It had been a few months into my marriage, sometime in February 2011, that I decided to travel to Mysore with my wife Dhanya to visit my uncle there.
The regular road that most of us in Kannur use from to travel to Mysore is the TC Road (or the Thalassery – Coorg Road) that was built in the pre-independence era by the British. The history of the road is an interesting one. It was developed by the East India Company during and after the war with the King of Malabar Kottayam, Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja. The Pazhassi Raja had tormented the British for a long time, and he was almost invincible in the jungle terrain of the Western Ghats that guarded the eastern boundary of his kingdom, and he had taken to hiding there. The intensity of the resistance could be understood by the fact that the British could defeat him only by treachery in the end.
Those difficult times made the British realize that, to survive the terrains of erstwhile North Malabar, they required good roads. This was an absolute necessity considering the fact that Mysore and Thalassery needed to be linked, for multiple reasons like trade, commerce, movement of big guns and troops, and also for easy access to the areas in Coorg and the Ghats that was more climatically more suitable for the Englishmen due to their similarity to the Islands of Britain. It was quite an engineering marvel of those days, considering that roads were a relatively new phenomenon in Malabar those days. It started from Thalassery, passing via important towns of erstwhile Pazhassi Kingdom like Kadirur, Kottayam, Kuthuparamba, Mattannur, Iritty and into the heart of Coorg at Virajpet.
Over the last few years, there had been a significant dilapidation in the standard of the TC Road. Lack of maintenance, lack of ownership between Kerala and Karnataka governments on who should take charge of the repairs and all did not help much either. And our travel was planned at one such span of time when the TC road was closed as it was not in a position to be used for travel.
We used the next best available option. Travel to Mysore from home via Kottiyur, to Mananthavady and reach the destination via the Bandipur forests of the Western Ghats in Wayanad. This was one route that I knew theoretically, but had never travelled physically before. Therefore, I was not much sure of the terrain, how good or how tough it was. Literally, I did not know what to expect.
We started off early from home, before the first rays of the morning sun hit the earth, all ready with the camera and refreshments for an exciting journey ahead. The heavy rains of the season had just ended, and as expected of the roads in Kerala, they had developed their regular share of craters, that would have put even those on the moon to shame.
Rocking through the rough roads, we passed through to Peravoor via Iritty. Then, we had two options, move via Nedumpoyil to Wayanad, or take the shorter route via Kottiyur. My ignorance of the terrain made me choose the shorter route.
It seemed a good drive till just after Kottiyur. This road was just a bit bigger than the normal panchayat roads in Kerala, and the holes in the road were not making the job of driving comfortably any bit easier. The tough Ghat roads were just about to begin and we had no expectation of what was in store for us.
We crossed Kottiyur just after 8:30 am. The climate was moderate till here, and the ascent to the Western Ghats and the high ranges of northern part of Wayanad was just about to begin. I was mentally prepared for an uphill drive, a normal one that one would encounter while driving to Ooty or Munnar in normal circumstances.
By 9 am, we reached the first set of hairpin curves. The place was known as Paalchuram in local lingo. Paalchuram in Malayalam means “the valley of milk”. I had no idea how it got this name, but soon, I was just about to know.
After the third hairpin curve, I could feel the dense fog setting in. Initially it as just like kind of light mist, but as we started climbing higher and higher, I could feel the atmosphere getting whiter and whiter. Just then, I realized why this place was called Paalchuram. It was a valley where even the whiteness of milk would fade in comparison to the intense miasma.
I was slowly moving the vehicle forward in the third gear, enjoying the beauty of nature around. The road had reached level ground for some time, and I had thought that the end of the tough part of the journey. But what I did not realize that the biggest challenge of my life as a driver was to turn up in front of me.
Ahead of me, I could find a sharp turn to the right. Although this route was new to me, I did not feel it real tough as a connoisseur driver like me could maneuver most roads satisfactorily. I moved ahead at regular speed, and managed to take the turn quite comfortably. What I saw ahead of me was a road, of a kind I had not seen before, or might not see unless I travel along the border roads of the Himalayas.
It was a steep slope upwards, if I could measure it, it was definitely more than 45 degrees. The road was just wide enough for two cars to go through. There were no side railings to protect any vehicle from falling into the depth of the gorges at the side. And way ahead of me, I could see just half the road there, one side of it, swept down into the gorge, probably due to landslide that hit it during the rains of the last week. If this was not all, from far off, I could see down the side of road that faced the gorge, a lorry handing with its nose facing down, most probably met with an accident during the rains. This sent a chill down my spine. I suddenly became numb.
I was really petrified seeing all this, thinking hard how to maneuver the car through what little was left of the road there ahead of me. My wife was sitting speechless, almost like she had lost her breath somewhere past the hairpins below. My own tribulations gave me very less time to think or see in what state of mind she was.
Seeing all this breathtaking sights ahead of me, I did not bother to check what was behind me. And when I did see, it almost knocked my consciousness off. The rearview mirror inside the car, showed a sight that was both heavenly and alarming at the same time. I could see no road behind. It was just clouds and mist, and beyond that, the plains of Malabar basking in sunlight. It was like; I was literally flying in air.
This entire hubbub in my mind made me take the foot off the accelerator. The car almost stopped. At this moment, a million thoughts went flashing through my mind. My entire life went moving in front of my eyes like a movie. I thought it was all over, fated to plummet into the profundity below. Somewhere, in between all this, I could hear Dhanya scream out at the top of her voice, but this was too feeble for me when it hit my brainwaves.
But that was just enough to wake me up from the shock. Within split seconds, I tried gaining my composure, and looked ahead of the challenge in front of me. All my driving skills were required to be put through the funnel and channelized to get out of this. The car had stopped and any moment I try to restart it, I would need the perfect hand, eye and leg coordination between my sight, the gear, brake accelerator and clutch to push forward.
Calling all Gods, I did just that. There was a screech of tyre, and smell of rubber burning. But with all my might I literally pushed forward. The car took a step backward but immediately regained equanimity and moved ahead. From the corner of my eye, I could see Dhanya sitting in a squeaky position, eyes closed and hands on ears, like expecting a bang.
Looking ahead, with nothing else in mind, I managed to somehow outdo what little was left of the road that was swept aside by the landslide and did not stop or look left or right till we reached uphill near Wayanad, at a place called Boys Town. Once there, I stopped, opened the windows, took a deep breath and smelt the fresh air. A truly alive is awesome feeling.
Once I truly felt I was safe, out of the car, I looked at the road that has just joined the main road at Boys Town, the road I had just come up from. Towards one side, there was a small sign board, which said “Road closed due to landslide”.
“What! I just came through hell?”– My mind screamed mutely.
Suddenly, my stomach was full of butterflies. I should have thought, there was not one vehicle that was ahead or behind us in the entire journey, and there would have been some warning sign somewhere. Surely, I would have missed that.
I did not know whether to laugh or cry. I was motionless and emotionless. Dhanya too came out and saw this “Road closed”signage and stood dumbfound and flummoxed, looking at me.
Then, slowly but surely, the pallor on my face shifted to a wiry smile, with a thought of gratitude in my psyche – “This was a challenge that time had thrown at us, and we relished it and won it over!”