It had been a tumultuous journey since my last solo trip. Corona was still only in the distant news back then. In my university, we had just succeeded in stopping a multi-fold fee hike.
It had been a long struggle of months. There was tiredness from the intense protests – of spending days and nights outdoors doing blockades in the Delhi winter, studying in sit-ins, and getting beaten up sometimes by the police, sometimes by people to whom the ruling government is the greatest religion.
But more than the tiredness there was a sense of achievement, of winning a long-drawn battle to keep higher education accessible to everyone. At least in our university financial strength wouldn’t be the real entrance exam for the coming students.
The anti-CAA-NRC protests were going strong. The government decided that COVID-19 was the best way to deal with all of its problems. Every country was doing lockdowns, one day the government probably felt India is falling too much behind the trend and overnight sent the country immediately into lockdown.
Where people saw a pandemic, Sanitizer manufacturers saw profit. They campaigned well enough to convince everyone that sanitizer was the only way to fight the virus. Sanitizer used to be produced for hygiene connoisseurs. The niche market exploded before production did, leaving the public high and dry.
During my B.Sc. I had developed quite a deep love for ethanol – it made beautiful fires in the lab. I teamed up with Soutrik and put my relationship with ethanol to some constructive use. We took over Paramesh’s apartment (he was enduring the lockdown elsewhere), turned it into a sanitizer production unit.
We ended up distributing more than a hundred litres of sanitizer. From an apartment, it became a factory, and then finally a chemistry lab because I had to work on my M.Sc. dissertation.
Results of the entrance exams came out, the professors who took my interview in JNU probably decided to block me out because I had blocked the school entrance a year ago.
The Central University of Odisha took an interview, did a background check on Facebook, and decided I was safe enough. Being situated in a Maoist area, I guess one JNU alumni would’ve been tame for them. They warned me of three dangers that befell wanderers – Maoists, bears, and tribal people.
All three seemed inviting enough and I was about to join them, but gave the interview for IISc. I liked them, and it turned out that they liked me too.
I had spent the lockdown in the comfort of my home – in other words, I was tired and desperately needed to go out. I had a few weeks before classes would start. Two trips with Megha had trained me to plan out every detail. My cycle was still in Delhi. I decided to go there, take the bike, and explore Himachal.
I had planned to leave Delhi on an evening bus. I would cycle out from Shimla. The night before leaving, Rohit and Adrita told me buses between Delhi and Shimla were probably not operating because of the roadblocks going on. I searched for tickets in the middle of the night and found an early morning train that would take me to Chandigarh.
I reached the New Delhi station quite early by my standards, but late for making arrangements to put my cycle in the parcel van. The parcel office turned out to be incredibly difficult to locate.
There was confusion among various groups of rail-station related professionals as to where the parcel office was situated. Police, porters, drivers, bystanders – everyone had a strong but mutually conflicting opinion. Opinion was also divided on how many parcel offices could, used to, and do exist.
Finally, as I was rushing to the office, some people stopped me and told me I had to get the bike packed if I really wanted to put my bike on the train. This had never been necessary, in my experience. But I had only ever arrived in New Delhi with my bike in the parcel van, never departed like that.
New Delhi being the capital of the country, the rail station also feels the need to show that it’s the king of all rail stations. One outcome of this is the meticulous and ineffective security check carried out at the entrance.
In any case, I had no intention of disrupting the status quo early in the morning and decided it’d be better to get my cycle packed. I would have to plead some officers into helping me – my prayers would probably go better with my cycle dressed in white.
By the time I reached the office, there were only twenty minutes left. The recommended time to reach the parcel office is with three hours in hand. I succeeded in convincing the people at the parcel office to achieve the impossible – processing three pieces of paper in less than three hours.
Paperwork being done, the next part was to actually get the cycle aboard the train. The parcel office declared that all their porters were busy, so they’d send the cycle on the next day’s train.
The most difficult part of any project is paperwork that was completed, and I was in no mood to accept defeat at this point. I argued I would be my own porter, and they were amused enough to accept the proposition.
I started running with the cycle, through the storage area, towards the station. At this point, I realized that I had no idea on which of New Delhi’s 16 platforms my train was. There was no time for either trial and error or cycle lifting exercises on the overbridge.
I saw a porter standing in the distance and decided to ask for his help in loading the bike on the correct train. Before I could reach him though, a dog emerged from the sacks and tried to have my pants for breakfast. I reached the porter, he stated exactly how difficult the challenge was, said let’s try, and we ran a marathon over all the rail lines to the other end of the station.
Sitting on the train, I finally realized how painful the bite actually was. An added sorrow was the fact that one of my favourite pants was now a half-half-pant. I was nicely surprised to actually find soap in the train’s toilet and washed the bite using the hand shower.
The bathroom floor became a pool and resisted all my efforts to drain it. Later I found the train had run out of water too. I was convinced that I had washed the bite well.
