Arteries carry blood from our heart to different parts of the body. If one of them gets blocked and the blockage is not removed by surgery, the consequences can be serious, often leading to a heart attack. Major highways connecting large cities are a country’s arteries; smaller roads leading to towns and villages are the veins which also contribute to a nation’s economic health. Of what I have seen and heard of the state of our highways should be a cause of serious concern to all Indians.
General Khanduri, when he was in Vajpayee’s Cabinet, did a commendable job linking our cities with dual highways. But no sooner were they laid, the unpredictable increase in motorised traffic made them out-dated. Last month, I happened to be on the most prestigious of our highways, NH-1. Being escorted by the Haryana police, I had a smooth and speedy journey. But I passed traffic holds extending to over 30 minutes with no signs of movement. Till last year, friends from Chandigarh often came to dine with me in Kasauli because they could cover the distance in one-and-a-half hours. This year, very few were willing to risk the ordeal of being four hours on the way up and another four on way back.
Highways in Uttar Pradesh are in worse shape. My daughter, who has a house in Ranikhet, usually stops for the night in a midway town. Till last year she was able to do the second half of the journey in four-and-a-half hours. This year, it took her nine hours to cover the same distance.
I hear the same kind of stories about roads connecting Mumbai to Pune and Goa, and Karnataka, particularly Bangalore. At one time, Andhra Pradesh, under Chandrababu Naidu’s chief ministership, had made spectacular progress in modernising its roads in Hyderabad and Visakhapatnam. I am not sure if the successes have kept the pace set by him.
What we need urgently is not dual highways but four, preferably six roads running parallel to each other and reserved for vehicles depending on their speed: one for cars and motorcycles, a second for buses, trucks, tankers and the third one for slower traffic like bicycles. All should be fenced to keep our pedestrians, cattle and dogs safe. And this should now be treated as high priority because our future prosperity depends on good highways.
The appearance of a new book by Amitav Ghosh has to be a literary event in the English-speaking world. So his 9th novel, titled Sea of Poppies (Penguin-Viking) will be a cause of celebration particularly in India because he is a fellow Indian and the novel is about India. The remarkable thing about him is that while other celebrated writers have their ups and downs from turning out a masterpiece or two and sinking into mediocrity, Ghosh has yet to produce anything that anyone would denigrate as second-rate. He has gone from the highly readable to the unputdownable. Sea of Poppies is rivetingly readable.
Amitav Ghosh has yet another distinction: every one of his novels combines a wealth of information dexterously camouflaged as a story. In one, he informed his readers of how the malarial mosquito was identified (The Calcutta Chromosome). In The Hungry Tide, he gave a vivid picture of the tiger-infested Sunderbans and its humans. Sea of Poppies tells you of opium — how and why the white poppies that yield different grades of opium were grown in eastern Uttar Pradesh on the orders of the white sahibs, processed in Ghazipur, taken down the Ganga to Calcutta from where it was shipped to China yielding enormous incomes to the white nabobs of the East India Company. The novel is set in the time the British had the entire subcontinent barring Punjab under their heels. The white man’s word was the law of the land.
The story starts in a village close to Ghazipur. Villagers have been ordered to grow white poppies and bring opium to the factory at Ghazipur where it is graded and packed for shipping. Since they can no longer grow food crops, they are always hungry, heavily in debt and many turn opium addicts. Their language is Bhojpuri, a musical version of Hindi. They are also caste-ridden and superstitious. Sati is still the end of many opium-sodden widows. The heroine of the novel is one rescued from her husband's pyre.
The scene shifts to Calcutta: profligate zamindar, self-styled Raja, his heir-apparent mistress who combines dancing with exquisite sex. He falls out with a sahib and is convicted for forgery. There are other Sahibs living in palatial houses, attended to by hordes of servants. Their speech is an incredible mixture of English, Hindustani and Bengali, liberally sprinkled with obscenities and incestuous abuse. It takes a few paragraphs to work out exactly what they mean. But it is good fun.
When the Chinese impose a ban on opium import, the British in righteous anger declare war on them in the name of free trade. They were among the first to banish slavery — also the first to do the same in the name of indentured labour to develop farming in distant colonies like Mauritius.
Most of the main characters come together aboard schooner Ibis which sets sail from Calcutta carrying a load of indentured labourers, convicts and roughnecks who man the sail boat bound for Mauritius. There are stories within stories, murders, sadistic practices and, needless to say, a lot of sex. And this is only the first of a trilogy of novels from the pen of a most gifted storyteller. Strongly recommended.
Written on a wall in one small town of Meghalaya is a sign that reads: ‘You must pay for your sins.’ Underneath in smaller but still legible print, someone has added: ‘If you have already paid, please do disregard this notice.’
(Contributed by Reeten Gangauly, Tezpur)