Somewhere down the serpentine labyrinth that is the organization chart of the National Highways Authority of India is a little box that is an offshoot of the Department of Highway Safety. This box is the proud bearer of the title “Couplets and Proverbs Division (L&T K-W)”. It has a single employee, a long-haired, dreamy-eyed, thickly bespectacled youth, the nephew of the Chairman of the Department of Highway Safety (S-India). This young lad, who had been a gentle, sweet-natured child, the kind parents pointed out to their boisterous offspring as a shining example of what they ought to be like, created a major commotion in his family when he declared that he wanted to study Literature in college. He displayed a firmness and refusal to budge from his position that were in complete contrast to the gentle, pliant nature of his early years. His family, peopled thus far exclusively with engineers and doctors, were just recovering from the shock of the renegade’s announcement when he sent them reeling afresh with a further declaration that it was his intention to become a Poet. He would kill himself, he threatened, if anybody tried to prevent him from achieving his goal.
He was ordered by his oldest brother-in-law to find a job for the lad that would somehow redeem the family honor while also ensuring that his threat to kill himself would never come to fruition.
The uncle, tail tucked between his legs, created the Couplets and Proverbs Division. This would be for the section of the Madras-Bangalore highway that came under his purview, that stretched between Walajapet and Krishnagiri. The lad was placed in a windowless office with a copy of a Rhyming Dictionary and a monthly supply of one legal pad and 2 HB Pencils with Rubbers and ordered to produce poetry worthy of the National Highway, that great artery of commerce and tourism, that smooth and shimmery symbol of the shining new India.
And the lad produced. He came up with gems such as these:
Safety gears are placed between ears
Accident brings tears. Safety brings cheers
Road sense is courteous and safe
Not in race
Drive with grace
Drive to care
Not to dare
Safety begins with S
Starts with You
Drive like hell
You will be there
Know safety- no injury
No safety-know injury
Speed ends at cemetery
If you want to stay married,
Always wear helmet
Don't drink and drive
We drove recently, my parents and I, from Madras to Bangalore, to attend the marriage of the daughter of a very dear friend of mine. By the time we set out, well-supplied with the obligatory highway fare of idlis and oranges, Madras was in full morning rush-hour mode. The outer edges of the city were the worst of all with the hundreds of people trying to enter it seemingly all converging and slamming to a total halt at one spot. From afar the jam looked like a barely-moving wall that at close quarters writhed with frantic activity. The traffic crawled all the way to the village of Sriperumbudur with its arch proclaiming it to be the birthplace of the great philosopher Ramanuja. This once-sleepy place that unfortunately acquired notoriety as the place where Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated, has been reborn as an industrial hub with state-of-the-art infrastructure.
We drove past countless engineering colleges. Many of these were grand enough that they could have served as palaces for the royalty of yore. Where do the thousands of engineers that these places churn out end up? And more importantly, how well, and what, are they taught?
A good hour after we left Madras, the traffic eased up and we were on the open highway at last. We saw ample evidence of the Highway Poet’s work. The countryside was lovely with scrub-covered and rock-strewn hills and groves of banana, mango and coconut. We could see the gopurams of Kanchipuram away in the distance, standing tall and proud. It was an awe-inspiring sight, even from that distance, even through the dust and haze. We drove past Dhamal, a non-descript little village that went by in a flash. Oh, but that little place, that blur of trees and huts, that was the ancestral home of one of our greatest musicians, D.K. Pattammal.
It’s funny how hungry one feels on a highway. Our idlis and oranges were long eaten and digested by the time we neared Vellore. We had a very pleasant discussion on what - and where - we should eat. G., our driver, suggested, hopefulness palpable in his voice, that we should try the McDonald’s at Vellore. He was vetoed right away - coming from the Land of McDonald’s that was the last place I wanted to eat in. Saravana Bhavan was considered, and dismissed with utmost reluctance since it involved a lengthy detour. In the end we stopped at a highway stop place about half an hour past Vellore. There was a gas station, a Cafe Coffee Day, and an Arya Bhavan. And super-clean, dry, odorless bathrooms. Yay!
We ate at Arya Bhavan. The food was delicious, the service, friendly and super-efficient. I enjoyed the best yogurt I have ever eaten anywhere. It was made in nearby Kanchipuram. None of the fancy, expensive, organic-happy-pasture-roaming-cow-grass-fed-omega-3-rich yogurts I buy in New York came close to this no-frills cup that called itself, plainly and simply, Curd. There was a tray of freshly-made therittippal that I simply could not resist. My grandmother used to make what must have surely been the world’s best therittippal. The contrasting textures of the crispy, caramelized sugar edges and the milky softness within were to die for. No other therittippals I tasted were anything like my grandmother’s version - they lacked the crispy part, or were cloyingly sweet, or tasted greasy and stale. The one at Arya Bhavan lived up to its irresistible appearance and came close to the taste I cherished and remembered all these years. I was asked to sign a guest book; all entries were in English, and I wondered what purpose it served, this guestbook for a little restaurant off a highway in the middle of nowhere. Perhaps it made them feel connected to a larger world - there were entries by people from around India, all singing the praises of the food and service.
We drove alongside and past clumsily speeding goods lorries, their lumpy loads encased in thick canvas secured with lashings of thick rope that snaked untidily around. Most sported the oddly worded request Horn OK Please, a suggestion acted upon with alacrity and loud enthusiasm by the other automobiles on the highway. Garishly painted monsters grinned at us from the backsides of the lorries, presumably warding off evil and keeping their drivers safe. Diesel-belching buses with grimy, sticky-fingered windows, barrelled down bossily listing at alarming angles, asserting that "might is right" by occupying the dead center of the road. The occasional motorcycle roared past. The slowly plodding bullock carts of my childhood were nowhere to be seen. Both sides of the highway had been dug up; signs proclaiming that “6 laning (or lanning)” was in progress explained why this was the case.
The drive was fast and efficient but large stretches of it lacked the charm of driving through little villages where everyone gathered along the sides of the road and waved to the passing cars, where paddy was strewn across the surface, to be husked by the wheels of passing vehicles, where a drink of refreshing coconut water could be had under the shade of an old banyan tree.
We drove past several toll booths where the passage was smooth and quick. The bathrooms at the toll booths, also maintained by the L&T Krishnagiri-Walajapet Toll Co. were spotless.
At Krishnagiri there was a perceptible slowing down as vehicles struggled up the incline. We spotted several temples on the tops of hills, lovingly maintained, adding beauty to an already beautiful landscape. Now it was onto the final stretch, on NH-7 (now NH-44), past the enormous glass and steel structures of Electronics City and into the dense traffic of the outskirts and city of Bangalore.