Reaching Chandigarh, I went off to find a doctor to get anti-rabies shots. The nearest doctor told me I’d only get the vaccine in sector 29.
A person outside the clinic came up to me and decided to help me. He called out to someone else, introduced him as a brother who works as a barber and is experienced in getting bitten by dogs. He’d be able to guide me well on where to go for treatment.
He reiterated that I’d have to go to sector 29 for the vaccine. I cycled to sector 29, saw a medicine shop and asked whether they had the vaccine. The shopkeeper happily told me that they did have the vaccine. Next to the medical store, there was a paan shop where two people were hanging out.
They called out to me, and I went to them. One of them told me that there is a government clinic down the road, and I shouldn’t waste my money at a medical store when I could get a good vaccine from the government clinic for free. This clinic specialized in dog bites.
Maybe there are so many dog bites in Chandigarh that the government has gone ahead and set up a special clinic. I started off towards the clinic, my well-wisher took out his scooty and escorted me to the clinic. Upon reaching he went up to the reception, scattering the people standing at the window.
Enthusiastically he told the lady writing out the slips “a dog has bitten a cyclist, give him the good injection”. The lady agreed to do so, and my advisor left. The clinic committee (presumably after an overwhelming number of dog bites) had decided that only the residents of Chandigarh would get free vaccines, everyone else needs to pay.
It was written on a notice on the counter. It turned out, they were charging only a hundred rupees for the shots. The doctor checked me up, gave my shots, and quite amusedly wished me the best for my mountain cycling plans. The clinic had run out of serum, so they sent me to the main government hospital to get those.
Three doctors there examined the bite and assured me that serum was meant for worse bites, I’d be fine with some antibiotics. One doctor left his post to go into the dispensary and gave me said antibiotics.
I thought I wouldn’t get any bus out to Shimla, it was already evening. But at least it’d be good to have information about the bus schedule, and there would probably be cheap hotels near the bus station. I arrived at the bus stand and got to know from a tea shop outside that plenty of buses were leaving for Shimla.
I stopped for tea and a journalist there started talking. He was entertained by my plans and treated me to tea. A fight broke out between an OLA bike rider and an OLA cab driver. The journalist’s assistant went in with his camera.
The journalist went into the fight. Clearly, the fight itself was more interesting than a story about the fight. I went to the bus station.
One bus conductor told me I’d have to put the cycle on the roof. The bus would leave after half an hour or so. Another bus conductor came up and told me that his bus would leave in five minutes, and I wouldn’t have to put the cycle on the roof.
He cleared out the people sitting on the three seats near the door, telling them that the cycle would go there. I was having trouble lifting the bike into the bus, the rucksack tied to it was creating a pretty inconvenient lever system. The conductor helped me with physical action and lifestyle advice: Desi Ghee should be consumed for strength.
The bus stopped midway for a tea/ snacks break. A guy from Himachal was on the same bus, we started talking. He had got bored and decided to go on a bus trip, he was going back home.
Looking at my half pants, he told me that I’d have a lot of fun up in the mountains, as I didn’t feel cold too much. I told him the half pants were only half my choice.
After the dog ripped off one side, I decided to remove the other half myself. By the time the bus reached Shimla, it was dark. I had decided to stay at a hostel for the night and made my way there. I went to sleep that day, quite amazed about the day that had passed. So many things had happened, it didn’t feel like just one day.
My plan was to start cycling from Shimla and follow the route to Kaza as far as I could. I’d stop when there was ice, or when I became too tired. Waking up, I realized that I still hadn’t realized exactly how bad the bite was. It hurt to walk, cycling was out of the question, let alone uphill cycling.
But when things don’t go according to your travel plan, the best solution is to ditch the plan and keep travelling. I decided I’d explore the Kaza route on a bus, leave the cycle in the Shimla bus stand cloakroom, and if my leg healed well I’d cycle back to Delhi.
For now, I’d go to the bus stand and find out my options. The people at the bus station told me all that they know is that buses are running till Reckong Peo. The bus to Peo leaves at 8 pm
.If I wanted to know about road conditions above Peo, I’d have to call the station at Peo.
They wrote down Peo station’s number on an old ticket and gave it to me. The people at Peo emphatically told me that the road is definitely open till Kaza, but buses are only running till Pooh, I’d be welcome to come over and see how far I can go.
I wandered around Shimla the whole day. In the afternoon a little snow started to fall. Tourists rejoiced, let the snowfall on them and apparently discovered with shock that snow becomes ice-cold water after staying on your clothes for a bit. The only people more excited about snow than tourists were Zee news reporters. I almost shouted out “Godi media go back” in reflex.
I spent the evening sitting at various shaded places and shops, watching the show in white and grey. I watched the minutes float past, much like the snowflakes.
Thinking it’d be best to reach the bus stand a little early, I went there at 7 pm and asked about the bus at a tea shop (the station office was already closed). Before the people whom I’d asked had a chance to answer, a drunk man came up and told me he recognized me by my red and blue hair.
