That fabled romance of the road, that wide-open freedom that comes from getting behind a wheel and taking off ... 2006 turns out to be the first year I did that in India in substantial measure. I mean, I've travelled all over this country by bus and train and plane and car and jeep. But not so much on my own steam, at my own pace. Yet our highways are so much part of the vision of an emerging new India that I've long wanted to explore them.

Some disconnected impressions from two such explorations, to round out the year.

Nearly all of the trucks from Mumbai to Ahmedabad turn off at Baroda, to follow the old NH-8. The reason: the toll from Baroda is Rs.61.


 •  Caution - road work ahead
 •  Look who's on the road

Bombay to Ahmedabad and on to points north, you ride on NH-8, part of the extravagantly-hyped Golden Quadrilateral. Check these lines from a National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) write-up in my Eicher Road Atlas of India (the atlas itself a response to the new romance):

When highways start giving the look and feel of runways, you would love to take a long drive. Like taking to the highways from Delhi to Mumbai -- a quarter length of the entire Golden Quadrilateral, and experiencing the thrill of driving on world class roads. You just can't miss the smooth, wide 4-lane divided carriageways, even 6-lane at places. ... [W]hen you pay toll, that's value for money.

The idea of world class highways in India, runway smooth, connecting our cities as never before, takes some getting used to. But if I am in search of some ephemeral romance, NH-8 north from Bombay offers a curious mix. One stretch is indeed a spectacular new expressway -- NE-1 from Baroda to Ahmedabad, which supplies fully half the pictures alongside that NHAI write-up in my Atlas. NE-1 is very nice; but for being so, sterile and faintly boring. Much of the rest of the drive, NHAI write-up notwithstanding, is shabby two-lane. Far more interesting than runway-like roads, much more of a challenge to negotiate, but romantic? Have to think about that one.

'VIP' sign on display. Pic: Dilip D'Souza.

Begin with getting free of Bombay's grasping urban fingers, which is an ordeal. Potholed stretches alternate with vast dusty construction. That includes shoring up hillsides that the road cuts through. What do you make of a sign that warns: "Falling Rocks, Drive Carefully"?

Drive carefully as the rocks send you into oblivion, I suppose. Gave me enough to think about as we drove past. Though to be fair, there were no rocks on the road.

Free of the city, there's less construction, but NH-8 doesn't improve much. Slow truck in the passing lane, you finally pull left to overtake it, wondering why it's there to begin with, and the rocky ride tells you why. Rumble strips (always announced as "rumbling strips") in villages and towns are so violent, you suspect parts will fall off your car. (My all-time favourite bumper sticker: "The parts falling off this car are of the finest British make." My Indian-made car beats that British reputation).

Shabby stuff, this highway, but you get charged tolls all the way. Rs 25 here, 15 there, 35 somewhere else. What does all this money pay for? The bumpy ride? Who can you complain to about what isn't value for your tolls at all? Where's the "world class" and the "smooth, wide 4-lane" road?

Answer: at Baroda, where you enter NE-1. Thuds and bumps turn to baby-smooth rocket ride as soon as you pass through a tollbooth. Though that superb 100 km stretch raises other questions. You wonder first about the toll itself, which is the peculiar figure of Rs 61. (Sixty-one rupees, yes). Would a round figure not be easier?

You also notice how there are suddenly hardly any trucks. After miles of weaving behind these overladen beasts, trying to overtake, the contrast is striking. Why so few?

Answer: because you see nearly all of them turn off at Baroda, to follow the old NH-8 to Ahmedabad. It must be toll-free, or cheaper than Rs 61. Presumably it is as pocked with bumps and thuds as its southerly reaches. So because you've paid this particular toll, you shoot along NE-1 in largely solitary splendour, at speeds you never thought you would achieve in India.

And as you cruise at 120 kmph, you can't help wondering if those venerable Indian jalopies -- the Fiats, the Padminis, the Heralds, the Ambassadors -- would even get up to these speeds. In itself, that signals a sea-change from an earlier era. There are the occasional Padminis huffing along, but they are clearly unable to keep pace with the sleek zipping torpedoes -- Corollas, Octavias -- that make up the majority of cars on Indian roads. Is there a case for the claim that India has the youngest and sleekest fleet of cars in the entire world?

South of Bombay on another trip, the road gets progressively prettier as you approach Goa. But that's after a hellish experience driving through Panvel before dawn. It's utterly dark, but for a twenty- or thirty-km stretch, not one streetlight is on. So we drive essentially blind, and blinded even more by the intense headlights of the oncoming traffic. Was a time, in India, when the guy coming the other way would turn off his headlights, or lower them, as a courtesy. No longer.

NH-17 to Panji. Pic: Dilip D'Souza.

With all that, there's no way to see whether there are the occasional, but customary, large stones just left lying on the road. You just hope that you don't drive over them, that's all.

As the sky starts lightening, I turn onto the recently completed JNPT road, which I know from previous trips to be a splendid 10 km or so. I'm fairly racing along, relieved that I can sort of see things around me at last, that the road is smooth and cruise-worthy ... without any warning, I cross a small bridge and run right into a 50-metre stretch of rubble. No other word for this but "rubble". Just large stones and mud, instead of road. And I come upon it at 120 kmph. Words cannot express the frustration and anger I feel then, even if I'm now smiling ruefully at the memory.

Why are great projects like our highways invariably left with substantial blemishes? And if there are to be such blemishes, why is not possible to simply put up a warning? "Rubble ahead 100 metres": what would it cost to erect such a sign?

Slicing northwest from Disa in Gujarat to Sanchor in Rajasthan on that earlier trip, we had traversed some 70 km that seemed made of such rubble. 70 hellish kilometres, gaping holes gouged in the surface of the road and not much else. The trucks coming towards us, as trucks do on such roads, give not an inch of "side". So each time, we have to drive onto the shoulder and hope it won't crumble. A nightmare, and not just because we are on it late at night.

I don't smile at that memory.

Near JNPT as dawn breaks on this trip, like at Sanchor that night, I silently check that the bones are intact. Then it comes to me: roads like these are a throwback to days gone by. The buses I took to college in the '70s barreled over such roads. (Back then, buses were usually how I took to the road).

There were no better highways, then. But there are, now. So is it disappointing to find miserable roads so easily today?

Hardly, because I find I'm filled with nostalgia. Romance, after all, doesn't necessarily come from runway-like roads. Happy 2007, all!