Yatra – My India Diary Part 1

By Shyama Parui

By foot, by boat, or by air, humans continue to invent ways of traversing through this planet in an attempt to look beyond their immediate surroundings and explore. Fellow immigrants, isn't the longing for faster, economical travel to and from the land of our birth to the land of our home, tremendous? For decades, airplanes made inter-continental journeys an infinitely better experience than the voyages by sea. What was once an occasion to dress up is now a reason to groan. If I could find a way to skip flying and transport myself magically to India and back, I would have no complaints. Alas, that possibility is currently out of reach.

The search for the right tickets for a family is no mean task. Weighing in the pros and cons of all the prices, routes, layovers, and the “class" left me as confused as I would be while driving in a new city without a GPS. In the past few years, I have sadly noticed the uncaring attitude of airline staff towards the very people who pay to keep them in business. We've heard about the extreme cases of poor passenger treatment. Additionally, tiny details that make airline travel tolerable are slowly but surely being stripped. Last year, on a flight to the Caribbean our family of four was assigned seats in different rows. We were expected to shell out more dollars to seat our underage kids in the same row. To me, that just seemed wrong. Well, things could be worse like our tussle with a well-known online travel agency after being bumped off our domestic flight in India. Apparently, someone with an IP address in Gujarat cancelled our tickets from Jaipur to Udaipur while we were still in the USA. Even though we were unaware and had not authorized the cancellation, we only received a third of the refund and had to part with more dough to purchase new tickets. Go figure!

Navigating Mumbai in local trains could arguably be an easier exercise. Speaking of Mumbai, its roads and rails have split at the seams scattering the people in every direction. The bustling city offers a variety of options to get us where we want to go, but that's not enough. My college commute from the suburbs to South Mumbai's St. Xavier's college was on the efficient and mostly punctual fast trains. After all these years, I fear that my sense of adventure is not strong enough to dare me to set foot on one. My family, however, enjoyed the Metro trains zipping through the city avoiding congested roads and moving uncomfortably close to some residential buildings, offering a fleeting glimpse of lives behind the fluttering curtains. The highways, overflowing with all kinds of objects in motion, have ability to both charm and sicken you. A drive through the Sea-Link and along Marine Drive brings out the beauty of this seaside metropolis.

The suburban streets also bear the weight of around 246,458 autorickshaws. When my kids were younger they would persuade us to skip the car in favor of an auto, rick, or rickshaw. However, a nightmarish experience cured us of our collective three-wheeler crush. After a shopping spree at a mall, we took a “sharing rickshaw" only to panic within a couple of minutes, when the suicidal driver started driving on the opposite side of the road. We found ourselves on a busy road with mammoth BEST buses, trucks, and tempos charging head on. In an attempt to rescue ourselves from this near-death experience, we yelled and ordered him to drive on the “correct" side of the road. I was shocked to see that he was not only unconcerned, but he also tried to assure us that this was something he did every day. “Aap tension mat lo (don't worry about it)," were his exact words in Hindi. How could we stay calm when the driver of the vehicle was either a complete lunatic or Yamaraj, the God of Death in disguise.

While cities like Charlotte are lukewarm in their acceptance of public transit options, most cities and towns in India will embrace any and all forms of transport, out of need to support their burgeoning population of commuters. I see Kolkata as a case in point where you can spot the distinctive yellow Ambassador cars from the 1950's that still serve as taxis along with Uber and Ola cabs. Nearby towns in Howrah appear equally busy with everyone from school kids riding bicycles with oversized bookbags to businessmen in SUVs, jostling for space on the narrow lanes.

During my two-day visit to the place of my ancestors, I tried to imagine what life was like a few generations ago in rural Bengal. I wondered what my life would have been like if my grandfather had not moved to a big city to try his luck along with his entrepreneurial skills. It was heartening to see better connected roadways despite the deafening noise levels, although a part of me was sad to observe the diminishing greenery. What was once a lowland had been converted to space for a future high rise. Homes from yesteryears still stand devoid of any signs of life with the exception of brightly colored clothes hanging to dry in the harsh sun. These mansions might soon be razed to the ground to pave way for new developments.

Just as the journey can be more interesting than the destination, I found that in Rajasthan, the vehicle of choice can be a tad more appealing than the tourist attraction. Our very first elephant ride near Amber Fort made me dream that I was royalty parading through the kingdom. My imagination failed me as soon as the elephant turned to the narrow lanes that screamed for help, desperately in need of a clean sweep. By contrast, Udaipur's rich history and architectural marvels come to life while cruising on Lake Pichola and Fatehpur Sagar. Spotlights on the glorious City Palace and Lake Palace with their shimmering reflection in the water, cast a romantic glow even when overcast skies hide the golden hues of the evening Sun.

So, the next time you find yourself on an electric toto, bus, or a different vehicle of choice in any part of the world, try to find its hidden story.


Shyama is a long time North Carolina resident and an ardent writer. You can reach her at: shyamashree_parui@hotmail.com