He had seen me asking about the bus in the morning. He told me matter-of-factly that I was too late. I told him that I would like to believe what the officials had told me. He found a middle ground: the bus I was waiting for doesn’t actually start out from this particular stand, it comes from the new bus stand.
It does pick people up from this stand, but no seats are ever vacant. If I wanted a seat, there wasn’t enough time to go over to the new bus stand, effectively I was late. He suggested that I stay over at Shimla one more night, and leave in the morning.
I explained that I was excited enough to make the trip this very night even if I’d have to stand for the entire journey and young enough to pull it off. Besides, standing would ensure that I don’t fall asleep and miss out on some scenes. He was amused and agreed that I was sufficiently young to try these things.
Lakkar Bazar bus stand is a small place. At night it feels even smaller. The few people who were present there all had different ideas about when the bus would reach. They all agreed that the bus left the new bus stand at 7:30 pm, and wouldn’t ever reach Lakkar Bazar before 8 pm.
Three people were waiting with me, two were workers on their way home. They told me Himachal was the most hospitable place around. They were sad to see that other places are not as welcoming of them when they go out of state. The other person was a young guy getting into his father’s fruit business.
He had gone to Punjab to have some fun. He showed me a video of fun – riding an escalator with sunglasses on, inside some mall. He was impatient, his girlfriend was eagerly waiting for his return. She was calling repeatedly to convey her eagerness. He was getting anxious thinking that the bus had been cancelled, as it was already past 8.
The workers said they’ll start worrying after 9 am. A bus came, it turned out that it would be going to my destination only. Google maps show that there is only one road connecting everything, their destination would fall on my route, but that’s just google maps being google maps.
I got on the bus, and there were definitely no empty seats. Reckong Peo is about 200 kilometres away from Shimla, and I was told there definitely wouldn’t be any vacancies before Rampur-Bushahr which is almost midway. I had no issues with this, as I was allowed to stand near the door.
This meant I could watch the road from the window easily. The conductor told me I was free to sit on the floor. I picked out a spot near the door and sat down as I was actually getting a bit tired. People had kept their bags on the floor, they made quite a good cushion.
In the window, I saw Shimla, with its golden lights splattered across the mountainside disappear behind dark mountain folds. I drifted off to sleep watching the night sky and the peaks of black mountain tops rushing by, comforted by the warmth and vibration of the bus engine.
I woke up in the middle of the night when the driver forgot to cross a bridge and took a wrong turn. It takes some time to turn a bus around in the mountains – I was happy to get a toilet break. By this time, I had been separated from my rucksack, someone sitting in a seat had leant over and was using my bag as a pillow.
I had never imagined it’s possible to sleep with your butt higher than your head. Clearly, my ideas of what’s possible are pretty limited. The bus had enough drunk people in it to smell vaguely like a cheap pub, and somehow, pizza. I drifted off to sleep again.
We reached Reckong Peo. The buses also acted as postal vans; the conductors were also postmen. The bus stopped at the post office, the conductor screamed, and the driver honked to wake up the postmaster and threw a sack of post out of the window.
The postmaster had to wake up, run while rubbing his eyes to catch the sack. The first two seats in front of the window are reserved for the conductor and the post sacks. The post had been delivered; I now had the best seat on the entire bus.
I was glad I was not stopping over at Rampur- Bushahr, there were glowing signs of corporate establishments scratched out on the mountainsides. A guy sitting beside me started to brag about the huge hydropower project that had been established there, by Modi.
As a mountain lover and an environmental science student, my choices were either getting into an argument or feign interest. Tales of destruction and my co- passenger’s pride in it proved to be a great sleeping environment.
I woke up as we were descending into Reckong Peo. There was snow everywhere. The golden headlights were shining off the white lining all around, parted in the middle by the black night above and the icy asphalt below.
It was 5 am when we reached the bus stop. There were inches of snow everywhere. Our bus was the only one that was naked. There were a few white street lamps, making some of the black and white landscape glow a bit differently.
The bus station had long benches. People started taking out blankets and making beds on these benches, I finally took out my sleeping bag. This is when I realized two jackets are not always enough. To everyone’s shock, I stripped so that I could put on my thermal base layer.
With a place to sleep secured and sufficient warmth on my body, I ventured out to find a toilet. The public consensus was that there are no dedicated public toilets, the entire bus stop is one. I could go behind the buses, as there are no cameras there.
I met another person there, engaged in the same endeavour. We were answering nature’s call from one edge of the bus stand. There was another bus stand below, used to park school buses. They had to receive our call. I started talking with the man. We had an engaging discussion about the otherworldly adventures of the Himachal.
There was one tea stall open in the entire town, and they had sent a boy over with some cups and a kettle to take care of the cold people at the bus stop. After a cup of tea, I constantly slipped into the sleeping bag and realized I had no sensation left on my right foot.
