Thursday May 23, 2024 05:34 pm

On the miracle route from Delhi to Lucknow and why Britannia only fools the waves

Highway Tourism

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🕐 2024-03-19 10:23:51

Highway Tourism

MJ Akbar

is the author of, among several titles, Tinderbox: The Past and Future of Pakistan. His latest book is Gandhi: A Life in Three Campaigns.


One is not completely sure why precisely the otherwise highly intelligent human race is constantly anxious to save time. The compulsion has metamorphosed into technological advance that squeezes time into ever-shorter spells. Travel is no longer about sights and sounds, echoes of the past and conversations about the present, shifts of culture, the music of languages, or knowledge gained at the gentle pace of experience. The journey is now barren, as highways replace the road. There may be some rational point in shortening a flight, for in the sky you are trapped beside an indifferent passenger; but you may have noticed that nothing has happened in decades to make aeroplanes faster. But the road is being continuously shortened by pace. The magna-speed expressway is now high on the list of Good Things That Must Happen.
What do we do with the time we have saved? Waste it in the lobby of a hotel? Add ulcer hours to office routine? Potter about making non-conversation with family? Somewhere during the car ride between Delhi and Lucknow there was a Eureka moment. Spend time on useless thoughts. Let the mind wander through the maze of useless thoughts. There is so much to learn from nothing.
My reason for taking the Yamuna Expressway from Delhi to Lucknow was prosaic. I wanted to do some highway tourism; to find out more about this much-touted miracle route which had reduced nearly 600 kilometres to six or seven hours, depending upon whom you had met. However, there is a God of the Road with a definitive answer. Bhagwan Google said seven hours and 14 minutes with divine precision. We dipped into Lucknow in six-and-a-half, including a pit stop for coffee. But God was right. About 45 minutes went into a very Indian kind of obstacle race. The impediments on the way to Clarks hotel in the centre of Lucknow were myriad citizens, multifarious vehicles, an antique road structure, the occasional policeman seriously engaged on his mobile phone, and the spirited strife of politics.

The great highway was spectacular, soulless, silent, and ambitious. A sign on the bar over the road proclaimed the defining fact of the experience: ‘You are under surveillance.’ A trifle menacing, but well-meant. But surveillance by hidden cameras has all sorts of subliminal implications. Fear breeds unpredictable reactions. No tickling one’s nose, then. Who knows which secret picture will end up on social media? Near Mathura came another warning: Fog Ahead. All I could see was a very light mist. Perhaps this was the corpse of a fog and some computer had forgotten to switch off the admonition. Still, on such a speed-monster highway it is wise to be careful even in the light of a midday sun. The architects of this expressway had certainly been sensible. When the elevation became lowered, the height of the cattle fences rose. We saw only one animal on the long journey, a brown dog that sauntered through the cars.
Two hours into the smooth and imperceptibly swift ride a message appeared, apropos of nothing: ‘Kolkata 1286 kim. Agra 50’. The distance to Agra was useful. Kolkata was a measure of ambition. The living green of western Uttar Pradesh made way for the verdant colours of Etawah. This is the silence in which the government of India for the next five years will be elected within a few weeks.
The silence evaporated in Lucknow. Banners were louder than the anxious hum of a capital city. Saffron was getting some competition from the Congress tricolour and large cut-outs of Rahul Gandhi, mostly alone and sometimes in the company of his sister Priyanka. It was the day of a public meeting by Rahul Gandhi, in Lucknow on his revival mission, peppering a mundane speech with a few remarks about non-political celebrities to claim space in the headlines. I saw a newspaper report later in the day, quoting a Congress spokesperson as saying that while Sonia Gandhi had left the nearby Raebareli Lok Sabha constituency for Rajya Sabha, Raebareli would remain with the family. Come to think of it, the whole party is going to remain with the family.
Management students are taught the theory of revival through a J Curve. The first stage is a plateau, when nothing happens. Then you must leap over the cliff, cross the valley pursued by the shadow of despair and reach the base of the next hill, which you climb towards a second summit. Judging by the mood of the Uttar Pradesh voter, Congress is still on the plateau.
BRITANNIA ONCE RULED the waves. The British navy saved Britain from France and established a global empire. The statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson still rules Trafalgar Square in the heart of London. Two decades into the 21st century, the British navy only fools the waves, if you will pardon a half-hearted quasi-pun.
On January 30 this year, HMS Vanguard, pride of the British fleet, launched a nuclear— nuclear, mind you—Trident missile from Cape Canaveral in the US. HMS Vanguard, itself on duty after a seven-year refit, had no intention of starting a nuclear war; in theory this missile is capable of devastation and death of hundreds of thousands. This was a test launch, after eight years back in the factory after an earlier failure in 2016.
Yamuna Expressway–A Ride into the Future.

Instead of arcing beautifully into space at a speed of Mach 18, or 13,300 mph, the 58-tonne missile plopped down a few yards from the submarine. Oops. British Defence Secretary Grant Shapps was watching along with the heavily medalled top brass, ready to welcome success with a few rounds of hurrah and perhaps some champagne. We cannot be certain about the colour of their faces when the missile plopped, but it is on record that there was complete silence on the western front. Until, that is, the feisty British tabloid, Sun, broke the story three weeks later.
A frosty spokesperson of the Ministry of Defence, possibly called George Orwell, then claimed that the nuclear missile would never have plopped over the minister’s head in a “real-world situation”. Indeed. The British fail only in artificial-world situations. The official added that the reasons for the flop were “classified”. You bet. It was an “anomaly”. You can bet again. Frost now turning into ice, the ministry pointed out that there was no need for a further test (cost in 2024, £17 million). Absolutely. The British never fail a third time, because they don’t try a second time.
One wonders what would happen in a real war if the British fired the Trident. If they aimed at Russia, Ukraine would be destroyed.
The 2016 test launch was from HMS Vengeance. This time it was HMS Vanguard. Any hypothetical third test will probably be from HMS Safehaven. A Royal Air Force officer, who preferred the safe haven of anonymity, had the last word. It was time to return the missiles to the Royal Air Force. The navy had forgotten how to sail but the pilots still knew how to fly. Tut tut. Or pip pip?
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN politicians and journalists is uneasy and so it should be; they worship in different temples. But I was startled to read that one of the Guardian’s most famous sketchwriters—satirists with a nice title—in the 1960s replied, when asked why he did not socialise with politicians: “It might dilute the purity of my hatred.” Five decades ago the environment was less virulent, and the Guardian was and is a civilised newspaper. Hatred? Maybe the satirist had gone deliberately edgy in search of a memorable line. It happens. Battles are hardly unknown in our country. The equation can get rancid. But hatred? Hatred is an acid. It hollows the hater before it affects the hated.