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Telling Tales On Wheels

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By: Ganesh Saili

‘Can you drive a motor-cycle?’ she whispered gently, as was her manner.

‘Of course I can!” I lied through my teeth. Truth was I could not even ride a bicycle. Though one look at her pretty dimples and you too would have lied. We were seated in a shack which passed muster as the college canteen. All of eighteen, I was her devoted slave.

‘Let me show you,’ I heard myself say. Grabbing the handlebars of a two-wheeler parked outside, I took off like a man astride a bull. I veered left, I swung right, and wobbled all over the road, my erratic path resembling the Brownian motion we had learnt about in Science class.

Fervently thanking my stars that it was early morning with no traffic, I made my way back to her. The panic-stricken look on my face probably gave me away.

‘What happened?’ she asked. ‘Why are you looking like a dying duck in a thunder storm?’ She walked away, leaving me heartbroken.

Years later, I got my own hand-me-down motor-cycle bought off a teacher who was relocating abroad. I wish I had known beforehand that, apart from many other ailments, the Jawa was attention deprived. To fix that, every Sunday we – the bike and I – would hang out at a workshop next to the Himalaya Arms Shop near Dehradun’s Clock Tower. ‘Shocker bol gaya hai!’ (Shocker’s gone bust!) announced the mechanic, barely able to hide his glee. And that was not all. Everything made a noise – except the horn; the chain rattled; the spark plug spluttered, and one had to strain one’s eyes to see the puddle of light that was the headlight’s beam. Please do not think I am a biking fiend – I was not meant to be one. The times were lean and our looks were leaner. Before the year ended, though, I was fighting the battle of the bulge.

As any guide book on Mussoorie will tell you, the first motor-car, a Model T-Ford arrived here in the third week of June driven by Col. E.W. Bell, a son-in-law of the Swentenhams who built Cloud End. There is a picture of them outside Kulri’s Fitch & Co, what is now the Railway Out Agency.

With the road littered with horse-shoes and nails, who in their right mind would have ridden a two-wheeler here? That dubious distinction goes to a Colonel Frederick Kearsey, a scion of the Barlow family, who came here aboard a Triumph 550 cc Model H to have tea with the exiled Ranas of Nepal in Fairlawn Palace.

At the top of our list of celebrity bikers is Mussoorie-born author Stephen Alter. He has been having an affair with a 1936 vintage Norton 16H. Sometimes you can catch them growling around the Upper Chakkar.

On the other hand, Bill Sa’ab (author Bill Aitken) makes no secret about his Jawa as he takes his readers to the remote corners of Ladakh in Riding the Ranges – Travels on my Motorcycle in which he reminisces about how the stepney came loose to fall into the Indus river and float across the border without a visa.

P. J. Tenzing, a young IAS officer from Kerala, needed no visa either, as he dropped by our home. He had given up his job, bought himself an Enfield Thunderbird, strapped his earthly possessions to the carrier and had headed back to his home in Sikkim. He wrote about that journey, a 25,000 km ride that took over nine months, in a book Don’t Ask Any Old Bloke for Directions: A Biker’s Whimsical Journey Across India.

I asked him why he threw up a job that continues to attract so many?

‘I’d had enough of ‘sir’-ing fools,’ He replies. ‘So I quit. That was it.’ He had also had enough of ‘many a ghoul who enter into a macabre dance with pot-bellied netas.’

A few weeks later, he passed away in Gangtok. He was only forty-six.

But then, life is neither just nor perfect. Bikers only know that when the day ends, a bike on the road is worth several parked under the awning.

(Ganesh Saili born and home-grown in the hills belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their own pictures. Author of two dozen books, some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition world-wide.)