The driver leaning over the steering wheel like a seahorse with pupils dilated, the car sped into Gurdaspur at dusk carrying me and a Senior Town Planner (STP), a compact, agile man of 56, mischief in his eyes. He happened to hail from this area.
Magnetised by the joy of passing his hometown, he must narrate, fondly, how his parrot that remains uncaged flies freely in the house does not let his Alsatian dog rest on the master’s bed while he is away. I get a glimpse of the concept of body and soul; how one can be living in the modern city of Chandigarh and an old street of Pathankot at the same time.
It is almost night by the time we drive past the legendary New Egerton Woolen Mills with ‘lamb’ trademark at Dhariwal. ‘A Britisher had set it up in 1880 seeing wool aplenty in the nearby meadows of Kashmir,’ he informed, assuming the role of a local guide. After some time, the car entered the serene Raavi Sadan by the largish backwaters of Shahpur Kandi Dam. As we straightened over a stroll under the moon along the still waters, the liaison officer pointed to a distant well-lit house on a hillside with trees, across the waterbody: ‘A white man lives there. His father used to be the manager of the mills. He was born here. The family moved to England in 1947. At 45, he came back for good and built that house. His wife and guests visit him some part of the year; the rest of the time, he is happy fishing and reading.
‘Over there is the erstwhile caravan route to the north-west. Date trees lining the trek are a testimonial of the camel-riding Pathans.’ As the cook came out, we drifted towards the dining hall under the starry canopy.
After much-needed sleep, on our way back the next morning, we went over the meter-gauge track in Pathankot and I asked how long the train took to Kangra. As if waiting for this, the STP remarked: ‘Ample. They say one day the train stopped en route. As passengers got down and walked the hilly tract to the engine, the driver informed them that a cow had strayed onto the track. The train started moving again. After 20 minutes, it again stopped. The hassled passengers walked up to the driver once again and asked what had happened. It is the same cow again! he explained.’
In about two hours we were in Haryana, a hamlet north of Hoshiarpur and made a brief halt at a house above a row of shops. ‘This is claimed to be the birthplace of Sher Shah Suri, the soldier who rose to be the great ruler of India in 1538; started rupiya, built the Grand Trunk Road we have been struggling to maintain,’ he chuckled over a cup of tea.
As we sat in the car, St Augustine’s lines came to my mind, ‘The world is a book and those who do not travel read but only one page’.
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