey and Cherry Red which were more likely to be available within a month’s time. Ayush booked the car and was assured delivery latest by June end. He flew back to Bengaluru at the end of May as his office was opening up again on 1st June.

As the days went by, we got a bit itchy because the dealer was not confirming the delivery schedule and Ayush had to book his flight tickets only on confirmation from them. So, on the third weekend of June, Deepika and I went to the dealership to find out the status. I lost my cool when the GM of the dealership kept saying he can’t confirm as the number & color of the vehicles being allocated by the company is not consistent with the bookings. I threatened them to cancel the booking if they can’t deliver by the month end. Although knew there’s not much options available as practically all vehicles have a minimum 4-6 weeks waiting with few of them as long as 1 year+.

We saw one Yellow Taigun that had come for some repair (dent) and realized the color is very different from the print and video representation. It had a greenish tint that made it look dull and dirty. I told Ayush to reconsider his options and go for Red or Dark Grey.

Probably, my threatening helped as within two days, the dealer confirmed that Yellow is not going to be available any time soon but we can have our second option of Cherry Red by month end. Ayush reached Delhi on 25th June morning on a month long WFH arrangement. The dealer asked us to visit them on Monday or Tuesday to do the paperwork formalities as they were all occupied with launch of VW Virtus during the weekend.

On Tuesday we went to the dealership and completed the formalities and also checked out the car allotted to him. We were promised delivery latest by Friday evening and it was delivered as said. Ayush drove the car to Durgabari Kali Mandir for puja of the car as wished by his mother. Incidentally, his maternal uncle also took delivery of same model car in dark grey that very day.

We decided to get the first servicing of the car at 1000km mark done here in Delhi before embarking our journey to Bengaluru (2300km approx.). In the intervening period, the car was driven as much as possible to reach near about 1000km mark. We had decided to start our journey on 29th July to reach Bengaluru on 31st July.

I told Ayush to tank up the car a day before our journey but forgot to mention that he should get the tyre pressures checked as well. It was a big lapse on my part and we had to pay for it…

THE JOURNEY: FLYING WITH THE TAIGUN

We had planned to start early around 5 am on Friday 29th July but poor Ayush, in the excitement of the adventure he forgot to put wake-up alarm and got up only at 4:45 am. We started at 5:55 am from Delhi with a almost clear sky. Google suggested we take the DND followed by Agra Expressway but I decided to take the NH19 (Faridabad-Mathura-Agra) and take the Agra Bypass to Dholpur and beyond.

As soon as we hit the highways of Faridabad, rain started and continued for about 10km… with some part of the road submerged… it was the precursor to what was in store ahead. I drove sedately never going above 100 but keeping it above 70kmph till we cross the populated areas. We were not in a hurry and decided to be safer than being faster. We reached Chambal around 10:15 am decided to stop at the newly opened restaurant called CHAMBAL SPICE for breakfast. We were the only customers at that time but their service is admirable, we were served with hot Aloo-Paratha with Curd and Pickle. It started raining again as we devoured the tasty non-spicy parathas and hot Masala Chai.

I asked Ayush to take the wheels when we started again after half hour break. Initially, I was guiding him but soon realized he is driving almost like a pro… and this was his first time driving on the highways. If you are a driver yourself but seating on the passenger seat, it becomes monotonous and boring, you feel sleepy. That’s exactly what happened to me, I fell asleep right after crossing Gwalior and only woke up after we had crossed Jhansi. It was over 100 km stretch that Ayush drove on his own without any assistance including maneuvering through the Jhansi Bypass which is a bit tricky and the roads are not very friendly. I felt proud of him. He insisted on carrying on till evening…

During my previous trips to & fro Delhi-Hyderabad, I used to fill-up the gas when meter indicated 25% remaining, we applied the same strategy and when the last 2 bars remained we searched for a gas station near Sagar (MP). It was 5:15pm and changeover time… I didn’t want him to drive as the lights started fading, on a stretch that has a sizeable bovine population scattered on the road. The situation was further aggravated with innumerable potholes throughout the route. Some were sporadically filled up making them speed bumps. Till there was daylight one could see the potholes and maneuver around it but as the lights faded and with the downpour, it was impossible to see the potholes or the improvised speed bumps… in quick succession we hit two very bad (deep) potholes but Taigun remained stable and we continued on our journey. As we neared Deori, it started drizzling which soon became downpour and continued till about Narsinghpur. Thankfully, it was dry as we approached Seoni where our destination Pench Jungle Camp was situated.

We were originally booked at Rukhad Jungle Camp on the NH44 itself but the persistent heavy downpour in the region had made the resort inoperable. Therefore, we were advised to reach PJC a further 30 km down the highway followed by 10 km through the jungle roads. Google estimated our arrival at the destination at 11 pm but we beat the estimate by 40 minutes and reached PJC at 10:20 pm.

We have stayed at Pench Jungle Camp on another occasion along with our friends, the Basu’s. It is a decent place but doesn’t warrant a second visit. In the name of being eco-friendly, the place has become very Spartan with minimum luxuries that one expects in a Resort accommodation. Anyways, we were there just for the night stay so it did not mattered much. Since, we were not sure about our ETA, had informed the resort to keep our food cooked and ready, hot or cold, were acceptable to us. Surprisingly, the food was still hot which we enjoyed with the Elixir of Life that I carried with me.

In the morning, we were ready to go around 7:30 am and went to look for the restaurant for breakfast. The place was getting cleaned when we reached and was told the breakfast would be ready in about 15-20 minutes. After some time we were served with a bowl of fruits consisting of Watermelon & Papaya along with a small glass of watermelon juice. This was followed by hot idlis with sambar (Deepika makes much better sambar) and coconut chutney, also Poha with green chutney. The food was good but not exceptional. The steward came to check if we needed anything more… I asked for a masala omlette while Ayush settled for a pancake which turned out to be “set dosa”!!

We put our overnight bags in the car and I went to the reception to settle our account. There was nobody at the counter… the guard came and called up someone who asked him to guide me to some inner office. I had paid an advance of INR 1800 and the final settlement came to INR 2461.40… I was carrying cash knowing well the poor network connections inside the jungle area making card/ UPI payment difficult. I offered 5 currency notes of 500 denominations… the person asked for change… I could find 450 in currency notes but he insisted on the balance as well… the coin section of my purse provided 2 five rupees coin which he accepted reluctantly and returned one of the 500 notes. I thought from my experience, in the northern part of the country, the hotel would have given a 100 note letting go of the change part in such a scenario.

When I reached, the parking lot, I saw Ayush standing by the car and looking intently at the front right tyre. My heart sank thinking we have a flat tyre which would mean driving slowly on the smaller spare tyre and getting in Nagpur City to get the puncture repaired. Ayush said, “Dad, look at this tyre, it has deformed at this point”. Initially I couldn’t see anything but closer inspection revealed a small inflation or bubble on the side of the tyre. I checked the spot but it as hard as the rest of the tyre. I told Ayush that we can’t do much at that point of time drive with caution and get it checked when we reach Hyderabad. On hindsight, we could have got it checked in Nagpur as well.

I asked Ayush to drive till we crossover into Telengana from where I will take it up. When we had entered the Jungle Road, there was Toll Booth some 50 meters ahead of us but courtesy Google Map guidance we came out on the highway bypassing that Toll Booth and saved some money and some kilometers as well!!

The newly constructed highway on Pench-Nagpur sector is a dream run with wide roads and no potholes. We zipped through the section with ease driving at a sedate 95-110 kmph and soon reached the Nagpur Bypass. There was a posse of Police some 100 meters away and we were flagged down. We thought it might be for over speeding but the signage had clearly indicated max speed 100kmph. The policeman came to the driver side window and asked for the license, RC and PUC. I told him PUC is not applicable as the car is brand new only a month old. Then we realized it was a ploy of MAHARASHTRA POLICE to do HAFTA WASULI. The policeman without a shame asked for money which we had give to avoid further harassment.

The rest of the journey till Hyderabad was uneventful barring the maneuvering of the potholes which remained in large numbers till Adilabad (Telengana) and sporadic downpours which slowed us down a bit. When we crossed Penganga River, a tributary of Godavari River, I knew we have entered Telengana… it was time for me to take the wheel and also fill up gas. I knew there was a HP Petrol pump in Dollara (Sri Ambica Filling Station) and told Ayush to keep an eye for it to stop.

Ayush meanwhile had done his research about the “bubble” on the tyre and became a bit paranoid and asked me to slow down from 100+ to about 80kmph because the bubble might cause tyre burst according to the SM posts. I assured him that if it was to happen, it would have happened by then… we had covered over 1500km by then. I asked him to find out Tyre Shops selling similar size tyres in and around Gachibowli, Hyderabad where we were going.

Fortunately, as we moved closer to Hyderabad, potholes on the road became less evident and most were re-laid with patchwork. After Medchal (one of the entry point to Hyderabad) we took the ORR which I maintain is the biggest boon to all Hyderabadis. Initially, Google suggested we exit the ORR from Exit #18 to Gachibowli but due to congestion at the Gachibowli Circle and at the Toll Gate before that, it altered the route through Exit #1 at ISB Road, Financial District. However, it was equally choked with evening traffic and became worse with sudden downpour. It took us almost an hour to reach the tyre shop opposite SLN Terminus Mall (Whitefield) on Old Mumbai Highway. The technician there reconfirmed the tyre burst theory and suggested we take it to the VW Dealer to claim warranty. We told him that would mean going back 1600km from where we started!! He checked his stock register and informed that their other shop at Madhapur may have the required size of the tyre.

Though, from the direction he provided, I could figure out where the shop was but Hyderabad roads especially in the Cyberabad area has changed much since I left the city 1.5 years ago. So we asked Google Map to assist us which it did through long winding roads much of which I could recognize.

The Madhapur shop did not have exact brand in the required size but suggested a wider tyre (new) or a slightly used same spec tyre (for which it stood guarantee)… buying the first means a set of 2 tyres plus a question of alignment. We negotiated for the used one and got it changed. We also requested them to check the tyre pressure of all the tyres. All of them barring the new one were over inflated and it became clear the bubble was caused when we the pothole because of extra air in the tyre. It was a costly lesson to learn which we will remember forever.

We had planned to visit IKEA to pick up some small items but postponed it to the following morning. Around 9 pm we checked in at Hyatt Hyderabad, Financial District Gachibowli just across the Amazon campus. We had thought of going to Fisherman’s Wharf, a Seafood Restaurant close to the hotel but driving through the city in such thick (and unruly) traffic had taken a toll on our enthusiasm so we ordered food (Oriental) in the room and poured ourselves SM to wash away our fatigue.

Following morning after a sumptuous buffet breakfast we went to IKEA on Hitech City Road. I wanted to checkout our erstwhile residential complex NCC Urban which is right behind the IKEA on NASR Boys School Road. But the road was under construction and the detour was a bit complex so abandoned the idea and proceeded to IKEA on Hightech City Road.

We left for Bengaluru around 12 noon and I handed over the wheels to Ayush as we entered the ORR. The ORR Stretch from Financial District to Shamshabad has been constructed under the supervision of my childhood friend, a civil engineer by profession. I have extensively used this part of the ORR during my 3 years in Hyderabad. Ayush drove with ease and soon we were on the Bengaluru road. There was quite a heavy traffic considering it was Sunday but then the same road also goes to Tirupathi besides Kurnool, Anantpur being the major towns on the route.

Somewhere in between Kurnool & Anantpur, we stopped at a KFC outlet (actually a food court in the making) and ordered for our respective dishes. The service is hopelessly bad… we waited for over 20 minutes before I had to give my piece of mind to the counter guys and only then our tray was made. They would call token no.45 and then the next call is for token no.49… what happened to 46, 47 and 48??? No answer!!

The sun was setting on the western skies giving a nice hue of colors (took few pics) and sky ahead of us was getting covered in dark clouds. I took the wheel from Ayush and proceeded at a good speed hoping that we might cross the cloudy stretch before it starts pouring but it wasn’t to be and the drizzle soon became a downpour and then a deluge. The visibility reduced to 10 metres and speed reduced to 30kmph besides becoming pitch dark at 6pm. Thankfully there were no potholes to negotiate but one couldn’t avoid the water logging at the low lying spots. I checked with Ayush if should stop like other vehicles had done but he said, “If you can drive slowly and follow the truck with reflectors then let’s move on because we don’t know how long this downpour will last”. It was a good suggestion as pretty soon we were out of the deluge and again speeding away on dry stretch.

We crossed Anantpur and saw the KIA Motors factory which I had last seen as a under construction unit nearing completion. On my last journey I had seen one or two Korean food joints around this factory but this time in the darkness couldn’t locate them. In any case, we were filled up with KFC Chicken and Fries.

We reached the outskirts of Bengaluru (Yelahanka) around 9pm and then followed the traffic on NH44 followed by Old Madras Road and finally 80’ Road to reach our destination at Defence Colony, Indira Nagar, Bengaluru. It was a total driving time of 36 hours… same as what Google Maps had predicted. I told Ayush that at any other time of the year I would have beaten the prediction by at least a couple of hours which I had done in all my travels to and fro Delhi-Hyderabad-Delhi.

Ayush has a nice 3BHK house which he shares with two of his friend and I was mighty impressed at the way they have kept the house clean and orderly. Even though I wanted to stay a bit longer but couldn’t do so because of my aging Rolfie and flew out to Delhi on a Vistara Airlines flight a day after. But before that on Monday evening, we went to The TOIT Brewpub and the famed NAGARJUNA Restaurant. The beers at the Toit was amazing however I didn’t find Nagarjuna food to be exclusive as some friends had said.

I hope the journey and the driving on the highway has given a life lesson to my son who drove throughout with great composure and like a pro. It was a daring drive of 2300km plus in the monsoon time and all those who were privy to our journey were a bit apprehensive. It was not just the highways but unpaved roads through the jungle in the darkness that kept us on the edge throughout.  

I plan to take to the road again in about a year’s time to Goa when the Delhi-Mumbai Expressway will be operational. Surely, I will cover the distance in less than the estimated 12 hours…

By the grace of my dear friend Madhav…   

Rishikesh

On Bhaiduj day, while chatting with my elder brother-in-law, the conversation turned towards the general boredom that has crept into our lives because of the covid lockdown leading to fear psychosis of the Corona Virus… and the need to go for a vacation. It is impossible for me to take extended break because of Rolf who with his advanced age has become clingy to me and needs care that perhaps only I can offer. After much deliberation, it was agreed that we will go for an ultra short trip of 2 nights to Rishikesh, Uttarakhand on the weekend of 13th November ’21. By evening, my brother-in-law confirmed the hotel (Ganga Kinare) bookings and we were all set to go.

On Saturday morning we started our long journey around 8 am from Anand Niketan taking the MG Road (Ring Road)-Barapulla Road to join the Delhi-Meerut Expressway. This road has made travelling to Western UP and Uttarakhand a much convenient journey.

My friend Ashish is a frequent visitor to Rishikesh and uses this route practically every 10-12 days visiting his project (Namami Gange) site, provided the details of road condition and pit-stops, so I was prepared when the 6-lane road narrowed down to 2-lanes for few kilometers. However, I was not prepared for the surge of traffic… it seemed that all of NCR is on way to wash their sin in the Ganges!!

We stopped at Namaste Midway, a food court that boasts of some of the well known restaurants. We decided to go to Naivedyam, a south Indian cuisine restaurant which we felt would be less crowded. We had Idli-Vada-Dosa in a relaxed atmosphere and charged up for the rest of the journey after a 45 minutes break. Ashish had suggested taking a right turn towards Cheela Dam-Rishikesh Road, however, because of the heavy traffic, the police had barricaded the turning and we followed the Google Map routing and reached Ganga Kinare just in time (2:00Pm) for check-in.

After a leisurely lunch and relaxation we went to see the Ganga Aarti at Paramarth Ashram, in the evening. The Paramarth Ashram is near the Janaki Setu (Jhula) which has 3 pathways, 2 of which is meant for up & down 2-wheeler traffic and the middle path is dedicated for pedestrian movement. The hotel car dropped us near the Janaki Jhula from where we walked the 1.5km to the Paramarth Ashram Ghat. By the time we reached it was teaming with devotees with ‘Havan’ in progress and 2 of the disciples singing Bhajans which were soothing to the ears unlike the ones churned out in Bollywood tunes. Deepika and others went down the steps to have a better view but in the end I had the most vantage position right below the arch to the Paramarth Ghat. After a while the head of the ashram HH Swami Chidanand Saraswati Ji along with Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati Ji made their way to the ghat and offered Purnahuti at the Havan Kund. Thereafter, the duo regaled the audience with soulful rendition of Bhajans and meaningful sermons. Sadhvi Bhagawati Ji is an American by birth now devoted to Hindu spirituality and spoke of life’s journey comparing it to the flowing Ganga from Gomukh to Gangasagar through the ups and down, narrow and wide passes, shallow and deep gorges in its journey never looking back.

Deepika had availed the service of a youth (Guide) and he took us to the Ashram to see the Kalpataru Vriksha which had purportedly churned out during the Samudra Manthan (as per the Hindu Mythology). We also saw the 200 years old Banyan Tree which had an impression of Ganesha in inverse besides the Glass Temple of Lord Vishnu in Vishwaroop. From there Deepika and I went to a Govt shop to see Ekmukhi Rudraksh (a rare variety). We ended up buying couple of things from there ensuring the guide gets his commission from the shopkeeper (in full honesty he admitted that the shopkeeper pays him at the end of each month based on the customers he brings to the shop).

Back in the hotel, tiredness gripped us completely and we needed some sort of energizer… I was carrying a bottle of Dewar’s 12 years just in case… of which I and my brother-in-law had a peg each before dinner. I had a chat with Ayush before calling it a day and was assured that Rolf had been a ‘good boy’ eating, walking and doing his chores without any fuss.

The following day, Sunday, we had booked a taxi to take us to the Neelkanth Temple, some 25 km from Rishikesh. The way to the temple is through Rajaji National Park, a wildlife sanctuary inhabited by leopards and elephants besides other species. Though the road was narrow and winding it was scenic.

At the entry point of Rajaji National Park near the Barrage, the Govt. of Uttarakhand had installed a Camp for Covid19 Test… which I found farcical; they refused to acknowledge our Double Vaccination Certificate and insisted on the test (Rapid Antigen Test) which does not give accurate result. We were told that by the time we reach Neelkanth Temple, the result will be messaged to us. They gave us a ‘Receipt’ which was supposed to be checked at the Temple Entrance. THERE WAS NOT A SOUL TO CHECK THAT RECEIPT NEITHER AT THE PARKING AREA NOR AT THE TEMPLE AND I CAN BET HALF THE PILGRIMS WERE NOT EVEN VACCINATED.

About 2 km from the temple, the police stopped us and directed us to the parking lot. We were told that we have to walk rest of the road; however we could see many vehicles, primarily local taxis were freely plying on the stretch. We managed to reach the temple which was not just chaotic but confusing as well. As a principle, I do not go inside any temple, church, mosque, gurudwara etc., so I stayed back guarding the shoes of my company while they went inside to offer puja. After a while, my brother-in-law and Bhabi came out visibly shaken and disappointed that they couldn’t find the actual temple with Neelkanth Idol. However, Deepika continued her spiritual journey and offered her prayers and puja. On the way back we managed to get a taxi which dropped us at the parking lot from where connected with our taxi for the return journey. We had planned to explore the city of Rishikesh but it was already 3pm and we were hungry, so, the next stop happened at the Chotiwala Restaurant at Laxman Jhula. Some 30-35 years back this used to be open plan Dhaba but things have changed… it is now an air-conditioned restaurant with a digital access menu card and bottled water. The food is still good and we were hungry from the trekking to Neelkanth… as a result missed out taking the picture of the food!!

