The highway continues on with a novelty that turns to monotony. It is the plague that all highways must suffer, their utility inevitably consumed by their sameness and their length. They eat themselves, their broad vistas of concrete and bitumen devoid of the relief provided by the visual ornamentation of twist and bend. I play ‘I Spy’ with the highway signage to relieve the repetition; ‘Jhargram’, Mohanpur’, Baharagora’, ‘Dulang Bridge’ My quickly pencilled spelling maybe incorrect, the pencil jarring on the pages of my diary, my script reduced to a hurried scrawl. But most signs are in Oriya only, the language of geometrically beautiful characters, indigenous to Orissa. At ‘1821 to Mumbai’, kilometres I presume, there is an extensive area of native forest. It tugs at my heart strings and given the chance I would leave the car and find enjoyment in wandering within its open understorey. But I am captive to the demands of our schedule, able to console myself only with its fleeting images and dreams of what the forest might hold therein. I am well versed in the art of environmental surveys undertaken from the vantage point of a wound down car window. It seems I am victim to it here as well.
South of the Orissa State border crossing there is a spectacular evergreen forest, this growing on undulating, red soil hills. Beyond this forest is a range of granite-like hills, and small farms interspersed between less fertile rocky areas. Ascending into a forested range I see small troops of monkeys by the roadside, the first monkeys since leaving the Sunderbans. I do not know if they are a different species. Herds of cows yoked two by two are driven along the roadway, they and their herders appearing careless of the buses, trucks and cars passing, almost touching. But north and south of the border crossing the highway was appalling. It as if the highway has been shelled by artillery, bombed as if in black parody of a scene from the Vietnam War. Little is left of the old sealed surface. In its place are wide potholes, their depth at times approaching that of their breadth, the road so much in a state of perilous disrepair that we are obliged to frequently traverse almost at right angles to our intended direction. It was like tacking in a yacht, except we were neither boat nor did we have a sail. Although trucks could confront the devastation, albeit at a slow speed, and bicycles and motorbikes were left with spaces between the holes ample to progress, we were of that class of vehicle that was forced to slow to the pace of a proverbial snail. At this pace we, meaning me, would take hours to reach journey’s end. It was as if the joining of three states at this point, these being Jharkand, West Bengal and Orissa, had resulted in the denial by all three of responsibility of ownership. If you wanted to halt an invading army, particularly one dependent on small vehicles, then this patch of no-man’s-land was a well thought out device. It does the trick real well. Lord Ganesha, the Indian god given power to remove obstacles, had forsaken this place and in his absence obstacles had bred like weeds. We proceeded on, very slowly, by many tortuous twists, turns and the grating of our underbelly, the car often forced to leave what remained of the old sealed surface entirely.
Things could only get better. But they did not. They came to a full stop. Ahead of us were kilometres of motionless traffic, mainly trucks, and somewhere beyond sight was a highway check point, the traffic jammed both sides of it. It would take ages to get through, and if not ages measured by geological time spans, then certainly ages measured by hours in real time. Then it was that the Lord Ganesha manifested himself. He did this, I am convinced and I tell you no tall tale of exaggeration, in the form of a humble villager. The villager knew a side track, unpaved plain and dusty dirt as it was, through an adjoining village. The track veered from the highway almost opposite where we were halted, and rejoined the highway a kilometre or so past the check point. He would guide us there, and if I liked it was suggested a single dollar in the form of a 50 rupee note, or lesser notes of cumulative total, would be appropriate recompense for his act of citizenship, divine intercession as I was sure it was. At a single Australian ‘buck’ it was a done deal. Along our detour he even threw in for free some quaint village and rural scenery. The little dirt track was all undulations and small potholes, just like my laneway back in Hometown, except this one didn’t have 200 head of dairy cows moving up and down it twice a day like mine does.
Back on the Great Eastern Road again we arrive in a place called Keonjhar about 3 pm. I pay my poor driver for the days he had driven me about. I refer to him as ‘poor’ as he is faced with a journey back to Kolkata, a good part of it in darkness and on a road dangerous even by daylight, before he is safely home. I hear no further word from or of him.
But Keonjhar looks like a truck stop, a frontier town, which might explain why I cannot find it on my traveller’s map of India. It’s not even mentioned in my copy of the ‘Lonely Planet’. The northern approach to the town is lined with piles of garbage as if it is the de facto local municipal waste recycling centre, the city dump. My hotel is again on the outskirts of town, if not technically ‘out of town’. Once more I am trapped and dependent on wheeled transport. The thought occurs to me that ‘Keonjhar’ might have an alternative name on my map as it is a city by Australian definitions of size, and far too large to be anonymous. Whatever its name I am reminded of finding myself overnight years ago in the northern Australian town of Elliot, a whistle stop town then seemingly bereft of a purpose. Later on, and many kilometres north along the Stuart Highway at Mataranka, I met two girls about to head south to Alice Springs. I mentioned that Elliot might best be bypassed. “You stayed at Elliot?” one girl laughed, “no one stops at Elliot”. I did! It looked as though no folk of western persuasion, other than me, stopped at Keonjhar either.
But perhaps first impressions are misleading and unfair as I am as yet to explore this place. It is now 4.50 pm and my replacement driver and a new guide, this time from the Government of Orissa Tourist Office, have yet to appear. As I wait in my room I gaze from my single window to the highway outside. Vehicles of the usual assortment pass in and out of my view. A fawn coloured cow crosses the road at its own peculiar leisure, horns and voices, and the humming of tyres, provide a constant back drop. A cluster of men linger by the roadside several buildings away, their mouths animated in silent speech, and a second cow, this one grey, and head bowed, ventures towards the road. A tractor and trailer pass at speed, two men upon it.
I am booked here for three nights. I suspect it will not be the height of my journey, and I suspect, that on this evening, I am suffering mild pangs of homesickness.