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Getting The Feel Of Pir-Panchals
By Tajamul Hussain
Maybe for a first time visitor to Kashmir valley the journey on the Jammu-Srinagar national highway is simply breathtaking. Driving beside the Chenab River, as he climbs it, falls beneath him into gorge, littered with the dingy goujar kothas, logs, drift wood and huge rocks. This is a kind of dream come true experience for him. The ravishing scenic beauties, the vast expanses of plush green paddy fields, the captivating canopies (of pine forests) and valleys, cascading waterfalls, deep gorges and broken view, receding planes of diminishing color and mind-boggling skyscape and landscape, all thrill him.

But then the journey is not that fascinating for they who frequently travel on this high way. For them the highway is an ensemble of phobias, whether it's hodophobia (travel) or kopophobia(fatigue) or acrophobia(high places) or bathophobia (depth) or scotophobia (darkness) or laustrophobia( enclosed spaces) or thaasophoba( being idle) or phobobia(fatigue) or panophobia(everything). Every year scores of deaths and injuries are reported on the highway. During winters the highway remains mostly blocked. The upshot: for traders/black-marketers/hoarders in the valley these are the days of piss and vinegar.

Fingers always remain crossed when you plan your travel on the highway. You never know how weather gods would behave on the date of your journey. Kind of on-tenterhooks, you rear all the apprehensions on earth whether or not you reach safe and on time, and catch your train for the journey beyond Jammu. A nine to ten hours journey can turn out to be a qyamat saaay qyamat long journey of days together. People play safe. They normally halt for night at Jammu and resume journey (by train) the next evening.

Once in a blue moon when the wrath of the cannibalistic highway visits upon the poor travelers, everything goes ulta pulta. Passengers caught, and kept stranded in their vehicles on the highway, in the snow blizzards, avalanches and landslides have their tale of horror to relate, and that too when they survive to do so. Heavy snowfall and the attendant slip caused due to the glassy ice smeared on the roads, lead to the closure of the highway for traffic, sine die. Massive landslides, here and there, create traffic gridlock. And in the specter of chaos humans turn into maggots. Eatables grow scarce as hen's teeth. A cup of tea, a piece of bread, a pint of hot water or a kilogram of charcoal for Kangri (hot pot) on the highway sells like gold.

Last time I traveled by RTC bus on the highway was on a Siberian Chilla Kalan morning. At the cock's crow of that day when I rolled out of the bed to peer out of the window, the earth, roof- tops, stark naked poplars and willows were all painted white with frost. The sky that suddenly grew thickly clouded gave shudders. I flicked the switch on, copped hold of the towel and shut myself in the bathroom. Auto-rickshaw screeched to halt and honked horn. With a suitcase in one hand and the blanket in another I tumbled out of the house. My parents and wife waved their hands off to bid me good bye. The auto rickshaw winged its way to TRC.

On the back seat of the RTC bus, a pill box indeed, I idled away hours biting my nails and reading the local newspaper. I was restless and faced my watch again and again to see what time it was. It's 10.45 AM and our bus was far from leaving station. I got down from the bus to potter around the TRC complex, taking pea nuts and sips of tea from a 'taba' nearby. 'Get in to the bus'. The mustachioed driver suddenly called passengers. And the bus wended its way on the national highway. Habits do not die fast. It wasn't many hours before the driver brought the bus to a halt. 'Take your lunch. We shall stop here for half an hour.' At 15.00 hours we're still zigging in and zigging out of the Pirpanjals. Jawahar tunnel was there to be had but then the priority would go to the army convoy. After all theirs is a gun wielding force.

Our bus crept like a snail, limped, hobbled and inched along the crinkum crankum national highway. While it twisted and turned and zoomed up and down the mountain tops, vomits came up and the stomachs ejected everything that had been wolfed down. It's in this specter of chaos that the bus suddenly zipped to halt. A massive landslide just a hop, skip and scream away from where we stopped had washed the road away. A couple of dozers were working nonstop to clear the road. We cliff hung on the high way for 36 hours. In the grid lock of tens of hundreds of trucks, buses and light motor vehicles were tied, block by block, bringing the entire highway to a grinding halt. We hadn't even taken a drop of water let alone food which was scarce as hen's teeth. Nobody was there to listen to our gripes. He, who in the bus had eatables with him, dared not eat them in public…. who knew how long he'd have to stay there, he'd like to keep it for rainy season.

The famished humans spent yet another restless chilly night snuggled down in their bus seats. In the morning we made yet another recce. Many of us tried in vain for a glass of milk and some eatables for their children. We already knew that we didn't stand even a ghost of chance. Sixty hours after our departure from Srinagar we're still half way waiting for a go from BRO authorities. Majority of us did not get anything to eat. We grew peak and pine as we had run out of gas. God alone knew for how long we were supposed to brave the pangs of hunger and chattering of teeth. I prayed, I wished, 'O' God, rid me of this road and I shall never travel on it again'.


News Updated at : Sunday, October 20, 2013
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