after the airport’s
security check, standing a few yards
away, I looked again at her, wan,
as a late winter’s moon and felt that
familiar ache, my childhood’s fear,
but all I said was, see you soon,
all I did was smile and smile and
smile (“My Mother at Sixty Six,” Kamala Das)
NH 45. The car rolled out of my house, my father in the front seat. I was behind my father, waving to the silhouettes I was leaving – my mother and my sister. Their waving grew rapider as the car sped away and they shrank, sooner than I had wished and expected them to. 1 am in the morning – the road is empty but for a few push carts parked beyond the yellow line with their owners fast asleep on them. My father enquires if I have my boarding pass and my passport. I check once again and report the results – everything is in order. I have 3 hours to reach the airport but more than twenty to reach my destination. Coventry.
I remembered little of the day that had passed – I had woken up with the realisation that it was the last day at home but before I could swallow the thought, it had sped past me, even away from me. I was left with no memory of it, except for the final rushes of packing and checking of what had been packed. If there had been any time for emotion, I had lost it. If any emotion had been displayed, I had overlooked it. I closed my eyes and let the emptiness of what I had wanted to cherish as the last day at home haunt me, as my father chatted without restraint about local politics.
The NH 45 is a 472km long National Highway between Chennai and Theni in Tamil Nadu, South India. We were headed from Villupuram, my hometown to Chennai, to the closest international airport where I was to board a plane to London Heathrow. The journey would not stop there. At Terminal 5, I would get on a National Express coach to Coventry. I would then get down at Poole Meadow Bus Station and either hail a cab or catch a number 11 bus to a new house where I would, then, live for a year.
Half an hour later, the road in front of us widened, the vehicles multiplied and the night was woken up from its immense deadness. Our senses were filled all too soon with constant honking, drivers cursing each other, lights flashing from all sides, things falling, vendors selling mangoes and popcorn, and people bargaining. Two yellow floodlights announced the end of night, at least for a while.
It was the midnight sun of toll booths, casting rays of light on people who were speeding away to destinations of their own. It interrupted their journey by its pseudo daylight, to pay for their roads. In front of us was the Ulundurpet Toll Gate with its majestic roof, twelve lanes, yellow lane barriers and several toll booth attendants dressed in blue.
My father often referred to toll plazas as ‘highway theft’. My mother referred to them as ‘daylight theft’. I reasoned with them that it was only a way of giving back to the government for what they had given to us. But nonetheless, one could bring out a separate supplement in the daily newspaper just to talk about the happenings at toll booths in India. January 28th, 2014. More than 22 toll plazas in Mumbai are vandalized by members of Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) after a speech by their party chief Raj Thackeray against the payment of road toll. ‘If anyone raises a voice (against the one not paying road toll), thrash them,’ was the party chief’s order which resulted in several injured and damaged public property. But Raj Thackeray’s speech was not without a reason. His premise was that people of Mumbai were still paying road tax for roads and bridges whose costs had already been recovered. This is not the case only in Mumbai. Between Tuticorin and Kanyakumari, where roads have been barely maintained sit toll booth attendants in semi-constructed plazas demanding inexcusable tolls. Several unreported incidents of vehicles trying to escape these toll plazas by speeding into their wooden barriers, injuring both driver and toll booth attendants have been spoken about. There are other incidents, those of looting, in toll plazas where more than 1 lakh Rupees has been stolen and caught, only on camera.
We queued in one of the lanes, behind fifteen to twenty vehicles. I nervously checked my watch and waited. In the meantime, three or four vendors take advantage of our queue, selling a few packets of popcorn and slices of mangoes. They crowd around our vehicle, all eyes on me, one even knocking on my window. I bend my head in embarrassment because one of the vendors has managed to seduce me with his mangoes but sadly for him, our vehicle begins to move.
Perhaps it was the pseudo daylight or the smell of mangoes but my mother’s frail face flashed across my empty memory of the day, filling it with two words she had repeated throughout its course – ‘Eat well.’ Silent tears filled my eyes as I began to realise the pains of leaving a known land, and her. Her dark skin, curly hair, her rabbit teeth, dreamy eyes, golden glasses, every other feature of hers – the crookedness of her nose, the soul in her exclamations, the silence in her kiss – came to me in a clarity, a vividness even the real sun could not have given. Silently, in the back seat, I covered my mouth with a palm and wept. The mango vendor who had chased our car was the only one who noticed my teary eyes in all the chatter. He fell silent and retreated.
When we were two vehicles away from being levied, the lorry driver in front of us jumped out of the vehicle and charged at the puny toll attendant. The lorry driver’s voice attracted attention. From the other toll booths, attendants ran towards this one, where the driver was now holding the attendant by the scruff, banging him into the fibre glass of the toll booth which shivered within its bars. We lowered our windows to investigate. Men from vehicles behind us were also outside, waiting to witness yet another incident on the highway.
The lorry driver had had no exact toll to pay the attendant. The attendant had refused to give away change for the lorry driver’s big money. When the crowd cleared and the lorry driver lunged himself back into his seat, he spat from above, at the toll booth. The attendant adjusted his shirt and went back to the booth to release the barrier and let the lorry out of sight, out of mind.
After forty five minutes of entering into this pseudo daylight, we were finally levied a return charge for using the NH 45. As the vehicle passed the toll booth, I looked past the splatter of spit on the fibre glass to see an open cash register filled with ten rupees notes. Then once again, the roads became narrow, the highway quiet. The eeriness of being a lone car on the road once again came to haunt us. And as we drove into the night, the two floodlights threw more and more light on my memory, my midnight sun.