There are shops in the vicinity from where we bought stuffs like Pashmina mufflers, ladies suits and t-shirts besides brass sculptures for gifting purposes. None of us had any strength or inclination to explore further so decided to go back to the hotel. On our way back we got stuck at the Triveni Ghat and our driver decided to take an alternate route through the serpentine winding lanes of Rishikesh. Right fro Haridwar to all the way up is Dev Bhoomi and none of the hotels/restaurants/dhaba’s serve non-vegetarian food not even eggs…therefore, I was surprised to see a shop inside the lane openly displaying and selling eggs!!

Early morning, on Monday we went for a walk on the ‘Marine Drive’ a walkway created by the govt along the Ganga which for a change was not only clean but without the usual crowd one sees around the river bank. This may be because all the properties on it were privately owned with many being hotels/retreats for Yoga & Meditation.

We had a hearty breakfast trying out all the varieties… stuffed parantha, puri-aloo, chhole-bhature and even idli-dosa. I also tried the Matar Kachori which was quite delicious. At around 9 am we paid the hotel bill and checked-out…the journey back to Delhi was much smoother and as promised to Deepika, I dropped her home well before 2pm before going ahead to Anand Niketan to drop our companions.

30th Anniversary

The second wave of covid came like a tornado and affected most people that I know of… it touched me personally as well. Deepika was tested positive and isolated herself for two weeks. Fortunately she was asymptomatic and barring few days of lethargy and fatigue she was otherwise in good shape.

I lost my sister on April 3 due to multiple organ failure due to kidney infection but was post mortem declared to be covid infected. She was cremated as per covid protocol which prevented my older siblings to pay their last respect to her as her mortal remains were consigned to the fire god. She had many issues in life both health and emotional but her passing away has still not sunk in… even now!

Then, later in April 26, Deepika lost her Chachaji (uncle), the last patriarch of the family to old age. He had kidney infection for last few years and had been on dialysis, got covid infection while visiting the hospital for the treatment, recovered but succumbed to post covid complications. Deepika alone went to pay her as well as our last respect to the departed and somehow picked up the infection that very day.

The April-May 2021 has been the bearer of worst kind of news… practically every day we were given some bad news of departures of friends, colleagues and relatives which numbed us in more ways. There was always an element of uncertainties of the future…each day we thanked for being alive and untouched by the virus. To top it, the city was in lockdown, nowhere to go, not even to pick up grocery from our preferred store(s). We desperately wanted to get out of this morbid situation and run, run to wherever we could, we needed some positive boost…

I have made six journeys to and fro Delhi-Hyderabad which is approx 1600km each way in our trusted Toyota Corolla Altis in last three years. Then in December we went to Naukuchiatal, Uttarakhand in the same vehicle and realized that the sedan is good in the plains but one needs an SUV to enjoy the hill drive. In the beginning of March we looked around for a new vehicle and after checking on Kia, Hyundai, Tata, zeroed on Jeep Compass but then lockdown happened!!

Meanwhile, the Altis was nearing its 4th Birthday (in July) and also the end of its company lease, we paid up the residual amount and decided to lease the new vehicle from the company. However, it had to wait for the lockdown to ease and the auto showrooms to open. Finally, on June 13, we took delivery of the Jeep Compass from the Gurugram Dealer. In a way it was our 30th Anniversary gift from the company!!!

Except last year (2020), every year for last at least 20 years we have taken a short vacation around June 20 to celebrate our anniversary and this year we were simply desperate to go out of the city. But it wasn’t safe to go just anywhere, the second covid wave had instilled a fear in all of us. After lot of deliberations and search, we decided on Naukuchiatal for two reasons… (1) Availability of an independent fully furnished house for short stay, and (2) Our good friend Sanjay Dutt was stationed in the proximity in his own Villa with sprawling lawns where we can unwind.

Last time in December, we left Delhi in the afternoon and faced lot of traffic congestion on the way, so this time it was decided to leave as early as possible around 5/5:30 am. In December we had taken Rolf with us and he was visibly very uncomfortable not only during the travel but even during our stay. He is 12 human years old now with rheumatism issues, so he was left at home under the care of the housekeeper and Guddu, the driver turned man-Friday to walk him twice a day. It did pain me to leave him but I consoled myself that it was for his good only. And it turned out to be a good decision because during most days of our stay it rained and it would have been a challenge for Rolf to walk and do his job in the wet surroundings.

We started off exactly at 5:30 am from home and reached the Bharat Petroleum outlet at Moolchand in about 10 minutes considering the empty streets. I needed to tank up but as I entered the station I realized something was amiss… the outlet had no power supply and wasn’t able to dispense the gas. The next outlet (Indian Oil) on our route was at Nehru Nagar which was thankfully operational and we tanked up.

As we hit the highway, the speed limit eased up to 100kmph and I pushed the paddle, as soon as the speedometer crossed 80kmph, there was beeping noise and the dashboard screen warned that I had breached the speed limit. It was not just confusing but irritating too as the road sign clearly mentioned 100kmph as speed limit and at 80kmph I was well below that limit. We tried calling up the Jeep Helpline but they were helpless…the lady on the desk was very sympathetic and offered us towing service which we declined as politely as we can. We tried the various options to stop the beeping but it won’t stop so we decided to live with the annoying beeping and drive on. Much later, we came to know that all new vehicles (2021 onwards) have this warning beep pre-installed at 80kmph followed by 2 beeps at 100kmph and continuous beeping as one breach 120kmph…this is the new safety feature as per the GoI directive. In a way it is a welcome measure if it can reduce road accidents due to over speeding.

Although we had decided not stop for breakfast (we carried sandwiches and stuffed parantha) at the Nirula’s outlet at Gajraula but had to stop to use the restroom and had much needed coffee to revitalize. As we left, the Sun started playing hide n seek with the clouds. The rain started as we entered the Muradabad bypass road and remained with us till we reached our destination, giving some respite intermittently. To enter Uttarakhand, one needs to have RTPCR Negative Report and Registration at the govt website (Smartcity Dehradun) along with the details of one’s stay. This is checked and recorded at the entry point of the State (for us it was at Bazpur) where they give a token which again is checked at Kaladungi . Having started early, we were lucky to be the first ones at the counter and got our token in less than 5 minutes. At Kaladungi checkpoint, we simply flashed the token from our vehicle and were cleared to proceed. I guess, because of the conditional entry, the number of tourist entering Uttarakhand was relatively less compared to Himachal where there was a 6 km long traffic congestion to enter Shimla.

It took us 7 hours to reach our destination, by far the fastest that we ever made it. Sanjay along with Sridhar aka Siddu, his son was there to greet us and informed that lunch will be served at his place just behind our temporary abode.

Thankfully, the rain had stopped and we could take out our luggage and other stuff from the vehicle. Must point out here that we carried basic cooking utensils and our own crockery/cutlery sets not wanting to use any third party stuff (if available).

We freshened up and went to Sanjay’s place. On earlier visit, Sanjay had been little paranoid about the pandemic and respecting that we had mostly stayed outside the house enjoying the winter sun and breeze. But this time he was more relaxed, probably because all of us carried a negative RTPCR report!! He had ordered food for a party of at least 25 people starting with burgers, pizza, roast chicken and biriyani. We were stuffed for the day!!

Since, we had no intentions of any excursion (having seen most of the scenic sites in our numerous visits to the area), we decided to relax and played cricket with Siddu letting him hit the ball every time. The joy that he had was priceless. We had the good fortune of having Chewbacca (Shih Tzu) as a fielder but she would reach the ball but couldn’t fetch it as the ball was a bit too big for her to bite.

In the evening, we played our favourite indoor sports of Dumb Charade and the card game called TwentyNine. The former is game where one team gives a name of a cinema (Hindi or English only) to a member of the opposing team. The person has to act without uttering any word or noise or pointing to any physical being/things and that team has to guess the name within 2 minutes. It starts with easy names but ends up with tough ones as competitiveness overshadows the camaraderie. My team lost when I could not enact “Serendipity” successfully.

The Twenty Nine card game is primarily a Bong game, invented and vigorously played by every Bong that I know. It is played with 32 cards between 2 teams of 2 players each. The cards in the game are Jack (3 points) Nine (2 Points) Ace (1 point) Ten (1 point) King, Queen, Eight & Seven (no points but have face value). The person next to the dealer calls for point starting 16 (minimum) and can go up to 28 points (maximum 7*4=28). The card no. 6 (all 4) is used for marking the win (Red 6) and loss (Black 6). My team (Sangeeta & I) lost the game to the other team (Deepika & Santanu). It was not my day for sports… instead I opened the bottle of Double Black to relax.

Following morning I woke up around 4:30 am to the sound of chirping of an unknown bird which continued for an hour… I tried to look for it but couldn’t locate the source of the chirping. This would happen every morning of our stay and perhaps otherwise too.

We were informed that there’s “weekend curfew” in place throughout Uttarakhand and all shops including eateries are closed on Sundays, so we had bought bread, butter, cheese and eggs for breakfast. Lunch too had been ordered from a “Home Kitchen”. One half of our entourage was avermse to having breakfast and the other half Dinner!!

In the pre-noon, we drove down to the lakeside and parked at a convenient spot and walked around the lake…the view of the surrounding was breathtaking, the mountains have turned green after the rains and the clouds played hide n seek with the Sun making the nature sparkle.

The lunch was typically home cooked food, light and tasty and made us sleepy, moreover, it started drizzling so a quick nap was what I decided is the best thing to do!! In the evening we went to Sanjay’s house for the “Adda” with Uncle-Auntie. Both were very happy to have company after a long time, we reminiscence our earlier trips to various places in the pre-covid times.

The Double Black bottle got over between the four of us and the Glenlivet was opened too for one round along with the dry snacks that we brought from Delhi. The leftover from the lunch was consumed by those who wanted to have dinner besides the Maggi…the aroma of Maggi made me drool but I resisted the temptation.

The following day was our 30th Anniversary and Deepika planned the lunch menu in consultation with Sangeeta and Sanjay before we called it a day.

I made simple breakfast of cheese sandwich, omelet and orange juice for Ayush, Ming and myself. Sangeeta had Maggi while Deepika settled for Milk with Cornflakes. Thereafter, we drove down to Bhimtal to pick-up our lunch from Machaan (Chinese) and i-Heart Café (Pizza & Pasta). Although it was Monday and open for business, the traffic was still very sparse, moreover, the most of the restaurants were open for takeaways of pre-ordered food only. Besides, the RTPCR report being compulsory had turned away many tourists away from this sector. Anyways, our orders were ready at both places which we picked up and returned home. The lunch was spread out at Sanjay’s home as we wanted Uncle-Aunty to be part of the celebration. Post lunch, the real kid (Siddu) and the adult kids (Ayush, Ming & Jhukku) played Ludo & Snake-n-Ladder which became quite interesting with many ups and downs.

Later, in the evening, we once again played Twenty Nine and this time it was Husbands versus Wives!! We were 1-2 down when I got very good cards and decided to play Single Hand. In Single Hand game, your partner puts down his cards and you have to win all the hands, which I did with ease and we went ahead. However, the final result was tied to one set each. This was followed by “20 Questions” where everyone participated.

The following morning was pack up time for departure. I made cheese sandwich for all of us and boiled the residual eggs for the road. Once again it was decided to go non-stop to Delhi but one needs to stop to answer nature’s call too…

Ming, driving the EcoSport took the lead and I followed him as he said he knew of a shorter, less congested route, but I kept the GPS on for safety. It was a smooth drive downhill and within an hour we made it to Haldwani from where Ming took a turn in to a road which to me looked like a lane… as we proceeded, I was thanking Deepika for picking up the Jeep Compass well in time… the road was full of potholes and narrow and still had speed breakers (god knows why)… it would have been a nightmare traversing this phase in Toyota Corolla Altis… but Jeep navigated the stretch with ease and soon we reached the highway.

We stopped at the KFC outlet at Gajraula (just opposite of McDonald’s) to use the restroom and pick up food. At this point we bid goodbye’s to Basu’s as they wanted to proceed… we ate inside the car before proceeding to Delhi (I hate eating while driving), stopping at Brijghat to pick up some mangoes… and reached home around 4:30 pm, once again covering the distance in 7 hours…

This, much deserved break was indeed very relaxing and helped in rejuvenating the home-stuck tired souls… Look forward to more easing up and the next trip… I want to drive down to Goa!!

Our Friend in one of the bathrooms

On the Roads… 2

Our Delhi visit was exactly for 4 weeks and how it passed out so quickly is beyond comprehension. We had just one day (Navami) of Durga Puja to celebrate. We went to Durgabari, Kailash Colony for Deepika to offer Pushpanjali and from there to Dakshinayan, GK-2 M-Block Market to have Bhog. Both places are important itinerary on our Durga Puja circuit. The day temperature being hot and humid, we planned to go to New Delhi Kalibari, Minto Road and some other pandals in the evening. However, after walking Rolf in the evening, I simply crashed out and slept till late evening.

Next few days we met few relations and prepared for the big in-house event of Kojagori Laxmi Puja, the tradition being carried on for generations for 100+ years as far as I remember my mother telling me. I am not a ritualistic person but have been facilitating the Laxmi Puja since my father passed away, first for my mother and now for my wife, Deepika.

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Earlier in my childhood, there used to be considerable gathering at our home for the puja with few Delhi based relations and large number of neighbors including non-Bengalis coming for Prasad & Bhog. But now the gathering is limited to my sisters, few friends and next door neighbors. The quantity of Bhog has reduced but the overall cost has gone up manifolds. But as Deepika says with some conviction that the show must go on till either of us are alive. This year the gathering was even smaller as two of my sisters couldn’t make due to ill health. Among the friends, Santanu Basu was the first to arrive and he reconfirmed to give me company on my return journey to Hyderabad. A pleasant visit was by my nephew, Ritam Bhattacharya (my maternal cousin Oli’s son) who is now based in Noida working with a tech company having finished college recently. The day had started very early for us and by the time the last guest left we were exhausted completely. It showed that age is catching up with us.

The other highlight of this visit was the get-together of my school classmates. Some 10 years or so back and after a gap of almost 3 decades we had managed to group together once again courtesy the Facebook. Most of us are based out of Delhi+NCR but still a sizeable number are scattered all over the world. We had tried to include all in the group but few of them after joining our WhatsApp group called Mastans of RBHS80 had quit for personal reasons. We communicate everyday on varied subjects like politics, entertainment and religion etc. We do not have homogenous thoughts but it seems the contradictions have created a strong bond amongst us. Among this group is Indrajit Roychowdhury whose school nickname used to be Pantua after the Bengali sweet version of Gulab Jamun for large eyes and round face. Just like the nickname, he is sweet inside out and is full of humor which prompted us to bond immediately. I call him Indrobodon, the face of Lord Indra. He is based in Baghdad as Advisor at Trade Bank of Iraq, a very senior post but he remains humble to the core. Coincidentally he was visiting home in Ranchi and promised to spend an evening on his return leg. We decided to have our get together (G2G) on Friday 18th October when Indrobodon lands in Delhi on his return journey. There was a bit of confusion on the menu, my friend Gora wanted treat us for his son’s graduation from High School and at the same time I wanted to show my culinary skills to my friends. After some hard negotiation, it was decided that I will make one main course and a salad while Gora would arrange for the rest. He insisted on paying me for the dishes to which I told him “You can pay for the raw material but what price will you put on the love and care that goes into the making of the final dish”!!

We had a grand successful party with 12 out of 16 guys making it possible to attend. I had made Butter Chicken and Salsa Salad… I don’t want to pat my own back but the empty containers at the end was proof enough for deliciousness of the dishes besides the huge compliments that my friends poured on me. I have always maintained that nothing is more satisfactory in life than feeding others and in the process if you are appreciated then that’s extraordinary, save it for lifetime.

One of the tasks I had decided on this visit was to sell of my SUV Duster which we had it parked in Delhi hoping to use it as frequently as we visit but in reality our Delhi visits quite infrequent and the vehicle was lying idle. Moreover, it was a six years old diesel vehicle and recent govt mandate had reduced the life of such vehicles to 10 years from earlier 15 years. I placed an advt. on OLX app and within few hours queries started pouring in, most of which were mere time-pass where they quoted ridiculous counter offer. I politely turned them down. One guy who had recently got transferred to Delhi wanted to buy in a hurry as he had sold his vehicle in Pune before coming but the negotiation failed as I had decided on a benchmark price tag and had decided not to go below that even if the vehicle remained unsold. Then a gentleman from Rohini introduced himself as some sort of lawyer and requested to hold the vehicle till following evening when he would come to buy. This guy was absolutely certain to buy and came next day evening with his full family including his octogenarian mother who kept sitting in their car. After hard negotiation, he finally agreed at my threshold price and paid an advance with the promise to pay up the balance next day and pick up the vehicle. I was honest with him and clearly told him that he will have to change the tyres and get the clutch overhauled. I had not done these jobs done because no one would have paid extra for these. Duster was a good vehicle but I had opted for this after driving Scorpio for good 7 years and frankly Duster was no match to Scorpio.

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Ayush came on 25th and we began our Diwali preparation of gift buying and planning a card party at our home. We had picked up most the give-away gifts from IKEA Hyderabad. Some were decorative while some had very practical use and the recipients loved them. This year Diwali, perhaps was the quietest one because of ban on crackers; however there was no letting down on lightening up the households with both electric as well as candles and earthen lamps. For the first time Rolf had a stress free Diwali and we loved it.

The next was the Bhai Duj Lunch at our home when all my siblings along with their children gather. This has been going on since my father passed away and I separated out from my brother’s dwelling along with my mother. It was one occasion when she could meet all her children in one go and she thoroughly enjoyed the day. Again the tradition continues but for how long, I don’t know!!

Deepika along with our housekeeper left for Hyderabad a day after the Bhai Duj. Ayush was to leave on Sunday and I decided to start for Hyderabad on Monday early morning. In between we had 3 days to do our stuff as father-son. We had a good fun time together along with Rolf whom I got checked up and had his de-worming shot as well. His Vet was happy to see him in good health. I thanked him for giving the most effective medicine BravEcto for tics and flea that had bogged him down for many years. We also picked up few bottles of Single Malts from L1 Lakeforest Wine Warehouse at practically duty free prices. I dropped off Ayush at the airport on Sunday evening; Rolf also went with us to see off his hooman bro and got a bit acclimatized of car ride. As agreed, Santanu came over to our home around 9pm by which time I had packed off most of the house leaving just about space for us to sit and enjoy our drinks and dinner.

Following day, Santanu was ready even before me and had made coffee for himself. I took Rolf out for walk hoping that he would do his job without much fuss which he did and we came back. I fed him boiled eggs and plain lassi knowing that he will only have his next meal when we reach our night-halt at Pench. We had targeted to start by 5:15 am as latest but were 15 minutes delayed. However, I knew if the roads are good, I will make up the time and should reach Go Flamingo Resort, Pench by 9:00pm.

