I wanted to go somewhere. The last few months had been stormy at the university. The transition from a constantly tense environment was much awaited, but difficult too. Just as the campus was settling down, the city came under open attack.
We got into working to stop the bloodshed in all the free time we could get, the government’s ruling party engaged in working overtime to start bloodshed and the government issued statements on the importance of peace.
At this point, I decided I needed some time off. Holi’s holiday was Tuesday. The only time science students reach anything close to a unanimous consensus about going on strike is when religious festivals aren’t attributed sufficient holidays. This would have conveniently given me four days, but I decided to be back by Monday morning, just in case classes couldn’t be stopped.
I wanted to cycle in the mountains. I considered going to the mountains on a bus, cycle there and come back by bus again. I couldn’t decide on a destination. I had to get my cycle fixed before starting out though. It always had a problem steering slightly to the right. The problem had increased with age and use, at this time the difficulty had developed to a point where keeping the handle straight was a constant arm-wrestling match with the bike. I fixed my bike and that fixed my problem of having to choose one destination over another – I didn’t have any more money to buy bus tickets.
I decided I’ll go on a cycle. Destinations, after all, are just excuses, all I needed was to pick a direction and start traveling. I’d go as far as I can and turn back at someplace from where I would be able to reach Delhi by Monday morning. I still wanted to see the mountains, Himachal was too far away, Uttarakhand has too many gods (at least temples) for my taste. I decided I’ll take the road towards Dehradun. With mountains around, I wouldn’t have any problem.
I had been too excited to sleep early the night before, and too sleepy to wake up at five as planned. The bright side of this was I got breakfast in the hostel and didn’t have to spend on it outside. By the time I started out, it was almost eleven.
Delhi roads unavoidably turn into flyovers. Flyovers offer a nice vantage point. I rode past couples who had parked their scooters by the side to look over the slums below, to the soft domes of Mughal architecture blending in with the grey cloudy sky.
After about an hour I reached a milestone that declared I had just reached Delhi. Little landscaped mounds bordered the highway going towards a mountain of garbage which no amount of landscaping could hide. It didn’t look like anyone was even trying. I crossed a dark stinking waterway which people still insist on calling a river. The authorities put up large fences in the middle of bridges to discourage suicide. Here they have made an extra effort to put up flower pots too, to combat the depressive atmosphere. Swarms of blackbirds circled above and came down from the dark skies to the garbage mountain. Delhi 0km point is probably more representative of the national capital than anyone meant it to be.
There were flower and vegetable markets in the area. It seemed to be a grand strategy. With the all prevailing stench of garbage around, any flower or fruit in any condition would smell good enough. Ghaziabad’s development authority has invested a lot in letting people know that it’s the authority on development. To this end, they have painted psychedelic shapes (perhaps to complement the don’t drink and drive signs) on every piece of their development, and put up slogans of “from cleanliness, to development”. Unfortunately, at some point, Ghaziabad’s development authority had realized that one way to approach the cleanliness problem is to ignore it. I was riding the elevated road; the development was as evident as the garbage on which it stood. Somewhere along the way, there was a lake. The lake had flooded and recruited the neighboring playground into itself. The playground had various pieces for kids and now looked convincingly like a water park, even more so than an actual water park further north, which was drier than the ground around it.
