Pandemic Perambulations

When a distant relative calls you to a distant location to sign a NoC for a property where your share is 0, you yawn and procrastinate. If the push comes to a shove, ask distant relative to send across the document and sign on the dotted lines. But these were different times. After 6 months of pandemic enforced house arrest, I was looking at the smallest excuse to travel out. Train journeys are usually more enjoyable than air travel, but with Indian Railways only running 0 numbered special trains, I was not sure if the Railways would manage to reach me to my destination. I went ahead and got self booked on the Pune Patna flight. In a conversation with my barber a few days later, I was informed that getting a Pune Patna train ticket was easy, but the reverse journey was booked till 2021. The Biharis were getting bored of WFH. And since trains were running full, our migrant labour was flying back instead of train-ing.

Spice Jet sent me a curt text message a few hours before the departure of the flight. The flight that was to take me from Pune to Delhi was cancelled. Not enough labourers to fill up the flight. And in their wisdom, they put me on an evening flight, expecting me to stay overnight at IGI Airport for an early morning departure to Patna. Called up the SpiceJet call center. I have been used to IVR systems in call centers, so finding a Siri kind of voice replying was unnerving. Not sure of the AI, I spoke for 15 minutes to Siri and explained how I don’t fancy spending nights in airports, and how I had a mission to accomplish, which was going to be aborted because of this rescheduling. The AI worked.

Siri replied back, “Cut down all that crap. Is this about rescheduling?’.

‘Yes, yes, yes’ I said, reminding myself to offer a chadar at Khishti saab’s dargah in acknowledgment of the powers of AI.

‘Transferring you to a human operator.’

The human operator was competing with Siri in following a strict algo based protocol even in such dire emergencies. The human operator had been sent to a 6 month training course by the sarkaari Airport Authorities of India on ‘How to dissuade foolish travelers from profiting airlines.’ After an hour-long conversation, the human operator put me on to a very very early morning flight to Delhi to ensure that I catch the connecting late afternoon flight to Patna.

I had been aware of pilot checklists before take off, but was glad to see how seriously airlines were taking safety. Was given a 10 page passenger checklist which I had to complete in the space of the few hours that remained before the flight. So the Arogya Setu app was loaded (With Location off in Android settings, so that the dictators in Delhi were unaware of the peregrinations of this Pune bird.) Health declaration forms were filled in. Boarding passes and luggage tags printed. All set to go.

The Missus and daughter were woken up early next morning, to accord a ceremonial departure ceremony at Pune airport. In contrast to all the fuss at the call center, the airport guys were cool. The security guy was ensconced in a plastic cage and you had to paste the ticket, the phone and the ID on the walls of the cage. And lest I forget, unmask yourself to prove that the person in the ID is the real you. Very soon I expect that the security guys will revert to the ancient practice of fingerprinting. Next stop was the X ray machine. All my travel is with a single shoulder bag, there was no need to go to the checked in baggage X ray. Dumped my bag with the wallet, the mobile phone, and the undergarments on the belt of the pre boarding X Ray machine. Caveman style, the security guy pushed the baggage in using a long stick.

Was handed over a face shield. Aisle and window seat passengers were lucky, but the middle row passengers were also handed over a plastic designer dress for in flight use. Suitably masked and shielded, I walked down the aerobridge to board the flight. The face shield distorts reality enough to lull everyone into believing that all izz well. Made the shield horizontal as soon as I was seated, to return back to the undistorted world. The air hostess noted this naughtiness almost immediately – and I was immediately reprimanded. To add to the woes, was asked to pull mask above nose. All my protests about how I would suffocate because of A DNS were ignored. Rules are rules, you see.

Landed at Delhi airport. The security guys there were not keen to see me either. They encouraged me to have a Delhi darshan in the time that it took for the next flight to take off. I managed to convince them that I had explored every nook of Delhi – and was more than happy to explore every shopping area in the many hours that I had to spend at the airport. The good news at T3 was that they had spread single chairs all over the airport, so you can sit in splendid isolation and meditate. Actually ruminate. I find airport food difficult to digest – mostly because of the price. So was carrying kilograms of fruits with me. I became part of the global slow food revolution as I lazily munched and ruminated over every fruit piece, prolonging my maskless state.

