* It seemed as if we were always surrounded by water as we drove — over expansive rivers that emptied themselves into a post-monsoon, placid Arabian sea — to Manipal, an educational hub in Karnataka
* This was my first un-lockdown drive, an opportunity to travel outside of Goa afforded by a friend’s son heading back to engineering college, and marking the end of months of online classes
* Years ago, the writer Pankaj Mishra eloquently captured the rising aspirations of small-town India in his book Butter Chicken in Ludhiana. The towns we are now able to zip through without actually seeing them would have been the kind of places Mishra visited
The signage started changing once we crossed into Karnataka. The surroundings were still as lush — with swaying palms, bottle-green waterbodies and views of a blue ocean just beyond the tree line — but the signs on the bamboo-and-thatch tea shops and the milestones had changed to the local Kannada script. There was little else to indicate that we had crossed a state border after setting out from Margao, Goa’s commercial capital, that morning.
We had to sometimes slow down on NH66 as the hacked hillocks revealed pale laterite soil where gigantic road construction projects are in progress. Still, it seemed as if we were always surrounded by water as we drove — over expansive rivers that emptied themselves into a post-monsoon, placid Arabian sea — in a Maruti Swift Dzire, on our way to Manipal, an educational hub in Karnataka.
We got to the Goa border driving literally over villages shrouded in areca groves, on a new elevated highway, to the check-post now deserted and forlorn. Only months ago, truck lines and cars backed up as the inter-state borders were shut and restrictions imposed to prevent the surging Coronavirus.
This was my first un-lockdown drive, an opportunity to travel outside of Goa afforded by a friend’s son heading back to engineering college, and marking the end of months of online classes. The car drive wasn’t the Fernandes family’s first choice, given anxieties about safety, but finally the pros of a road trip won over the cons of travel by train.
A drive along India’s coast is an experience in the lap of nature but it isn’t difficult to notice the spreading tentacles of urbanisation that have blemished some of that beauty. We go past compact malls, phone recharge booths, white goods outlets and the ubiquitous tea shops. The signs of the slowdown are visible, as the economy limps back from a 23.9 per cent contraction in the April-June quarter. Bus coaches, at least half a dozen, lie gleaming in the morning sun at a deserted depot.
At Bhatkal, a charming Karnataka town where minarets reach for the skies, the roundabout is not as frenetic as it would have been pre-Covid-19. The Bhatkal Motor Washing outlet — abbreviated to BMW — has no patrons. We make a quick chai halt, and soon we are more than half way to Manipal.
Years ago, the writer Pankaj Mishra eloquently captured the rising aspirations of small-town India in his book Butter Chicken in Ludhiana. The towns we are now able to zip through without actually seeing them would have been the kind of places Mishra visited. In the years since the 1995 book, those aspirations have been further boosted, partly no doubt due to new roads but also the spread and ease of internet connectivity.
The new roads take us to Manipal, 450 km south of Margao, in about four-and-a-half hours, the travel time shortened by 30 minutes since last year. Toll booths have also been upgraded to facilitate FastTag, the online payment mechanism that is convenient, and actually suits these Covid-19 times, being contactless.
We pass small town hotels with offbeat names. The Julie-Yo residency has a hint of romantic Bollywood and there are many hotels with four-barrelled names such as Hotel Shetty Lunch Home and mini halls, places for wedding parties. Small eateries have family rooms where the carcasses of many a balloon suggest a kids’ party harking back to the pre-Covid-19 days.
India’s cars, in terms of their build quality and comfort, have outpaced our roads but the roads will soon catch up. As we approach the university town, we realise that the journey hasn’t been tiring as it was a decade or so ago. We make a detour from the highway that leads further southwards to Mangaluru and Kochi, as we head into the centre of Manipal, where the local populace reflects tides of students entering and exiting on a timetable dictated by the cycle of academic semesters. The campus has tree-lined roads and lawns that front the main building. And not too much traffic.
The town is slowly filling up as students return to regular classes, many driving in from their homes in the south. We drop Jude off at his hostel where his luggage is pampered with some sanitisers. Before driving back, we head for a spot of lunch — egg club sandwich and filter coffee — at the Kamat Café, which, true to the town’s millennial character, sports posters of Ford Mustang Shellby and a Café Racer bike on its walls.
After that satisfying meal, we are back on the road, all ready for the palm trees and the sea.
Brian de Souza is a Mumbai-based communications specialist