I tried moving it, moving around on it, and finally dancing on it, all to no effect. I already had a dog bite on one leg, and definitely didn’t want to add frostbite to the other. I gave up my efforts to sleep and went over to the official’s chamber of the bus stand.
The drivers, conductors, and the bus station master stay there, along with two electric heaters. I asked for the privilege of being allowed to warm my feet. They said it was not allowed, if one person were allowed to come in, they’d have to open the gates for everyone and they definitely didn’t want that.
Frostbite or not, I had definitely been bitten by the status quo. I went out, tried some more dancing. Five minutes later, it was clear that warmth would be the only cure. I went back again to plead with the officials. This time they were more understanding, but the hierarchy had to be maintained.
A family with a baby was enjoying the heaters, they were told their time in the warmth was up, and they were cleared out. The heaters did work, and I was told that what was happening to my feet was pretty common. It happens when feet are kept fixed in one position for a very long time, especially in the cold.
Surely enough, the pins and needles sensation came to my feet, and eventually, they woke up completely. I had been wearing my boots since the last morning, this was bound to happen at some point. The bus to Pooh leaves at 7:30 am, and I had to leave the warmth of the heaters to find out whether my belongings had not been stolen, and if so, to pack them again.
Outside there was light now. The white light of the morning sky didn’t stay just white, the snow added a blue hue to it. Snow is not just a landscape, it’s also a soundscape. Snow fell from trees, melted and dripped down from corners, and crunched under the feet. I walked up to where the bus to Pooh was waiting.
By now I had been planning my trip according to the anti-rabies vaccine schedule. This had meant either staying only at places where there are high chances of the vaccine being available, or carrying shots from Shimla.
Doctors would definitely be easier to find than vaccines, and if even doctors couldn’t be found, I’d find out exactly how my dogs felt when I gave them injections. People at Shimla had been confident that Reckong Peo had vaccines stored. I had reason to trust them.
After all, the road from Shimla to Reckong Peo stays open year-round. I asked the bus driver about his opinions on the vaccine being available in Pooh. He had no reasons to question the quality of healthcare in Pooh.
Even if his confidence was misplaced, I could go to the health centre, find out what the situation is, and come back to Reckong Peo on the same bus.
Mail was being loaded onto the bus, and some were bound for Kaza. I asked whether the bus was actually going to Kaza. It was not, and a truck from the Kaza post office would be coming to take the mail. I had never seen the postal service so active and adventurous.
People who say the private sector is way more dependable and efficient are definitely not living in places that are snowed off from the world for half the year.
I got onto the bus, picked out a window seat, and the conductor legitimized my choice with a ticket. We climbed out of the valley that surrounds Reckong Peo and started following the Sutlej River.
The mountains were white, the river was green, the sun was a misty golden white and the dirt was reddish-brown. We arrived at Spillow, and flakes of snow started coming down.
They were little white dots, without much concern for coming down. They’d rest on the earth for sure but seemed more interested in making the most of the journey. I could relate.
The bus stopped for a tea break. Drinking a warm cup of tea in the falling snow, surrounded by white mountains, I was happy with the way the trip was going.
One guy had climbed up on the bus to pose for photographs. Once he came down, we started off again.
Pooh village is on top of the mountains, and the highway follows the river valley. There’s only one road going up to the village. That road reaches a point where a bus can be turned around comfortably.
That’s the bus stop. Beyond that, the same road continues and that’s the only road. It’s wide enough for one car to be driven on it, provided the driver has extreme skill.
I got off the bus and set off on my way to Pooh’s hospital to ask about the vaccine. I could see the valley below from the road. I could see the green river and the highway leading down to it, twirling around the mountainside. Grey mountains rose up above me, wearing white snow, into the white sky.
There were dried up brown trees lining the road. There were dried up orchards, embracing the white world in their old brown arms. There were dark stones with Tibetan inscriptions, bordering the snowy road I was walking on.
The sound of water drops from snow waking up on rooftops and balconies melted into the sound of my footsteps. I could hear myself breathing.
I reached the hospital, they assured me I can get the vaccines. My date was the next day, I was free to stay on at Pooh or go wherever I wanted. The post office didn’t have any more post vans going towards Pooh, it had gone back to being a sleepy establishment after its daily dose of adventure.
I went back to the bus stop. All the hotels were closed, as were most shops. A shopkeeper told me only one hotel could be opened up, but I shouldn’t go up the stairs and in there, as the guard dog didn’t like guests. He shouted to bring the receptionist out. They would charge 800 rupees for a night, and I decided it’ll be a better option to sleep on a bus somewhere.
Also Read: Northwards From Delhi.
Two restaurants were open, and the menu was the same: tea, momos and chow-mein. Both had their own momo and spaghetti making machine. Four women sitting outside one of the restaurants had lit a fire in a bucket, and they invited me to join them.