The highway goes over the rail tracks. The local road goes under it. On the tunnel head, someone had written: “MISS BPHIG I’M SORRY” (all caps, apostrophe replaced with comma inverted left to right – this kind of thing can easily happen to anyone trying graffiti lying down on a busy rail track, trying to write alphabets from the top end without succumbing to death from two nearby outside sources or from whatever grief inside had turned this person into the artist). I wondered what he was sorry for. I wondered how sorry miss BPHIG gets, whenever she goes out. Not only was the writing impossible to miss from the local road, but it was also clear enough from the highway. This girl wouldn’t have peace even if she chose to leave the place altogether. Or was BPHIG five different girls? I continued on my way, overtaking a horse carriage evaluated my performance at greater than one horsepower (even though the horse was more interested more in observing me than in displays of power) and reached the Rajnagar extension. Reaching Rajnagar (or anywhere else), using this road is a bit difficult. There are road signs on straight parts of the road comfortingly confirming where you’ll eventually end up if you keep moving ahead, but no signs at intersections. If only the authorities had invested as much on instructions as they do on inspiration…
Rajnagar extension is a special place. High-rises rise up from the edges of farmlands. The world battles over-population, Rajnagar extension has a problem of over-development (complete with a mall and a multiplex to establish that it is as developed as a place can be). There aren’t nearly enough people in Rajnagar or anywhere nearby to fill up the high-rises. In cities, people come to traffic lights to sell stuff. Here salesmen line up the road with pictures of the apartment they’ve been assigned and scream out rates at people passing by. Some people actually stop and discuss apartment buying by the roadside.
Leaving Rajnagar behind I made my way into Ghaziabad. The whole town was caught up in a traffic jam. I got some relief from cows (more confident than law and order personnel) blocking larger cars, letting me pass.
I was very hungry after all the maneuvering through traffic and had to stop for lunch. The Dhaba was opposite to a global (with glass walls to prove it) college, and of course, charged accordingly. They even had CCTV cameras monitoring the premises. A huge LED screen showing the feeds was turned towards the crowd so that no one had to stare at others directly, making them uncomfortable.
Sometime later, I went off the highway and on to a smaller two-lane road. This road follows the upper Ganga canal. The night before I had been exploring routes on Google maps. It had come up with different routes every time I searched. I just decided this road looked more promising than the highway, and I’ll go along this route. This was one of the ways Google believed I’ll reach Dehradun, there was no harm in trying.
The skies were a pastel blue now, clear from the dust of the large high road. There were trees bordering the road and farms on the right, on the left was the greenish canal. Tall golden grass lined the way, filtering the sun’s light to a soft yellow. I did not really have a destination in mind for the day, the only plan was to follow the road. I would go as far as I could and stop for the night when I felt like lying down. The afternoon turned into evening, and the canal turned into a strip of the pink skies above. Some dust floating around made the whole air around a soft red. I wasn’t just watching a sunset, I was in it.
The sun goes down the last few inches pretty fast. Road signs of Maharaja Shikanji restaurant had been there all over the place, so I stopped there. This restaurant had been made by some Agarwal. When Agarwal had set out to set up the place, there wasn’t anything else, and he was really invested in creating a grand restaurant. It was three stories tall. Taking the inspiration then, quite a few other Maharaja Shikanji restaurants had opened up. Agarwal had to be satisfied with just a ground floor restaurant and leave the other two stories empty. The waiter here insisted on talking in English with me, even when I spoke to him in Hindi. He found Hindi more suitable to make fun of the traffic outside when hanging out at the cash counter. This person has perfectly blended his passion for event management with his profession of waiting tables. He stands like a director and screams orders to the people working in the kitchen, to time the dishes properly. Desert had to arrive exactly when the main course was finished.
It was almost a full moon. The road was dark except for the headlights of a few cars passing by, and a few shops here and there. The asphalt was now a greyish silver. The moonlight cast shadows of the trees on the road. The wind made the shadows swirl around underneath my wheels. I was happy that I was not in a car, blasting down the road, washing everything out with so much light that nothing remained to be missed. I reached a tea stall. It was a simple establishment. A tarpaulin over two beds, a few stools, one rotating chair with its base planted into the ground, and some arrangements for cooking to one side. Once my tea was made, I asked whether I could have it inside. The people were very welcoming: we are having liquor here, (a policeman was also part of the group, so this set up was totally legitimate) why would we stop you from having tea. They were bitching about the state CM, so I figured it’ll be a safe place to hang out. I got one man to teach me the Meerut dialect. The lesson was going pretty slow, as the man was a good teacher who made sure the student had understood a point thoroughly before moving to the next point (also he was drunk).
