A travelling experience amid pandemic
About a year has passed since I came to Jammu after the weakening of the first wave of Covid-19 and the official opening of the University of Jammu. Since my master’s, I have been frequently travelling on the Jammu-Kishtwar national highway. By the time I joined PhD it was for the third time that I was headed towards my hometown for celebrations of Eid-ul-Fitr. I had a quite different experience during the journey. It was about mid-May in the month of holy Ramadan when after having sahoor (the meal also called sehri taken before the observance of each fast), I called over the cab driver at 4:45 am. He arrived at 5:00 am but refused to move towards Gandhi Nagar MCH hospital where we were supposed to pick up Rabia (my cousin and a nice companion, who works as a staff nurse) from her night shift and take her along. After many requests and arguments, the driver agreed.
Dawn was breaking gradually and the sound of raindrops was having a musical effect when Ammi and I entered the cab. Two passengers were already sitting. The one at the front was in his late 30s and the other sitting at the back was a teenager. As the second wave of Covid-19 had hit the region hard, everyone in the cab was wearing a mask, using sanitiser, and maintaining a bit of social distancing. Once we reached Gandhi Nagar, we were not able to find the hospital for quite a while. The driver was angry at this as he wanted to start the journey early. Everyone wants to start a journey with positive vibes and a cheerful atmosphere, but his rudeness spoiled our mood. Finally, we managed to reach out to Rabia somehow, who also had to face some trouble in getting out of the hospital in time for the cab.
With renewed cheer and optimism, we initiated the journey at 6: 00 am through the National Highway 44 (NH44). Previously known as NH-7, this is the longest (3,745 km) National Highway in India. It covers the North-South corridor of the National Highways Development Project (NHDP), connecting Srinagar (Kashmir) in the north with Kanyakumari in the south. The cab picked up speed after we crossed the Sidhra Bridge over the Tawi river. This is the main (seasonal) river that flows through district Jammu. Whenever I am about to leave Jammu city, I feel like heading towards a different world as there are major differences in topography, climate, vegetation, infrastructure, roads, technology, and many other aspects between Jammu and my hometown.
Gradually, it stopped raining. The bathed roads and swinging leaves were lifting our mood. It seemed like a fairyland where the wind was blowing slowly, the sky was filled with nimbostratus (rain) clouds, and on the right bank of the road, pink flowers of Thevatia (a rare variety of Thevetia; the common one has yellow flowers) were the season’s attraction in this weather. After crossing the bridge, 2-3 layers of flat mountains on the right side were waving at us. Moving towards the mountains at our front was fascinating, as if they would engulf us after some time. The Jammu hills mostly comprise the Shivaliks, the main mountain range in the sub-Himalayan region.
After some time, the eyes began to feel heavy. I wanted to sleep for a while. I had just begun to doze off when I heard the driver saying, ‘Oh no! There is naka (checkpoint) ahead.’ The traffic police at Nagrota stopped the cab and forced us to move back towards Jammu. The cab was registered with the RTO of Rajouri district and the traffic police was suspicious of us; they didn’t believe us when we said we were heading to Kishtwar. I think all the strictness was due to the rising cases of Covid-19 in the UT, so that people do not travel without any genuine reason. All of us tried our best to convince the police by showing our identity proofs but all in vain.
After losing hope with the traffic police, I dialled the number of Dr Nazia Rasool Latifi, who apart from being my relative (khala) is a renowned professor and a very nice human being. She was the first person who came to my mind in this situation as her husband is Superintendent of Police (SSP). In Ramadan, everyone wants to have a good nap in the morning, but she stayed awake to help us and constantly remained in contact with us till the time the SSP Traffic Jammu, Shiv Kumar Sharma, was contacted and the Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) at Nagrota was informed to let us go. Finally, thanks to the Almighty and Nazia khala, we breathed a sigh of relief and went past the checkpoint.