They told me I should’ve come a few months later. Everything would’ve been open then, a lot of tourists come in the summer. I wasn’t really interested in meeting tourists from the plains and was quite happy with the Pooh I found. Indeed, I was happy being the only outsider in the place, no one was letting me be an outsider.
A few more months, and hordes of tourists, would arrive, blazing through the mountains on their automobiles, some going to Kaza because it’s a famous destination and some going on the Shimla Manali circuit because it’s a famous road trip. I was definitely happy in the cold winter; the people were warm.
Pooh doesn’t have much to offer, the woman told me. I could visit a temple on a mountain top nearby, that was the “thing to do” there.
The view might have been better from there, but I already had a pretty great view. And I definitely found humans more interesting than deities in temples. I didn’t go to Pooh to complete checklists, I was there because I was following the road.
The women were tending to the fire, the shops, their kids, and me equally. I left the fireside to sit on top of a building under construction. I sat on the wall, below me was the uninterrupted valley.
I finally took my ukulele out and started playing. My fingers were freezing in the cold wind, but I couldn’t have found a better place to sing along. Snowflakes and the wind were my only audience, white mountains my stage.
The afternoon drifted by much like the snowflakes and I decided to take the bus back to Reckong Peo. I’d decide whether to stay there or move somewhere else later.
I had to say goodbye to my friends by the fireside. They made sure that I promised to come back with the summer.
By this time the winds were picking up, the snowfall turned into translucent white curtains hanging from the silver sky. The Sutlej River lay below, proudly green. The mountains sat silent; heads held higher than the little world I was in. I was happy to be a part of the show, watching from the warmth of a little bus seat.
We reached Reckong Peo in the evening, and the conductor asked me whether I wanted to go to Shimla or stay at Reckong Peo. At this point, I was healed enough to get impatient about cycling again, so I answered with Shimla.
He told me the weather conditions were getting too risky to drive in, the last bus to Shimla is already on its way out. He would stop it on the way and transfer me. I got onto the new bus, a bit sad about not getting to even stroll around Reckong Peo for a few hours, but enthusiastic too about keeping travelling through a storm.
Midway the driver told me that we might have to stop over somewhere before Shimla for the night, it was getting very hard to drive.
It was pitch black all around, the rain came down hard, the bus left the highway. We were on routes that google maps didn’t even know to exist. All we could see was a road just as wide as the bus itself, in the light of the headlamps. On either side, there were deep valleys.
A few hours later, the conductor woke me up and told me that Shimla was snowed off completely, all roads were blocked. This bus would be going somewhere else altogether, far away from Shimla. I can get on a bus to Chandigarh instead, which was stuck in the same traffic jam.
My new bus made one dinner stop. Most people had dinner. The only option was Daal and Roti, I avoided that to avoid the urge to pee. The rain had stopped, but everything was wet. A huge moon had risen between the mountains. There were strands of silver on the dark wet asphalt.
We reached Chandigarh around 6 AM. I was tired enough to be shaking without the weather even being cold. I stumbled off the bus, and just wanted a bed to sleep on.
I almost sleep walked to the pool of auto-drivers and asked for the cheapest hotel. They took me to a pretty expensive one, through a circuitous route to justify a high auto fare. Too tired to bargain I agreed upon spending a thousand rupees for the few hours till checkout time.
I lay on the bed, feeling depressed about the way the trip was going. At the moment it felt like everything had gone wrong. I felt like taking my cycle out from Shimla and heading straight back home.
Luck had run out. I sank into the blankets, a dead wanderer in an expensive coffin.
I came out from the hotel and made my way through the alleys and onto the main road. The sky was bright, boundless, blue. Golden sunshine bathed everything.
Standing there, the sun seeping in through my skin, the sky beckoning to start off for the horizon, the wind touching tantalizingly, I knew nothing was over. I would only stop when I run out of time, and not give up even a moment before.
I had only a thousand rupees left in cash. There was no room left for things to go wrong.
I went back to the vaccination centre, they were surprised. They asked me why I was still in Chandigarh, and hearing my story they were even more amused than they were when they heard my plans. I called up the bus stand, they told me that the road had been cleared, buses were plying the road as vigorously as ever. I got on a bus and went into the sun-kissed mountains.
It had snowed as low as Solan (at least at the tops of the nearby hills, which people of Solan graciously consider to be in Solan valley). I found myself carefully counting every uphill and downhill because I planned to cycle all the way back. We reached Shimla around 7 pm.
There was thick snow everywhere. This was not the same Shimla I had reached a few days ago. Occasional white street lights added another shade of white to the scene. Shimla is quite a bit away from the interstate bus station. I started walking in the dark, watching the city’s golden glow a few mountain folds away, snow crunching under my feet.
A lot of tourists had heard about the snowfall from the news and Facebook groups and came over. There was a car from Delhi stranded on an uphill stretch, skidding every time it tried to move up.