Finally the time arrived for the Delhi Patna flight. Nothing to report. Totally uneventful. Trust the Biharis to not be perturbed by such small things in life as pandemics. The Patna airport folks were happy to let you out. One temperature check was all it took. Not one of the thousands of security and airline folks that I encountered in the journey bothered about the GoI’s favourite Setu app.

Distant relative had obliged by sending a car across for the 120 km journey home. As I waited outside the airport, was happy to note that the electric rickshaws were present in their usual numbers. The policemen were urinating on the airport walls as usual. Felt nice to be back to a part of the world where life went on as usual. The traffic jam over the Gandhi setu was less than usual though, probably because the second bridge was open. But the jams before the bridge were usual. Took two hours to exit Patna – and two more hours to reach the destination – Samastipur.

Samastipur is your typical North Indian small town. As with most other towns, garbage and roads go hand in hand. The roads are very few and very narrow. Access to houses is through alleys (Like the desi connotation – gully better. The word gully exists in English too, though it means a trench or ravine there.) One of the advantages of gullies is it encourages people to walk. Another advantage is that in India’s hot summers the gully tends to be quite cool. And also the houses in the gully, because the walls don’t heat up.

The alleys/gullies are just about 1.5 metres in width, which does not allow any garbage collection vehicle to reach houses. So people end up throwing solid waste into drains meant only for sewage water. Or slightly better, they dump their garbage in the middle of the road. That’s fair to shop keepers on both sides of the road, even if it is unfair to the pedestrians and vehicles that have to navigate through the muck. A decade ago, when the average duration of electric supply was a few hours a day, I remember the town would pay for private electricity. The culture of paying to get something is universal, but the culture of paying to get rid of something is alien to Bihari culture. Am waiting for a Bihari entrepreneur to start roadside composting plants. The fields are not too far away!!

The sage-jester Parkinson’s observation that every person rises to his level of incompetence applies to the business of my distant relative. An entrepreneur has to have the right mix of capital people skills and risk management. Ideally, all three, but even if one is missing, some introspection is required. One solution is to get a partner who has got complementary skills, though this should happen early on in entrepreneurship.

Getting employment after quitting business becomes difficult as you age. Learnability decreases, salary expectations and personal costs increase. When you are in business you don’t have a boss. None can fire you. So the decision about quitting business is as bad as many other decisions that characterize a poor businessman. They end up delaying the inevitable. Sometimes, all the way to their retirement. The business becomes part of the market furniture. Friends and well wishers stop bothering. Post retirement social welfare for this businessman depends on the generosity of relatives. And in the worst case, you sell the sole asset that remains, your house. Business failures need to be drastic!

House sold. Mission accomplished. We started back on the longest single day road journey of my life – the 1100 km from Samastipur to Delhi. We started from 0700 hrs at Samastipur and joined the NH 28 at the taluka town of Tajpur. NH 28 starts from the oil refinery town of Barauni and ends at my birthplace, Lucknow. Less than 10% of people were wearing masks. Heck, even the policemen were roaming around maskless. The first big town that comes on the way is Muzaffarpur. The two lane road becomes a four lane after Muzaffarpur. We missed the left at Motihari. and were halfway to Kathmandu, when we realised our mistake as the road narrowed down.

Was happy to see buses from Patiala running in Bihar. (These were pandemic times, when interstate buses were not running.) Possibly the buses, owned by the dangerously named Khatra bus company, were contracted to migrate the agricultural labour from Bihar to Punjab. What was interesting to note was the presence of AC buses even in Bihar and UP. A sure sign of climate change. On a related note, read that Indian railways plans to convert unreserved coaches to air conditioned ones.

Most of North India is plains, which tend to flood during monsoons. So the highway is now designed as one long hillock, where travellers in their car-chariots and truck trains can look down upon all the poverty of the Bimaru states. And you have longitudinal lakes on both sides of the road. We were travelling in the monsoons, and these lakes were chock full of water. Finding a clean toilet on our highways is always a challenge. You end up going al fresco. Possibly this could be another reason for the overflowing lakes. Stagnant water is an amazing place for mosquitoes to lay eggs. When the Britishers laid down the first rail tracks, it led to a rise in malaria cases. I wonder whether the same applies to today’s NHs.

