Only few months were left for my training period to end but me and my colleagues (read: brothers) had not done even a single outing in last 3 years…Thanks to our never-ending audit schedules and deadlines.
It was 30th September 2010 and our annual deadline was over with us successfully completing all the assignments well in time. We needed a well deserved break from the maddening work schedule and a verbal pact was made amongst the three of us…Myself..Prashant a.k.a Mota Bhai, Ashish a.k.a Ashu Bhai and Jaspreet a.k.a Doctor sahab.
We planned it within an hour or so that we would be leaving for Amritsar. The Babri Masjid verdict was delivered on 30th Sep 2010 and the political/civil situation was unpredictable so we decided to observe the happenings till the next day. Thankfully, for the whole of our nation, nothing ugly came out as the verdict was digested by the majority of the Indian population quite well.
I had to give lots of assurances to my Mom to convince my Dad to let me go on my maiden car-trip as the solo driver. On all earlier trips, I was accompanied by my family and my driving skills were closely monitored by my dad whose right hand always rested on the handbrake…just in case his immature son rams the car into someone!!!!
It was 0500 hours on 2nd October 2010 and I cranked my 2003 model M800, lovingly called Catty. There was no chance of getting late as the excitement kept me awake throughout the night. It was still dark outside but the cool breeze assured a pleasant day ahead. The three of us hit the highway at around 0600 hrs with another friend, Nitin a.k.a Mahajan sahab who joined us for the trip.
Catty was constantly hitting the 90kmph mark and cruising effortlessly on the Jammu-Pathankot stretch of NH-1A. The road has been recently upgraded to a four-laned highway and the tarmac is smooth except for a few diversions and stretches where the widening work is still on. Our first stop was at Chichi Mata Temple, just few kilometres short of “Samba” town. Paid obeisance at the temple and witnessed a beautiful morning sun coming out of the bright horizon overlooking the Basantar river. Started our journey again amidst continuous laughing, jokes and making fun of our nasty clients (…oops..!!) One can never forget the feel of that first solo long drive with friends…its so satisfying…so comforting than anything in the world. For me, its ultimate bliss.
Reached Lakhanpur covering a distance of 100 kms at 0730 hours to witness a massive traffic jam with trucks, buses and other vehicles lined up to get through the toll barrier and cross over to the state of Punjab. To our great relief, the traffic police was out on duty and had diverted the passenger vehicles to some alternate road. While I was wondering whether we would skip the toll booth as we were on a different road, we were astonished to see the The Great Indian “Jugaad” System come into play as a Toll Inspector was sitting on a chair smack on the road, collecting toll from vehicles and issuing receipts at an astonishing speed.
Anyhow, we paid the toll and crossed the bridge over river Ravi which touches J&K on its northern end and Punjab at its southern tip. Taking NH-15, we were cruising straight towards Dina-nagar. This highway too seemed to have been four-laned recently but was still unmarked and needed some final touches. It was nice to experience the newly laid tarmac as this road earlier used to be 2-laned and driving on it was a nightmare. The dare-devil drivers of Punjab Roadways and some private bus-wallahs always used to drive in the middle of the road scaring the passengers of oncoming vehicles out of their wits. However, the 4-laned stretch ended soon and we were now on the original 2-laned highway with speeding buses and SUVs often coming to the wrong lane for overtaking. Another thing which irritates the driver on this road is that the bus drivers don’t budge even an inch to give you space for overtaking. You may honk, use flash-dipper or make hand-gestures pleading them to let you overtake, but the lads take it as a personal attack on their egos and don’t let you pass easily.
We crossed Dinanagar which was busy and dusty and congested as usual. All four of us were waiting to have a sumptuous breakfast of paranthas en route but no place had attracted our attention as yet. Driving through Punjab is always so refreshing as the roads are usually lined by vast fields and towering green trees. We were enjoying the landscape and the company so much that we just drove on and on not looking at the Dhabas passing by.
There is this railway crossing on the Dinanagar-Gurdaspur stretch of NH-15 which lies miraculously at the centre of a leftward curve. Most of the drivers usually get caught unaware at this crossing. I was familiar with the notoriety of this curve and hence was attentive to its arrival. Just after crossing over the railway line, we stopped near a fruit-seller to fill our empty stomachs and sat on the nearby tube-well to chat.