Two guys came out to push it. I joined in to help. After some pushing the guys outside remembered there were three more people in the car apart from the driver. They convinced two girls to come out and push with us. The third one simply refused to come out.
Turned out, they had come in a larger group, and the first car had already gone up. My group was trying to literally follow their tracks. Snow of course doesn’t take too kindly to being trampled upon, it turns into ice. And the driver somehow was hell-bent on using the exact tire marks of the previous car, and unsurprisingly slipped down every time.
And the ice kept getting more slippery with each attempt. Someone from the first group came down to help his friends. He had a brilliant idea: the sport mode. At this point, I realized there are no helping people who put their faith completely in their machine’s advertised abilities with complete disregard to physics and walked off.
I didn’t even feel guilty, sport mode and some more aggressive tire burning, peppered with a healthy dose of insults would keep them warm.
I reached the same hostel again, threw my bag down, and decided to walk around in snow-covered Shimla. Turns out, people will do wedding shoots anywhere. I felt sad for a bride standing without any jackets in the snow while her fully suited groom stood in a caring pose.
Shimla was beautiful, wearing white with orange streetlight jewels and black valley boots.
I woke up, and the bed got better for me. I started considering sleeping on for one more day. I finally got up and went into the common room, and got the wake-up call I needed. Till last night there was only a reserved old couple staying there, so the hostel felt more like a hotel.
A fresh young group had come in just then. A couple from Mumbai, and their two friends from Delhi. We started talking, shared some sandwiches, and I was excited to be on the road again. Sometimes, just casual conversations with newly made friends are the best pep talk anyone can get.
The girls went off to bathe, the guys decided they’ll go to colder Kufri and then bathe, and I left the hostel.
The plan was to eventually reach Singhu, where the farmers were doing a live-in protest (don’t know if that’s the correct term, but “sit-in” hardly captures living on the street for months).
Two years ago, I had cycled the route from Delhi, but I would be travelling through an entirely different land this time. The road from Shimla to Delhi cuts across Punjab, and Haryana, where the farmer’s movement had brewed up.
The people at the bus stand were happy to finally see me, and relieve themselves of my bike. They gave me ropes to tie my rucksack to my carrier and helped me take the bike down the stairs. The bike crashed down.
I happily brushed snow off the bike and started the ride. The road was completely iced over, green trees with patches of snow on them rose up to the deep blue sky above, sunlight glistened off water drops embracing the icicles.
People standing by the road were amazed to see a cyclist and amused to see me crash. I didn’t mind at all, it takes a few crashes to learn anything, and cycling on snow was completely new to me. I finally figured out how to go about it.
I started finding out all the little creases on ice, and put my wheels in the tiny folds of ice to get traction. I had the best meditation session of my life, I have never been so focused on anything in a long time.
As I cycled out of Shimla, there was a huge line of traffic on the other side of the road. I had chosen the right time to leave indeed. The road ice ended by Shimla limits, and then there was only snow by the roadside. Meltwater kissed the road and sparkled golden in the sun.
I reached a little tea shop near Solan and stopped. Golden brown mountains rose up on one side. Golden dark green valleys rolled down below. A clear blue sky stretched over and below.
On another trip, I had realized that flat means “not too steep uphill” in the mountain people language. This time I realized downhill simply means not uphill all the way.
I was getting more tired from counting and asking how many uphill stretches were left than from actually cycling. I decided to just ride and see everything that was going on around me. I had too beautiful a road below my wheels to get lost in counting and planning stops.
I had thought I’d stop at Solan for the day if it took me the whole afternoon to reach there. By the time I reached Solan, I was too excited to continue on the rolling road, going up and down, curving around the mountains and valleys, dipping into the shade and the sun, listening sometimes to the wind, sometimes to the silence.
I stopped at a wine shop to get three bottles of wine, two for two groups of friends, one for Megha. I really hoped she would get to drink it. It would suck if Megha only ended up getting stingy life advice instead of wine, but all I could do was try.
I climbed out of Solan valley, and the sun was getting dimmer. I stopped at a restaurant for lunch. The restaurant was geared towards bikers and people with cars. The owner gave me special discounts because I was a cyclist, and I was visibly dejected at the high prices written on the menu. I made a new friend over a cup of tea and left.
There was a tunnel so long that it was completely dark inside. I got scolded by some women walking on the other side for not using my flashlight.
By the time I got out of the tunnel, The tops of the mountains were turning dark. I went into the last little uphill stretch in the light of the falling sun. As I started going down, the sky was turning dark blue on my side.
There was light in the valleys rolling off to the plains below, where the sun was setting. Different shades of pink and grey flirted with each valley. I was riding down from over the orange misty horizon, into the darkness of my side.
I stopped at a roadside Maggi shop. A few students from Chandigarh university treated me to a much-needed Maggi.
Over a glass of sugarcane juice, I watched darkness engulf the world from above and below. The towns started sparkling in the valley. I set off again.
