Tuesday, November 29, 2011

On the road with Ravi

In those days, there were less people on the road, although perhaps not significantly more courteous. It was so long ago that even when you added up our ages you were still only in the teens.  
My brother and I whiled away the hours in the car’s back seat taking a break from pulling each other’s hair by reading the road signs that flashed past and puzzling out the meanings. An ‘Officer’s Mess’ must be where the brave moustachioed ones in uniform would fling banana peels at each other and spill massive bowls of gravy down the aisle. ‘Lions Club’ gave rise to the image of tawny lions serving and smashing, and leaping gracefully over the tennis net to shake each other by the paw. ‘Meals Ready’ (now all but martyred to ‘Dhaba’ in the colonial victories of the North) meant, naturally, that the food must be left over from yesterday and we’d kindly advise our parents that we shouldn’t stop here for lunch. The forest department signboards which announced new plantations of E. Globulus and other varieties of eucalyptus saplings enthralled us too. We grew faster than they did, but they overtook us. The Nilgiri slopes, planted before our eyes, got covered with dense jungle.
Years later I sat, basking in a noisy tropical thunderstorm. It was inside the Rainforest CafĂ© at Piccadilly and I attempted to enthral two precocious children with the story of the rogue elephant that thundered behind the little red Herald on our way home when we were their age. A solitary elephant in the jungle called for caution and we were indeed charged more than once, a frightening experience but one that can be looked back on with complacence. Mudumalai still had large herds of elephants in the 1970s and as we drove through the sanctuary on our way to or back from the plains, motorists would stop to let them cross the road; first the tuskers and young males, and towards the end the cow elephants, trailed by their babies. It’s a sight you no longer see.
There were no elephants on the British motorways either.
Over the years, I’ve had many holidays being cosseted and indulged by my brother and his family in London, an annual retreat from the scorching May heat of Pune in a city of orderly queues, free admittance to the art treasures of the world, round-the-clock humour, early dinners, and chocolate with every meal. On the M3, whizzing happily past signs for Guildford and the Basingstoke roundabout, we’ve often driven through the mythical village this motorway once famously sundered in two in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Traffic is slow on the A303 past Stonehenge – for as long as memory serves, congestion on this route has been accompanied by debate on whether a tunnel would endanger the ancient monument. On this road I learnt that flashing lights from a car driving towards you could mean, “after you, my dear sir” rather than “get out of my way, idiot”, as it does back home.
At Kew Gardens in April 2011
It’s one of the most beautiful parts of Britain and on our route to Longleat, the Cotswolds, and even Cornwall. The first glimpse of the startlingly bright blue of the Cornish coast comes as a shock almost physical. Mired as we are in Shakespeare, Harrods, the Natural History Museum, London Bridge and so on, it’s easy to forget that this great seafaring nation of the history books is in fact all surrounded by sea. It’s an eight-hour drive and, taking a cue from an English countryside sign offering “Woodlands for sale”, a new generation of avid board-reading backseaters made us laugh by pleading piteously, “Don’t sell the woodlands!” over and over – a welcome change from “Are we there yet?”
Cornwall has much to see and our days there brimmed with natural beauty, local food, relics of old tin mines, ancient history, and more. A Welcome sign that stands out in memory proclaimed “Lanhoose Population 5”. The settlement boasted three buildings including Lanhoose Barn and Lanhoose House, and we wiled away a pleasant evening wondering how the five people might be distributed among the three homes, and whether there was a Lanhoose resident’s association and perhaps even a Lanhoose Bridge team or string quintet.

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