Our jokes and pranks didn’t seem to end anytime soon but we realised that we should pull ahead. Back to the car, we hit the road again and entered Gurdaspur city after 10 kms. There is a bypass which you can take to avoid the traffic and congestion at the Gurdaspur town but since it was a national holiday (2nd Oct), the traffic was sparse and we drove through the city. Looking around for some nice place to have a proper breakfast, all four of us had our necks craned out of the window. However, any place proposed by one was put down by the rest…a big disadvantage of traveling in an all-guys-group i think. Suddenly, I saw a turbanated policeman signalling us to stop. I just wanted to zip ahead as we were on the right side of law in every respect (thats what I believed till then) but Jaspreet insisted that we should stop as the Punjab Police cops chase such cars which dont stop and then harrass you even more…the job they are best at. Stopping a few metres ahead, I asked everyone to relax and not to get out of the car…a mistake that cost us 200 bucks!!! The Sardarji policeman came upto our car…positioned his elbows on the window and asked where we were from. We replied in Punjabi that we are from Jammu and heading towards The Harmandir Sahib. The Sardarji smiled at us and asked us why we had not fastened our seat belts…..HOLY SHIT… We realised that after we started driving from our last stop where we had fruits, we had just forgot to fasten our seat-belts. The policeman…now confident and proud of himself asked for the RC and licence. We all got out of the car and followed him to his colleague. After hush-hushing something in Punjabi into his ear, the latter asked me to deposit the RC with them and collect it on our way back from the Office of RTO Gurdaspur after appearing before the Traffic Magistrate of the town. Parting with car’s papers was out of question so I asked him to issue a compounding challan and collect the fine. To my surprise, the two just refused to do that. Finally, Jaspreet a.k.a Doctor sahab took over the situation and tried to plead with them to let us go as we were just young students going to The Darbar Sahib. Hopeful that the policemen might have a change of heart on being coaxed by another Sardarji…that was..our Doctor sahab, we kept quiet and let him do all the talking. The Sardarjis did have a change of heart and asked us to shell out 1000 bucks!! We all groaned like they had punched hard into our empty bellies and that infuriated the cops even further. Finally, we settled for 200 bucks and got going once again but with a lesson: ALWAYS.FASTEN.BEFORE.CRANKING. This became a rule for all of us in the days to come and is still being religiously followed by me.
With a heavy heart and a slightly lighter pocket, we moved ahead and after around an hour, pulled into a roadside dhaba which was almost empty and ordered for stuffed tandoori paranthas or the Amritsari Kulchas as they are popularly known. After a satisfying breakfast of these enjoyed with curd and pickles, we started driving again and trying to make up for the time wasted with the cops.
We crossed Batala, Verka and reached the outer Amritsar by 12.30 pm which was marked by heavy presence of traffic. Soon, we pulled into the sarai attached to Gurudwara Baba Deep Singh ji. Catty was put to rest in the basement parking of the Gurudwara and the charges for the same were Nil. The Gurbani being sung in the Gurudwara refreshed our minds. We entered the sarai and checked for availability of rooms. With Doctor sahab’s brother’s help, (who works with the Sheromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee, the apex body responsible for the management of the Harmandir Sahab and other gurudwaras and attached sarais) we were able to get a nice room at a meagre sum of 100 bucks for one night.
Dr sahab told us that earlier, they used to charge nothing from the pilgrims putting up there but have recently started charging for better upkeep and maintenance. The sarai was nothing less than a three-star hotel in terms of infrastructure and spaciousness. The place was vibrant, airy, sparklingly clean, with clean modern washrooms in the lobby as well as the rooms. Chilled drinking water was available on all the floors of the sarai. The rooms were clean, well furnished with attached washrooms. The only thing irked Nitin a.k.a Mahajan sahab a bit was that our room had no beds and no AC. But we got extra matresses and pillows at no extra charge and made comfortable beddings for ourselves. After stretching out ourselves in room, the plan for the day was charted out. Dr Sahab suggested that we should head towards Wagah border, a 35 kms drive from Amritsar as we would reach well in time and secure some good seats for ourselves to enjoy the ceremony.
Amritsar was still hot at that time of the year besides being dusty due to the construction of flyover going on at various places. The Amritsar traffic is maddening especially in the old city area. We made a quick restart and packed ourselves in the car. We soon hit NH1-The Grand Trunk Road after crossing the Amritsar railway station. Made a quick stop en route to get drinking water. The road was nicely marked and traffic was less. Catty was roaring at 110 kmph but the heat and no tree cover on either sides made going a little uncomfortable. On our way, we saw a signboard pointing towards a leftward diversion to be taken for reaching the Attari railway station. The idea of seeing the last railway station on the Indian side excited me but i ignored the board and throttled ahead. I personally want to thank all those persons who were or are involved in the making of Maruti 800. According to me, it is one of the greatest engineering marvels for which no number of praises is enough. With 69000 kms on its odo in 7 years, Catty was as smooth as a new, as firm as required on the road and as peppy as desired. The fuel gauge was telling me that we had exhausted just about 13 litres of fuel till now after covering some 266 kms on a full tank.
Finally, we reached Wagah Border at about 3.30 pm and parked our car very comfortably. Grabbed some knick-knacks to munch and joined the queue for the security check. The atmosphere was cheerful….SO FAR..!!
