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Aurele Vrata Venet

Bangalore to Pondicherry: A Southern India Trip

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A few years ago, my father unearthed a mint-condition 1973 Honda Goldwing in some Hyderabad shed. For those of you who are unaware of this legend, it has a 1-liter 4-cylinders engine that develops 80 bhp on a 4-stroke cycle. My mother, unacquainted with the world of 2-wheelers and repelled by its imposing figure, calls it the "big bertha". Indeed it's big but it's not German. Apart from its impressive engine, it comes fully dressed up. It has a set of luggage, a saddlebag on each side and a trunk large enough to hold a pair of helmets. The front is generously framed with a large windscreen and body that incorporates the enormous circular lamp--the Cyclops’ eye. In stylized letters on the bottom half of the frame one reads "Windjammer".... how appropriate.

It is on this Rolls Royce of motorcycles that I set off this morning on the Hosur road heading south from Bangalore. It is a busy road. Many trucks and buses vie for a share of the asphalt. Nothing appears to have changed compared to my last run on this road 2 years ago.

Although the road has visibly improved the traffic too has swelled, negating the benefits of the new road. At Hosur, I get to see what will someday be a flyover. A colossal piece of concrete mass seems to have sprouted out of the middle of the road. As I cruise along side it, it evokes images of a beached titanic, a Noah’s arc, as if the sea has disappeared and laid it here to rest. These images quickly vaporize as the construction comes to an abrupt end with a concrete cliff giving space to a wasteland filled with parked trucks. I am brought back to sharp reality as the bus in front of me comes to a stand still and I have to pump the twin front disk breaks into action. My feet drop down like landing gears working hard to maintain the 350 kilos of the bike upright. I become conscious of the growing number of mopeds, Hero-Hondas and other two wheelers that have gathered like flies around a cake. I appreciate their curiosity for what appears to be an object straight out of a Rajnish Kant movie, but their lack of respect for the Goldwing makes it difficult to maneuver in this constrained space. Time to let rip. As soon as the traffic starts to thin out, I open the throttle and 4 million cubic-centimeters-a-minute of rich fuel-air mixture coupled with a sweet purr gets my adrenalin rushing back to my head like a dream-enhancing drug. The pack of two-wheelers faded out of my rear-view mirror.

The road from here is now being converted into a motorway. I say now because two years ago it was a large smooth two-lane highway, which was a pleasure to ride. I say "being converted" because it is still far from being a motorway. The rare sections where the traffic is indeed circulating on opposite sides of the granite divider, one is prevented from reaching the motorway-average of 120 km/h because the local farmer has decided to take the short cut with his bullock cart and is traveling in the take-over lane, in the opposite direction! Moreover, even if the take-over lane is not entertaining the local farmer in his search for kamikaze bouts with 80 kilometers-an-hour 5-ton trucks, the Indian truck driver--a far from extinct breed--clueless to motorway ethics, monopolizes the two lanes, hashing the road into 500 meter sections of open road. I still managed 120-plus speed highs. The collection of accidents that dots the road, an inevitable sideshow on Indian roads, is ever more spectacular this time round. A number of trucks and buses have collided on the edge of the motorway, one of them having crossed the divider to meet the other head on at motorway speeds. May the gods of Indian truck drivers give them another chance! I quickly realize the reasons for such fatalities. As I speed on, the road ahead is suddenly awash with dust as buses and trucks are swerving off this carriage onto the opposite. The road in front is still being bulldozed. A half-meter drop awaits the unwary driver as no signs foretell the impeding decent into farmland. This switching back and forth is more cumbersome then expected as not only are there no signs to tell you when to switch (some sections would appear perfectly usable except for a line of rocks across the road), but once you are traveling on the other side it is hard to figure when you are supposed to return to your own side. No I wasn’t dreaming, I see vehicles traveling on both sides of the divide, as if there were two highways running in parallel. I can’t imagine what this must be like at night, although the accidents give me an idea. When one can finally rejoin one’s intended carriage, it is at the cost of slowing down to first-gear speeds, as the Gold was not designed for track and field events. Krishnagiri at last! Two years ago the highway, for some years already, bypassed the town, which meant one could easily find the road to Pondy without having to cut through the town. Now, two more beached Titanic are being raised from the ground. Why two flyovers at this point I have no idea. My guess is one will be to get into town, the other to keep going to Salem. Again, monumental constructions have dwarfed so much of the old landscape that I could not recognize the turn-off to the Madras road. Sorry the Chenai road. I grew up with the English name so please excuse my slip. Anyhow, for those who want to do the trip, the junction is under the second flyover. One day it will be finished and hopefully you won’t have to spot the plumes of dust as trucks veer off the Madras …err Chenai road onto Salem in order to locate the exit.

