By: Ganesh Saili
My acquisition of an old Jawa motorcycle sounded the death knell of my walks around these hills. It was the beginning of the end and before I knew it, I had lost the Battle of the Bulge! My lean and hungry looks gradually disappeared, and it looked like my chest had slipped, never to go back. The return of the tummy had begun.
Of course, the bike craved attention – cheap things always do. Sundays were set aside for the workshop in Dehradun, where the mechanic tinkered with it.
‘Shocker’s gone bust!’ he said glumly, barely able to conceal his glee. Soon after, everything, except the horn, made a noise: if it wasn’t the exhaust, it would be the chain that rattled. That knocking was not from the front door but came from deep within the innards of the engine, and oftener than not, one had to light a match to see the faint light that emanated from its headlight.
‘The big cow gets a lick of salt,’ as we say in Garhwali, ‘The calf gets to lick that cow’s mouth!’ This time, I was that proverbial calf; with no money, I struggled to keep the bike puttering around in the years ahead.
Today, two-wheelers of all descriptions careen helter-skelter down our narrow lanes, narrowly missing hitting me, the biggest menace being the rented yellow-number-plate Scootys.
‘Who knows who will hit you?’ says Manoranjan Tripathi, watching a scooter zip by. ‘Someone should tell these kids: this is a road, not a runway.’
My research reveals that the first motorcycle was inflicted on us by a certain Colonel Frederick Kearsey. He came up the old Cart Road to Fairlawn Palace, astride a Triumph 550 cc Model H, for a cup of chai with the exiled Ranas of Nepal.
Then there’s this bit of gossip – another secret – that I’m itching to tell you. But first let me strap on a helmet, for the chances of getting clobbered on the head are pretty high! I will let you into one of Landour’s biggest secrets: ‘Handsome author Stephen Alter is having an affair.’
You can hear her growl, you can listen to her purr as he puts her through her paces – a vintage 1936 Norton 16H. Don’t you dare touch her; you should know better for she is Steve’s and Steve’s alone. He won’t even think about sharing her with anyone!
Near Bala Hisar in Oakless lives the Scotsman, Bill Aitken, who once rode a bike to Ladakh. ‘With jugaad, we had replaced the leg guards with a spare wheel. After that bumpy ride, it came loose and rolled into the Indus,’ he laughs at the memory. ‘There I saw it floating across the border minus travel papers: no passport, or even a visa!’
Of course, all the papers were in order when Papa Das, in a moment of weakness, bought a secondhand motorcycle. I would often see him puttering around our winding roads, peering wide-eyed through his thick, steamed-up spectacles. A most careful driver, he never hit anything, but that wasn’t enough – trouble found him anyway when he sought shelter under an overhang after being caught in a sudden downpour. Fumbling as he parked, the slippery seat slid off into his hands while the rest of his bike slid off the edge, deep into the Company Khud below the road to Tehri.
Glumly he peered into the abyss. Helpful local boys retrieved the scattered bits and pieces which were eventually bought by Jagajit Singh, our local welder, who had the last laugh when, after an astonishing amount of hard work, he succeeded in bringing the motorcycle back to life one more time.
One day while returning to Mussoorie he saw this pretty girl along the roadside waiting for a lift. ‘She looked so forlorn!’ he told me later, adding: ‘It was cold; I gave her my jacket. On reaching Bhatta village, suddenly the bike lurched forward. It felt lighter as it picked up speed. I looked back over my shoulder to find no one on the seat behind me, riding pinion. Just my neatly folded jacket. The girl had vanished!’
Ganesh Saili born and home-grown in the hills belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition worldwide.