Where did you come from and where did you go?
Where did you come from cotton-eye Joe?
Every time a kind radio jockey plays the song on air, the mind unshackles itself from the present and takes a swift flight to that sleepy hamlet Chitguppa. It floats back to the days when I would given in to the insatiable urge to go off the beaten-track, hop on to my old faithful Yezdi motorcycle and set off on a trip away from Hyderabad.
Chitguppa, do I hear you ask? Of course, it is a good wager that you have never been there and a better one that you have not even heard of it. You may never go there at all. I believe, however, that anyone who is passionate about getting to know the heart of India must get to see Chitguppa – or any of the thousands of villages where life goes on without so much as a crib.
Having set off late that day in 1986, I crossed Zaheerabad, a 100km away from Hyderabad on National Highway [NH] 9 to Pune. The monotony of the trunk road made me turn onto a nondescript road. Within a few minutes, I was pleased with the decision as the landscape of the country defied description.
The road curved ever so often as we made our way through the green of the agricultural farms on either side. The shoulders of the black road were full of stark red earth and offered a lovely contrast to the verdant fields. A chill wind added to the beauty of it all. A song flooded my heart and an aimless wanderlust overcame my soul.
After negotiating a few bridges, I stopped the bike when on top of a hill and found myself staring at a breath-taking scene that only the greatest of painters could have envisaged. The black of the road, the red of the soil, the green of the vegetation around the hill and the azure sky with some clouds lingering combined to offer me an amazing sight.
Make no mistake, the hamlet that I saw that day – Chitguppa, if you have not already guessed – was not exactly the Red Fort and, as I discovered, it did not even have a tea shack. Tourist taxis hadn’t found the need to ply on this route. State-run buses stopped for but a moment. Chitguppa has few visitors, its young either going to Zaheerabad or Humnabad to seek education and employment.
I must have been taking the sight in for an hour and there was a bonus when I glanced over my shoulder. I haven’t seen a more spectacular sunset inland. It is one thing to keep watching the crimson sun sink into the seas. But it is altogether another to be perched on a dusty old bike and see the sun go down in the distance behind the fields, distinct with red earth. I do not recall being as entranced ever again, unmoving and lost to the world.
I realised it was late and desperate to reach NH 9 before twilight slipped with night, I gunned the bike into action. It was a losing battle against nature. Before long, darkness had descended unannounced and washed all the resplendent colours with one shade of black.
My ageing Yezdi’s dim headlight was of little help in the moonless light, except perhaps to serve as a flickering warning to oncoming traffic. It was a task concentrating hard on the road and finding the turns until a bus crept in on me, almost miraculously. Its powerful headlights were a boon for me as they lit up the road ahead of me. The driver seemed kind and allowed me to bask in his bus’ light for a while before, for some inexplicable reason, he started honking.
Having got used to the light, I was determined not to slow the bike down and let him pass. But the driver was enraged and shot past my bike. I was determined to regain my position and engaged the bike in a lower gear but he was a smart driver and gave me no room at all. I had to eat humble pie and settled to be second best, following its tail-lights.
Less than a kilometre later, the bus slowed down and took a diversion off the road. I followed the bus blindly but even as I wondered why we had left the road and got on to a dirt track, I realised that there was a gap in the road. A bridge had given way and some villagers had thoughtfully left some cut branches and shrubs a few yards short of the broken bridge to warn drivers. I realised I would have no chance at all of noticing it until it was too late.
The Yezdi raced up the slope and its tyres squealed in delight when they embraced tarmac again. Its joy was so complete that it cruised past the bus effortlessly and before long NH9 came in view. The enormity of what the driver had done hit me and I raised my left hand in grateful acknowledgment as I slipped past the bus. I never saw the bus again.
Now, all these years later, memories of the golden sunset behind Chitguppa still cause a radiant glow but thoughts of the ride back send shivers down the spine.