Now on this stretch as well they are in full refurbishment mode, so keep you eyes peeled for the second turning on the left, it is about 200 meters after leaving the motorway. The Krishnagiri-Pondy stretch is like I left it two years ago. A long tiring but pleasant road that cuts through the heart of Tamil Nadu. Funny, I have been back in India for only a week and all along I was trying to remember some of my Tamil (I was fluent as a kid!) but only Spanish words kept springing to my mind (I have been living in Madrid for the last 2 years).

Now that I am in Tamil Nadu, clearly posted by the dozen of posters promoting MGR and his motley crew as well as the registration plates’ “TN” markings, all of a sudden a torrent of Tamil is gushing through my mind. God it’s good to be back! Beware, stranger, India has more to it than meets the eye, you need that third all-seeing one to peek behind the scenes, so don’t be phased if you have an encounter of the third kind. Anyhow, this stretch is a two-lane highway monopolized by the local buses that use it as their private runway except that they never take off, and even if they do it is to land up side down! Probably a consequence of watching too many Rajnish movies. Anyhow, I tried a few 120 km/h highs but they are pointless. The road this time is hashed by the plethora of small hamlets that line the road, taking the asphalt as their court yard, their farm yard, their laundry yard, their you-name-it yard, but never for what it is: the national highway that it is supposed to be. Mind you I prefer this to speed bumps. I have done the Bangalore-Mysore highway several times where they have a perverted affinity for speed bumps. I don’t know where they shop for them, but you can find a wider variety on that 180 km stretch cheeses in a French supermarket. Running south-southeast the road is easy to navigate.

You have more to worry about the local fauna then finding your way. It’s always straight at every crossing until you reach Tiruvanamalai. No I didn’t misspell that one, the names in Tamil Nadu can be quite a mouth full! On the other hand mind the chickens, the Tamilians, the dogs, the birds and the cows… in that order! I put the chickens first because they are the most dangerous. When a chicken is set to cross the road it needs to run back and forth a couple of times before it finally settles. At 90 an hour that gives you little time to prepare a side dish for mash chicken. They especially don’t react to any amount of horning. Tamilians in their yard. Remember, some of them really think they own the asphalt and no amount of horning will make them move any faster. Take my advice, slow down making sure you don’t serve as a trampoline board for the bus behind, and dodge them. Mash Tamilian can leave a very bad taste in the mouth! Careful for the Tamilians on bicycles, too much horning can convert them into chickens. Dogs are rare but dangerous. They act as if they were on their own on the road, and react (very well) to a good blast of the horn but only at the last minute. Mashed dog is messy and you can leave the remains to the crows.

Birds are a bit like dogs, except that they fly so watch out! Finally although cows are widespread, and spread on the road, you can be certain that they will not move, and don’t try to either. Remember, they are sacred and they know it. The trick is to keep an eye out for them. Their generous size makes them well visible and gives you plenty of time to miss them. Note I say nothing about buses, trucks, and other vehicles. I leave you to figure that one out. Wouldn’t be fun if I told all!