I did not switch on the Google Map immediately knowing well that it will guide me to the Yamuna Expressway and I had decided to take NH19 via Faridabad-Mathura-Agra Bypass to Dholpur. Once we got into the Agra bypass I switched on the Google Map which confirmed that we are on the right direction. We crossed Dholpur on way to Morena around 8:30 am which meant that I had covered up the delayed start. I told Santanu to keep a look out for a Dhaba or eatery where we can have our breakfast and also let Rolf stretch his legs. As we approached Morena, I realized that in one month, the scene had changed a lot; the construction was in full swing resulting in traffic diversion to the service roads which slowed us down. Though there were eateries in Morena, there was no parking space due to the construction activities. We decided to try our luck nearer to Jhansi and meanwhile we had the butter toast and boiled eggs that I made at the last minute and was the cause for delayed start.

We finally found a dhaba nearer to Jhansi, at a place called Dabra. We stopped at Ashirwad Hotel Family Restaurant which was decently spacious and clean. It had opened couple of hours back for business and therefore the food was still fresh. Otherwise also, it is safe to eat at a running dhaba while you are on the road because they keep making fresh items throughout the day. We had Aloo Parantha and tea. Rolf stretched his legs, relieved himself and attracted lot of interest with the strangers around. The Aloo Paranthas were quite filling so we decided to skip lunch and probably stop in the evening for tea if such a place can be found.

We soon reached the district of Jhansi and directed by Google Map skirted the city and again got on to NH 44 heading towards Lalitpur via Babina, Talbeit and some other small hamlets. As the day progressed, we could feel the heat as well as the glow of the sun. The NH 44 at this juncture is very straight with minor curves and it does make one sleepy. I put on the music a bit loud and told Santanu that he can doze off if he felt so but he refused. I used to think that Lalitpur is part of MP but as we were crossing, realized it is very much in UP (the auto-rickshaws on the road had UP registration). But it was the last township of UP before you cross into MP somewhere after Gona, a small hamlet.

As we entered MP, the road became much better but at the same time, the cattle menace started which would continue till we reached Maharashtra. The cattle menace was less infuriating because it was afternoon and most of the cows were sitting or grazing on the side. Since one cannot predict the sudden movement of these beasts, it was prudent to drive at a sedate pace so that the vehicle can be maneuvered at the last moment. However, this meant delayed arrival at Pench. Santanu said, “Slow and steady wins the race. At least we will reach in one piece rather than colliding with the cows”. I agreed with him.

As we were passing through Sagar, I pointed out the Pathways Retreat on the highway itself and told Santanu how that particular place had played dirty by giving away our room to someone else even after confirming a day before the first time we were going to Delhi from Hyderabad.

The road from Sagar to Narsinghpur is curvaceous and keeps the driver on alert specially when there are enough bovines on the road that can suddenly decide to cross. Moreover, there were quite a few villages and these people have a particular liking for the highways to sit around which I had noticed during our road trip to Khajuraho from Bandhavgarh.

The sun was on the western horizon by the time we reached Lakhnadon on way to Seoni, the last township of MP that shares the Pench National Park with Maharashtra. It was dark when we reached the point of NH 44 that signals the start of Wildlife sanctuary. There were no street lights on highways but you do get scattered lights from the roadside dhabas or the scattered hamlets now and then. On this stretch of NH 44 there are jungles on either side therefore no dhabas or villages which made the outside pitch dark. I had put the headlights in full beam just in case we come across any wild creature!!

We were doing good speed even though it was dark because the highway was very well marked with reflector lights at the curves as well as on the sides which were guiding us smoothly. Then, as we reached the limits of Pench Wildlife Park, diversions started and continued for next 15 odd km. Once the hilly tracks ended, we had to take service roads which because of the use by heavy vehicles have turned into muddy patches with potholes every now and then. This continued for next 20-25 km with occasional reliefs in the form of newly laid portions.

Once we crossed the “under construction” patch on NH-44, I knew that our destination was just about 10-15 km away and this was confirmed by the Google Map too. The outside was pitch dark barring the occasional lights from on-coming vehicles. However, we were able to do good speed as the road was really good and practically no traffic on our side of the road. After a while, the Google Map started indicating a left turn ahead but there were no exit to be found. I slowed down and tried to look through the black darkness and found an exit for u-turn but we ended up with a dead end. I remembered last time too we had gone ahead and taken a u-turn to right just before the toll plaza. It had made us drive extra for almost 20 km but in this darkness it was the best option available.

We took the u-turn just before the toll plaza and kept driving towards Delhi once again and about 20 minutes later saw the first sign of Go Flamingo Resort. Thereafter, I knew how to reach the resort taking the service lane. When we finally checked in it was 9:35 pm on the clock and all three of us were famished. I ordered boiled chicken and rice for Rolf and Chapati with Chicken Curry & Egg Curry and salad for us. I had carried “Elixir of Life” in miniature bottles which came handy in rejuvenating ourselves as well as a sound sleep through the night.

I was up at 5 am and completed my morning chores, washed up and was ready to move. Santanu too got up and while he was getting ready, I took Rolf out for a walk. The main gate of the resort was locked and there were no signs of any soul. I knew Rolf being much disciplined, won’t poop inside the complex, so I looked for the security guard and found him at the back of the reception cum dining hall. He opened up the gate and we out for a stroll in the jungle environment. I kept thinking if we encounter any wild cat what will happen; will the hard rubber stick I am carrying be a deterrent? But, fortunately, no such sighting happened, few stray dogs started barking but retreated when Rolf and I walked straight on towards them.

For some reason occupancy at Go Flamingo Resort was low in fact we were the only occupant that morning with the other group having left even before us. As a result, the cook had taken it easy and decided to start the kitchen after 8 am. If we wait for the breakfast, we won’t make it to Hyderabad by 5:00 pm (our target). So we decided to leave early and try our luck on the way.

First thing we needed to do was to tank up the car at the first available gas station. We found one after about 25 km on our side of the road, although there were 2-3 on the other side that we skipped because of long detours. Once again we cruised on and turned on to our way to Nagpur bypass. There are two toll plazas within a span of less than 1 km but if you have paid at the first one, all you have to do is to show the receipt and they pass you through. We passed the second one and sped up to around 80 kmph when we saw a posse of Police with barricades, we slowed down and one them approached and asked for the documents. I showed him the RC, Insurance and my DL. He was almost returning them back to when he seemed to remember something and asked for PUC certificate. Sadly, I didn’t have that and told him I had forgotten it at Delhi but get it done again when I reach Hyderabad. I had to pay 500 bucks to make him happy on an otherwise scant traffic road where their earnings won’t bring smiles.

The next thought was to find a nice eatery to have our breakfast. We had almost missed it but managed to stop and reverse in the nick of time to Doon Punjabi Family Dhaba which is run by a Sikh ex-Army person. The place turned out to be very clean including the kitchen which one can see through the glass panels. The manager-cum-steward was from Haryana and also an ex-soldier of Indian Army and spoke good English. He was from Ambala, Haryana and was delighted to see our Haryana (Gurugram) registered car. We ordered for Aloo Parantha which came with curd and pickles. This Aloo Parantha was far better than what we had yesterday and we decided to pack two more for the road. We had two cups of tea, the first one was the regular masala chai and then black tea without milk and sugar. Both were of very good quality; will surely stop by this place on our next journey from Delhi to Hyderabad.

We continued our journey towards Hyderabad with renewed vigor having fed ourselves and stretched our legs including Rolf. As I had mentioned in my earlier post, the NH 44 in Maharashtra after the limits of Nagpur districts tends to become bad to worse. Because of my knowledge about the potholes right in the middle of the road, I drove cautiously but at a good speed negotiating the mid-road surprises. The good thing was that the cattle menace was way behind us now. Around 1:30 pm, we entered the state of Telengana and soon the road surface became very nice and I pressed on the gas to cover up the lost time. Moreover, I wanted to reach the city of Hyderabad before evening rushes of traffic hits the road.

Once we passed through Hinganghat, I knew that we will be shortly crossing over to Telengana and soon we reached the Penganga Bridge over the river by the same name that effectively separates the two states. On Maharashtra side, Pimpalkhuti is the last township and on Telengana it is Dollara, more of a village than town. I told Santanu that I have seen Mini Malls at most of the toll plazas in the southern states of Telengana, Andhra and Karnataka and we stop there for tea or coffee. The morning breakfast was too filling and I wasn’t hungry at all.

At the Dollara toll plaza, we stopped after paying the toll fee, at the Mini Mall. While Santanu lighted his second cigarette of the day, I walked Rolf for leg stretch as well as peeing. It was quite hot outside, so I fed him water and put him back in the car with the air-conditioner switched on. We finished our coffee which was quite lousy, full of sugar and milk, complete disappointment for a South Indian Filter Coffee, and hit the highway once again. The sugar in the coffee had given some extra energy and kept the speedometer at constant 100 kmph thereafter, slowing down only when we were passing through any township or hamlet.

As we neared the Adilabad, the road became picturesque with greenery on both sides and the hills in the distant horizon. The scenic view is so good that one forgets the time and we soon saw the signboard declaring that the Exit to Nirmal was only 500 metres ahead. I told Santanu that we would soon be crossing the mighty Godavari River after Soanpet. The monsoon had been quite good in the state and therefore the River Godavari too was flowing at full capacity. As we drove on, Nizamabad, Ramayapet, Narsingi besides many smaller township or hamlets could be seen on the signage only because the NH44 at this juncture has steered clear of the populous areas and at each point provided exit option with service road to the respective towns. That’s how the Highways should be built.

When we reached Medchal at the outskirts of Hyderabad, I told Santanu that we are almost home and should reach in next 35-45 minutes. At Medchal, we took the Nehru Outer Ring Road popularly called ORR that rings the city of Hyderabad and perhaps the best thing to have happened to the city. The credit for this must be given to Mr. Chandrababu Naidu who was the CM of undivided Andhra Pradesh when the idea was floated by him. The 158 km 8 lane Expressway was built between 2005 & 2012. My classmate Alok, a Civil Engineer with a large construction firm was involved in building the part of ORR that we have used most of time in last two years… Nanakramguda/ Gachibowli to Shamsabad for airport commute.

The best part of the 8 lane ORR is that one can maintain a steady speed of 100 kmph (permissible) constantly which we did and soon reached our exit (19) to Nanakramguda/ Gachibowli. The clock inside the car said 4:10 pm and we finally reached home 20 minutes later. It had been a exhilarating journey for two days and both of us needed a strong cup of tea. I showed Santanu the guest room and took Rolf out for his evening walk. It was good to see that even after a month’s absence from here; he knew exactly where he can walk and do his peeing and pooping!!

Santanu had planned for week stay in Hyderabad, meeting his friends from BHEL days. The following day he went to meet his friend for lunch while I unpacked and settled down to the routine. Santanu came back in the evening visibly happy meeting his friend after long time. They had gone to a place called Autumn Leaf for lunch and had excellent food in nice ambiance. I made it a point to visit the place as soon as possible. He also said that he would go over to his friend’s place next day evening for overnight stay and shall be back on Friday evening. They had to go over to another of their mutual friend’s place for dinner. Since he had told me in the very beginning that the purpose of his taking the road trip was to meet up with his Hyderabadi friends, I couldn’t stop him. Then on Friday morning he called up to say that he would be staying over as they have to visit another friend in the evening and he would surely be at our place by Saturday morning before breakfast. Initially I didn’t think much about it but in the evening when I saw the bottle of Monkey Shoulder still more than half full, I was a bit peeved.

On Saturday morning around 8:30 am he called up to say that he is running a bit late and that we shouldn’t wait for him but have our breakfast. I told him that he should reach by 10/10:30 as we have to go for grocery & veggies shopping and I wanted him to show the Spar’s Hypermarket from where we do our weekly shopping.

I was taking bath when I heard voices from the drawing room and thought that Santanu had come and talking to Deepika. But when I came out of the bathroom, I saw a new suitcase in the room and immediately realized that Sangeeta has made a surprise visit. Actually, we had discussed her visit but she refused saying that she can’t make it owing to her job. They wanted to surprise us but it wasn’t to be; because Deepika had seen them coming from the balcony as they had left the cab at the gate instead of bringing it to the basement parking, not knowing the way through. Secondly, I having seen the suitcase knew of her presence. Anyways, it was a happy reunion and we started planning for the activities ahead. We decided to visit Falaknuma Palace which is a Taj Hotel property and limited number of non-resident guests are allowed during Lunch, Tea & Dinner time at price that can easily be classified as exorbitant. Deepika, using her Epicura membership (of Taj) made the booking for the evening tea along with a guided tour of the palace.

Falaknuma Palace is built on a hillock and covers a 32-acre area, 5 km from Charminar. It was built by Nawab Sir Viqar-ul-Umra, Prime Minister of Hyderabad and the uncle & brother-in-law of the sixth Nizam. Falak-numa means “Mirror of Sky” in Urdu.

An English architect William Ward Marret designed the palace. Sir Vicar’s monogram “VO” is on the furniture, walls and ceiling of the palace. It is made completely with Italian marble with stained-glass windows and covers an area of 1,011,500 square feet. The palace was built in the shape of a scorpion with two stings spread out as wings in the north. The middle part is occupied by the main building and the kitchen, Gol Bangla, Zenana Mehal, and harem quarters stretch to the south. The Nawab was an avid traveller, and his influences show in the architecture, which combines Italian and Tudor influences.

One of the highlights of the palace is the state reception room, where the ceiling is decorated with frescoes. The ballroom contains a two-ton manually operated organ said to be the only one of its kind in the world but is now non-functional. The palace has 60 rooms and 22 halls. It has considerable collections of the Nizam’s artifacts including paintings, statues, furniture, manuscripts, books, an extensive jade collection, and Venetian chandeliers.

The library has a carved walnut roof, a replica of the one at Windsor Castle and houses more than five thousand books. It has an extensive collection of English, Urdu and Persian books as well as copies of the Quran, and rare first editions.

The dining hall can seat 101 guests. The chairs are made of carved rosewood with green leather upholstery. Burroughs and Watts from England designed two identical billiards tables, one of which is in Buckingham Palace and the other in the palace’s billiards room. 

[Source: Wikipedia]

In 2000, Taj Hotels started renovating and restoring the palace and opened the renovated hotel in November 2010.

While returning from Falaknuma, I switched on the Google Map and it made us take rounds of the PVN Expressway 4 times before I disobeyed it and took a road that I had taken in an earlier occasion to reach the Nehru ORR and reached home an hour late than the usual.

Following day I had booked 3 tickets to watch BALA in the evening not knowing the program of Sangeeta. I wanted to cancel the tickets but she insisted that we must carry on and that she will take a cab to reach airport.

In the morning, we went to Chutney’s for a south Indian breakfast and from there to the IKEA showroom which incidentally has become a tourist attraction in Hyderabad now. For lunch we ordered MANDI, a pullaw or biriyani dish but the unlike biriyani, the meat and rice are cooked separately. And I had cooked mutton curry on Saturday but had remained untouched. The quantity of one portion MANDI was too much and it got finished only by Monday lunches.

On Tuesday, post lunch, I dropped off Santanu at the airport for his onward journey to Kolkata. The 10 days since starting my journey from Delhi whizzed past like dream.

I got busy in the daily chores of life in Hyderabad and wasn’t sure if I would like to pen down the experience and therefore kept postponing. Now while writing it, realized that few details may have been erased from my memory completely.

On the Roads… 1

This year we had decided to spend the Durga Puja in Hyderabad and go to Delhi around Diwali only. This would mean leaving behind Rolf with our Housekeeper in Hyderabad for those days which was okay as long as there’s someone to walk him twice a day, morning and evening. We had engaged a person earlier named Ishwar for walking Rolf and he had diligently done the job but in the month of June when we went for a very short trip to Vizag, he simply ditched us even after confirming just a day before. Notwithstanding his previous strange behavior I tried to contact him over phone and WhatsApp but he did not respond. His attitude was puzzling as we had paid him whatever price he had quoted and walking Rolf is not such a tedious job as the boy is quite obedient and adjusting dog.

The non-availability of a dog walker made us change our plans and we decided to take the road once again to Delhi. This time, however, we arranged for our housekeeper to travel by train (Duronto Express) and asked my nephew to pick her up from Nizamuddin station and drop at our Delhi home. The idea was that she along with the other maid gets the apartment livable by the time we reach two days apart.

So, on 5th October, Deepika & I along with Rolf left for Delhi. As always we had planned to leave by 5:30 am but the clock in the car said 6:45 am as we hit the road. Last time Google Map had taken us through the city to NH44 and it was quite exhausting going through the narrow and often crowded roads and lanes, so we decided to take the Nehru ORR (Outer Ring Road) albeit it was longer by few kilometers but much cleaner route.

We were carrying Aloo Parantha and boiled eggs so as not to have a extended stoppage for breakfast. We stopped at a Mini Mart, a new concept by the Transport Ministry to have public convenience and eatery at all Toll Plazas, for tea and also allow Rolf to stretch his legs.

The NH44 of Telengana sector is really good, mostly 4 lanes with divider in place. However, the moment we crossed into Maharashtra, the road quality deteriorated with sudden potholes in the middle of the road, some of them big enough to breakdown a vehicle. The speed with which we started came down substantially to negotiate the stretch till Nagpur where the surface improved a bit and we could cruise at 100kmph.

We had planned to take a break at Go Flamingo Resort, Pench (Maharashtra) for lunch and also confirm my bookings for return. Deepika was using the map on her phone to navigate to Go Flamingo while I had kept mine locked for the hotel at Sagar, MP. As luck would have it, she missed the exit and by the time we realized the mistake, we had travelled around 70 km beyond, in fact, we had crossed into Madhya Pradesh. There was no point in turning back, so we looked for another alternative and Google suggested Kiplings Court. It was almost 10-12 km inside the Pench National Park, owned and managed by Madhya Pradesh Tourism. By the time we reached the place, their kitchen was closed and only sandwiches and pakodas were available. We settled for veg sandwiches and assorted pakodas. As Deepika was taking care of food ordering, I took Rolf for a walk and fed him two boiled eggs and Pedigree Gravy Chicken.

It was still another 400 km to our night halt at Sagar MP, so we revved up as soon as we hit the NH44 after negotiating the diversions for under construction highway. I calculated that if there’s no further slowing down, we will reach our destination by 9pm. Deepika had booked a small hotel called R-One Inn situated on Railway Station Road, Sagar. I was in the impression that it will be somewhere close to where we stayed last time, a mere 2km inside from the NH44 but we were taken through the often narrow winding streets of Sagar to the Railway Station and then inside a lane where we found the place. It was just like the mushrooming hotels of Paharganj or Karol Bagh but we were there just to sleepover the night and more importantly, Rolf was welcomed warmly.

Delhi was approx. 700km or 12 hours of drive away, so we decided to start our journey early. We checked on the availability of breakfast and were informed that the earliest it will be ready is 8:00 am. It was too late for us, so we left for Delhi at sharp 7:00 am. Unknown to us for next 200+ km that a great mishap has happened…

In the early morning, the hotel had served us the tea which we consumed with the Karachi Bakery Cookies that we were carrying. I fed Rolf the balance two boiled eggs and a pack of Pedigree Gravy Chicken. Then washed up his bowls and packed them in a polythene bag. Thereafter, I took the two bags that we had brought in the previous evening and loaded them in the car. Lastly, I took Rolf out for a walk hoping that he will do his job in the new environment (he is really very fussy in these matters) and at the same time asked Deepika to carry the packet of bowls with her and also settle the accounts with the hotel.

