A 1,700 km road trip by a time-worn Maruti 800 was a journey unto self — an escape from the maddening crowd of a metropolis
This year too, Jan Peters of Greifswald in Germany, who I accuse of being a serious practitioner of logic, was my travel partner. We have, in the past, travelled together extensively in Europe more than half dozen times. We are vagabonds unleashed on the continental European, who go about visiting places, where car becomes our home on wheels and journey the destination. We are brothers on the road.
During summers, we travel in Europe, and in winters, every other year, in India. At the end of last year, we travelled 1,700 km in my Maruti 800. It’s a basic, reliable 10year-old car — with a penchant to do an arduous journey with ease.
Lodged in history
We set out two days before Christmas to Fatehpur Sikri from our Noida house. The sun was setting behind the fort when we arrived. We stayed at the oldest living house in India. This stone house is adjacent to the walled complex that houses the dargah of Sufi sage, Salim Chisti and has a grand entrance— Buland Darwaza—the largest gateway in India.
The stone house was the home to the Sufi sage Hazarat Salim Chishti, who was the spiritual guru of Mughal emperor Akbar.
He had blessed Akbar with a son and heir, Jahangir, who was born in this house in 1569 to a Hindu queen, Jodhabai. Since then, 17 generations have lived here. The 16th direct descendant, Rias Mian, the Sajjadanashin, 78, who has a charming personality and a wonderful conversationalist, is one the last few surviving repositories of vocal history.
He talks of history in the present tense. His son, Arshad Faridi, a journalist who runs an Urdu daily from Delhi, hosted us there. We lived in a big stone room devoid of any furniture; our mattress was spread on a carpet. Each meal epitomised Mughlai cuisine as an art form. We ate as if there was no tomorrow.
The highlight of the trip was the Christmas celebrations. Faridi sahib was generous enough to invite qawwals, who have been performing at the Dargah for generations for a private audience. His father presided over the celebration; Jan and Faridi sahib lit candles to mark the occasion. An hour-long enthralling performance ensued, the patriarch making them sing something to remember Isa Masih—or Jesus Christ — as one of the messiahs. Jan was overwhelmed, and this was one evening, perhaps, he’ll never forget.
In nature’s lap
A long arduous drive — the last quarter of the journey took the longest as the street was regularly punctuated by potholes that were the size of manholes — took us to Panna National Park. We reached Sarai at Toria just an hour before midnight.
Sarai was established 10 years ago by India’s top tiger expert, Raghu Chundawat and Joanna Van Gruisen, a wildlife filmmaker from England who made India her home in the early 1980s. They are a couple. They have created this beautiful place — a retreat for mind and spirit, away from the madding crowd in the bosom of nature — brick by brick, plant by plant, with great care.
The cottages, six of them with eight rooms, resemble the colonial dak bungalows. Each has a big room and a bathroom bigger than the living room of many flats in Noida. The mustard floor, wooden furniture, artefacts, big glass windows, high wooden beds and veranda in front with floor done with cow dung, this place is a mix of native and English sensibilities. Joanna has an eye for details that are admirable, each and every object tells a story of how much care has been taken to build this place.
A bungalow in the middle of the property spread along the river Ken, can be reached by stone paved pathways that criss-cross between waist high grass. Sarai has everything that we in Delhi miss, rather are denied, fresh air is just one of them. Meals are served here, during the day in the open, under a tree, or in an open terrace in front of the house.
We enjoyed some Indian and western cuisines, and learnt that Raghu is not just a tiger expert, but loves to experiment with recipes. His guests are the direct beneficiaries, and they love it. One afternoon while eating out under the shade of a tree, Jan got nostalgic — he was reminded of his grandmother’s house in Germany where he used to spend his holidays in the formative years.
A boat ride in the sedate Ken River reminded me of the ‘stillness’ that’s at the heart of all activities. A stony river bed, boulders formed small islands and birds soaking the sun — it felt like we were canoeing in a Claude Monet painting. Evenings were relaxing, conversations over a drink or two after sundown, as the dark shadows would dance on the wall in the flickering bonfire, stories were told and heard.
Nature and aesthetics come together here. Perhaps, the forest officials of Panna National Park should take some clue for they just constructed an ugly cement watchtower near the Vulture point inside the forest, used chemicals to paint cement pillars to make them appear like logs of wood. Pathetic.
Sight for sore eyes
Khajuraho temples are exquisite works of art, fairly explicit, and a lot has been written about them, so I would refrain from adding more literature. But for a simple fact, we took the maximum number of pictures here though we stayed only for a couple of hours.
We also visited Orchha, a town in Tikamgarh district of Madhya Pradesh, even though it was not in our itinerary. We went there on Raghu’s recommendation. A town that is now in ruins, is a fantastic place to maunder in the altered state of consciousness. There is a certain energy to this place that’s hard to miss. On mic a hoarse voice sang verses from Ramayana as we ambled across the stony landscape, I felt grazing buffaloes were singing.
A short stay at Vrindavan was a date with Radha-Krishna. People greet each other saying ‘Radhe-radhe’, a practice we have adopted. Lassi was our hot favourite. Jan walked the city, while I sat on the banks of Yamuna scribbling drawings. A musical at Iskcon temple was soul solacing, better than a rock concert for me. Jan may have a different idea.
Monkeys were particularly fond of Jan. His cap and glasses were snatched by two different monkeys in quick succession — he was flabbergasted. Some locals volunteered to help. They threw fruits at the monkeys and got the glasses back, which miraculously escaped any damage. Locals charged Jan for recovering his belongings. I think the notorious monkeys know humans react by throwing goodies at them if they manage to snatch a mobile, wallet or a pair of glasses. They remain an integral part of the city, along with dogs, goats and cows, but are an unmitigated nuisance.
The grey dusty sky and the highway that was gathering fog in the fading light of the evening as we approached Delhi was not a welcome sight.