My fuel gage is running low. My counter reads a little less than 200 km. That’s probably the Gold’s only fault. The tank is too small for a bike that is designed to eat up the road. I start looking out for a petrol bunk (that’s what they call a petrol station in India). I have something very specific in mind. It should not be in the centre of a town, nor should its access be too difficult from the road. I see one as I come out of a village with an unpronounceable name. As I park up sure enough half a dozen people have already notice the beast. By the time I have fuelled up the crowd is a dozen deep. Inevitably the conversation is always about the bike, and it goes something like this: -“Serrr, vich kantrry you from?” (I try to convey to you the deep southern accent, which is impossible to understand unless you’ve lived here). The first question is invariably about my origin. -“India!” (I feel more at home here than in my native France) Perplexed look on his face. -“You shpeak Hindi serr?” -“No! Tamil” At this point the guy has to think twice about what I just said. A white man speaking Tamil. Even in a Rajnish movie you don’t see that! -“Neeingle Tamil terryma?” (This is phonetic Tamil which means ”Do you know Tamil?”) -“Conjunde Conjunde” I reply (A little a little). Smiles go round. Now a number of different onlookers that till now have said nothing start to ask the questions to which by now there should be a sign clipped on the bike with all the answers written out. “Ide vandee dooble engine?” (This is a double engine vehicle? –Tamil speak for two cylinders) “Il-eye, naalle engine!” (No four engines) I reply. Beginning of the disbelief spread in the crowd. The questioner repeats to his friend, “Nalle engine da!”, whom, seeing from his prior face, had already understood. “Yevlo c.c.?” (How many cubic centimetre?) “wone thaousshand!” A thousand, I reply, a Tamil word I am still searching in the recess of my mind. The English word is widely understood and I see the immediate effect of my reply as murmurs of disbelief go round the group. “Vaat myleage serr?” Indian folks are obsessed with fuel consumption, not for environmental concern mind you, but rather for cost reasons. Fuel prices are disproportionately high in this country. The cost of a litre of unleaded will get you a full meal in a restaurant! “Pady rendde” (Twelve) I reply. Now the disbelief is total. Exclamations spread round faster than fire. Just to give you a reference on how ridiculous this sounds, a Hero-Honda (the Honda CB 125 manufactured here) gives on average 70 km-a-liter. A friend of mine managed an incredible 140 km on a single liter with this bike. This is my cue to depart. I slip the side stand of the Gold, fire the 4-pack, engage into first and slowly move away past mystified Tamilians. Before they have the time to shout and scream I am thundering down the road.

Another couple of dozen kilometers and I finally arrive in Tiruvanamalai. You recognize the place from quite a distance as it is overshadowed by a large and funny two-peak hill. As you enter the town take you pass by an ashram on the left, and soon reach a ‘Y’ junction. If you take the right fork you’ll go by the front of the temple and its crowded street, fine if you wish to visit the temple, which is worth it. Else the left hand road will take you via the back of the temple. Recommended if you want to get on with the rest of the trip. As you come round the temple you now have to take a deviation to the left. Careful at the next junction, take the Gingee/Tindivanam road on the right. Going straight takes you further north to Velure. Basically if you start to get out of town with the mountain on your left then you got the wrong road. If you turned right at the junction you should reach the Gingee road, which you need to take on the left to get out of town. If you turn right, there is the famous “Modern Café” which has succulent idlis and dosais. Worth the break. Impossible with the Gold. Gingee is a large village with a crossroad and some large boulders that dots its surrounding countryside. You go straight through. Another 30 kms and you arrive in the small town of Tindivanam. There is now a deviation on the left once you enter the town which saves you the ride through the market road. 2 years ago I was in the thick of it and did the 400 m of the market road in first gear with both feet on the ground. The road circles round the market back to the junction with the Chenai (got it right this time)-Madurai highway. They now have a flyover that eliminates this cross road. After Tindivanam you are on the home run. Another 30km of pristine Tamilian road. The entrance to Pondy is past the large hospital complex of Gipmer. Grand avenues have now been built that take you the last few kilometers to the sea front town with its French character.

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All text and photographs are copyright © Grant and Susan Johnson, 1987-, or their respective authors. All Rights Reserved.