As expected, Rolf only sprayed at few places to put his mark but refused to do anything more, being distracted by few local strays which kept barking at him from a safe distance. I saw Deepika coming down to the Reception so I helped Rolf get inside the car and started the engine as also the Google Map for the final destination. We tanked up the car at the first gas station before hitting the NH44 and thereafter it was a smooth drive in the sparse traffic of early Sunday morning.

Around 9:45 am we crossed over to the state of UP (Bundelkhand) towards Jhansi. We were feeling hungry so Deepika started looking for a breakfast joint and we followed the Google Map into a town (forgot the name) and hunted for the elusive but famous shop. We couldn’t see any eatery where Google said it was but a few meters down the road was a shop selling Kachauri & Samosa. We checked with them if they have anything more filling which was not but one of the customers gave us the direction to Pathak Ji’s shop that serves lip smacking Puri-Sabzi. We kept the car parked there with the windows slightly down for airflow as Rolf was inside and walked down to the directed shop. But as luck would have it, Pathak Ji said it would take at least 30 minutes as the sabzi has just started cooking. We came back to the first shop and picked up the samosa and kachauri and retreated towards the highway.

The samosa & the kachauri were fresh and excellent in terms of taste. I found a patch where it was safe to let Rolf stretch his legs and have some water to keep him hydrated. Once he was ready to step back into the car, I thought of feeding him some water but to my utter dismay, the bowls were nowhere to be found. We searched every nook and corner of the car but those were not there. Deepika had forgotten them at the hotel reception. I was filled with rage and frustration… the first for her callousness and the second because there are no cities on the route where we can get bowls for the Pet. I kept quiet for some time and took a decision that we will now drive non-stop to Delhi, avoiding lunch or tea breaks and try to reach as early as possible. Deepika was feeling guilty and pleaded to stop at any of the Dhaba’s to check if they have any bowl or like utensil that can be bought. About another 100 km later we saw a Dhaba but had nothing that could be useful. I had taken out Rolf for stretching his legs and as usual he immediately attracted a handful of crowd who started taking his snaps. They, like many others have never seen such a dog breed. One young boy amongst the crowd took piety and rushed to his home and got us a small thermocole bowl. It wasn’t sufficient but worked at that moment and Rolf took few sips of water. It was clear that we have no option but to drive non-stop to Delhi now.

The roads till Jhansi were good and we covered the distance in good time. Last time the road from Jhansi to Gwalior was horrible, not only there were diversions every few 100 meters but the road was broken at most places. This time a major portion of the road was completed but still there were many diversions and narrow single file stretches that slowed us down considerably.

Google Map always recommends or rather insists that we take the Yamuna Expressway from Agra to Greater Noida to reach Delhi but I decided to take the NH19 via Agra Bypass as it was shorter though has more traffic. However, as we were approaching Mathura, suddenly the Google Map voice literally started screaming “Turn right… Turn right”. And I turned only to be taken through the lanes and roads of the Mathura outskirts to the Yamuna Expressway.

On reaching Delhi, my first stop was at the Pet Shop to buy the bowls for Rolf before going home. Rolf climbed the stairs a bit hesitatingly which was expected because of dehydration. And then he drank 2 litre of water before settling down at his favourite spot near the kitchen. Even with the stoppages we made it to home 5 minutes before 7 pm. Less than 12 hours beating Google Map’s initial prediction of 14:15 hours by over 2 hours….

… to be continued with return journey…

A Farm Vacation

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This was second year in a row that we thought we will spend the Christmas holidays in isolation at Hyderabad, especially when Ayush said he won’t be able to take any holidays as he had already planned a trip to Delhi for his roommate and close friend’s (of 4 years of college) sister’s wedding in the first week of January. However, Sangeeta Basu, our very dear and expert in organizing vacations had other ideas. She worked out a program for 3 nights 4 days at a place called Vanvasa Resort near Lansdowne. I checked the place and it happened to be in the midst of Corbett Jungles. We were elated to be in the lap of nature and possibility of meeting some wild friends.

Sadly, we had to cancel that keeping in mind the high voltage dramas enacted by the opposition parties across the country in the name of citizenship amendment bill which actually is simply to accommodate the persecuted minority population from the three neighboring (declared) Islamic Countries and does not affect any existing citizens of this country irrespective of their religious faith. The surprising part of this agitation was that it all happened in the BJP ruled states; the states where Congress is in power were absolutely calm!! Anyways, we decided to explore alternatives in the peaceful areas and Sangeeta came up with Prakriti Farms, an hour drive from Chandigarh in Ropar or Roop Nagar, Punjab.

Deepika and I left for Delhi on 25th morning. As we came out of the Indigo aircraft, the chilly air of Delhi gave us a warm welcome; we have been missing this winter air for last 2 years…

 Our home was quite clean and livable, courtesy Deepika’s friend Sumita, who had graciously agreed to get the place cleaned as often as she can and had it cleaned just a couple of days before we reached. There was a marked difference in the weather from 24 degrees of Hyderabad and around 8-10 degrees in Delhi. I was wearing my jacket after 2 years!!

In my last visit to Delhi in October, I had sold my car, Duster which was a diesel vehicle of 6 years old having only 4 years of life left as per the new motor vehicle laws. Therefore, I had booked a Hyundai Creta from Zoom Cars for our upcoming trip to Prakriti Farms, Roop Nagar and I went to fetch it from the pick-up point. This was the first time that I was using Zoom vehicle and was bit apprehensive about “no human interface pick-up”. But to my delight it was very smooth and took me less than 20 minutes to go through the formalities using their Mobile App and soon I was driving the Creta.

We, (Deepika, I and Sumita) left for Prakriti Farms around 7:30 am on 26th December with trusted Google Maps as our guide and it predicted approx 5:30 hours to the destination. We met up with Basus & Dutts at our favourite meeting point at the Bharat Petroleum Station at Moolchand crossing. In all my previous road trips, notably 5 trips between Delhi-Hyderabad, I had comprehensively beaten Google Map by at least an hour, so I was confident it will be same this time too. What I had not considered are 2 things – (1) I was driving a commercial vehicle & (2) the new system of paying Toll through FasTag and resultant long queues at the “Cash Booths”. The Creta was registered in Punjab and I knew that I will have to pay “Entry Tax” to Haryana RTA. However, we couldn’t make out when and at what point we crossed into Haryana as there was no RTO Toll Collection Booths to be seen.

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We stopped over at Garam Dharam Dhaba at Murthal for breakfast. Apparently the great bollywood actor Dharmendra had inspired the owners so much that they have named it after him. The place was huge hall with counters for different kind of street foods both savory and sweet besides thirst quenchers like tea, coffee, sodas and lassi. The food was decent (at least my Amritsari Kulchas), the Paranthas looked appetizing. However, the tea wasn’t to the standard we are used to.

The first Toll Gate came after about 5 km and we experienced the first of many “toll gate jams”. The private vehicles with FasTags sailed through the gates smoothly while all the commercial vehicles including cars, autos and trucks jostled at the cash only gates numbering just 2 against 8 gates for the tagged vehicles. This I found a bit ridiculous because since the tagged vehicle doesn’t have to stop at the gate, the lesser number would have worked just as well. The commercial vehicles are not going to put the FasTag and shall continue to suffer, going forward.

Hardly a kilometer after the Toll Plaza, I was stopped by a posse of Police. A young constable came and asked for the papers which I promptly showed him. He flipped through the document file and asked for the Haryana Entry Tax receipt. I told him with full honesty that even though I looked for the tax collection booth but couldn’t find it. He said the fine is INR 10000 for illegal entry. I pleaded with him that it was the first time travel for us in a commercial car and we will pay the tax at the next available booth. After lot of haggling and negotiation, I settled it for INR500 for his Chai-Samosa in the December Chill. He was courteous enough to provide the details of the next RTO but it was not very clear. In the hunt for the RTO, a bus brushed passed the rear right door but luckily there was no dent. We found the RTO just before Panipat on a side street and paid the tax for 5 days. We lost an hour in the process while Basus & Dutts in their own vehicle plus FasTag had moved on and was at least 50-60km ahead of us. There was also a speed restriction on all Zoom Cars, my limit was 126kmph but I kept the speed at 100-112kmph and finally caught up with them on the Chandigarh By-pass road. Now, we were in Punjab, so no more state tax issue and all three vehicles cruised along together. We reached Prakriti Farms around 3:30pm, a clear 2 hours later than Google Map prediction.

Prakriti Farms is situated inside the village Rail Majra in the district Shahid Bhagat Singh, 7 km from Ropar city. It does provide a slice of Punjab (village) as you take the narrow patch of earthen road from the NH 205 and cross the village to get to the farm. It is nestled in the foothills of Shivalik and about 15 minutes drive away from the Ropar wetlands. The accommodation is basic but comfortable. We were housed in three cottages, 2 of which had 3 beds and the other double bed. The 3-bedded rooms were really big and needed 2 heaters to warm up with outside temperature plunging to almost 0 degrees at night. However, to our charging the moment we switched on the second heater in our room, the power went off but fortunately the bed lamps worked. There was no intercom phone in the room to call the housekeeping, so I went out with my phone torch to hunt for the MCB switch but couldn’t find one. It was around 10:30 pm but the place looked as if it was midnight. We were very tired and slept wearing the woolens.

I normally get up around 5:30 am in the morning after finishing my morning chores, looked through the window to the outside still in midnight mode, dark and silent. I returned to my bed and slept till I could hear voices outside. It was 7:30 am and both Deepika and Sumita still in deep slumber. I went out to find the bonfire has been lighted and tea is about to be served. Normally, in these kinds of places they serve readymade tea which is prepared in milk and lots of sugar. Since most of us are averse to taking sugar in our tea, we had asked for tea with separate serving of milk and sugar. Sunil, the Man Friday at the Farm was efficiently arranging the cups n saucer and got two thermoses full of tea and milk. Santanu was there with Princess Chewbacca (adorable Shih tzu) as was (Dutt) Uncle and soon the ladies joined us at the bonfire which was lighted up every day of our stay in the early morning and kept alive till we called it a day. Sipping the hot tea (must mention that the tea was excellently brewed with some special herbs as per Sunil), we discussed the course of the day and finalized on visiting Bhakra Dam and Anandpur Sahib Gurdwara which were roughly 2 hours drive from the farm, after breakfast.

The breakfast consisted of 2 kinds of Paranthas – Aloo and Gobi with farm made fresh curd and achaars besides toast and egg. The paranthas were out-of-this-world kind, at least ten notches above what we had at Garam Dharam, Murthal. Till about 15 days prior to our visit, the farm had over 50 chickens and the eggs used to come from there but due to age issue, those were sold off and the new batch was yet to come, so they relied on the commercial supplies when we visited. However, the food preparation was so good that foodies like Santanu and myself couldn’t find anything to crib!!! Santanu even conceded that the Coffee made with normal Nescafe was too good and he could never get the flavor even from the Nescafe Gold (superior version) coffee at home. We concluded that it was because of the unadulterated fresh milk that boosted the taste of the coffee.

 Post breakfast we quickly took our bath got ready for Bhakra via Anandpur Sahib. While on the road, we changed plans and decided to go to Bhakra first which needed permit to visit and that office closes around 3pm for public. Sangeeta went inside to get the permit while Santanu cleverly utilized the break to smoke and I tried the “Pocket Kulcha” from a street vendor. It is the same “Matar-Kulcha” with a different presentation but couldn’t match the taste with the Delhi variety.

Though we associate Bhakra-Nangal as one and with Punjab, the reality is they are 2 different dams; Bhakra is in Bilaspur, Himachal Pradesh while Nangal is in Punjab. The latter is inaccessible to tourists.

Bhakra Dam is a concrete gravity dam on the Sutlej River in Bilaspur, Himachal Pradesh in northern India and forms the Gobind Sagar reservoir.

The dam, located at a gorge near the (now submerged) upstream Bhakra village in Bilaspur district of Himachal Pradesh of height 226 m. The length of the dam (measured from the road above) is 518.25 m and the width is 9.1 m. It’s reservoir known as “Gobind Sagar” stores up to 9.34 billion cubic metres of water. The 90 km long reservoir created by the Bhakra Dam is spread over an area of 168.35 km. In terms of quantity of water, it is the third largest reservoir in India, the first being Indira Sagar dam in Madhya Pradesh with capacity of 12.22 billion cu m and second Nagarjunasagar Dam in Telengana State.

Described as “New Temple of Resurgent India” by Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India, the dam attracts tourists from all over India. Bhakra dam is 15 km from Nangal city and 20 km from Naina Devi town.

Nangal Dam is another dam in Punjab downstream of Bhakra Dam. However, sometimes both the dams together are called Bhakra-Nangal Dam though they are two separate dams.

As we approached check-post, I asked the policeman where to pay the “entry tax” for Himachal Pradesh. He had a incredible look in his face and laughed at me saying not to bother about it as the permit itself is what is required. I was still apprehensive as the INR 10000 challan still rang on my head but I couldn’t see a single booth for toll collection. There was a checkpoint nearer to Bhakra manned by Indian Army but even they had cursory look inside the 2 vehicles and the permit and let us proceed.

Since our childhood right from the text books to other pictures, Bhakra dam had seemed to be a gigantic structure however, in reality it looked like a “wall of a fort” that spread across two hills. All along the route, signage said “No Photography” so we refrained from taking any but saw many others stopping and taking selfies at will. The Govind Sagar Lake was awesomely huge, one couldn’t see the other side even with Sun shining bright. The water was clear blue and I am sure if we were any closer, we could have seen the fishes swimming. There were steps to go down to the banks and Deepika, Sumita and Sangeeta went down to click some pictures. I calculated the steps to be at least 70-80 if not more; going down is not a problem but climbing up would have been a big challenge especially when one has to drive. We drove up further on the road to capture more panoramic view before making our return journey.

There were kiosks selling Fish Fries, Santanu and Sangeeta being Fish Lovers, decided to pick up some for evening snacks with the drinks. The supplies came from the Govind Sagar itself so the fishes are always fresh catch of the day.

As we approached Anandpur Sahib, it was already 4:30 pm and I told Deepika that she has only 15-20 minutes to complete her “darshan” as it would get dark by the time we are anywhere near to Prakriti Farms and it would be challenging to negotiate the narrow rough village roads in the darkness. We parked our vehicles and followed the sparse evening crowd to the Gurdwara. I and Shenjit stayed out on the courtyard guarding the footwear and purses while Santanu accompanied the ladies inside. I had expected them to come out in 20 minutes or so but they came out within 5 minutes. They were obviously disappointed by the size of the Gurdwara and lamented as to why it is so famous? Even the “kada Prasad” was neither good in quantity nor in taste (having been to many Gurdwaras, I can safely say that the helpings are large and tastes heavenly).

On our way out to the parking, we tried the “Stick Kulfi” from “Verka”, it tasted more of “desi ghee” than “malai”. Once upon a time, Verka used to be what Amul is to Gujarat but because of management failure or even political neglect has remained a local brand while Amul is now an international brand.

Santanu had parked at a place from where he could easily take the first exit from the parkinf lot but our car was parked a little ahead and we had to go some 300 meters ahead to take the u-turn. As I was negotiating the turn, I noticed a large structure on my left and casually asked Deepika to see it. Deepika immediately screamed “Oh shit, we went to the wrong Gurdwara. This is the real Anandpur Sahib”. By that time my turning back was complete and Santanu’s vehicle was at least half a kilometer ahead of us and more importantly, darkness was falling rapidly on the horizon. After a teleconferencing with Basu’s, it was decided to let go of real Anandpur Sahib as all homes of the Almighty are equal!!!

While going to Bhakhra, we observed lots of vendors selling Kinnows also called Tangerine so we stopped by at one such vendor to have Kinnow juice to quench our thirst. We also picked up some “moomphalee” and “gajjak” from the vendor next to it.

As I had expected, it was completely dark when we reached the Prakriti Farms after missing a couple of turns and taking detours through harrowing roads of the villages. But we all agreed that it was overall a great experience that we shall remember for a long time.

In the evening, we devoured the fried fish from Bhakra along with farm fresh pakodas with our scotch and wine. The dinner was simple (as per our wish) consisting of yellow tadka dal, aloo-gobi sabji with chapatti and jeera rice.

Though we had planned for a few rounds of TwentyNine (card game invented by Bongs) but the main players including me were exhausted and we called it a day. The darkness was so deep that you will feel you are in the middle of nowhere, one could see the stars twinkling in between the light cloud and could hear the howls of dogs in the distance. We guessed the temperature to be near zero and quickly entered in the warmth of our room. Deepika & Sumita wanted play cards (Rummy without money) and invited which I politely declined and went inside the heavy razaai.

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Early in the morning, I woke with a feeling that it’s raining heavily probably a thunderstorm. I got up with an effort to look through the window but there was no rain, only a thick layer of fog. It was 5 am and still a long time for others to wake up, I decided to freshen first and then dive back under my razaai once more.

Mr. Kaushal, the owner of the farm, joined us at the morning tea around the bonfire and suggested we take a guided tour of the estate with Sunil which we promptly agreed. The estate included a hill in the distant along with a large spread of jungle. Sunil said that till about couple years ago, leopards were present in the jungle and would visit the farm for food. Now only some deer and wild boars are remaining other than birds. We did see the poop of both on our way to the Kinnow Orchard inside the jungle. We were warned by Sunil to avoid the thick shrubbery as pythons might be waiting there to strike the unsuspecting prey. There has been incidence of python slithering in the bird cage to devour the chicks during the monsoon.

On our way back we saw the guava orchard and the organic farming of vegetables besides the cattle shed from where the freshest milk comes for tea/coffee, desi ghee and curd.

This day, we had decided to visit another resort nearby (approx 50 km away) called Kikar Lodge for our lunch. Post breakfast we lazed around and played with Chewbacca and realized I do not have the stamina to match the one year old Shih tzu. I also missed Rolf who would have loved to roam around in the cool chimes of the farm. There were some 7 dogs of mixed breed, friendly with humans but Mr. Kaushal had put them in the kennel because of Chewbacca.

In the afternoon we left for Kikar Lodge and this time Uncle-Aunty and Chewbacca also joined us. We religiously followed Google Maps through the winding roads of interior Punjab till it took us to a point of nothing-ahead!! Luckily we found a local guy who guided us back to a more drivable road and Google Map too picked up the cue and guided us to the Kikar Lodge which was at the edge of village Kangar, Nurpur Bedi, Punjab spread over 1800 acres of forest and luscious green splendor. It offered activities like swimming, horse-riding, outdoor games and quad-bike rides for the residents. We had booked for lunch and proceeded straight to the poolside where tables were set for guest dining. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon which prompted us to discard the jackets and scarves and order for chilled beer. The food was quite good but restaurant quality unlike the homely food at Prakriti Farms. We took some snaps with the quad bikes as prop before leaving for the farm.

We checked with Kikar Lodge people if there is any better route and they guided us to the highway that would take us to our destination. We switched on the Google Map once we hit the highway and this time it showed us the right directions. Closer to the Prakriti Farms, about 5-6 km away we stopped at the roadside vendor selling Kinnow juice. As we were waiting for the juice, we noticed some commotion next to the piles of kinnow and realized one of the guy was pulling out something with the help of a bamboo stick that had a kind of blunt sickle at one end. When it came out in the open, we remained open mouthed looking at the huge, at least 8-10 ft long python. Fortunately for the poor thing, they did not kill it but pulled and dragged it to the other side of the road which had a marshland and forest where it slithered off. We were happy having met at least of the wild friends during the trip.

