Three constants of a winter morning flight at the Banerjee household…. Too many bags, the cab is late, and sniffles. So many sniffles. It’s a big day. After months of planning and trepidation regarding leave approvals, off to the land of forts we go, via a short detour in the city of the Taj. Sonar Kella, camels and colour beckon us. In the wintry air, there is a whiff of adventure.
The wife, meanwhile gets a different whiff as she clambers onto the cab, finally here, and asks “Does anyone else smell poo?”. I don’t, someone else does, there’s an argument and in minutes, somehow, the conversation has moved on to whether we have packed detergents, and if not, should we? As for me, it’s too early for cohesive sentences, so my contribution is limited to grunts. The sky is clearing up, slowly. It’s a steel gray now, mist clinging to the corners of my vision like cobwebs. As the car pulls out into an oddly deserted Behala Chowrasta, I think “Shit, did I unplug the computer?”
If morning shows the day, we are about to have a shitty day. First, there’s a mild heart attack for everyone involved when the father reaches into his wallet for his id and it’s not there. For thirty seconds, we stand there, staring at each other, no idea what to do. No time to go back and get them, and no reliable forgers nearby.
The were in the wallet. Right next to where he was looking.
Next, I lead the family through a mile-long queue right up to the checking counter, where I am confronted with a very bored, very irritable man who asks “did you get your baggage scanned…” Obviously, we didn’t. I can see his lips trembling, struggling between “idiot” and “sir” to end the sentence. While he decides to go with “sir”, it’s in a tone that leaves no doubt about what he really wants to say.
Finally, after another panic attack due by air turbulence right after we take off, and I am far from relaxed. First, an odd, grating rumble causes some concern, but further investigation reveals the source to be the mother, snoring. I spend the rest of the flight alternating between dozing and listening for squeaks, clicks and other telltale sounds of malfunctioning equipment. One never knows when the screws come off and the wings fly off on their own. Clearly, only my ceaseless vigilance can save them. However, it’s not like I have a plan of what I will do if I actually hear these sounds. I doubt those pretty ladies will drop their tea tray and crawl along the wing with a spanner in hand to fix the screws. They don’t teach that at Frankfinn. They should, though.
Ever since my previous flight where the plane didn’t so much as fall into air pockets as it occasionally peeked out of them, the idea of flying has caused quite a bit of queasiness. I try to distract myself by flipping through the in-flight catalogue and wondering if anyone, ever buys the hideously overpriced junk within. Caps, shirts, and handkerchiefs with the airlines logo on them! Why would anyone buy clothes that just turn them into walking billboards? Oh, I wonder if I have packed my Batman Begins T-shirt. I hope so!
It’s early afternoon when we finally land in the capital. As much as I rail against Delhi, it was still my home. Still is…a little bit. I made friends here. I had a life here. Hell i ate sushi here for the first time. Delhi, you brought sushi into my life and for that, I will always love you. But for now, the car is waiting to take us to Agra, so the lovefest will have to wait.
Ravinder is the man who will be drive us there. Big and beefy (am I still allowed to say that?), with a stubble bordering on a full-fledged beard, he seems like a friendly soul. He will be with us through the entire journey, as he assures us. I just hope the mother doesn’t rub him the wrong way too soon. We do the usual driver-passenger chitchat where we ask who the best kind of tourists are and he dutifully says Bengalis (because of course he does). We also find out he has a wife, two kids, a house that he built himself without anyone’s help thank you very much, and has traveled all over, including road trips to Kolkata. Well, Howrah, actually, but that’s basically the same right? Oh no no no, we wail in unison, aghast that anyone can visit Howrah and rest in the belief that he has seen Kolkata.
A small stop for typical Delhi tea, strong and sweet and heavily smelling of ginger and cardamom, and assurance that there’s really no chance of reaching Agra in less than six hours, and we begin our journey proper.
Hours later, at around five, and we pull into a roadside dhaba for a really late lunch. More a linner, actually (Shut up. If brunch is a word, so is linner). The wind is a kind of cold that bites hard and digs in, chilling me to my bones in spite of the jacket I have on. Other than the dhaba, it’s empty for miles around, with the smooth, black road disappearing into both ends of the horizon. We are hungry and grateful for the rest-stop. We have been looking for a decent place for a while, but so far, our only options were shoddy eateries, with far fewer roofs or walls than we thought appropriate. This, however, is a proper restaurant, although sadly vegetarian. Also it’s called Vinntage Haveli. Yes, with the two “n”s. I don’t know why, and it’s rude to ask.
The Parents order thali, which is incredibly generous, with vibrantly colored sabzis and daal. The food tastes as appetizing as it looks, especially to six hungry travelers far from home. Everything glistens with butter and covered in white rivulets (ewwww!!) of fresh cream (ummmmm!). The vegetable is a medley of green peas and yellow bell peppers and red chilis and light, translucent cauliflowers. The daals are two different shades of ochre, buttery and filling. Me and the wife order gobi paratha and aloo dum. We top it off with Kheer, and continue our journey.
There are no words to adequately describe the feeling of tearing down National Highway 2 on our way to Agra . It’s 7:30 and the fog is settling in, just starting to turn the road ahead into a soupy mix of yellow headlights and bright orange taillights. The cold has real teeth now, even with all windows rolled up and the heater humming. I can’t even imagine what it would be like outside. I’m light headed – a combination of lack of sleep and the motion of the car is making my eyelids droop but I can’t take my eyes of the hypnotic monotony of the road ahead as it rolls by under our wheels. The horizon is a diffused laser show. There’s a strange smell, here one moment, gone the next. We pass a couple by, on a bike, the woman in a sparkly orange saree and little else snuggling close to the man for warmth and protection – simply from the biting wind, or something else? In the open road, in the bitter cold, on the icy chill, the greatest solace is that somewhere ahead, there is a destination. And we approach it, one turn of the wheel after the other.