The shop owner had already offered a bed for me. He had two of them in this stall. I could stay there for the night and start out the next morning. I was considering the offer, as my only backup option was the tent, and a night spent with strangers and stories would definitely be a night well spent. The men were discussing the economics of alcohol parties. A sound of splashing came from the tarp wall beside me. Someone must be peeing, we concluded. Two cows started loud screaming. They declared the cows were fighting amongst themselves. I got up from the bed to pay for the tea.
The tarp wall beside the bed I was lying on suddenly burst into flames. The owner ran out to disconnect the electric supply. Another threw a quarter bucket of water and ran out to fill the bucket. Two men stood frozen in shock. The burning tarp filled the tent with heavy thick stinging smoke. The flames were going higher, destroying packets of snacks. There were two iceboxes in the shop. Cold drinks are kept cold in these boxes with ice, which slowly melts into water. Another man and I filled a jug and whatever utensils were around with this water and crept under the smoke blanket towards the fire to douse it out. Two gas cylinders were also there, one was turned on to make tea. We darted around dousing the flames and finally got it under control.
The lights were turned back on. No short circuit had happened, no petrol bottles had been stored near that wall. The men concluded it was arson and then they all lit up cigarettes to replace the unbearable tarp smoke with more acceptable smoke. I bid them goodbyes and left. I couldn’t pitch a tent anywhere near that place. It’s not the best plan to be in a tent with arsonists around. After a long time, I reached a restaurant. The person at the gate told me there were hotels some way away but they all charge more than a thousand rupees per night, I shouldn’t go there. Further down the road, some “Pardhanji” is building a new hotel, I can stay there for less.
I went some way, looking for open spaces beside the highway. Camping right beside the road would mean vehicles forcibly entering the tent in my sleep. I had no intention of dying.
I found a suitable place, I was sufficiently tired to call it a day, and so I set up camp. It was far enough from the area of arson and far enough from the highway. An agency that claims to be JNU security had stolen my sleeping bag and mat. I made as many layers as I could with an emergency blanket, and lay down.
There was moonlight, there was starlight, and there was fog rolling over the highway. Headlamps from vehicles shined through the trees and sliced through the fog. I fell asleep inside the tent while its dome glowed white with all the moonlight.
I had planned to wake up at four and succeeded. The moon had gone down, the sun was not yet up, and the fog was passionately making everything wet. I decided to wait for more comfortable conditions, I was under no obligation to reach anywhere. After two more tries and two more hours, the sun finally came up. I started packing up. By the time I was leaving, the place had nothing to say that I had made it my home for even a moment. I’d remember that place for nights to come. The highway beckoned with soft golden morning light. This was a good goodbye.
There was a tea stall. This was run by a kid who decided on the rates. Fifteen rupees for tea in a glass cup, twenty for disposable cups. I was not alone in my plight, the other customers (locals) were also being robbed. Their protests were as fruitless as mine was. This kid did not even pay any regard to market rates, or his father. We were mere customers. Then again, Cafés kind of follow the same business model, this kid was just doing it in a crossroads tea stall.
I took a turn into a smaller road and reached Khatauli. The skies were blue enough to give a hint of the mountains far away. The trees were different enough to confirm that same message.
Khatauli passed soon enough, and I was on the state highway. The state highway gets some serious traffic, especially in this part. Hotels and restaurants have been built to make full advantage of it. One such business hub is Namaste Midway (halfway from Delhi, halfway from Haridwar/ Dehradun, it doesn’t matter much if you’re on a motor vehicle). Recently COVID-19 has spread quite an amount of panic and business opportunity. Namaste as a greeting has been advertised as safer than handshakes. Namaste Midway has realized that there’s a golden opportunity to harvest and put up billboards to inform the public that the Namaste is safer, therefore Namaste Midway is the safest.