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It was our last evening at the farm; we decided to play Dumb Charade, our favorite evening activity whenever we go out in large group. We were joined by Mr. Balvinder Singh with his wife and two children besides their handsome Labrador called Bolt (named after Usain Bolt). Mr. Singh had checked-in during the afternoon when we had gone to the Kikar Lodge. Quite amiable person and soon we became friends and they were more than happy to join us in the game of Dumb Charade. It was a sweet coincidence that his daughter was in the same school that of Shenjit Basu aka Mingo. It turned out to be a memorable evening with lots fun and merriment around the bonfire which was kept alive with regular supply of wood and the expert handling by Sumita.

After dinner, Deepika, Sumita and I played few rounds of Rummy and needless to say I lost hands down.

We had decided to start early for our return journey to Delhi but the weather god had thought otherwise and we woke to a dense fog all around the place. I have driven on NH1 (now NH44) earlier under dense fog and know how nightmarish it can be!! We were having our tea when Mr. Kaushal came over and suggested that we should wait a while and leave around 10:30/11:00 am by which time the weather will clear up. We agreed but decided to get ready and load up the car so we don’t waste any time once the fog lifts.

We left Prakriti Farms around 11:30 am and all three vehicles were cruising in tandem till we reached the first toll plaza from where Basu’s and Dutt’s moved ahead courtesy the FasTag while we had to clear the long line of vehicles at the cash lane. Then came the inevitable twist in our journey, Deepika was navigating when we reached a fork where the right lane was taking curving flyover and the left going straight and she read the Google Map wrong and we took the left lane to enter the very crowded and potholed city road instead of the bypass. There was no option but to go forward and took the road to Mohali city and after lots of left-right turns finally hit the NH205 once again.

While going we had noticed makeshift shops on the highway selling fresh jaggery and had decided to pick up some on our way back. We stopped at one such shop where Sumita picked up 5kg and Deepika 2kg and I bought 500gm of freshly made peanut-jaggery gajjak.

Rest of the journey back was uneventful barring the fact that if Google Map decides to take you through a particular route, howsoever you may try to avoid, it will surely guide you to that route only. Upon entering Delhi, I wanted to take the eastern side of the Ring Road via Alipur-ISBT-Kashmere Gate-Rajghat while Google wanted us to take the western part of the road through Ashok Vihar-Wazirpur-Punjabi Bagh-Dhaulakuan and it smartly managed to do that eventually as in the darkness of wintery night I did not wanted to do any bravado and be lost in the foggy weather.

We reached home around 7:30pm and even after much cajoling Sumita didn’t stay back and left for her home in Gurugram. Deepika & I went to see her ailing uncle residing nearby who was delighted to see us and after spending an hour there we came back totally exhausted but happy holidaying with friends.

It was good that Sumita left for her home in the evening itself because the following morning fog descended with a vengeance!!!

The Summer of ’83

It was summer of 1983, having given the final exams of college, waiting for the graduation day, not too eagerly though. Those days, there was no pressure from anyone to chalk-out one’s career plan. The four of us, Babua, Gora, Chhoton and me more or less knew what we wanted to do, but could wait till the results are declared. Since we all lived close-by, it was a ritual to meet up after breakfast at Babua’s home and then decide the day’s course of action; it usually meant playing some indoor games if the heat was too much, see a cinema (usually English) at Chanakya or Archana, both involving a whole day affair as it was quite far from Karol Bagh. Evenings were usually spent playing cricket in the driveway of Babua’s home (there was no car for parking) and everyone was expert batter and bowler with Babua being the best. And some evenings we would venture out to the lanes of Gaffar Market for Mutton-Tikka-Tandoori Roti dinner!!

In one such day, sometime in May (I guess), we were playing a card game called Twenty-Nine (29), it is a pure Bong version of Bridge, played with 8 cards per player between 2 teams of 2 players each (total 4 persons). The sum total of the 32 cards (not all bears point) comes to 28 with Joker being 3, #9 being 2, Ace being 1 and #10 being 1 as well, the other 4 cards are King, Queen, #8 & #7. The Sixes are used as pointer. One has to call points between 16 & 28 that he/she is confident of achieving based on the first 4 sets of card in hand. It is simply too engrossing and once you start playing, time simply flies away. Once we started playing around noon and continued till about 11pm when my brother came to fetch me!!!

Anyways, that day while playing Chhoton said “Let’s go somewhere outside Delhi before the results are out because after that we won’t be able to show our faces.” We instantly agreed but Babua said, he can’t go as he needs to apply for MSc in as many colleges. Rest of us had no such illusions of doing Masters (honestly speaking, we would not have got admission). So, we decided to go to Benaras because Chhoton said his father can make arrangements for stay through his sources there in the shape of Chaukhamba Publishers. Gora also mentioned that his sister & Jijaji calling him to Patna as well. We decided that if time permit, we will go to Patna for couple of days too.

We booked our train tickets in 3-Tier sleeper (the cheapest) and embarked on our journey to Benaras or Varanasi. We reached in the early morning and courtesy Chhoton’s father, the Ambassador car from Chaukhamba Publishers was there to take us to our destination which turned out to be the office cum residence of the publisher. After we freshened up, we were served breakfast of Puri-Sabji in the office itself. Then, we were told the car will take us to Sarnath to see the Buddhist Stupa and other relics.

Dhamek Stupa (also spelled Dhamekh and Dhamekha, traced to Sanskrit version Dharmarajika Stupa, which can be translated as the Stupa of the reign of Dharma) is a massive stupa located at Sarnath, 13 km away from Varanasi in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India.

Stupas originated as pre-Buddhist tumuli, in which ascetics were buried in a seated position, called chaitya. After the parinirvana of the Buddha, his remains were cremated and the ashes divided and buried under eight mounds with two further mounds encasing the urn and the embers. Little is known about these early stupas, particularly since it has not been possible to identify the original ten monuments. However, some later stupas such as at Sarnath and Sanchi, seem to be embellishments of earlier mounds. The Dhamek Stupa was built in 500 CE to replace an earlier structure commissioned by the great Mauryan King Ashoka in 249 BCE, along with several other monuments, to commemorate the Buddha’s activities in this location. Stupas originated as circular mounds encircled by large stones. King Ashoka built stupas to enshrine small pieces of calcinated bone and other relics of the Buddha and his disciples. An Ashoka pillar with an edict engraved on it stands near the site.

The Dhamek Stupa is said to mark the spot (Rishipattana which can be translated as (“where the Rishi arrived”) where the Buddha gave the first sermon to his first five brahmin disciples after attaining enlightenment, “revealing his Eightfold Path leading to nirvana”. In several of the ancient sources the site of the first sermon is mentioned to have been at a ″Mriga-dayaa-vanam″ or a sanctuary for animals. (In Sanskrit mriga is used in the sense of game animals, deer being the most common). The last royal endowment at the site is dated to about 12th c. CE, after which the location of the Mrigadayavanam seems to have been lost even to the devout. The stupa was enlarged on six occasions but the upper part is still unfinished. While visiting Sarnath in 640 CE, Xuanzang recorded that the colony had over 1,500 priests and the main stupa was nearly 300 feet (91 m) high.

In its current shape, the stupa is a solid cylinder of bricks and stone reaching a height of 43.6 meters and having a diameter of 28 meters. It is the most massive structure in Sarnath. The basement seems to have survived from Ashoka’s structure: the stone facing is chiseled and displays delicate floral carvings of Gupta origin. The wall is covered with exquisitely carved figures of humans and birds, as well as inscriptions in the Brāhmī script. (Wikipedia)

We had a good time visiting Sarnath (some 10-12 km away from the city) where we saw the Buddhist Stupas and temples, the Buddha idol is said to be gold plated courtesy Japanese grants. We also visited the Jain Tirthankar temple a little distance away from Sarnath. Unfortunately, none of us carried a camera and smart phones were not even dreamt of back then. When we returned, the sun was setting in the distant horizon. We asked the driver to drop us at the Dashashwamedh Ghat to witness the evening prayers.

Dashashwamedh Ghat is located close to Vishwanath Temple, and is probably the most spectacular ghat. Two Hindu mythologies are associated with it: According to one, Lord Brahma created it to welcome Lord Shiva. According to another, Lord Brahma sacrificed ten horses, during Dasa-Ashwamedha yajna performed here. A group of priests daily perform in the evening at this ghat “Agni Pooja” (Worship to Fire) wherein a dedication is made to Lord Shiva, River Ganges, Surya (Sun), Agni (Fire), and the whole universe.

As we were walking towards the ghat, someone called out Chhoton’s name from the milling crowd at the back. We stopped to look for the source and was soon greeted by a plumpish dark guy about our age. He promptly hugged Chhoton and they way Chhoton reacted it was clear that two old pals are meeting after a long gap. Chhoton introduced him to us as Bechu, his old school friend. Bechu immediately became our friend, philosopher and guide and remained so till our stay in Benaras. The Sandhya Arati or the Evening Prayer at the Ghat is a magnificent affair with hundreds of Pradeep or Diyas lighting up the space and chanting of the mantras. It’s a surreal feeling.

Later, as we were walking back, Chhoton and Bechu narrated their numerous escapades in Benaras and the distance/ time passed away in a flurry. We were feeling hungry and Bechu suggested we try the famed Kachori of Benaras along with the Rabri. We readily agreed. While devouring the kachoris, we decided to visit Kashi Vishwanath Temple the following day with Bechu being our guide as he knew one of the Pandit who would take us inside bypassing the long queue. Bechu dropped us at the Chaukhmba place promising to meet us in the morning around 9:30 am.

The head of the family at Chaukhamba (I have forgotten his name) was concerned about our welfare and insisted that we have ghar ka khana and not junk food outside. We were tired and wanted to hit the bed, so we listened to him respectfully knowing fully well that such advise will not be adhered. He told us that we can sleep in the Gaddi that we had seen in the morning. This was something that none of us had expected and was not acceptable either. But it was quite late and we needed a relatable story that could help us escape from the Chaukhambas without offending them. Chhoton asked if he could make a call to his childhood friend and was given access to the phone. He spoke to Bechu in confidence and narrated the scenario. Bechu said he would make the necessary arrangements and meet us early in the morning.

Next morning, the Chaukhamba household themselves ensured that we depart asap. At around, 5 am, one of the servants came and woke up us with morning tea. We were completely groggy and would have loved to sleep for at least another hour. The tea was accompanied by dry kachories and a bowl of mango achar. Who on earth ever eats “achar at 5 in the morning”? The tea was basically a mixture of milk and sugar with a hint of tea that too was overpowered by the cardamom flavor!! We decided then and there to leave the place and check in to a hotel. To our relief, Bechu brought the news that he has fixed up the hotel that’s run by his friend Kallu whom incidentally Chhoton also knew from his days in Benaras. Chhoton went to tell the senior Chaukhamba that we will be visiting the Vishwanath Temple and then take the train to Patna to visit Gora’s sister for couple of days. He made feeble attempt to make us stay for few more days but we politely refused.

We checked into Kallu’s hotel which provided basic amenities but was a clean place, moreover we got proper beds to sleep and good tasty food.

After freshening up, we had breakfast of puri-aloo sabji and lassi which would last us till evening. Bechu acting as our guide took us to the Vishwanath temple and as pre-arranged, the panda took us to the inner sanctum through a side entrance. It was noon and time for bathing of the Shiva Linga. I am least religious amongst my friends and does not believe in rituals but at the same time I have no objection to others following and being ritualistic. Therefore, it was quite ironic to witness and experience the age old tradition of milk-bathing of the famed Shiva Linga at Kashi Vishwanath Temple. There in the inner sanctum at that moment, only about 5-6 priests and four of us were present. I know of many who would pay anything to be in my place that day but I believe I was destined to be there, so I was there. Frankly, that point of time it did not struck me but now when I think about it, I feel sorry for the sheer wastage of milk that happens every day. I do not think the Almighty is really interested in such acts but would surely be very happy if such quantity of milk is fed to the hungry humanity just outside the temple and on the ghats of Benaras.

Kashi Vishvanath Temple is one of the most famous Hindu temples dedicated to Lord Shiva. It is located in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India. The temple stands on the western bank of the holy river Ganga, and is one of the twelve Jyotirlingas, the holiest of Shiva temples. The main deity is known by the name Vishvanatha or Vishveshvara meaning Ruler of The Universe. Varanasi city is also called Kashi, and hence the temple is popularly called Kashi Vishvanath Temple. Its name originally was Vishveshvara (broken down Vishwa: Universe, Ish: Lord; Vara: Excellent) or Lord of the Universe.

The temple has been referred to in Hindu scriptures for a very long time as a central part of worship in the Shaiva philosophy. It has been destroyed and re-constructed a number of times in history. The last structure was demolished by Aurangzeb, the sixth Mughal emperor who constructed the Gyanvapi Mosque on its site. The current structure was built on an adjacent site by the Maratha ruler, Ahilya Bai Holkar of Indore in 1780.

Since 1983, the temple has been managed by the government of Uttar Pradesh. During the religious occasion of Shivratri, Kashi Naresh (King of Kashi) is the chief officiating priest.

Located on the banks of the holy Ganges, Varanasi is regarded among the holiest of the Hindu cities. The Kashi Vishwanath temple is widely recognized as one of the most important places of worship in the Hindu religion. Inside the Kashi Vishwanath Temple is the Jyotirlinga of Shiva, Vishveshvara or Vishvanath. The Vishveshvara Jyotirlinga has a very special and unique significance in the spiritual history of India.

Many leading saints, including Adi Sankaracharya, Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Swami Vivekananda, Bamakhyapa, Goswami Tulsidas, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, Sathya Sai Baba and Gurunanak have visited the site. A visit to the temple and a bath in the river Ganges is one of many methods believed to lead one on a path to Moksha (liberation). Thus, Hindus from all over the world try to visit the place at least once in their lifetime. There is also a tradition that one should give up at least one desire after a pilgrimage the temple, and the pilgrimage would also include a visit to the temple at Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu in Southern India, where people take water samples of the Ganges to perform prayer at the temple and bring back sand from near that temple. Because of the immense popularity and holiness of Kashi Vishwanath temple, hundreds of temples across India have been built in the same architectural style. Many legends record that the true devotee achieves freedom from death and saṃsāra by the worship of Shiva, Shiva’s devotees on death being directly taken to his abode on Mount Kailash by his messengers and not to Yama. The superiority of Shiva and his victory over his own nature—Shiva is himself identified with death—is also stated. There is a popular belief that Shiva himself blows the mantra of salvation into the ears of people who die naturally at the Vishwanath temple. (Wikipedia)

We stayed in Benaras for two more days exploring the city and its ghats, devouring the street foods and saw Chhoton’s school and the residence where he grew up. Then we took the train to Patna.

Gora had informed Rangadi (his sister) about our impending visit and Dulal-da (his bro-in-law) was there at the station to receive us take us home. Their home was on the main road in Rajendra Nagar, Patna. The ground floor space was shared by the landlord and Dulal-da’s family of two and half members (Dulal-da, Rangadi & the little Bhuchai). The living cum dining room was spacious enough to accommodate us and the landlord provided two folding cots that solved sleeping issues with a divan already in place.

It was Saturday afternoon; we took baths and were ready for early lunch. Meanwhile, Bhuchai became my friend immediately (I have a knack of befriending the young ones) and throughout our stay he was always with me whenever we were at home. We had booked our return for the coming Tuesday on Vikramshila Express and informed our hosts accordingly. Dulal-da & Rangadi immediately protested saying that it was too short a period and we must stay for a week at least.

After a simple lunch we opted for a afternoon nap to recuperate from the train journey. Dulal-da said that he had booked some movie ticket for the evening and thereafter will take us to a Chinese restaurant for dinner. Incidentally, we finally stayed there for 7 days and saw 8 movies!!! And today, I can’t recall the name of a single one except that one of them had Kamaal Hassan in double role.

After the movie which was a complete Masala Hindi cinema, we went to a swanky Chinese restaurant on Boring Road. Those days our Chinese cuisine was limited to street side egg chowmein and occasional chili-chicken, beyond that we had no clue of the culinary delight that’s Chinese. I remember having mixed-meat Talumein soup and shredded lamb in hot garlic sauce for the first time in my life. And I fell in love with Talumein soup from that day.

Unlike the North and South India, the Eastern India wakes up pretty early especially the food joints but ironically most of the offices whether govt or private usually opens only by 10 am. On that day, Chhoton woke me and Gora up and asked us to join him at the porch. He was very excited which transpired in us as well and we rushed to see his discovery. He pointed to the other side of the road that separated the two blocks of Rajendra Nagar. Initially we couldn’t make out what’s so interesting but caught on to his finger directing at a sweet shop whose sign board announced Bengali Sweets. We went over to the shop to find out what’s available. The shop keeper was a young Bengali guy but from Patna who’s family had been in the sweetmeat business for three generations. They had a shop elsewhere in Patna and had moved to this location recently. He asked us to wait for half hour for the fresh stuff to arrive from the kitchen. We ordered for six portions of Radha-Ballavi-Aloor-Dom and 12 pieces of Ksheerkadamba. Radha-Ballavi is similar to Bedmi Puri but made from Maida instead of Atta. The Ksheerkadamba is a delicious Bengali sweet made by thickening the milk till it becomes paste or Mawa, rolling it into balls filled with juicy tiny rasgulla and finally covering the mouth sized balls in shredded Mawa. The shopkeeper said he would deliver the stuff to us as soon as it comes from the kitchen and offered us Mishti Doi to sample.

Back home, we announced that we have arranged for the breakfast to which Rangadi showed her mock irritation but was relieved internally. We sat down for morning tea which even today is a ritual in most Bong homes. The tea is usually accompanied by Marie Biscuits which are dipped into the tea before devouring; the satisfaction that one derives is difficult to explain.

After a very satisfying and filling breakfast which Rangadi revealed that they had never tried before even though the shop was just across the road, the three of us accompanied Dulal-da to the market to buy veggies and other items. It was Sunday and a feast day in Bong households and our list included both mutton and fish besides the veggies.

We discussed where all we could visit and zeroed on the Golghar, built in 1786 by the British as a granary is unique styled monument with 150 steps (approx.) and a diameter of 125 meters, located on the banks of river Ganges near the Gandhi Maidan. The Golghar offered a panoramic view of the Ganges and the surrounding area from the top of its staircase landing. We also wanted to see the ruins of Nalanda University and Dulal-da suggested that we check out the travel counters near the Gandhi Maidan which operates guided tours.

We were disappointed when we found that the Nalanda tour happens only on Tuesday and Fridays as we were to leave on Tuesday evening there was no way of going to Nalanda. Dulal-da suggested we reschedule our tickets but we have been away from home for long time and those days communication was not easy, so we declined the suggestion. To lift our mood, Dulal-da took all us to watch a movie again, 2 in 2 days.

In the morning, Chhoton called Dilip (by now we knew the name of the sweetshop owner) and asked him send across KsheerKadamba which incidentally had become our daily mouth freshener post breakfast. Rangadi saw the box of sweet and suggested that we go to the Darbhanga Kali Mandir and offer the sweets for puja and take HER blessings for our upcoming results. We had no options but to agree with her as we hoped the last minute devotion to the goddess might change our fortune.