The queue upto the security check point was moving real slow and we were standing in the 4 pm hot sun for our turn to get clearance. The Wagah Border is manned and managed by the personnel of Border Security Force (BSF) and soon we could see their vehicles carrying VIPs and Officers’ guests driving straight through the security check point. This cavalcade was soon joined by Army vehicles and some other private cars accompanying some VIPs. The crowd started getting very very large in number and there was pushing and shoving all around. The four of us got separated as the crowd went berserk and the BSF guys were actually struggling to gain control of the situation. People started running and jumping the security barrier and the scene was of uncontrollable chaos. Some BSF guys lost their cool and starting hitting people with their rifles’ butts. People ran like crazy and occupied the seats, the walkways, the parapets, the railings, the tree branches, the sun-shades over windows and every possible inch to get a nice view of the ceremony.
I found Nitin somewhere in the crowd and we were standing between a large crowd trying to stretch body as high as possible to get a view above peoples’ jostling heads. Ashu Bhai and Doctor sahib were nowhere to be seen. However, I later found both of them at the stands struggling to maintain their balance. Undoubtedly, they were at a better place to witness the ceremony. I checked the time and realized it was still 1 hour left for the ceremony to start. I was completely pissed off with such irresponsible attitude of those at the helm (read: The BSF officers) who were not at all concerned about managing and controlling the crowd. The Officers’ guests were getting front row seats and the common masses were treated like cattle and facing the wrath of their men for no reason. I’m sure that had the place been managed by the Army, the scene would have been completely different. I stepped out of the crowd…went back a few steps and started exploring the vast expanse of the fenced border.
So many emotions were running through my mind as I had never seen a Border before. I was wondering as to how do countries define their geographical limits? The land looked the same all around but it was the fence that set our geographical limits. Then, a high-end super luxury bus carrying passengers to Lahore came through and crossed the Border after the gates were opened by the BSF personnel on both the sides. The passengers were just cleared by the Customs authorities and after undergoing other checks were allowed to proceed.
I was just killing time and looking at the eye-candies present around. Soon, I could here the crowd shouting and yelling and the noise got louder and louder. It seemed as the ceremony has just started because one could hear the drum-beats.
Completely disgusted with the mismanagement and the crowd which could scare you off, I went back to the parking lot and stretched myself on the driver’s seat. I don’t know when I fell asleep but the sound of a shrilled bus horn woke me up. I realized that it was a little dark outside and the cars and buses had started moving with their passengers. I understood that the ceremony has culminated but was now worried about my friends. I thought they must be looking for me. Only Ashu bhai’s phone was working besides mine so I dialled his number but it wasn’t reachable. Amidst all the confusion, I saw Nitin outside in a total state of frustration and confusion. I called his name loud and he gave an expression of relief. Now, my worry seemed to subside a little as I knew that Doctor sahib is with Ashu Bhai and I could contact them as soon as they come in the network coverage area.
After waiting for around half an hour and witnessing the frustrating traffic jam which was caused by the vehicles leaving the place, we saw Ashu bhai and Doctor Sahab walking towards the car. They too were dead tired but still had their signature smile on their faces. We sent Doctor sahib and Nitin to get water and something to eat as we were starving and couldn’t even open our eyes properly. They got few bottles of mineral water, cold drinks and burgers from one of the many vendors who were making a quick buck. After gulping down the food, we felt a little energised. While we were discussing the chaos and the craziness of which we too were a part, Ashu bhai and Doctor sahab shared an incident which made us laugh as well as curse the mismanagement.
After the ceremony was over, the viewers were allowed to go close to the gates of the border. Ashu bhai and Jassi too went ahead and were looking at a beautifully decorated horse of the BSF. Suddenly, a sentry jumped out of nowhere and said, “Kya hai…Ghoda nahi dekha kabhi…bhaago yahan se”. I was like what the hell was wrong with that guy? The visitors are not there to receive rifle butt blows and face such rude behaviour. It was 8 pm by now and we started our journey towards Amritsar. The traffic was still jammed but Doctor Sahab (who wears his heart on his sleeve) managed to flirt with some village hotties sitting in the adjacent tractor-trolley. Soon, we were out of the parking and again moving on NH-1. All the vehicles were in a hurry so the drive was quick and smooth.
We saw Guru Nanak Dev University and Khalsa College enroute which were looking magnificent in the century old building housing them and lit up beautifully with fancy lights. We reached our sarai in about an hour, parked the car in the Gurudwara’s basement and went to our room upstairs. We were so tired that nobody amongst us wanted to move our bums. But then, a collective thought ran through our minds that visiting Golden Temple at night would definitely be a great sight. A quick decision was made and we left the room in 15 minutes flat. Golden Temple can de done on foot from where we were staying and Doctor Sahab (being an Ambarsaria) knew the route through narrow lanes. We crossed various narrow markets selling hot milk, sweets, ladies’ bags, clothes, papads, etc etc etc. We entered the Golden Temple from the langar side after depositing our footwear outside.
The water flowing through a stream cut out on the floor soothed our aching feet and the Gurbaani welcomed us to the calm glitter of the Harmandir Sahib. We were there….finally!!! A place which is very close to my heart….a place where the self meets the soul.