July 14, 2009

Spring cleaned desert

At Ahmedabad, we veer away from NH-8 and the GQ, taking state highways through the rest of Gujarat and into Rajasthan. Two surprises await.

First, the state highway to Palanpur is excellent. It's every bit as smooth as NE-1, the wondrous yet utterly boring expressway from Baroda to Ahmedabad.

But more surprising is the road on the last leg into Rajasthan, slicing due northwest from Disa to Sanchor. In our entire journey to Jaisalmer, this stretch is the worst: about 70 hellish kilometres of gaping holes gouged in the surface of the road. The trucks coming towards us, as trucks do on such roads, give us not even an inch of "side". So each time, we have to drive onto the shoulder and hope it won't crumble.

A nightmare, and not just because we are on it late at night. It's the kind of road I took buses to college on, in the '70s. (Back when buses were mostly how you took to the road). There were no better highways, then.

So it is indeed very late at night, it's been 12+ hours driving, and it suddenly begins raining like the heavens are intent on emptying tonight. 3:30am, unable to drive faster than a crawl because of the rain and inky dark, we finally pull off the road in the fast-asleep village of Dhorimanna, short of Barmer. Nothing visible but the rain and a few other stopped vehicles. Lean the seats back and catch some shuteye.

Not long, because dawn comes early, and in the wake of the rain, it's a washed-clean dawn that I cannot get enough of. Under a still overcast sky and in this desert landscape, the colours -- flaming red clothes on women, the brilliant blue neck of a peacock flashing from a tree, purple turban of an old man who cadges a ride with us -- are especially stark and deep. Wet along the roads, the sand caked down, rivulets running off everywhere, the steely shades of grey in the sky: this is not at all what I had imagined driving into Jaisalmer -- across the Rajasthan desert into Jaisalmer -- would be like.

This is even better than I had imagined it would be like.

And so we zip past the crumbling fort in Fatehgarh, then a sequence of enormous windmills waving gently at us. We're getting closer and closer to Jaisalmer. In my mind, an image starts taking shape, of the way the famous golden fort on the hill is going to look this morning: clean and brilliant, lines etched against those shades of grey in the sky, the gold more vivid like every other colour around us is more vivid. Thirty years and counting after I saw the film, Satyajit Ray's Sonar Kella is going to come alive for me. I'm tingling with the anticipation of the way it will come alive, in the wake of this rain.

Or is that just the cold after the downpour?

Whatever it is, twenty minutes short of Jaisalmer the clouds break, the sun shines through, the air swiftly warms up. The disappointment is crushing. The colours around us go back to being just the usual, and the delicious picture in my mind begins to fade. And when we see the fort for the first time, it's ... well yes, golden and all, it is a fine sight sitting on that hill.

But not as fine as it might have been.

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