The sun’s twinkling rays started peeping out of the tree leaves and branches, swaying over the face on and off, while a cool breeze blew. The beautiful sharp-edged Jammu hills (part of Shivalik range) were touching the sky at their pointed triangular tips. Everyone in the cab was discussing the event that had occurred at Nagrota with a smiling face as if a big hurdle had been removed. The passenger at the front said, “If you would not have tried, we might be back in Jammu right now.” Everyone laughed. All of us began sharing some unique experiences of travelling, except the boy at the backseat. He seemed shy or was perhaps busy with the music he was listening to. The passenger sitting beside the driver’s seat was his uncle. After a while I saw the boy sleeping with the earphones plugged in. I realized that this was the first time while travelling on this route (that too early in the morning) that I didn’t sleep at all. Otherwise, I used to sleep at least for the two initial hours. Ammi and Rabia were also keenly discussing some interesting events with energetic smiles. In this genial air, I took a long breath and took out my notebook and pen to pen down the experience.
At 7:25 am, we reached Udhampur, a district in Jammu province located in the Shivalik range. It was founded by Raja Udham Singh and serves as the Northern Command Headquarters of the Indian Army. The main city comprises the plain areas (756 masl) with a sub-tropical climate, though the upper reaches may experience snowfall in the winter season. Udhampur is linked to Jammu via both road and railway. Railway connection was started in 2005 when the first train, Uttar Sampark Kranti Express ran from Udhampur to New Delhi. The Rrailway track has been laid up to Katra, a place from where the trek to Mata Vaishno Devi shrine begins. From Katra to Banihal, the track still remains to be laid to complete the Jammu-Baramulla line. Northern Railway Construction Organisation is working on connecting Srinagar with Udhampur.
Here, pleasant weather could be witnessed with a few pine trees and mixed varieties of Thevetia on the right side. Most shops were closed due to the prevailing pandemic. The same was the scenario in Kud (although now a major part of it is bypassed), a place famous for a local sweet “Desi Ghee Patisa”. Patisa, also known as Soan Papdi, is a famous Indian dessert.
Generally, we use to eat different specialties at various places and enjoy having favourites while travelling. However, in Ramadan, thoughts of eating and drinking were absent. This changed the whole scenario of the journey. Also, amidst the pandemic, only a few persons could be seen at otherwise crowded places, wearing single or double masks. Few vehicles on the roads, closed shops, and calmness at all places were having a unique effect on my mind as if this was not the world in which I have lived since my childhood. Sometimes, I think how despite having efficient technologies, research and other advances at the global level, an entity (Coronavirus) which is neither living nor dead, invisible even in the light of a compound microscope, has changed the world. Everyone is scared as the pandemic has taken away many lives. Even if we would be able to contain the virus completely, the psychological impact of this pandemic will remain there for years together.
Again, nimbostratus clouds appeared in the sky which started having a dizzy effect on the mind. However, a state of brightness was immediately attained by focusing on the dim sunrays which were trying to make their way through the clouds. I took out a novel from my bag and started reading from the page where I had left the day before. It was the story of a girl who was disturbed and lost in answering queries about her existence. After reading a sentence, I looked outside the window of the cab and thought about my own life. Do I really know for what purpose I have been created? Whether I am doing what the Creator actually wants me to do? I couldn’t answer my own queries.
A long and narrow patch of the rough road could be witnessed till Chenani, which is mainly characterised by red laterite soil. It took 12 minutes to cross the Chenani-Nashri road tunnel, recently renamed as Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee tunnel after the founder of Bharatiya Jana Sangh and former Minister for Industry and Supply in Jawaharlal Nehru’s cabinet. Its construction started in 2011 and was completed in 2017. It is 9.28 km long and is officially regarded as the longest road tunnel in India. Before the opening of this tunnel, the long road along the Patnitop plateau had to be covered. This tunnel has reduced the distance by 30 km and travel time by two hours. Patnitop is a tourist spot located on the Jammu-Srinagar National Highway, 112 km from Jammu district. It is a hill station (2,024 masl) that resides on a plateau in the Shivalik belt of the Himalayas. From here, the famous Pir Panjal range starts up to Garhwal (Uttrakhand) via Himachal Pradesh. To the south of Pir Panjal range lies the Dhauladhar range which divides the Chenab valley and the Tawi valley in the west. At Nashri, after crossing the tunnel, the road bifurcates, with the straight one leading towards Kashmir and the turn towards Chenab valley.
(To be continued….)
The writer is a research scholar at Department of Botany, University of Jammu. [email protected]