The Kali Mandir at Darbhanga House is a historic temple dedicated to Hindu Goddess Kali. It is located in Darbhanga House, Patna University. It is very famous old temple. According to ancient folktale the statue of Goddess Kali is not handmade but has come out from the earth. It is also known as Sati. It is believed that this temple was constructed by Darbhanga Maharaj some 150 years ago. The temple is on the banks of river Ganges and at that point the river is at its widest. One could hardly see the other side from the temple. One interesting fact is that Patna has seen many floods, some very devastating but the temple and its immediate surroundings never got inundated.

From there we went to see the Patna Museum situated in Buddha Marg. Patna museum is one of the oldest museums of India. Set up in the center of the city, this splendid museum was created by Sir Edmund Gair, the Lt. Governor of Bihar and Odisha whose bust is exhibited near the entrance gate. It is locally known as Jadughar it is in the style of Mughal and Rajput architecture. The main items displayed here are archaeological objects, coins, arts, paintings, textiles etc. of different periods. A fossil of a tree which is more than 200 million years old is also a must see item here.

We rushed back home in time to pick up Bhuchai from his school bus stop and lunch. Post lunch we went to see a movie (Amitabh Bacchan starer) in the matinee show little knowing that Dulal-da had plans of watching another one at night. The fourth one in 3 days and this was followed by another the following day afternoon before packing up to leave for Delhi.

Rangadi & Dulal-da started nagging us to stay on for few more days’ right from the morning of our departure day but we were quite adamant to carry on with our plans. At the back of our mind there was regret of not visiting Nalanda University about which we have read extensively in our history classes. I could sense that both Gora and Chhoton won’t mind the change of plans and even I was kind of inclined to the idea but kept silent. We reached the station around 7:30 pm and waited for the train to arrive. Dulal-da & Rangadi once again made their point more forcefully almost to the point of emotional blackmail.

Those days, Indian Railways had started to cover the wooden benches of sleeper class with coir mattresses but still many of the coaches continued with wooden surface which were not very comfortable in case you carry your own bed rolls, which were not. As we saw the train approaching the platform, I said to Dulal-da that in case our coach doesn’t have coir covering, we will not go. As the train came to the platform, we could see the sleeper coaches rolling by with coir covering. Then we saw our coach and as would fate have it, our coach was the only one with wooden surface. We simply stood there watching other passengers get into their coaches and the train leaving for New Delhi.

Dulal-da and Chhoton went to the ticket counter to cancel the ticket and book fresh ones for following Saturday on Maghad Express, a better train to travel taking lesser time. At the counter the clerk said that if the tickets were cancelled a bit earlier then few waitlisted passengers could have been accommodated. To that Dulal-da said, “What can I say, I have three mental cases on hand.”

Chhoton went with Dulal-da to drop the luggage at home while Gora, me and Rangadi with Bhuchai went to our dinner packed from Pintu’s Hotel.

My parents and elder siblings have lived in Patna for 10 years from early 40’s to early 50’s before moving to Delhi. I have heard lots of stories from them about Patna and had developed a kind of connect with the city. During the course of their stay, they have had food from Pintu’s Hotel many a times so I wanted to have it too. The owners had prefixed the name with “New” and on enquiry said nothing has really changed except that they renovated the place and while putting the signboard just added NEW to announce reopening after a period of inaction.

We booked our Nalanda tour the following day. It was a day long guided tour of the ruined institution that has given many scholars and invited pundits across the world. We spent the next two days roaming around the city during the day, saw four more movies and in the evening played the Twenty-Nine with Dulal-da as my partner.

The three of us left for Nalanda early on Friday morning. Though the bus carrying us was relatively new, the roads were quite bad with many potholes and narrow. Luckily we had managed to occupy the seats at the front part of the bus so the jerks and bumps were still tolerable. The bus stopped at a midway dhaba for the passengers to freshen up and have their breakfast. We settled for the safe option of buttered toast and boiled eggs with tea.

We reached Nalanda around 10 am and were told to come back to the parking bay by 2pm for Rajgir part of the tour. There was guide and he assembled the 30+ passengers and spoke in broken English but we asked him to speak in Hindi as all the assembled people could well understand the language.

Nalanda was an ancient Mahavihara, a large and revered Buddhist monastery, in the ancient kingdom of Magadha (modern-day Bihar) in India. The site is located about 80 kilometres southeast of Patna near the city of Bihar Sharif, and was an important centre of learning from the 5th century CE to c. 1200 CE. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The highly formalized methods of Hindu Vedic scholarship and its disciplines such as linguistics and astronomy helped bring about the establishment of large teaching institutions such as Taxila, Nalanda, and Vikramashila, which are often referred as India’s early universities. Nalanda flourished under the patronage of the Gupta Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries, and later under Harsha, the emperor of Kannauj. At its peak the school attracted scholars and students from near and far, with some travelling from Tibet, China, Korea, and Central Asia. Archaeological evidence also notes contact with the Shailendra dynasty of Indonesia, one of whose kings built a monastery in the complex.

Much of our knowledge of Nalanda comes from the writings of pilgrim monks from Asia, such as Xuanzang and Yijing, who travelled to the Mahavihara in the 7th century CE. Many of the names listed by Xuanzang in his travelogue as alumni of Nalanda are the names of those who developed the overall philosophy of Mahayana. All students at Nalanda studied Mahayana, as well as the texts of the eighteen (Hinayana) sects of Buddhism. Their curriculum also included other subjects, such as the Vedas, logic, Sanskrit grammar, medicine, and Samkhya.

Nalanda was ransacked and destroyed by the army of Bakhtiyar Khilji in c. 1200 CE. It was abandoned and forgotten until the 19th century, when the site was surveyed and preliminary excavations were conducted by the Archaeological Survey of India. In 1915 eleven monasteries and six brick temples were discovered. A trove of sculptures, coins, seals, and inscriptions were also found in the ruins, many of which are on display in the Nalanda Archaeological Museum, situated nearby. Nalanda is now a notable tourist destination, and a part of the Buddhist tourism circuit. (Wikipedia)

On 25 November 2010 the Indian government, through an Act of Parliament, resurrected the ancient university through the Nalanda University Bill, and subsequently a new Nalanda University was established. It has been designated as an “international university of national importance.”

The ruins of Nalanda university was awe inspiring… the architecture planning and construction that would have still be standing in grandeur had it not been destroyed by the external forces. We believed then and now that it was a good decision to postpone our departure and visit Nalanda.

We had our lunch at a restaurant that served only vegetarian food but looked very clean and hygienic and was at the bus parking bay well before the deadline of 2 pm. However, there are always some co-passenger who thinks he/she is owns the bus and would come back at leisurely pace much after the scheduled time and have no shame for keeping others waiting. We left for Rajgir around 3 pm, a good one hour later than the scheduled departure.

The most prominent memory that I have of Rajgir is the Ropeway ride to the top of the hill to see the Peace Pagoda. The Ropeway was like the one at some ski resorts of Europe, single chair for each person and open with only a token hood at the top. I do not know if it is still like that or the system has changed to full cabin now. To think about it now, it was quite dangerous and am sure I would refrain from using it now but those were the carefree days and we had a devil may care attitude.

Rajgir (originally known as Girivraj) is an ancient city and a notified area in Nalanda district in the Indian state of Bihar. The city of Rajgir was the first capital of the kingdom of Magadha, a state that would eventually evolve into the Mauryan Empire. Its date of origin is unknown, although ceramics dating to about 1000 BC have been found in the city. This area is also notable in Jainism and Buddhism. It was the birthplace of 20th Jain Tirthankar Munisuvrata, and closely associated with the arihant Mahavira and Gautama Buddha. Both Lord Mahavira and Lord Buddha taught their beliefs in Rajgir during the 5th and 6th century BC.

Historically, Rajgir has been a very important place in Jainism, as capital to many empires. The main tourist attractions include the ancient city walls from Ajatshatru’s period, the Bimbisar’s Jail, Jarasandh’s Akhara, Gridhra-kuta, (‘Hill of the Vultures’), Son Bhandar Caves and the Jain temples on the five peaks.

Rajgir is famous for its hot water springs, locally known as Brahmakund, a sacred place for Hindus where water from seven different springs (Saptarshi) merge and is notable for its healing effects. Another major attraction is the peace pagoda, Vishwa Shanti Stupa, built in 1969, one of the 80 peace pagodas in the world, to spread the message of peace and non-violence. It is the oldest peace pagoda in India. The rope-way that leads to it is another attraction, which was gifted by Japanese spiritual leader Fuji Guruji in the 1960s. The Japanese temple is beside the Venu Vana. It is an artificial forest, where one can enjoy Eternal peace and was used by Budhha for meditation, and famous Makhdoom Kund. (Wikipedia)

We reached back to Patna in the late evening, exhausted from the bus ride and hungry like a lion. Rangadi had made chicken curry as well as prawn malai curry and the aroma that emanated from the dining table simply increased our appetite by few X’s. Post dinner, though we were feeling tired but played Twenty-Nine till very late and also narrated our day’s experience.

Following day we went to see a movie (our Eighth one) in the Noon Show. All these days, whenever the three of us had traveled in the city we had used a single cycle rickshaw and never faced any objections from the law enforcement guys but that day one of them was over enthusiastic about his job and stopped our rickshaw. Even before we could say anything, he slapped the rickshaw puller and abused him with choicest expletives. The barbaric act of the policeman enraged us and when we confronted him he had no choice but apologize to the poor rickshaw puller. We paid some extra to rickshaw puller and walked rest of the destination.

In the evening, Dulal-da, Rangadi and Bhuchai came to see us off at the station. The moving moment was when Bhuchai started crying. We had to pacify him saying that we will be back the following week after our results are announced. Perhaps, he knew it was mere words… perhaps in his little innocent heart he believed us.

I have been to Patna a few times later on work but each of those visits have been very hectic and short one. Today, I regret not taking out time on such occasions to visit Rangadi-Dulal-da even for a short while. As I was writing this, lots of memories came flooding to me… very joyous… very precious ones that will remain etched till the end.

The Summer of ’83 is dedicated to the memory of Rangadi who left us last year after bravely fighting the treacherous disease called cancer. I am sure that her loving and noble soul is now united with The Paramatma in eternal peace. Om Shanti.

Vizag Vacation…

The shortest night and the longest day (June 21) happen to be our wedding anniversary. It is also the peak summer with temperatures hovering much above 40 degrees Celsius in most parts of the country. In the last 28 years, we have usually escaped to the cooler chimes during this time even for a short duration too. Last year it was Thailand but this year overseas vacation was ruled out as our passports needed renewal and we weren’t sure if it would happen quickly within time for visas, so we settled for Visakhapatnam or Vizag.

Why Vizag –

  1. It’s a new place by the sea
  2. From Hyderabad, it is just an hour’s flight time
  3. The movie Ghazi Attack had created some curiosity about the place
  4. It was the most convenient destination considering time constraints
  5. We would never even dream of going there from Delhi
  6. However, the most compelling reason was Srini, colleague of Deepika; let me elaborate…

Srini is from Vizag; his family is in Vizag while he works in Hyderabad and visits his family once in two months or more frequently based on the holidays he can club together. Since the time I met him for the first time, he had been urging us to visit Vizag. In the run up to our decision, he preempted our call with a detailed itinerary for our visit to Vizag. We had planned to stay at Novotel and had been negotiating with them for a good deal when Srini suggested that he will look into it as he was going there and moreover has friends in the hospitality sector. Sure enough, he checked out the Novotel and also the Taj Gateway and mailed the much negotiated deals of both the properties.

The Taj Gateway offer was way better than the Novotel considering both are beach front properties next to each other. We settled for Taj as suggested by Srini and he promised to pick us from the airport.

All of us were looking for a break from our daily uneventful life but for me the biggest worry was walking Rolf in my absence, even for just two days. The professional walker called Ishwar whom I had engaged earlier called to express his inability due to his sister’s engagement ceremony at their village. Thereafter, I spoke to the guy who washes the cars (including ours) in the housing complex and does walk some of the dogs in the evening. He was reluctant for the morning walks as he said there are over 40 cars that need washing up before they go out but eventually agreed to take out 30 minutes and walk Rolf. Just to be sure of his commitment I asked him to start a day before we are to leave. And as I had premonition, the guy did not turn up and his mobile was switched off!!! This reaffirmed my view that most of these local guys not trustworthy. These guys simply do not live up to their commitments and will invariably ditch you at the last moment. Luckily, our housekeeper stepped in and ended our misery saying that she will take Rolf out in our absence. In the morning of our departure, I took out Rolf for walk reducing her load a little.

Our flight from Hyderabad was at 11 am while Ayush’s flight from Bengaluru was scheduled around 12:30 pm. The flight was uneventful and we landed in Vizag on schedule at 12:30 pm. Srini along with his son was there to pick us up as promised. The drive from airport to the hotel took about 40 minutes not because of the distance but for the traffic congestions.

Taj Gateway and Novotel are adjacent properties separated by a road and owned by the same person but managed by two different hospitality chains. Novotel, comparatively is a newer property but Taj has a old world charm about it. We were checked into the Premier Room for the first night as the Suite was not available that night. There was a big surprise for us as we entered the room; it was all decked up with heart shaped balloons fit for a honeymooning couple. There was a complimentary Cake along with the fruit basket. This was all the handiwork of Srini and we were thankful to him for making our 28th anniversary memorable.

Ayush was expected to land around 2 pm and I had asked him to take Ola or Uber cabs to reach the hotel but again Srini insisted that he will send the car with driver to pick him up. He would simply not listen and said that the car will remain at the hotel and as per the itinerary we will see the Kursura Submarine Museum and the Kali Temple before going to his home to meet up with his family. Later, the car would take us to the Kailasagiri and finally to the Greenpark hotel for dinner.

We were starving but waited for Ayush to come and then went down to the Coffee Shop and had a light lunch. By the time we finished our lunch it was almost 5 pm, so we rushed to finish our tour for the day. The first place was the Kali Mandir, next to Ramkrishna Ashram; since I do not visit any religious place of worship and Ayush too has taken that path, we stayed out while Deepika went inside. We took up the opportunity to pick up a bottle of whiskey from a shop about 100 meters away. The next stop was the Kursura Submarine Museum. It’s a Russian built vintage submarine commissioned in Indian Navy way back in 1969 and had seen actions in 1971 war. It was decommissioned in 2001 and thereafter it was converted into a museum and placed at R K Beach, Visakhapatnam. Looking at the space inside, I wondered, this being Russian make how those guys (being much bulkier than Indians) could move around!! However, it was an amazing experience being in submarine, albeit on the land and not under the water!!

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INS Kursura (S20) was a Kalvari-class diesel-electric submarine of the Indian Navy. She was India’s fifth submarine. Kursura was commissioned on 18 December 1969 and was decommissioned on 27 February 2001 after 31 years of service. She participated in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, where she played a key role in patrol missions. She later participated in naval exercises with other nations and made many goodwill visits to other countries.

After decommissioning, she was preserved as a museum for public access on RK beach in Visakhapatnam. Kursura has the distinction of being one of the very few submarine museums to retain originality and has been called a “must-visit destination” of Visakhapatnam. Despite being a decommissioned submarine, she still receives the navy’s “Dressing Ship” honour, which is usually awarded only to active ships.

Kursura has a length of 91.3 m (300 ft) overall, a beam of 7.5 m (25 ft) and a draught of 6 m (20 ft). She displaces 1,950 t (1,919 long tons) surfaced, 2,475 t (2,436 long tons) submerged and has a maximum diving depth of 985 ft (300 m). The complement is about 75, including 8 officers and 67 sailors.

The submarine has three shafts, each with a six-blade propeller. She is powered by three Kolomna 2D42M diesel engines, each with 2,000 horsepower (1,500 kW). She also has three electric motors, two of them with 1,350 hp (1,010 kW) and one with 2,700 hp (2,000 kW). She can achieve a maximum speed of 16 knots (30 km/h) when on surface, 15 knots (28 km/h) when submerged and 9 knots (17 km/h) while snorkeling. She has a range of 20,000 mi (32,000 km) at 8 kn (15 km/h; 9.2 mph) when surfaced and 380 mi (610 km) at 10 kn (19 km/h; 12 mph) when submerged. There are 10 torpedo tubes to carry 22 Type 53 torpedoes. She could lay 44 mines instead of torpedoes. She also had a snoop tray and I-Band radar for surface search.

After decommissioning, the ship was towed to RK Beach in Visakhapatnam and was established as a museum ship, which is the first submarine museum in South Asia. The idea of the boat’s conversion to a museum is credited to Admiral V Pasricha. Towing the submarine 600 metres to its final location took 18 months and cost ₹ 55 million. It was inaugurated by the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh Chandrababu Naidu on 9 August 2002, and it was open to the public from 24 August 2002. Six retired naval personnel serve as guides and another one as the curator. Kursura has the distinction of being one of the very few submarine museums to retain originality. She has become a famous tourist attraction of the city and has become a “must-visit destination” of Visakhapatnam.Daily visitors usually range between 500 and 600 and shoot up to 1,500 during the tourist season.

[Source: Wikipedia]

Our next stop was Srini’s home close to the Kailasagiri Hills. His apartment was on the second floor, a decent sized property, sparsely but elegantly done up. It immediately reminded me of some of the households that I have visited in Kolkata and other places in Bengal, there is no pretence here and atmosphere is always very warm. We had met his son earlier and now met his mother and wife too. His mother was a teacher in school and her subject used to be Hindi. While his wife worked in the administrative section (head) in a big chain school and worked practically 7 days a week. The son had just completed CA Inter while doing his graduation in Commerce alongside. I also got to know that Srini is a certified Cost Accountant and Company Secretary. He had also completed his CA Inter and the father-son duo plans to become Chartered Accountants, together. Bravo and all the very best wishes for them.

We just had our lunch and were quite full but still had some home cooked snacks and coffee before leaving for Kailasagiri. Srini instructed the driver to take us to the Greenpark Hotel afterwards where he would join us for dinner.

Kailasagiri is a hilltop park in the city of Visakhapatnam in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The park was developed by the Visakhapatnam Metropolitan Region Development Authority (VMRDA) and comprises 380 acres of land covered with flora and tropical trees. The hill, at 173 metres (568 ft), overlooks the city of Visakhapatnam.

The Government of Andhra Pradesh awarded Kailasagiri as its “Best Tourist Spot” in 2003. On average, around three hundred thousand Indian and foreign tourists visit the park every year. To protect the environment, VMRDA has declared the hill a plastic-free zone. A cable car connects to the top of the hill, the first of its kind in Andhra Pradesh.

[Source: Wikipedia]

Though there was a rope-way to reach the top of the hill, we went up by road as it was getting dark. There was a huge statue of Shiva-Parvati which is a great tourist attraction even at night and with lights focused on the statue making it surreal. There is a walkway around the park but not well lit for a night walk and there were real possibilities of encountering few slithering varieties in this rainy season. We took some pictures of the city bellow from the viewing gallery which provided panoramic view and looked around the place which had a cafeteria serving snacks and beverages. What surprised me is number of Bong tourist there speaking loudly and creating a ruckus.

When we reached Greenpark hotel there was no sign of Srini and when Deepika called him up, he said that it will take them about half hour to reach and meanwhile we should go to the restaurant and have the starters as he had already made the reservation.

