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Road to Nowhere, Looking for the Head Man in India

A lot can change in a few generations.

Before I came here to India, my Mum said:

“You must go to Sujangarh where your father was born. And when you do, ask for the ‘Head Man’ – when he hears your surname, he will call out the whole village and they’ll treat you like a king.”

So at dawn, we (driver, Rahul, and I) set out from Delhi and cross the northern part of the state of Haryana and then into Rajasthan. The countryside is arid and monotonous and the driving somewhat interesting, Rahul not being averse to driving the wrong way down a dual carriage-way. We pass through several small towns, seething with humanity – if you can imagine a Caribbean market on a Saturday morning, and then throw in wild pigs, water buffalos, bullocks, camels, rickshaws, trishaws, bicycles and beggars, then you may have some idea. And all of this under a sweltering 100-degree he! at and a wind which feels like a blow-drier on High Heat setting.

The drive is long, and not improved by the fact that Sujangarh is way off the beaten track. There are no tourists, which in some ways is a pleasure, but in others difficult as few people speak English. The road to Sujangarh is around 150 miles north of the regular tourist route into Jaipur, so this is really quite pristine country. Every single person (about 13 million in all) past whom we drive ogles at me as if I was the first visitor they have ever seen – and I probably am.

At Laxmigarh, we stop for a bottle of water. A bald gentleman approaches me, clutching a pile of religious texts written in English. Turns out he is the local Bank Manager.

“Sir,” he says, between betel-stained teeth, “Are you Indian?” “No,” I reply, “But my father was.”

“Yes, sir. Sir, I am Bank Manager, with MA Economics. But I feel that in these days there is not enough spirituality in life, so I am here to distribute magazine and foster spirituality in young peoples”.

He beams and hands me a magazine which attests to the powers of Sri Govendra who specialises in Tantra Mantra Yantra or something similar. We drive on, and I wonder where else in the world one might encounter the town bank manager standing on a street corner, handing out religious literature instead of tending the tills.

On we travel, through dusty countryside, small sand dunes on the sides of the road, for this region is not far from the great Thar Desert. Worse than traffic jams are the camel jams – some of these beasts hauling carts with loads as big as a house. Occasionally, beautiful peacocks cross the road, and here and there a dead carcass adds to the cacophony of smells.

The roads are, for the most part, abysmal – single track, with 2-foot drops on either side of the pot-holed tarmac. Yet, this does not prevent Rahul from over-taking and, after a short while, I become used to the idea of travelling at 50 mph down a single-lane road, with an enormous industrial truck travelling in the opposite direction at a similar speed, and no signs of either driver giving away. Of course, they do, but only at the last minute, after a few heartbeats have been missed. It’s extraordinary that there are not more accidents, though they do say that one person dies on an Indian road every minute.

After 10 long hours, Rahul beams and says:

“Here is Sujangarh!”

I look around me, slightly shocked. It is as one might have imagined a frontier town of the Wild West, but infinitely worse. Wild hogs grunt their way from one side of the dusty road to the other, buffalos and bullocks lie about in the mid-day heat, over-laden trucks thunder past and rickshaws by the hundreds swarm around the centre of the town. Throngs of people go about their business, stall-holders crying out to sell their wares, leprosied beggars lying about on the side of the road.

I go for a stroll around town and think to myself that this is no place to be asking for the Head Man. That would be like riding into Chicago and asking for The Chief. And I definitely do not relish the idea of the village turning out for me. Times have evidently changed since Dad was last here.

I stop at a stall and order a bottle of water and a Fanta Orange. The turbaned stall-holder, an elderly man with crooked teeth and a funny eye, sits cross-legged on a wooden bench and smiles wickedly as he tells me the price. I don’t understand, so another fellow, sprawled out on the ground, raises his head and says in English Thirty Rupees! – about 50 pence. I thank him and, seeing as he speaks English, think I will strike up a conversation with him.