Of the Bimaru, Bihar continues to be the poorest. Found very few trucks with Bihar registration plates running on Bihar roads. UP and RJ numbers dominate. The fastag culture has not caught on on NH 28, so the fast tag lanes tend to be empty. This helped our Delhi registered Fastag equipped Innova maintain a Rajdhani matching average speed of 70 km per hour.

There is no thought given to pedestrians in road building. Under passes are always better for pedestrians. You only need to go down by 2 m, but for an overbridge the vertical journey is 4 m. Overbridges are mere afterthoughts by the NHAI. Did not see a single person using an overbridge in the entire journey. I liked the new design of the Indian oil pumps. There is a gradual merging in and out of the main road.

Was happy to see tree plantations along the roadside. Definitely helps cool tempers on the road. In the newly constructed 4 and 6 lanes, road divider gaps are where a lot of folks achieve martyrdom. It would be a good idea to do some horticulture so that folks can rest a while before they continue their sprints across roads. I remember, seeing some lovely sunflowers in the middle of the road divider on Nagar road in Pune. In my idle time, I like to wonder whether energy can be extracted out of speed breakers. Another energy idea is median located wind turbines. Am amused to see buses and trucks having wind vanes on the roof. These Perpetual Motion Machines actually increase drag.

Road quality improves as we enter Uttar Pradesh at Gopalganj. Service roads give an added sense of security to the driver. Sometimes I feel it is better to have two lane roads with two service roads on the sides. Should our country have 6 lane roads? I think four lanes are quite Ok, if we prioritize investments in traffic management over road widening. The Gorakhpur Lucknow road is all concrete and 2 lane. One of the advantages of concrete roads is that there are no surprises, no undulations, very few potholes. So the Rajdhani speed matching continued.

A thermal shock greets you when you finish an 18 hour journey in an air conditioned environment. New Delhi seemed much more hot and humid than it actually was. Was greeted at Delhi Metro with sanitizers: for both hands and bags. After spending a few hours in Delhi heat, I head for the cooler climes of Uttarakhand. This time by the Janshatabdi of the Indian Railways. With interstate buses not working, the train was packed. At Haridwar, the train half emptied out. In hindsight, there seemed to be a reason for the emptying out. The train reached Dehradun, 10 minutes before time. We were greeted by ropes on the platform. At a previous station, very nicely named Tapri, I had seen thermal scanners, so I assumed that we would be greeted similarly at Dehradun.

But every station in life treats you differently. As the train arrived at the platform, we were greeted with announcements on the PA system. “Stay seated till you are told to move.’ 5 policemen were on guard in front of each compartment. Welcome to the concentration camps of Uttarakhand. Long wait followed as the train emptied one compartment at a time. The ubiquitous thermal scan followed, though I haven’t seen a single person being thrown out based on thermal scans. Pulse oximeters are better – but more cumbersome – have seen them being used very rarely. There was a pandal to welcome Delhi’s railway baraatis. In its wisdom the Uttarakhand government had deputed 3 panels of paramedics for checking a full train load of passengers. My line for the second sitting class ticket holders was the longest. After a few eons of waiting and gossiping with my fellow Bihari labourers, apna number aaya. The conversation went something like this:

Babu – Dad’s name,

Me – K Gopal

Babu – What brings you to Dehradun?

Me  – Business meeting. (This was considered an acceptable answer, as I had been coached on this beforehand by my Dehradun business partner.)

Babu – Where are you going to stay?

Me – No hotel booking. (This shocked the babu – who had a cardiac arrest. To cool babu down, gave him the contact number of business partner, and assured him that if all hotels turn me down, he could find me at the partner’s place.)

Babu – Aadhar card?

Me – Showed him my aadhar card. (Time for second cardiac arrest.)

Babu – You are from Pune. Do you know it is red zone? (Made it sound like the entire district was a red light district – and here I was trying to spread the world’s oldest profession in the devbhoomi of Uttarakhand.)

End of conversation. Time now for the decision. In the Nazi concentration camps, the doctors would look at you and based on their assessment of health, they would send all guys to the left directly to the gas chambers, and the ones on the right for labour camps – and later on maybe the gas chambers. The Uttarakhand concentration camp transport was a line of buses waiting to fill up the gas chambers. Those who had come here for work, and that included most of my Bihari friends, were being given hand written parchas making them sarkaari guests for an unknown number of days. For some of the lucky few – the army folks, the young uns who had come to appear for some sarkaari exams, there was an exemption – and they were allowed to walk out unaccosted. And there were some who they could not make up their mind on, like yours truly. A printed slip was handed over. Two illegible rubber stamps were pressed on the back of the hand. And I was let go. I read the slip as I walked out. A tick was marked in front of the box which said – Home quarantine.