I reached the edge of Muzaffarnagar and was faced with the choice of taking the bypass or going through the town. Navigating towns can be tiring at times, but it’s definitely interesting. I went straight into Muzaffarnagar. The southern part is new and ordered. The northern part is ordered, but there are people there. The town authorities have put functional streetlights everywhere (which eliminates the need for traffic police) but no one controls them. With no operator around, all of them are functioning at a happy green. With no one or nothing to control it, the traffic engages with gusto. Children were busy water bombing people in vehicles. Two-wheelers were spared as they pose a stronger threat, riders can turn and chase. After all, it was not fully Holi. There’s a garbage pile that also serves as a roadside toilet for men. Three kids were lurking at the top with water guns. Every injustice to the fort hygiene would be avenged, drop for drop.
By afternoon I was out of Muzaffarnagar and back on the highway. The skies opened up till the horizon. The asphalt at distance was slightly reflecting golden sunlight. I had one full day to take it all in. I was hungry and spotted a billboard with “Jassi Dhaba” written on it. It was also mentioned that this place was meant especially for trucks. The food was exceptionally good and exceptionally affordable. Learning that I’m cycling from Delhi, the owner was overwhelmed. I was given a royal welcome – onions to go with my food. He said that I wouldn’t get village jungles like this anywhere else, I should stay the night, get the full experience. I wanted to take up the offer as much as he wanted me to stay and chill and chat, but my sole restriction was I’d have to reach Delhi by Monday morning. It wouldn’t have been possible from the Dhaba, I’d have to be in some city major enough to have a bus or train connectivity to Delhi (by now I was already too far away to pedal back). After making good use of the beds laid out for truckers, farmers, and friends, I left. Suneelji insisted on giving me a parting gift.
After some time, I spotted an empty tractor. The afternoon sun was getting a bit tiring, so I asked them if they could give me a lift for a few kilometers. They agreed quite happily and dropped me off at Deoband. There were sugarcane refining plants along the way. They made the whole road smells faintly of candy floss.
There was a bike repair shop that also sold country liquor by the glass and snacks. Don’t drink and drive, but if you do, you can get your bike repaired while you repair your sorrows too.
The sun reached the horizon and I reached Kota. I spotted a tea stall and stopped. The people there started talking. They also sold Chaat and I asked the price. The owner assured me that I wouldn’t be swindled as I was their guest from Delhi. “You’re an Indian, you’re a Hindu, you will be treated well. Our culture teaches us to treat guests as gods.” His son was refusing to comply with some orders he had given. He threatened to report him to the authorities and have him sent to Pakistan through CAA. When I was a kid, waiting at some pediatric clinic, screaming kids around me used to be scared quiet with “I’ll complain to the doctor, he’ll give you an injection”. The government has given parents a brand-new weapon.
He assured me that the road ahead was safe, in fact, the whole state was safe. With the current government in power, he believed no one could get away with anything.
A few years ago, I had gone to St. Xavier’s college to get admission. On admission day, my father had come with me. We had been given registration forms. One field there was religion. I was all too eager to put atheist, my father taught me sometimes saying that you’re from a different religion implies it’s just a matter of convincing you to switch sides, saying that you’re an atheist is openly painting a bulls-eye on yourself. This lesson came handy on this journey quite a few times. I’ve traveled before. This is the first-time people were asking about my religion, in casual conversation. Sometimes even before asking my name. I was around sixty kilometers from either Dehradun or Haridwar. Roorkee was half that far. By now I had decided I would take a bus or train home, but for that, I’d need to be in place from where these things were available. Roorkee seemed too close, I’d reach too early. I’ve been to Haridwar quite a few times, and each visit had strengthened my desire to not go to that city ever again (it’s in the plains, the mountains can be seen in the distance but not felt, and the number of temples is overwhelming, the crowds going to said temples even more so). I headed for Dehradun. Unknown places are inherently interesting.
The small road joined an empty highway. The moon had come up. The path ahead had a faint silver glow now. I was headed towards the full moon, and the stars engulfed my road. I gulped in breaths of the deep black night and flew down the freeway. One turn and I was headed into the star side. I had crossed over into Uttarakhand.