There was some town on the other side of the valley, they had a lot of lights. Their light made the sky a deep shade of midnight blue. My side was black. Orion’s belt stitched the two sides of the sky together.
I came out of the final folds of the mountain, and the plains twinkled and sparkled, stretching out to the horizons. I stopped for a final cup of tea in the mountains. This was a truck operated by a woman and her daughter. It had a toilet attached, to be used only by women.
The daughter’s father was only required for driving the truck. I drifted past Chandigarh, and finally got tired enough when I reached Zirakpur. I went into a tea stall which was also a place to drink after you purchase alcohol from the neighbouring liquor stores.
Drunk people came up to me and advised me on which Gurudwara was the best place to sleep in. They told me not to use google maps, as the information shown there was wrong. This sounded like responsible advice and I accepted it.
Bauli Saheb is unlike any Gurudwara I’ve ever been in. They agreed to take me in for the night, but I would have to go to their hospital first to get checked for Covid. A member of the Gurudwara got his bike out, told me to hop on as he guessed I was weary after my long ride.
The people at the hospital were quite relaxed, took my temperature and declared me Covid free. On the way back the biker asked my opinion about the ongoing farmer’s protest. I told him I had been a part of the team that went from JNU to welcome the farmers into Delhi on republic day.
He decided immediately I was a friend. No matter how much public perception gets created about JNU students being anti-national, the moment the government screws over a new set of people, they regard JNU students as friends. These are some of the moments I feel the proudest of my university.
We bonded over a bitching session about Godi Media. Thousands of farmers had marched around Delhi on republic day maintaining peace and order, yet all that our mainstream media showed was a group of people storming the Red Fort. Post republic day, mass opinion was in a mess.
Some people had raised their flags in the Red Fort. There was propaganda going around stating that the other flags had flown higher than the national flag, and honour of course is proportional to the height of the flagstaff…
I still haven’t realized how the police merrily brutalizing farmers trying to enter the national capital brings glory, especially to a nation built by its farmers.
Personally, I had been elated to hear that the roads to the red fort were finally opened, irrespective of who started it. Sashi, Saumya, and I had jumped up on a tractor (from Uttar Pradesh) which was trying to go towards the red fort in the evening.
People lined the entire way cheering the tractor rally on, showering flowers and slogans. We broke nothing, beat no one up, the police tear-gassed us lavishly, and the rally turned back (I had to run towards the tear gas explosions because Megha wanted authentic tear gas footage).
Every member of the rally had followed the instructions of the union. Delhi was not to be overcome by force; Delhi had to be won over with love. Red fort was just another monument, what we wanted to win that day were hearts.
We reached the Gurudwara, and my newly made friend announced to everyone that I was going to Singhu, to join the protest. He went on to instruct a few kids to salute me, which they did. This Gurudwara had individual rooms, for 100 rupees a night. I went to bed tired physically, but eager to start off the next day.
Also Read: Backpacking Through New York.
I woke up early, fresh as the newborn day. A cycle repair shop filled up my tubes for free, on learning my travel plans.
The way out of Zirakpur was lined with tall eucalyptus trees. Once I reached the highway, I cycled on in the bright sun. There weren’t many places to stop on this side. I’ve been on this road before, on the other side. Most tea stalls and restaurants are on the other side.
I was on the east side this time, and the east lane gets the full blast of the afternoon sun. I lay down for a few minutes whenever I found a shop with a bench in the shade.
Towards the end of the afternoon, I stopped at a restaurant for tea. The receptionist told me they only sold tea for twenty rupees. The chef told me not to be sad, there was a tea stall a little way down the road, and they make great ten-rupees tea. I went over to the recommended shop.
It had a hammock inside and a Hookah outside and definitely served great tea. I lay down on the hammock and started a conversation with the shopkeeper. I asked his take on the ongoing protests. It turned out that selling tea was only his side business, he was a farmer.
He had sent out one tractor with the people of his village, another one was here for fieldwork. Everyone in the village was taking turns to go to the protest site, everyone was pitching to the best of their abilities.
He was clear on one thing, work might be affected now, but relenting to the government would be complete destruction of life and livelihood forever. All of them were ready to pay the price to save their collective future. I got my badge out and put it on. It said, “I love Kisan”.
I lay down on the hammock, admiring the small shop, run by a farmer of immense determination. I set off again when the sun became a shade softer.
A few people were standing by the highway, with tables laid out in front of them. They had a dispenser of tea, biscuits, and water. They were serving the people coming by tractors, going to Singhu.
But they didn’t discriminate, they waved their flags at all the cars, trucks, and every other kind of automobile, and served snacks to whoever stopped. I’m neither religious, nor spiritual, but Langar is one of the most beautiful concepts I’ve had the luck to experience.