So now time for the homeless to start searching for homes. Reached my usual abode – Hotel Sangam, which is a 500 m walk from the hotel. Aggression being the best form of defence, I started by complaining to the receptionist that the hotel phone was not being picked up. A shrug of the shoulders was the only answer I got. He was busy checking in a couple into their room. Having done that, he turned to me to enquire what brings me here. He was surprised to know that Punekars were even allowed into devbhoomi. On discovering that the Punekar in question was not Covid tested, he went up and locked all the open rooms – and put up a housefull board. Aggression strategy – cholbe na. Switched to grovelling. Allah ke naam pe dede, baba. This worked better. It did not yield the room, but he condescended to inform me that there was a hotel Pabbu down the lane which might shelter me.

As the night became darker, the walking continued – and no signs of Hotel Pabbu. But 200 m down the road, I did come across a Hotel Prabhu, and hypothesized that masks can transform Prabhu into Pabbu, so this was my guy. I walked in confidently and accosted the person at the reception. The person looked like he was the owner himself. The usual cat and mouse game restarted. I talked about the excellent reference the hotel had received from his competitor. Manager disbelieved this claim. I talked about how I have been a big benefactor to the Dehradun hotel industry – why Hotel Daichi, where I stayed last, had yet to refund me my advance of 6 months ago. The cat asked the mouse about the statutory Covid certification. This time the mouse went on the frontfoot – and Mickey Mouse told the cat that Minnie Mouse was actually a pathologist, but Mickey is a nature therapy freak – and so does not do unnecessary tests. The cat and mouse game continued for a few more minutes – and the businessman inside the cat won. The mouse finally checks in.

The morning dawned. Was blessed to receive a towel from the hotel management. Even more blessed to find my favourite Chetan Puri open for their sumptuous breakfast. Walked down to say hi to my partner. The first question partner asks me is about my future travel plans. Did I know that interstate buses are not working. And the trains are all overflowing. I contemplated taking a bus to the border and doing a padayatra from there. I was informed that there was a blackmarket in interstate taxis which I could participate in. And then enlightenment dawned – to check out bla bla car, the ride sharing service. There were 2 cars operating the Dehradun Chandigarh route that evening. Decided to take the early evening one. Found out later that the late evening one was the same as the early evening one, registered under a different user name.

The tariff was a reasonable Rs. 600. After finishing the booking, I got a call from the owner. The blackmarket rate was Rs. 1500. The 600 was mentioned only to comply with Bla bla ceilings for tariffs. The car was an Ertiga – all packed up already, last seat left. Was asked to give money in advance via Google Pay. Protested about my abstinence from online payments. Took a lot of convincing to get that last seat reserved.

Had good company en route to Chandigarh, a retired nurse. She told me stories about how she managed both work and home. About how she had the perspicacity to divide her bungalow plot  into 3 parts. Two for her sons, one she stays on her own, all alone after the death of her husband. Was going to Chandigarh to spend time with her daughter – pandemic be damned!

Was greeted by empty offices at Chandigarh. Enjoyed the solitude. Completed my meeting with partner there. Chatted up with other distant relatives. Was fortunate to get dropped off by a Toyota Fortuner to Chandigarh airport. I usually prefer a direct flight from Chandigarh to Pune, but Air India was not flying direct that day. Took a hop via Delhi. At Delhi, was informed that there will be a further hop at Indore. Had the same breakfast 3 times in 3 legs of the flight. The purser was unhappy about my mask slipping below nose level. So made him happy for the 10 minutes that elapsed between his warning and breakfast being served. Wonder can we have special masks which allow viruses to not escape during meal times?

Pune airport was a breeze. Was made to fill in a self declaration form certifying that I am virus free. At the PMC counter where I had to submit the form, the guy grabbed my hand, with no romantic intentions I daresay, and stamped the usual home quarantine stamp. Took the PMT bus home. Was instructed by Minnie Mouse to wash my hands. Coming out, I found that the quarantine had magically washed itself off. All that was left was home.