We went to the Indian Speciality Restaurant called R & G and sure enough there was a table reserved for us. R & G serves buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner. The service concept is quite similar to BBQ Nation with the exception that they don’t have live grill on the table for the starters but serve them piping hot from the kitchen that’s separated by a glass enclosure. We ordered our drinks and the snacks started ‘flying’ in to our table literally and we had to tell them to slow down as other members are yet join us. In terms of variety it was standard fare of chicken and lamb kebabs, grilled and steamed fish, tandoori prawns and for vegetarians there were Harabhara kebab, tandoori cauliflower, paneer tikka and chilli-potato. However, the taste was lip smacking and beyond our expectations. We were so full with the starters that there was no space for the main course but just to give company to Srini and his family, we got some of the items from the buffet counter to taste which was decent but not as exceptional as the Starters. The dessert counter had gulab jamun, jalebi with rabri and ice cream besides different flavors of Kulfi.

Later, Srini dropped us at the hotel and reconfirmed the details of the cab and of the driver who would take us to the Borra Caves, the next day.

As usual, I was awake around 5 am well before the alarm would buzz. I freshened up and made tea for Deepika and myself. Later, Deepika & I went for a stroll on the beach. I have seen that all beaches just like the mountains look similar from the distance but changes in look and feel as we get closer. The R K Beach was quite different from the beaches of Puri (Odisha) although both are on the eastern coast kissed by the same sea – Bay of Bengal. In Puri, the waves are strong and high even during low tide but here the Bay of Bengal was quiet very unlike its character.

In India, rarely I have seen a clean beach unless it is maintained by a private property (example being Taj Exotica in South Goa). Looking at the littering makes me sad and angry. Why can’t people be sensitive to their surrounding? No amount of Govt Program like Swatchh Bharat will work unless the citizen become sensitive and stop littering. And to think about it, the Vizag municipality has installed litter bins every 100 meters and still the tourists and even locals have thrown empty packs of chips, beverage bottles here and there.

We walked for about half hour and then came back to get ready for breakfast. Ayush had woken up and to our surprise bathed and ready to move. We quickly bathed and went down to the Coffee Shop for breakfast. We also packed up our bags as the hotel was upgrading us to a suite. The driver of our cab called up to inform that he was waiting at the hotel parking. For a change he spoke in Hindi with clear diction. Yesterday, we had a tough time communicating with Srini’s driver who could hardly speak or understand any other language other than Telugu.

After a sumptuous buffet breakfast (the best part of staying in a starred hotel), we left for Borra Caves and if time and weather permitted, the Araku Valley Coffee Plantation as well. The driver informed that the distance was about 100 km and would take approx 3 hours to reach.

The Borra Caves, also called Borra Guhalu, are located on the East Coast of India, in the Ananthagiri hills of the Araku Valley (with hill ranges’ elevation varying from 800 to 1,300 m (2,600 to 4,300 ft)) of the Visakhapatnam district in Andhra Pradesh. The caves, one of the largest in the country, at an elevation of about 705 m (2,313 ft), distinctly exhibit a variety of speleothems ranging in size and irregularly shaped stalactites and stalagmites. The caves are basically karstic limestone structures extending to a depth of 80 m (260 ft), and are considered the deepest caves in India. The native name for the caves is Borra Guhalu. Borra means hole in Odia language and guhalu means caves in Telugu language). The caves were discovered in 1807, by William King George of the Geological Survey of India.

On the discovery of the caves, there are several legends, which the tribals (Jatapu, Porja, Kondadora, Nookadora, valmiki etc.) who inhabit the villages around the caves narrate. The popular legend is that a cow, grazing on the top of the caves, dropped 60 m (200 ft) through a hole in the roof. The cowherd while searching for the cow came across the caves. He found a stone inside the cave that resembled a Lingam, which he interpreted as the Lord Shiva who protected the cow. The village folk who heard the story believed it and since then they have built a small temple for Lord Shiva outside the cave. People flock to the temple for worship and the cave to get a glimpse of the Lingam.

Another lyrical legend is that the Shiva Lingam representing the Hindu God Lord Shiva, is found deep in the caves and above which is a stone formation of a cow (Sanskrit: Kamadhenu). It is surmised that the udder of this cow is the source of the Gosthani (Sanskrit: Cow’s udder) River which originates from here, flows through Vizianagram and Visakhapatnam districts before emptying into the Bay of Bengal near Bheemunipatnam.

The Gosthani River, which originates from these caves and flows between the solidified stalactites and stalagmites in the karstic limestones formation, is the cause for the development of the odd shapes of structures. Water percolating from the roof of the caves dissolves limestone and trickle drop by drop to form stalactites at the roof of the cave and then dripping down to the ground form stalagmites. These deposits have developed into interesting forms and structures inside the caves such as Shiva–Parvati, Mother–Child, Rishi’s beard, human brain, mushrooms, crocodile, temple, church, etc. These shapes have captured the imagination of tourists, while some have been given religious interpretations.

The caves are deep and totally aphotic. There is an area in the caves with limited light penetration. The stalactites seen in the caves are about 0.1 to 3.5 m (0.3 to 11.5 ft) in length while the stalagmites are 1.2 m (3.9 ft) long and columns are 6 m (20 ft) in height and 0.75 m (2.5 ft) in width. The height of the cave is 12 m (39 ft) and the length is about 200 m (660 ft). The average temperature of the inner cave wall is reported to be about 16 °C (61 °F). Sulfur springs discharge into the cave passages causing corrosion of limestone. While the caves are basically limestone formations, the area surrounding these are of mica formations which are prospected for precious stones like rubies.

Archeological artifacts (Paleolithic implements) have been found in the caves. The excavations carried out in the caves by the archaeologists of the Andhra University, have unearthed stone tools of middle Paleolithic culture dating back 30,000 to 50,000 years, which confirm human habitation.

The fauna observed in the caves are predominantly bats, as well as the golden gecko. The type of bat reported is the fulvous fruit bat (Rousettus leschenaultii) – a species which roosts in large caves, old buildings, dungeons and dark areas of old forts. This species has short and slender musculature with large, well developed eyes. They feed on flowers and fruits, like jamun, guava, silk, cotton and mango.

[Source: Wikipedia]

The drive from Vizag to Borra Caves is mostly through hilly roads with nature creating the scenic beauty all around. Moreover, it being monsoon season, the greenery was abounded and the rain water created seasonal waterfalls all along the way. We took some photographs only to realize that what we can see through our naked eyes – the 3-D views, the camera lenses can’t see or differentiate and the ethereal beauty of the nature can only be seen and not captured.

We came across the AP Tourism resort called Jungle Bells and stopped to freshen up and stretch our legs. We also decided to have our lunch there on our return. As we started from Jungle Bells a light drizzle started and became our company all through our drive to Borra Caves.

The driver suggested that we should taste the famous Bamboo Chicken of Araku Valley and we readily agreed. We paid Rs.100/- as advance for half kilo of chicken (Rs.300/- for 500 gm is a bit steep). The process of cooking is innovative, there’s no oil involved; the chicken is marinated in spices and inserted in a bamboo tube adding little water before sealing it. The bamboo pipe is then put on an open charcoal fire which cooks the chicken slowly but surely. We had asked for medium spicy knowing the locals prefer fiery stuff. The final product was well cooked, flavorsome and delicious. I never had such succulent melt in-the-mouth chicken.

We engaged the services of a guide who I found to be reeking of alcohol smell and whose diction suggested that he was from the neighboring state of Odisha. I was proved correct. Getting into the cave involved going down a staircase which I estimated must have more than 100 steps and was a bit worried at the prospect of climbing up while returning. But the lure of getting into a cave was just too much so we followed the guide as he kept showing us the stalagmites and stalactites and narrating stories some of which, I am sure is just his imaginations. The guy had limited rote knowledge which he kept repeating. In the darkness of the cave, he showed us some formation using his torch which he claimed are husband-wife, mother-n-child, lion and eagle face. The one which he claimed to be Shiva-Parvati, was a huge attraction of the tourist and some enterprising guy had created a small enclosure near it with a Shiva-Lingam and pictures of gods where people willingly donated money, Deepika included.

The return, as expected was really grueling for middle aged people like us and it took some time to reach the top with couple of resting periods at the landings while Ayush could climb up with ease and waited for us smiling at our predicament. The intensity of the drizzle had increased by the time we finished our Bamboo Chicken making us abandon the idea of going further to Araku Valley of Coffee Plantation and we decided to return to Vizag.

We stopped at the Jungle Bells for lunch. When asked what’s fresh in the menu, the manager cum steward cum cashier said everything is fresh explaining that whatever we order will be cooked then n there accordingly (custom cooking). There was no chapatti/ roti available so we ordered for egg curry (safe option), karahi paneer, dal-tadka and one each of veg & egg fried-rice. The food was not only fresh but aromatic and tasty as well and it was consumed very quickly.

The driver estimated our ETA at the hotel to be 7pm and true to his estimate he dropped us at 6:45 pm but before that he took a detour to show us a coffee plantation near the Borra Caves where we had freshly brewed coffee and picked up some locally grown spices. On the way while we had stopped at the traffic signal in Vizag, we saw a bunch of houses which were painted in bright vibrant colors. The driver informed that the name of the colony is Hanuman Waka and every house in that colony is painted in bright vibrant colors just like some Spanish and Italian villages. I don’t know how it will feel in high summers but under an overcast sky, it was looking fabulous.

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The hotel had moved us to the suite which had living/ dining room with a balcony that provided 180 degree view of the sea and a spacious bedroom. There was a fruit basket and a platter of chocolates and the latter was consumed immediately.

We sat down in the living area for a couple of drinks before heading for dinner to Ming Garden, the Chinese & Oriental restaurant of Taj Gateway Hotels. The dinner was a treat from Ayush on our anniversary and we loved it. The television was showing India-Afghanistan cricket match (ICC-CWC 2019). India having decided to bat first was expected to score at least 350+ runs against the lowly ranked opponent but the Afghans had other plans and India ended up with a paltry score of 224 runs in 50 over’s. There was a real possibility that Afghans will create an upset when they started off well but the Indian bowlers kept taking wickets at regular interval and the poor Afghans folded up 12 runs short of the target.

On the final day (or rather morning) of our stay in Vizag, Srini came around 6:30 am to take us to explore the beaches of Vizag. The first stop was Yarada Beach which also famously called Sunrise Point as you can get a brilliant view of the sunrise on the distant horizon. We also had coffee from Araku valley and it was one the best south India filter coffee I have ever tasted. Thereafter, we drove down to Rishikonda beach which was perhaps the cleanest beach in Vizag.

We asked Srini to join us for breakfast but he politely declined saying that he had already promised his son to take him to his favorite restaurant for breakfast. He said or rather insisted that he will come around noon to drop us at the airport but as it unfolded later, the hotel had a complimentary drop to the airport and we readily took that option, saving him unnecessary driving and allowing him to spend some quality time with family in his short visit.

Vizag Airport is quite small but clean. We had reached quite early because Ayush’s flight was 30 minutes before ours. He was flying Indigo and got his boarding card immediately but we had to wait for another half hour for Spicejet counter to open. And then I realized that in order to keep our flight times close to each other, I had booked our flight in a smaller aircraft (ATR-Bombardier). I am very apprehensive about flying in small aircrafts having had some turbulent experience earlier. But to my great relief the Captain of the flight superbly maneuvered both the take off and touchdown later.

In many years, this was the first vacation which we took up alone otherwise mostly we have had the company of Basu’s (our dear friends) and we did miss them.

Bengaluru 572 km

Once in a while, a place leaves its imagery deeply rooted in the memory not because of the scenic beauty but for the company you had while visiting that place! The recent year-end weekend visit to Bangalore can be classified as one; there’s not much touristy place within the city to visit so if you do not have the right company, you can be bored to death.

It was a spur of the moment decision to drive down to Bengaluru taking along Rolf and our housekeeper. Rolf’s walker (in my absence), Priyanka was on vacation so it was evident that we need to take him wherever we decide to go and the Halcyon Condominium in Koramangala, Bengaluru  its pet friendly policies was the obvious choice. And the place was close to 100 ft. Road, Indira Nagar where Ayush stays. I booked a 2-bedroom apartment for our stay through Trivago.com for 2 nights but eventually stayed on for the third night as well.

We had planned to start early around 6 am but managed to start half hour late at 6:30 am. Google Map suggested the road to be (almost) straight down from Hyderabad to Bengaluru. My friend Swathi just a few days before told me that the roads are good and one can do the 550km stretch in 6 hours but once you enter the city of Bengaluru, you are at the mercy of the snail-paced traffic. I have the experience of driving on the other part of NH44 which is one the fine highways, particularly the southern sector. The road to Bengaluru was no different and with light early morning traffic, we could cruise at the max allowed speed and had covered 150+ km by 8:30 am when stopped at the food plaza for a cup of coffee and some snacks. The drive was eventless with another stop to let Rolf as well as me to stretch our legs and by 12:30 we were within 100km of Bengaluru. At exactly 2pm we hit the toll gate just after the Kempegowda Airport on the left. Being year-end and Saturday, the traffic was thinner compared to other days and with the guidance of Google Map we first went to Indira Nagar 100ft Road to meet Ayush and also feed Rolf who hadn’t had anything to eat but just water to keep him hydrated. Ayush arranged some Adrak-Chai which tasted very nice and the tiredness of drive drained out immediately.

100ft road
100 ft Road at night

Ayush had planned a treat for us in the evening to celebrate his promotion to the next level and we decided to meet up at his place again after checking in at Halcyon Condominium in Koramangala. Ayush warned me not to follow Google Map completely as it would take a very narrow but shorter route and instead go further and take the left turn at “Sony Crossing” and again a left turn on 5th Main Road.

As we were standing at the signal of 5th Main Road for left turn, Deepika suggested that the left turn is free as 2 motorcyclists took the turn; following her advice I took the turn just to land in the net of Bengaluru Traffic Police!! Deepika (feeling guilty) pleaded with the Inspector that we were new to the city having just entered and did not realize that left turn wasn’t free. Initially, the inspector was adamant on issuing the challan but I guess the presence of Rolf in the car convinced him that we are telling the truth and he allowed us to go with the advice to be careful next time.

Halcyon Condominium is more like a Serviced Apartment but has 24 hours room service and a restaurant besides conference hall and gymnasium. There are 130 dwelling units spreading through five floors. We were given a 2 bedroom apartment on the third floor (#317 & 318) with a living room, kitchen and balcony. It was ideal for Rolf as it was for us.  I would recommend Halcyon Condominiums for its clean rooms, excellent service and courteous staff; the only grey spot was the bed in our room which had a spring mattress and perhaps being aged would invariably plunge deep which was a bit uncomfortable. They need to change the mattress forthwith.

We had decided to gift something of value to Ayush for his first career promotion and after much prodding as to what he would like to have, he reluctantly asked for a wireless headphones for his gym sessions. The Bose outlet was in Forum Mall in Koramangala, so we asked him to come over to Halcyon and then we can go there to check the options and buy it for him. It is really amazing that Bose has so many state of the art product which one would like to acquire and based on the quality, the prices seems justified. Ayush decided on a in-ear pods and delightfully it was on discount so we promptly bought it. The Mall was packed with people, it being a Saturday and on top of it year-end; everyone was in a celebratory mood. We left for Ayush’s home for a drink before going out for dinner.

In the evening at Ayush’s apartment, the father-son had Jameson Irish whiskey and then went to Toast & Tonic at Richmond Road, Bengaluru where Ayush had booked a table for 3 of us for the treat for his promotion. Toast & Tonic is a casual bar serving international gastropub cuisine and mixing classic cocktails with their own special twist. The place was small with about less than 50 covers but full house. Since Ayush had been there earlier on few occasion, we let him decide on the food and drinks. Deepika had slight cold n cough so she settled for hot brandy concoction and I had a Gin-Tonic in which the tonic water was in-house creation with orange-lime infusion. The food was delicious and the service above par. The evening was memorable and paved way for the delightful days ahead. Ayush had insisted that I do not drive in the city as the cops are always on the prowl to catch the drivers with alcohol (even the minimal). And if you don’t speak the local language, then the harassment is even more. The Uber-Ola services on non-rainy days are good and one could get a cab even at mid-night. I was not in a mood to drive through the heavy city traffic, so we took an Uber till Koramangala and then Ayush took the same cab to his home in Indira Nagar.

We had asked Ayush to join us for breakfast but he declined as he had his gym session in the morning which he did not want to miss. He has been on a mission to lose weight and flab for over a year now and the results are quite visible. We had a leisurely breakfast at the dining room; the buffet spread was not extravagant but decent and included both North Indian and South Indian options besides Continental.

Post breakfast we had a power nap and were ready by the time Ayush came over around noon. My nephew (brother’s son) Aditya is also in Bengaluru and we decided to have lunch together. But before that Ayush wanted to get a suit stitched for the upcoming wedding of his cousin (my niece) in February, so we went back to Indira Nagar 100ft Road which has all the stores lined up right from clothings to eatery, a very happening street!! We decided to go to the Raymond store as it is well known for quality material and also has tailoring service.

By the time we were done at Raymond shop, Aditya called up to say that he will pick us up. We went to Toit – it is a Bangalore based brewpub that promises quality brews, fabulous food and a supreme brew-pub experience. It is huge place with more than 150 covers spread over 2-3 floors.  We tried out 2 different brews of beer and I had Toit Beef burger, Ayush & Aditya shared a Pepperoni Pizza and Deepika had veg Moussaka. The food was good with large enough portion/ size but the beer was really superb.

Deepika had to meet a friend of hers so we came back to Halcyon and Ayush said he’ll join us later in the evening for our dinner date with another friend of Deepika. I thought of taking a power nap to get myself ready for the evening but it was past 5 pm when reached and thereafter taking Rolf for his evening walk through the busy street was a task in itself. Rolf had his fair share of admirers and he enjoyed all the attention and petting by complete strangers and also let them take his pictures!!

Moushumi, Deepika’s friend had called us over to her home for drinks n dinner; initially she had planned to cook herself but as she was getting the apartment painted and blokes painting it had extended their target date, she decided to make only the appetizers to go with the drinks and took us to Broadway The Gourmet Theatre in HSR Layout. The restaurant is located on the fourth floor of a building and offers comfortable seating. There’s also an al fresco section in the form of a big balcony. Plus a separate section for teppanyaki. Steps will lead you to the rooftop, which has also been set up with long picnic tables and a wall full of green potted plants for larger groups and parties. The ideal place to seat is in the balcony especially if you are heading here for dinner, because the night view of the cityscape is pretty nice with twinkling lights. However, the ladies were not up to the nice chilly breeze, so we settled for a table inside but close to the balcony so that whenever the door was opened, we could get the whiff of the chilly air. Though, I was feeling quite full with plateful of garlic prawns at her home, I ordered for a pork dish which I found a bit tough (read well done) but tasted good. Moushumi had ordered for a lamb dish but changed her mind for Shushi. So I ended up tasting the lamb with tanduri roti; the lamb was nice, soft and succulent. Ayush had a version of risotto and Deepika had a mixed vegetable curry with roti. Overall, the evening was a relaxing and we thoroughly enjoyed the great company of Moushumi who narrated many interesting anecdotes about people whom she and Deepika knew from their Amex days.

Our plan was to check out on 31st after breakfast to reach Hyderabad by evening but we decided to stay on for a family time on the last day of the year.

