To be at Aligarh Muslim University by half past nine in the morning to take up a new assignment as a professor, I set off from Gurgaon at six sharp. In 45 minutes, one was across the Delhi-Noida Delhi toll plaza.
In another 15 minutes, I swirled on to the Taj Expressway, the overhead sign indicating “Agra 184 km”.
The sun was just rising. On both sides of the eight-lane highway, vast openness with green wheat fields stretched across endlessly. The road was almost empty, hardly any vehicle in sight.
I dropped the front windows to feel the cool spring breeze. Cruising at 100 km an hour, with foot pressed lightly against the gas paddle, the car and self were in perfect harmony.
I was reminded of my maiden trip to Agra, in a Fiat, a quarter century ago. It was a five-hour ordeal from Delhi, through a series of townships. Comparing with the past, I felt upbeat and convinced, about “India Shining” being a reality. It took 30 minutes precisely to cover 50 km up to the Aligarh exit, without having to shift gear or honk even once.
The drive was on a par with the best I have experienced overseas. The toll of 100 did not pinch, as the journey was value for money.
As I got on to the Aligarh-Palwal road at Tappal, there was a sudden jolt, as if one had hit an air pocket. The car was rumbling as it negotiated one pothole after another. In spite of the safety belt, I was tossing in my seat.
Nostalgic memories of the remote border roads of Ladakh and the North East, where one spent better part of years in uniform, came back alive.
The real horror began on reaching Jatari. Navigating through this township choked by bullock carts, tractor trailers and trucks, all laden dangerously, required the skills of a “master green” pilot. Another midway town, Kher, offered a similar challenge.
My confidence as veteran with 40 years behind the wheel took a hit, as I scratched the left side of the hood, leaving an ugly dent, while manoeuvring past a hand cart.
Both towns have police stations but there was not a cop to manage traffic. I was told the chaos is cleared only when a motorcade of a minister or another VIP is scheduled to pass. Even the potholes get a quick fix to give a smooth ride to the privileged class.
It took me almost two hours to cover 50 km barely. By the time I made it to the university, my spirits were dampened and enthusiasm fizzed out. The very thought that I would have to bear the agony frequently, while commuting to and fro, was scary.
The only consolation is likelihood of the highway being repaired on the eve of the general elections.
India undoubtedly has the potential of benchmarking itself by the Taj Expressway brand. Ironically, it is roads like the ones leading to Aligarh that define its image.
A diehard optimist roughing out on this stretch, I imagine having a smooth 45-minute run from Aligarh to the Expressway someday. If only wishes were horses!