Biharigarh appeared, half asleep. I stopped at a shop and asked for tea. They only served fast food. I was thinking of getting dinner further down the road, but the owner insisted that I try out their chowmein, it was the forte of the cook. The chowmein did live up to the claim of being the best chowmein. We started talking. The owner cut up an onion himself and served it to me. It was the highest of honors he could give. Biharigarh, I was told was famous for Pakora. One man who was walking down the road joined us to testify for Biharigarh’s fame for Pakora. “Even foreigners stop to buy Pakora here”. There was some dispute about who counted as foreigners, for some anyone not from Biharigarh was sufficiently foreign. They told me that the road ahead was good, but there are chances of elephants coming out, but that wouldn’t be a problem before Mohund. I left that shop, and still wanted tea, so stopped again, after probably a few hundred meters. This place seemed to be the famous Pakora market. Akash and Masood refused to accept anything other than my travel stories as currency for tea. He also said elephants come to this area often. The real jungle, however, starts from Mohund. There, I can encounter elephants, tigers, jackals, and deer. Generally, the road is well-trafficked in this part, so sticking to the highway should be safe enough. I should still ask at Mohund whether elephants have come out today, and if that has indeed happened I should stay at Mohund. Otherwise, I can easily venture till Dehradun. The road till Mohund will be flat, the steep part comes after that. There wouldn’t be any phone network in the jungle. If all goes well I’d reach Mohund in fifteen-twenty minutes. I bid him goodbye and left.
If anyone from the mountains tells you a road is flat, it’s not. I was realizing that ever since I had started out from Biharigarh. There was a solitary man by the road in a completely dark village. He called out to me and told me to stick to the left side (I had been keeping to the middle as there were too many potholes on the side). He told me to be careful about drunk drivers, there were many on that road. He added, “I know because I’m drunk now and I just drove here”. He also warned of elephants and proceeded to stress that he was telling me all this because I looked like his brother, and as a Hindu, it’s his duty to save another Hindu’s life. I wondered whether he would’ve been okay with me going off to die if I hadn’t looked Hindu enough for him.
I had, with much sorrow, not brought my JNU t-shirt on this trip, considering I’d be going through UP. I also left my ID card at the hostel, for the same reason. Then I decided to rid my wallet of anything I wouldn’t need on the trip. There was a letter there that I’d intended to hand over to Aiswarya, but I hadn’t run into her ever since writing it. Last night I had instructed Saumya to do it for me, told her about the things that had to be given to Megha, and gave her a rough list of who’d get what of my belongings in case I ceased to exist. I hoped she’ll remember the tasks and started cycling again. Looking back, I realize why Saumya wishes my demise.
A dense jungle started around me. A few cars were passing by, but apart from that, it was only the light of the night and sounds of the jungle. I heard something running, and made sure it wasn’t following me. I spotted a ruined truck and decided it could be a shelter for the night if it indeed came to that. I was moving through the jungle slow enough to take note of each tree and its shadows. The road was encased in a net of leaves, moonshine, and darkness. Every inch forward, every inch up, every minute passed was a gift from a world everyone is free to love but chose to shut out in metal frames. If I needed help, I was sure something would come up.
I saw a sign up ahead and thought I’d reached Mohund. As I went closer, the sign helpfully informed me that this was the Rajaji tiger reserve. I had started out from Biharigarh at nine, reached at Mohund at ten. I stopped at a tea stall and asked the kid in charge of what exactly my situation was. He told me wild animals are all around, and there is no place to stay in Mohund. As a student of environmental science, I knew the chance of encountering tigers were actually quite low. Under normal circumstances, I’d say depressingly low, but I wasn’t looking forward to a tiger census fieldwork at the moment. Elephants generally respect you if you respect them from a distance. The same couldn’t be said for drunk drivers. Dehradun was twenty-five kilometers away, and the last bus for Delhi, I checked on the net, left at half-past midnight. It was almost half-past ten now. The only way home was forward, and there was the Shivalik range between me and Dehradun. I would take more than two hours to cross twenty-five mountain kilometers if I were cycling, I knew for certain. I needed help, I got up to look for it. The kid at the stall told me to go up to the police post ahead, if I asked them to stop a bus, they would do it for me. Just as I set foot on the road, I saw a truck firing its engine up to my right. I went up to it asked the driver whether he was headed for Dehradun. He was. I asked if he could drop me off there. He asked very enthusiastically “you want a lift?”.