Ayush suggested we go to UB City Mall where there are many options for lunch on the terraces; we asked Moushumi to join us as well and she said that she will pick us up from Halcyon which is close to her home. The UB City is perhaps one of the oldest Mall and boasted of having the high-end brands from across the globe. The escalator takes you to the terrace at the level-2 which had multiple restaurants and cafes. We decided on Farzi Café, having tried their unique take on the Indian and Mediterranean dishes at their Cyber Hub, Gurugram outlet earlier. We had Edamame Hummus with Kori Roti Crisp, Bombay Bhel, Tanduri Bacon Prawns and of course their house beer. The food was at best very average, nothing compared to their NCR outlets (Connaught Place or Gurugram).

Deepika and Moushumi went for shopping and we came back to Halcyon to take Rolf out for his evening walk. Thereafter, Ayush & I went to Indira Nagar to pick up a decent Single Malt to celebrate the NYE and also buy him a pair of jeans from Levi’s as most of his jeans had become a tad too large post his weight loss. The 100ft Road was in a celebratory mood and most shops were closing down to let their employees enjoy the evening. Aditya had offered us two couple passes at a restaurant in Koramangala but none of wanted to spend the evening among strangers with loud music running where one can’t even listen to one’s own voice; instead we decided to have quite family time. We decided to order food in the room although there was a NYE party happening at Halcyon and the organizers requested us to join them but we politely declined.

After many years we really had a family time on NYE as most of the previous years we were either at some friends place or have friends come over to our place in Delhi. It used to be fun filled games and gastronomic evenings. But this time we just kept talking about how was the year gone by and what are the aspirations for the coming year. The time flew by and we suddenly realized it is midnight and the New Year 2019 rolled in with a hope of prosperity, both intellectual and materialistic.

We asked Ayush to stay over and that I will drop him in the morning on our way back to Hyderabad but he said it would be out of the way and took Uber to go home.

We left for Hyderabad around 7 am and reached home at 2:45 pm with one halt for breakfast and another one at Café Coffee Day as I was feeling very sleepy and needed some caffeine to stay alert on the highway.

I do not know and neither wants to know what’s in store for us in 2019 but instead would like to go with the flow and let whatever happens, happen. Cheers!!!

8700 Hours & Counting

It is now almost a year that we moved to Hyderabad and I guess I can now reflect back to the circa 2018. The year has been euphoric, eventful and exhausting, all at the same time.

The first three months flew by in a jiffy or it seemed so as we were getting used to staying outside Delhi for the first time since our birth. We were getting to know the neighborhood, tasting the famed Hydrabadi Biriyanis and other delicacies, getting lost in the maze of Hydrabadi streets while exploring only to be rescued by Google Map.

First we had a three-way birthday celebrations of mine, my wife’s and bro-in-law and we turned into tourist to explore the city, visiting the Charminar, Hussain Sagar and Golkonda Fort. We had Biriyani at the famed Sadaab Hotel near the Charminar. We celebrated the triple birthdays at the Fisherman’s Wharf, a seafood fine dining restaurant situated in the Financial District.

The second event was a mini reunion of friends in Puri, Odissa. My childhood friend Soni had opened his hotel and invited all the classmates over but only few of us could make it. #Please see PuriJatra at aranyascope.com.  After having a fabulous weekend with friends it was back to the routine.

By the end of third month in Hyderabad, I had tried all the famed Biriyani’s viz. Shah Ghouse, Pista House, Paradise, Behrouz, Bawarchi and Four Seasons. Also tried their kebabs and curries; the only lingering taste that remains is the hot spices. Among all these, Shah Ghouse stands out as the most aromatic and less spicy which is what I prefer in my Biriyani.

In mid April I had a short visit to Delhi to attend a wedding and after I came back things took a different turn. Deepika’s office got relocated to Hafeezpet from DLF Gachibowli and we came to know the real Hydrabadi traffic, a mere 7.5 km stretch takes 35-40 minutes between 9am to 11pm slot. I have come to realize that the kings of Hyderabad Roads are the two wheelers followed by the three wheelers. The two wheelers outnumber the cars in the ratio of 5:1 at least if not more and irrespective of who is driving – male or female; their dare devilry is jaw dropping. The 2-wheelers on Hyderabad roads are like cockroaches coming out from the drain, moving haphazardly without caring for the others or even themselves. Many a times, waiting at the traffic signal, I had wondered, if the citizens of the country are so undisciplined in following the traffic rules how will the country be disciplined in more complex things like honesty in financial dealings, inter-personal relations and even in politics!!! 

On the positive side, this maddening traffic has made me patient while driving. Initially, I had thrown few expletives at the erring and scurrying drivers but perhaps they neither understood the Delhiwala language nor cared. After driving scratch-free for full five months, on 1st June while listening to Rabindrasangeet to sooth my nerves and waiting for the signal to turn green I was nudged to reality when a brand new Swift Dezire tried to squeeze through a non-existing passage between my car and the motorcycles on the right, to make its mark on the rear door of my car. I was expecting a “sorry” from the occupant of Dezire but no such luck; it simply sped away as soon as it could maneuver its way through the traffic. And I realized, it is the norm in Hyderabad roads, the traffic neither cares for your expletives nor the sorry, they simply move on… perhaps considering the roads as their ancestral property.

When the summer came, it was very different from what I am used to in Delhi. The heat wasn’t intense like Delhi but very sultry during the day but the late evenings were enjoyable with cool breeze flowing in from the lakes around the surrounding area. The summer in Hyderabad is not a prolonged affair like Delhi; it quickly gives away to the monsoon. I found the Hyderabad weather pretty funny because on some days, the sky would be filled with dark black clouds ominous of imminent rains but within the hour it would clear up and on other occasion, it would start raining without a warning. The rainy days were particularly very trying for Rolf who hates wet surfaces and it became a real task to take him out for a walk. In Hyderabad, the peripheral roads running through the colony doesn’t have a raised footpath, instead it has a red sand patch on the sides that works both for pedestrian movement as well as parking of the vehicle. And during monsoon, these sidewalks become so messy that there is no alternative but walk on the concrete road dodging the traffic.  

Deepika had been complaining about health issues and from mid-May onwards, every weekend or the alternate weekend, our days would start with a visit to the doctor. She would complain of stomach ache every other day and the GP whom we were consulting suggested we consult a specialist. We went to Apollo Spectra Hospital for a thorough check-up as it was well known for having highly qualified doctors. She was diagnosed with gastroenteritis by the doctor from the ultrasound report. Accordingly, he prescribed the medication but emphasized on the diet and regularity of taking ones food. He also suggested her to relax and not take unnecessary stress at the work place but it was easier said than done in this modern day corporate culture.

She would be fine while the medication was on but would again complain of stomach ache when the doses got over. The ultrasound at the hospital had shown up minor ulcers on the stomach lining which is normal but I had my reservations about their radiology, as waiting outside the room I could see the turnaround of the patients in quick succession (10-15 minutes each) and to the best of my knowledge it takes about 20-25 minutes normally and even more if the radiologist suspect abnormality. It would be another two months in another city, another hospital where the correct diagnosis and treatment would alleviate her pains.

The spicy food and stress is a lethal combination for aggravating the hemorrhoids and its consequences. My hemorrhoids started troubling me and I decided to consult the doctor before it turned nightmarish like a few years ago. The doctor suggested immediate surgery and unlike few earlier occasion, this time I agreed to go under the knife to get rid of this recurring issue. The good doctor said that I shall be up and ready for a marathon in just three days. That is nothing but a White Lie to sooth my nerve; it took exactly four weeks to get back to my normal self. We, unlike in Delhi, do not have any support system in Hyderabad but managed to pass through the surgery and post operative weeks in flying colors. My biggest concern was daily walking of Rolf because neither Deepika nor Savita the housekeeper can manage, Rolf needs a firm handler. Priyanka, a sweet girl and a canine behaviorist came in as an angel and took care of Rolf while I recuperated.  

We do Laxmi Puja on the full moon day immediately after the Dusshera with Pandit ji coming and doing the rituals. This has been going on for generations and Deepika was certain that we will go back to Delhi on time to continue with the tradition. After much deliberation, it was decided to go a week before the Durga Puja. Since, Rolf was also going; it was decided to drive the 1600 km distance to Delhi. However, just two weeks before our departure, we had an accident that put a question mark on our plans.

It had rained through the night and continued to drizzle through the morning. The traffic was unusually heavy on the road that I normally take to drop Deepika to her Hafeezpet office. So, she suggested I take the alternate route that the Uber drivers take on many occasion and use the Google Map for convenience. I switched on the Google Map and started following its advice. The route had a very narrow railway underpass and even in normal days it’s always chalk-a-block. That day was no exception; rather the jam extended even more and I kept up with the Pajero in front of me, rolling the car with the flow of traffic. As we reached the mouth of the short underpass, the Pajero went ahead smoothly but my left front wheel hit some obstacle and the engine stopped. There was no time to check then and there, I started the car and reversed a bit to clear the obstacle and as I eased out I realized that the alignment of the car has gone bonkers. Luckily, the Toyota Service centre was on the way back home and I went there after dropping Deepika.

After a thorough check, it was diagnosed that the left arm of the steering assembly has got bent which is non-repairable and needs to be replaced. I got the car serviced the next day as servicing was also due in any case. Thereafter, it was one agonizing week of waiting for the desired auto part to arrive from either Bengaluru (Toyota warehouse) or Chennai (Toyota factory). All’s well that ends well, Kiran Kumar, the service executive at Harsha Toyota, true to his words, arranged the required item within the week and had the car ready for the long drive to Delhi.

While driving down to Hyderabad from Delhi, my car was more of a goods carrier than passenger car, so I put my foot down on the stuff we can carry to Delhi for our 5-week sojourn. Overall, the drive to Delhi was uneventful with few exceptions; Rolf, somehow managed to get hold of his tail in the confined area of the back seat that he had to share with our housekeeper and bitten it bloody. I noticed it when we stopped at GoFlamingo Resort, Pench for lunch. I couldn’t do anything at the spot but fed him Pedigree Chicken chunks and egg along with cold water.

I had booked Pathway Retreat, Sagar (MP) for the night halt, however, when we reached there after getting stuck on the highway NH44 for over an hour due to blockage by the villagers to protest the  death of a motorcyclist in an accident some 5-6 km ahead from our spot, the hotel had the audacity to tell us that they have given away their ONLY ROOM to someone else as we have been late in reaching. This after confirming just day before!! Anyways, I checked on the net and found an area not too far from the highway that has a number of hotels. The first hotel that Deepika checked was not suitable with dirty dingy rooms. Few good ones on the street to our liking was not pet friendly. Finally, we got one that after much prodding by Deepika agreed to accommodate Rolf in the room with a condition that he won’t bark at night. I was relieved as I knew Rolf doesn’t bark unnecessarily like other dogs. So, I told them that the room service guys should gently tap the door in order not to agitate him. We ordered plain rice for Rolf and roti-sabji for us. I mixed the rice with the packed chicken chunks for Rolf which he finished quickly and found a place to rest. Driving over 900km was tiring so immediately after dinner, we retired to bed, for the next day was another 600 plus km drive to final destination.

I must mention here that when we were approaching Sagar, a nuisance in the form of squatting cows slowed us down considerably and this obstruction continued the following day as we traversed through MP-UP-MP-UP till we hit the Yamuna Expressway. Also, a nudge from one of the bovine while passing it damaged the side view mirror as we entered the state of Uttar Pradesh for the first time. I had to fold back the side mirrors and it caused discomfort in driving as I am used to frequently referring to either of them, especially if I have to change the lanes.

In the morning after breakfast I got the med kit from the car and using the bandage and antiseptic cream that the Toyota provides with each car, bandaged Rolf’s tail.

As I started the engine I realized the fuel tank was nearing the ‘empty’ mark. Deepika assured me that we will find the gas station on the highway when I told her that I have seen one which was little ahead of the hotel and a slight detour from our path. However, she insisted we move on and fill up on the highway. I kept an eye on the fuel gauge and started panicking when after driving almost 20-25 km we could not locate any gas station on either side of the road. I thought of turning back to Sagar but Deepika prodded me carry on and she looked up the internet to locate one. It said there’s one just 5 km ahead and we kept a careful watch on either side. Soon we could we see the sign of an Indian Oil Petrol Pump but couldn’t find the way to reach the spot as the highway was elevated road and the station was way below without any clear exit to reach it. Then I saw a tyre repair shop and stopped to check with them. One of the guy suggested that I go on the wrong side for 100 meters and I will find the exit patch to reach the gas station. Much against my sensibilities, I had to take the suggested path and reached the gas station rolling down a muddy path used by all shapes and size of automobiles and bullock carts as well. I got the tank filled to the brim which is actually not recommended specially in the summer months. The fuel lasted us till we reached Greater Noida and could have gone till Delhi but I was did not take that chance.

The drive till Jhansi was smooth barring occasional road blocks by the bovine army that squatted on the roads at will and brought the cruising vehicles to mere rolling in those patches. We saw few martyred bovines that probably stood up to the larger and heavier trucks at night and laid down their lives. Once we crossed Jhansi and on way to Gwalior, the road became bad; this stretch of the highway has been in Work-in-Progress since my first journey last December and hasn’t made much progress as some of it belongs to UP while the other belongs to MP and neither would act. Hopefully, when I make my next road trip to Delhi, this will be completed, fingers crossed!!

The distance to cover from Jhansi to Gwalior was approx 136 km which I would have done in 2.5 hours if the roads were good but it took us almost 4 hours to cross this part and we started feeling hungry once we crossed Gwalior. We were looking for a mid-way retreat kind of place where I can feed Rolf as well but except few Dhabas nothing came up on the horizon and we reached the outskirts of Agra. We had the option at that point to bypass Agra and take NH19 to Mathura-Vrindavan-Faridabad-Delhi or go through the city of Agra and take the Taj Expressway-Yamuna Expressway-Greater Noida-Noida-Delhi. We took the latter option for 2 reasons – (1) although it marginally longer route, once you hit the expressway, it was much faster commute than the other; (2) we were hungry and the Toll Plaza at the Yamuna Expressway had Food Court and ample space to walk n feed Rolf.

Before leaving for Delhi, having fed Rolf as well as ourselves, I called up Rolf’s doctor in Delhi and told him about the problem and that we would reach his clinic latest by 8:30pm; the good doctor promised to keep open his clinic for Rolf. On reaching Greater Noida, I took a small detour towards Pari Chowk to fill up the fuel tank as I knew there won’t be any gas station till I reach South Extension, Delhi. Although, it was Sunday but traffic on the Greater Noida-Noida Expressway was still heavy and I managed to reach the veterinary clinic at East Kidwai Nagar around 8:30 pm as I estimated. The doctor treated his badly bruised tail and found that he has been running high temperature. Rolf was administered injections of antibiotics for his wound and one for the fever. I was advised to take him to the clinic for next 3 days for medication. Following day after his CBC, it was found that he has been suffering from Tick Fever which could have been fatal if we had not taken him to the clinic on time. I was shocked and felt helpless by the mere thought that if hadn’t come to Delhi and Rolf hadn’t bitten his tail and we hadn’t taken him to the vet, we would have lost Rolf as he had not shown any symptom of fever or being unwell. Normally, if he (or any dog) is unwell, the first symptoms are complete refusal of food intake however this time he was having food normally and doing his daily chores as well. Later, I got to know that one dog had died and another one severely affected by Tick Fever in our housing complex in Hyderabad.

Rolf’s doctor informed that a new preventive medicine for Ticks is now available in India but quite expensive @Rs.2000/- per tablet. I immediately asked him to get one for Rolf and he said to give it him once he is completely cured. It is chewable tablet in the size of a chocolate cube and I was apprehensive about him having it voluntarily. I really had to fight with him to make him have oral medicines but this one he simply sniffed and chewed up to a great relief to all of us.

Deepika & I had planned to go Pandal hopping on Durga Ashtami evening but she started complaining severe stomach ache which continued till late into the night despite having medicines. Next day morning, we went to the doctor, a specialist in gastro enteritis’s who after examination said it could be for some other reason and advised us to get a fresh ultra-sound done which we got done at the recommended lab. The result clearly indicated deposition of multiple stones in the gall bladder and it made us wonder at the efficiency of the Radiology Department of Apollo Spectra Hospital, Hyderabad.

The doctor suggested immediate surgery and she got admitted to PSRI Hospital on Saturday and was operated in the afternoon through laparoscopy. After spending the night for post-operative care was released on Sunday evening with advice to take it easy for couple of weeks. However, the workaholic Deepika was back in business on the third day and a week later she traveled back to Hyderabad to attend few meetings.

The renewal of my driving license was one of the task that I had earmarked while in Delhi. I knew my driver’s license was due for renewal in 2018 but was in the impression that the month was November. So, in the first week itself (in October) I took out my driving license and was shocked to see that the “due date” was in March 2018. I have been carrying just a piece of paper all this while and driving not just in Hyderabad but actually drove 1600 km across the country, virtually without a driver’s license. Once you know this fact, it becomes impossible to drive (for a law abiding citizen). Our driver and handyman Guddu Kumar provided the solution with his contact at the Sheikh Sarai RTO. I wanted my DL immediately, so paid a premium and got the renewed one in 3 days flat.

Ayush came over on 31 October and we planned a Diwali Party on Sunday, 4 November calling our friends for a friendly card party. This year for the first time, I did not lose any money in the game of teen patti. And Ayush was the big winner of the season!!

Following the Diwali which we celebrated with the Basu’s at their Gurugram residence, the big event was Bhaiduj when all the siblings gather at our place for a gastronomic pleasure. This year too was no different with Biriyani and Korma from Babu Khan Bawarchi, Matka Pir, New Delhi and other homemade delicacies.

Deepika and Savita, our housekeeper left for Hyderabad on Saturday and Ayush on Sunday. I packed up the house after dropping off Ayush at the airport and was ready for the return journey with Guddu at the wheels, this time.

The drive back to Hyderabad was uneventful but slower than my first trip; I felt, Guddu was not in his element and drove at a sedate pace instead of his hurried nature. We reached our night halt, GoFlamingo Resort, Pench at 10pm, a good 2 hours later than our first trip. Had our dinner and slept early. The following morning, after breakfast, left for the final leg of the journey to Hyderabad. This time I had Reliance Jiofi with me and did not, even for once had any connectivity issue and Google Map guided us to home, NCC Urban, Hyderabad around 4 pm, 2 hours earlier than Google Map forecast!!

A week later, Deepika & I went back to Delhi to attend a family wedding and do some unfinished work. Being a born Delhiite, it is always difficult to say goodbye to the city, despite its shortcomings.

Deepika’s cousin with his wife came over to stay with us in mid-December and once again, we visited the usual tourist points – Charminar, Salarjung and Golconda Fort. We went to Golconda Fort in the evening for the Sound-n-Light show. The first experience was tackling the never ending army of mosquitoes. The organizers unable to eradicate the problem have come out with novel measure of providing the guests with mosquito repellant cream and it worked. There were few glitches in the conduct of the show, viz. sudden loss of sound but overall, it was a good effort. I felt, the content was a bit incomplete with very less information about the early years of the Fort when erstwhile Hindu Rulers had the control of the fort. In a effort to cover up, the content has added few unverifiable stories which are good to hear though.

Thereafter, life has got into the routine and now I look forward to our impending visit to Ayush at Bengaluru for the year ending weekend.