Rather than launch directly into Please will you tell me where I can find the Head Man? I decide to take the more subtle approach:

“Thank you,” I say. “My father was born here, you know.” He spits on the ground, burps and rolls over.

The stall-holder shakes my hand and grins and I wander away, pushing my way through bullocks and pedestrians. After 20 minutes and half a roll of film, I decide that I have probably seen all of Sujangarh that I want and so return to my car for the drive back to Delhi.

We climb in and set off, back across the barren landscape, desert sands interspersed with solitary trees and grazing camels. In the late afternoon, we go through a sandstorm that reduces visibility to practically zero. Then it pours with rain. But, miraculously and incredibly, Rahul manages to avoid hitting anything.

It grows dark and we continue towards Delhi, trucks with full-beam headlights thundering towards us, head-on, from the opposite direction. The greatest hazards are the ones with no lights – trucks, motor cycles, camel trains. Imagine a collision with an unlit camel train in the middle of the night.

We approach the town of Rewari and now, 16 hours into our journey, I start to dream about my hotel room with air conditioning and TV and a bathroom. Towards the centre of town, our side of the road appears to be blocked, so Rahul veers away to pass through on the right side of the road. Immediately, another barrier appears in front of us and four burly policemen, all armed with large cudgels, spring into the road and unleash a torrent of Hindi at Rahul. Hindi being a language which is interspersed with English words, I am able to understand the occasional word, and I hear “accident” mentioned several times. Rahul looks terrified.

A policeman clambers into the back seat and shouts something at Rahul who drives across the road and parks the car at a police post where about a dozen officers are lounging on mattresses. They leap up and surround us. I gather that, about 4 kilometres back up the road from where we have come, a motorcycle has been hit by a car – and it appears that we are being accused of causing the accident.

Rahul is ordered from the car whilst I remain in the passenger seat. Through the window, I can see wild gesticulations and hear a lot of shouting. After a few minutes, a policeman beckons to me to get out of the car, which I do. At once, 3 policeman usher me to a chair and motion for me to sit down. A plain-clothes policeman approaches me and smiles. “Can I get you some iced water? Or maybe some tea? No? A coffee?” They are friendlier than the staff at my hotel but this does not re! lieve my sense of anxiety. They look menacing, more so than the police I have encountered in Venezuela, and I feel that they will not baulk at using their cudgels if need be. Poor Rahul, who is about 2 feet shorter than any of them, clasps his hands in supplication and starts pleading with them, on his knees.

They place the vehicle under a bright light and inspect the passenger side which has a few scratches from close encounters with undergrowth. There are excited shouts, and the police start pointing at the scratches. The one who speaks English turns to me and says “There, this is the proof that it is this vehicle which was in accident with motorcycle”. I protest that this is impossible since I have been in the passenger seat and would have been aware of any accident. But he simply puts his hand on my shoulder and smiles and offered me a cup of chai.

One of the policeman suddenly comes to me and says:

“Go, quickly!”

I am confused and stall but Rahul grabs me by the arm, leads me back to the vehicle and in we get and then drive off at high speed. The encounter has cost him 500 Rupees (about $US 12). This is Saturday night in Rewari – I learn later that the police set the road blocks every half an hour or so, accuse half a dozen vehicles of causing some imaginary accident and then extort money. The only amazing thing, in this case is that, seeing a tourist, the extortion demand did not suddenly increase.

Four hours later, we arrive back in Delhi and I tip Rahul 500 Rupees, take a shower and go to bed. The Sujangarh of today is a world apart from the Sujangarh of 1915 when my father was born. But I’m glad I went. I saw today where he was born, and had a bit of adventure along the way. Recently, another English tourist, driving past the scene of an accident, picked up an injured child and rushed her to hospital. He was imprisoned for a week for his troubles.

Narendra Sethia

Narendra Sethia is an accomplished sailor who lives in the Caribbean.