The two-lane highway undulated and wound through fields. Just a few minutes beyond Palam airport in Delhi, houses disappeared and fields appeared. There were a few trucks spewing smoke, and there was no air-conditioning in the car to block it, but Delhi's skies were blue and the sun was bright. The recent monsoons had washed the air clean and it was crisp in early October. My brother Bunty and I were driving to Jaipur in my new Maruti 800.
I had got the car a couple of months earlier, two years after my father booked it. It was a breeze to drive after having wrestled with an Ambassador for many years.
After 30 years of driving up and down, I ask, are six lanes better than two?
The highway was a single carriageway with two lanes and a narrow shoulder. It was for the most part, smooth. No tolls marred our journey. The only trolls were the trucks and the occasional kings of the road, state transport buses. Those you needed to watch for and speed up to outrun them or scurry out of their way. The trucks were gentler and tried to avoid crushing you. Dhabas were non-existent.
The trucks came in convoys. Hit the tail end of one and there would be 30 ahead. Like a rabbit, I darted the 800 in and out between the trucks, ducking in to avoid on-coming traffic and then swerving out to overtake the next. The law of the road dictates you will face oncoming traffic every time you try to overtake, and so it was when I swung out to overtake; I had to brake and duck behind the truck to be overtaken to let on-coming traffic pass.
Well, it was a nice drive and we went through Haryana's eponymous green fields. Gurgaon was a speck, Manesar a village, Neemrana an untamed fort. There were cows and goats on the road then, people crossing at random and women vomiting from buses. We narrowly missed being blessed. The Kos Minars en route were a long distance from the highway, standing like sentinels to the centuries and distance. Three had survived till 1986.
It took us five hours to reach Jaipur. I did not see a single wreck on the way.
The highway grew after the structural adjustments of 1991. It became a four-lane, double carriage-way. A "makhan sadak" as a friend put it. There were more trucks. The sides had crash barriers and in some places trucks had tested their mettle. The fields appeared further from Delhi, but Gurgaon and Manesar were still specks. Most of the road was through farmland and industrial estates were only signboards on the way.
Trucks drive in the fast lane. Buses drive anywhere. People randomly pop out of side lanes and drive on the wrong side, more so in Haryana.
By the mid-1990s the highway had tolls, and the trolls had multiplied. The good thing was, you did not have to duck behind a troll to wait for oncoming traffic to pass -- you could overtake. Dhabas multiplied, as did people crossing at random, and cows. The road surface remained good for most of the journey but the Rajasthan stretch was better than Haryana's. It remains so even now. There were no flyovers at all; the highway-makers and God did not see fit to provide them. There were few wrecks on the way.
In a few years this "makhan sadak" started decaying. The cycle of build-neglect-rebuild bigger had started. The crash barriers disappeared under multiple impacts. Tractors and motorcycles drove on the wrong side -- now I had to duck out of their way and not that of on-coming traffic. Dhabas and villages crept back to the roadside after having been tossed several metres away. Booze shops multiplied with such rapidity you could drive high between the cities. They were amply advertised and on the roadside.
It took me five hours to drive to Jaipur in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The Kos Minars still did duty as advertised. Cars were air-conditioned so driving was a breeze.
In the 2010s came the big push. Another lane was added. Now there were six, three in each direction. The highway-makers inserted flyovers of different vintages. Old smooth ones, new bumpy ones. Nobody of course thought about how people and animals would cross. Or the Indian penchant for tossing traffic rules out of the window. So tractors, motorcycles, cars and trucks drove on the wrong side of the road.
It still takes five hours to Jaipur in 2016. The road is wide and smooth. Cars are air-conditioned. But the time remains the same.
Tolls have sprung up everywhere. The obscenest one in Gurgaon was eliminated as its inept staff could not handle the traffic volumes. Others remain to this day, sucking about ₹300 for a one-way trip to Jaipur. Signs on top of the toll plazas indicate the kind of vehicle that can use a lane but as they are in English; truckers and most drivers ignore them. So a hotchpotch of vehicles queues at each toll booth. The operators keep you guessing how much the toll is so you reach the booth and then you scrabble for change -- ₹59, ₹124. Why not have the amounts prominently displayed before you reach the booth. And have round figures? Some bureaucrat having a field day.
Trucks drive in the fast lane. Buses drive anywhere. People randomly pop out of side lanes and drive on the wrong side, more so in Haryana. Cows are rarer but people cross anywhere they can. Villagers have cut the dividers to make crossings, leading to sudden stoppages and jams. The highway-makers simply shrug and smile.
The Kos Minars have been put in irons. I spotted two of the three surrounded by a steel cage to guard against marauding trucks. The fields have also disappeared. For most of the way, there are buildings. Gurgaon is a concrete monster of a jungle. Manesar makes you want to bang your head on the steering wheel. Beyond, you run into a Bhiwadi bottleneck and the Neemrana sprawl -- one side is Japanese and the other, Indian. It's easy to tell which is which. Dhabas have grown into restaurants serving oilier, spicier, costlier food. It's hard to a get tandoori aloo paratha now.
It still takes five hours to Jaipur in 2016. The road is wide and smooth. Cars are air-conditioned. But the time remains the same. So, after 30 years of driving up and down, I ask, are six lanes better than two?