The drive to Purnia went so smoothly I was there by lunchtime. By smoothly it was the standard chaos but with only one overturned truck in the middle of the highway to dodge. Having reach my planned destination for the day I decided to have a crack at making Patna by nightfall. It was turned out to be the biggest risk I’d taken on the journey to date. As the roads clogged up it became obvious I wasn’t going to make it before dark. The 2 hours between 6-8pm when I finally arrived were madness on the road.
Consider the standard road scene in India. Often just a two lane road with every conceivable moving item in India, all sharing the same road. Motorbikes, bicycles, autos, bike rickshaws, cars, trucks, buses, pedestrians young and old, along with cows, horses, sheep, goats, dogs, cats, and monkeys. Combine that with the standard Indian driver who is impatient, doesn’t hold a license, has never had a proper lesson, speeds, overtakes on blind corners, pushes in at every opportunity and considers the game of chicken standard practice with a last-minute swerves, often pushing smaller vehicles or people off the road. It takes some concentration to avoid a near disaster at every turn. India is a place, where what you would consider a near death occurrence, is an everyday experience.
What could be worse? Well, just add darkness. You have everything above along with no street lights, and drivers using high beam in close quarters. The ride into Patna was an adrenaline rush I wasn’t expecting. The defensive driving course I did back in 1989 was paying dividends as I made my way into central Patna and finally to Udrrek’s house. Phew!! I think people must go on faith that they just won’t be hit because they put themselves in the right places to be!!
I was welcomed like a long-lost family member, showed to my own room and then feed before I had the chance to stop and consider the madness of what I’d just done. That evening I joined Udrrek, his dad MK and his sister-in-law Shweta at dinner and we chatted away merrily about life their lives in Patna and mine on the road. Eventually though it was time to crash as a 14 hour day on the road had taken its toll.
There weren’t too many things to see in Patna but I was in for a treat. Quila House was built on the site of Sher Shah Suri’s fort, which was constructed by the Afghan ruler from Bihar in 1541 AD. It passed into the hands of Dewan Bahadur Radha Krishna Jalan in 1919 who used it to house his own private art collection. Mr Jalan was a pretty notable guy here in Patna. He built up a fascinating collection of art from across the world including the 2nd biggest jade collection after the British museum. I also had the opportunity to sit on a couple of French royal chairs from Louise 14th and 15th’s reign. The building itself was pretty big. Designed in an old English style with great views of the Ganges river. As the Jalan family were old family friends of my hosts we were given a private tour, and enjoyed lunch afterwards to top it off. I felt very privileged. Check it out here: www.quilahouse.com
That evening I enjoyed a few beers with Udrrek in town. As usual there was cricket on the TV and I found out that Indians love New Zealand’s own international umpire Billy Bowden. In Udrreks words ‘Indians love Billy Bowden – he makes shit interesting’.
As quick as I’d arrived in Patna it was time to go. Varanasi, the centuries old, great holy city was next on the grand tour. I arrived at Zohreh’s place near Assi Ghat, at the southern end of Varanasi just in time for lunch. Zohreh is originally from Iran and has been studying at the Baransi Hindu University for the past 2 years. She kindly offered me here flat to stay in during my visit. In what was to be an early insight to Iranian hospitality she feed me and pretty much tried to do anything she could to make me feel welcome. I in turn was so shattered that by 6pm I was out for the count. I didn’t get up until 4am the next morning when we had decided to do the sunrise boat ride along the Ganges.
The boat ride was fantastic and well worth getting up early for. In addition we met the 3 amigos (Rohit, Vivek, and Shri Kant) who were friends of Zohreh’s. The lads joined us for the boat ride as we cruised up and down the waterfront watching the locals cleanse themselves in the dirty unhygienic Ganges river. As we floated along we watched as they burned the bodies of the all the people who had come to die in this holy city. Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges remits sins and that dying in Kashi Vishwanath Temple ensures release of a person’s soul from the cycle of its transmigrations.
That evening we returned to Dashashwamedh Ghat to watch the evening Ganga Aarti ceremony on the water front with the masses.
The next evening we all went for a walk through the tidy lanes of the inner city sampling the street foods before ending up in a German cake shop. For some reason there seems to be lots of German cake shops. I suspect one was successful and got its name in the Lonely Planet. As a result it spawned a multitude of copycats. I casually suggested that anybody was welcome to join me the next day on the drive to Lucknow and they all jumped at the chance. So it was that we had a full load the next morning as we set off towards Lucknow at 5am. Rohit and Zohreh came as far as Janpur, and Vivek joined the journey all the way to Lucknow.
Patna is the major city in Bihar which is considered a poor state in India. Discussing India with my hosts highlighted the challenges facing business in the region. Corruption, lack of hard-working integrity, and unscrupulous behaviour play a big part in day-to-day operations. Udrrek’s family business is the property development business. They are currently having difficulties in developing future projects as the local government has stopped issuing planning permissions. They are facing the prospect of going to court to challenge the unlawful decision of their own local government.
Varanasi is considered one of the holiest of cities due to the supposed purification qualities of the Ganges. For me it was pretty dirty and disgusting. But like the rest of India I was starting to develop my blinkers to the rubbish, dirt and grime and focus on the good bits. Who am I to judge if someone wants to purify themselves in a place they consider sacred. It is makes them happy then good for them. It was good to visit but a couple of days was enough.