His helper helped me get the bike up in the back, tied it up, and fixed its place by propping it with a huge truck tire. I went up to the cabin. One of my dreams in life was to ride a truck.
The driver said he liked how simple and friendly my approach had been, and opened up. He told me a lot of people are educated, only a few know how to treat a fellow human. His name was Muhammad Asif, a name he was recently afraid of saying in public. He said the people in Delhi had done a lot to stop the Delhi attacks from turning into a full-blown massacre. He had been in Gujarat at the time of the riots. Ten Muslims and four Hindus had to hide in the jungles for the whole time to save their lives. They cared and looked out for each other like brothers. One person going some distance away from the group to even pee was a matter of high tension. He was thankful Delhi was simmering down. I had been careful the entire journey to not say that I’m from JNU unless specifically asked, for the first time I felt completely safe saying that. Asif congratulated us – JNU, Jamia, AMU on doing a good job at leading a resistance against the government. He was a brilliant science student but had to quit after twelfth, because there are no jobs, and a family needs to be fed. Issues like inaccessible education and unemployment, are destroying lives, killing people; and the government is busy creating mobs, coming up with divisive policies and laws.
I have faced stiff resistance from a lot of people when I’ve said these things to them, here was Asif saying all this on his own. Maybe sometimes class walls keep knowledge in and education out. Asif expertly maneuvered the tight bends, and we steadily climbed the mountain. A rivulet, with all its pebbles and sands, spread out in full glory glistened silver, far below. Asif told me it’s his duty from Allah to work for the country and help all humans. We followed the winding road through a world of black and silver and reached Dehradun. A story of Dehradun’s flyover being an accident hotspot was told. I learned that it’s very steep because it’s half the length and breadth than was required, to save materials and make a larger profit. We reached the interstate bus terminus. I wished them Intifada Inqilab and parted ways.
The post-midnight bus existed only on the internet, I found out at the bus station. There was a UK luxury bus leaving at twelve. They wanted to charge 700 for me, and 1000 for the cycle. I went up to a UP state bus. They agreed to take me and the cycle to Delhi for 600. The bus was pretty empty, so I was instructed to keep the cycle in the aisle. The bus was split into seats of two and three. I curled up on the three sides, with feet on cycle. This was way more luxurious than the designated luxury bus. The seats had some foam, the windows were transparent and almost created a single big window. I fell asleep looking at endless stars.
I reached Delhi at 5 AM and went directly to class. Straight from the predator-prey situation of last night to a class about the mathematics of it.
UP is beautiful. Unfortunately, some people’s obsession with Hindu men being the ideal creature leads them to eliminate all value from other living things. UP is messed up too. Almost everyone I met there was sure that I wouldn’t be able to make it. I couldn’t explain that it really didn’t matter, I wasn’t even trying to.
I had set out with only a direction. I have traveled through candy floss smelling highways, traveled on people’s kindness. Sometimes only monkeys were the ones I exchanged glances with, sometimes it was just the stars. Sometimes I lay down like the green leaves to bathe in the golden sunlight. Sometimes like them, I joined in with the gentle movement of the clouds.
I was never stranded, neither in the plains, nor in the jungles, nor in the mountains. Help came when I really needed it. Strangers had trusted me, even in these strange times. I had shared a little life with them, some times in sorrow, some times in love. Some times, in conversations that just filled a teacup.
I didn’t really have a plan, but looking back I didn’t really need to. The road knew the way better. The empty roads had a lot to give. All I had to do, was to go out.
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