“You have an option, riskier though. Go off the main highway, take the first left. The narrow, unpaved road will take you to the village where dacoits live. Take a right there and right again. Hoping that the dacoits won’t harm you, you will join this highway again. This would mean an additional drive of 25-30 kilometers and an extra one and a half hours,” said a truck-driver with his truck in a long, stagnant queue ahead of us. We were in the Chambal Valley area where bandits were very active creating fear amongst people in the entire region.
I was on a pilgrimage from Mumbai to Badrinath with my wife and the kids, by car On that specific day in 1986, we started from Nashik early in the morning and wanted to break for the day at Gwalior. We were on the Indore-Shivpuri stretch where we found ourselves in a traffic jam. The queue was almost 5 kilometers long. Most of the vehicles in the queue were trucks carrying merchandise. Passenger cars, like ours, were not very many.
Given an opportunity, the bandits were known to loot vehicles that passed over the bridge we were stuck at. Armed Police patrolled this bridge. Yet, loots were a common occurrence. Just the previous night, a vehicle was rumored to have been robbed. Since the driver resisted, he was beaten by decoits. To sympathise with that driver and demanding a better police protection, the trucks went on strike. There were no signs of the strike being called off as the dialogue with the authorities was yet to begin.
I wanted to get to Gwalior in time so that we could rest well for the next day’s long drive to Nainital. I spoke to a couple of local drivers to ask about alternative route. One of the drivers suggested that a private passenger car could use a diversion that would bypass the queue as well as the bridge. The only problem was that it would pass through the village inhabited by the famous dacoits of Chambal. I was also told that they were only interested in vehicles with merchandise and don’t normally harm families.
I had to decide whether to wait in queue which could last overnight or go back to the earlier town or take the risky diversion. I chose the diversion – a calculated risk.
I did not tell my wife and kids that we were heading in a bandit zone so that the situation wouldn’t get worse because of panic. I center locked all doors and windows and told them not to open them even if someone asked them to. The road was rough, full of crater-like holes. Slowly and steadily, we moved.
In the village each and every man had long and thick moustaches and bushy beards. Every one had a black, thick, woolen blanket and a gun hanging on a shoulder. There were a few children around the age of 10-12 years. They also had a blanket and gun. Chanting prayers we crossed their village. I guess the name of the village was Rampur.
Suddenly I found hundreds of them on either side of the road. It was a weekly market day. They were there for their weekly purchases. None of them harmed us and very soon we joined the highway, on the other side of the bridge! Once on the highway, I told my wife and children what that was all about.
We reached Gwalior well in time to have our dinner. A safe passage! I don’t know whether I should have avoided that diversion. But one thing is for sure, it created a thrill to remember!