Sunday, August 17, 2008

A drive in the rain ... and a plunge into the water

Seven months of swearing, being sworn at, honking, being honked at, crawling through traffic, and swerving around unannounced autos and jaywalkers, on Pune's crater-laden deathtraps should not be anyone's first seven months of driving. But it was mine. Nothing to be done about it now but say it's been a character-building experience. And then again, as someone said, "We can't have the happiness of yesterday without the pain of today." Or, for that matter, the happiness of the evening of August 8th, 2008, without the pain of the seven months preceding it. For that's the evening I drove on a road that seemed to me as broad as a Tendulkar bat in defence, as smooth as a lap of Spa-Francorchamps with Kimi Raikkonen, and as beautiful as any in a Wim Wenders film. A road with no intersections, no speed bumps or potholes, and no cyclists (motored or pedalled) or pedestrians tempting fate; above all, a road quiet enough to often stretch out to the horizon with no other vehicle in sight.

On this road, that evening, we set out to Khopoli. It was pitch black, and the rain was pouring down. We had one eye on the fuel gauge, as the petrol bunks we'd intended to stop at were out of fuel. The air-conditioning was off; the car buffeted about by the winds of the open windows. What we could see was limited to the beam of the headlights, and the glowing red of the taillights of distant cars. Until, that is, an occasional flash of lightning revealed menacing hills or vast open spaces - all in ghostly blue light. And "Layla" playing in the background. As pure a feeling as any. Finally, a glimpse of the food mall, and its companion petrol station, in the distance. At least, if the car stopped, we were close enough to walk and get a can.

The petrol station was anti-climactic. Turned out, we had 3 litres of petrol to spare. After all that nail gnawing, anything more than a few drops in the tank was bound to be a disappointment. Fuel-conservation mode over, the windows were up, the AC was on, and the rain hammered the windshield harder than ever. The scream of the engine - a sound I had not thought the little car capable of - with "Stairway to heaven" in the background, as we sometimes touched 140 kph on those deserted miles-long turnless stretches. The thrill of seeing cars faster than ours leave metres-long trails of spray behind; and occasional bursts that seemed to touch the skies, when they hit standing water. More lightning, and more glimpses of hills, and the vastness of the countryside. Then the Ghats, the fog, and crawling along at 40 kph, with the emergency lights on. Out of the fog, with the lights of Khopoli in the valley below. Adieu to the expressway.

The next morning was a thrill of a different kind. Started with a resolution not to go to the waterfalls, due to Bad Cold. This changed to "Ok, I'll see the falls, but will stay out of it." The others in shorts or track pants, and floaters; me in rain jacket, boots, and cotton trousers. Walking through the rain and the streams meant that the trousers got as wet as can be, and the boots were spouting water with every step I took. But the jacket kept the head and the upper body dry. The thundering of the falls announced itself well before we ever saw it. Five minutes of clicking pictures of my friends in the water.

Unable to resist any further, I took off my jacket, shoved my camera into my bag, and went down to the water. A wall of cold and spray thwarted my first two attempts. And then I sat shivering on a rock, with my back to the falls, unable to turn my face to it due to the force of the spray. A climb through treacherously slippery rocks to a second waterfall. Even closer to the falls this time, so even more thrilling. The rain hardened, and we made our way back. Stopped at a temple, and then climbed over railings and into a stream that had a mini rapid. A seat in the rocks that allowed you to sit with the water gushing above, below and all around your head. An experience to rival the one of the night before. A stop for Kanda Bhaji, and then a joyful hello to the expressway as we began the lovely drive back to Pune.