The food is always great, but the warmth associated much greater. They saw my badge and fell in love with my plan of cycling to Singhu. They asked if I wanted a flag, I obviously did. The person waving the flag at passing cars immediately tried to give up his flag to me.
I couldn’t take that one, I said, it was an orange flag with the Sikh symbol on it. The symbol had faded so much that the flag looked like the saffron banner of the right-wing. They agreed this was indeed counterproductive. One guy told me to wait and ran off to get a fresh flag from the local union office.
He came back panting after five minutes, with a proud smile and a green Bhartiya Kisan Union flag. We fixed the flag to my bike and I started off, the flag fluttering joyously in the wind. I felt as happy as that flag, elated to be part of something much greater than myself.
If all I could do was carry one of the flags of a movement that had given life and blood to save India from its government, so be it. I would do my little part, if my actions cheered up or inspired even one person, I’d count that as success. I knew very well how tiring protests can be, especially long drawn ones.
The tea and biscuits Langar station was just the first of many more to come. They had been set up all along the highway to Singhu.
As cars and bikes passed, people waved at me in support. Some showed me the fist of resistance, some shouted out slogans of “Jai Jawan Jai Kisan”.
A group of bikers stopped me to give encouragement. They were also going to Singhu. They decorated my bike with stickers saying “No Farmers No Food”.
The skies were turning pink, and endless yellow-green fields of mustard rolled off into the distance. I rolled into another Langar camp, and they insisted I have some food. I hadn’t realized how hungry I was until I had the food.
The people in charge of the camp called me to enquire about the Bengal elections that were still a few months away. They said I was welcome to sleep in the tent, I still wanted to keep cycling. They assured me I’d find plenty of camps like this one, wished me well and sent me off.
I cycled for a few more hours in darkness, and finally decided it was time to look for a place to sleep. Soon enough another Langar camp appeared.
I asked them whether I could sleep there, and they said I could have as much food and tea I wanted, and mats were waiting in the sleeping area. Bikes were parked outside, my cycle they insisted needs to be taken inside the tent. I got the best parking spot, under the shade of the tent, next to a trailer of food supply.
Over a cup of tea, the organizers asked me to do our best to keep BJP out of Bengal. I told them we were doing our best, but some people are still under the illusion that BJP would bring utopia, and some just want to vote BJP into power to dislodge the present ruling party in Bengal.
They were shocked by the idiotic idea. They urged me to convince everyone to not make the same mistake they once made – fall for BJP’s propaganda and vote for them. No one deserves to live under a fascist state which uses religious sentiments and promises of better days simply to feed people into the corporate engine.
I can never forget the disappointment in their eyes on learning that some people in Bengal were actually rooting for BJP, in spite of all the examples of BJP governments all over India.
Their fight was not just against a new set of laws, their fight was against the entire system that brought about these laws. The fight was not of electoral politics, the fight was against BJP, which cannot be taken as just another political party.
I lay down on the warm layers of the mattresses, spread over a layer of straw on the asphalt. I went off to sleep to the sound of vehicles passing by on the highway I was sleeping on. Vibrations from their wheels came up to caress my tired body.
The best part about not sleeping in a building is that you are bound to wake up early, feeling fresh. My hosts offered me breakfast, but I’d have to wait an hour for it to be ready. I decided to have a little stroll first.
The camp was just beside Karna Lake. I followed the road to the lake. The mist was all around. Golden sunlight came in slices, through the grey mist.
Trees shrouded in the same mist lined the way. I reached the lake and sat down on its shore. The mist had blended the sky into the lake, it was like sitting on an edge of the world. The sun was rising over an island floating in the misty sky-lake, encased by dark silhouettes on the above, and a soft dark reflection below.
I watched till the sun rose higher and I got two suns, one in the sky and one in the lake.
I bid my hosts goodbye and left.
There was plenty of free tea all along the way, but tea stalls don’t just sell tea. Tea stalls are a window into the life of a place. They are the difference between an ignored point on a map and memories. I stopped at the first one I found. A group of daily wage labourers had stopped there for tea.
They saw my flag and their faces lit up brighter than the sleepy morning sun. One guy shut the others up and went into a monologue on the ills of the Modi government.
Patanjali, he explained, sells stuff by saying it’s made in India. The stuff at ration shops is made in Indian farms. Yet Patanjali sells the same things at two or three times the price. Are the farmers not Indian? What was up with the government trying to destroy Indian farmers and trying to sell Indian-ness from Patanjali stores?
Farmers know that the new laws would harvest their economic downfall and lay the land bare for corporate loot. Corporate farming has only one end result, anywhere in the world – people exploited to death, the land exploited till the soil turns toxic, and corporates riding high on profit, searching for ways to make even more profit.
Reliance has already honed its skills, in the telecom sector. They launched the free Jio program and blasted other telecom companies out of the market.
Now everyone is hooked on the internet, and data prices are increasing. Without the internet all the shiny expensive phones are useless slabs, even the newest toddlers complain about not having access to phones before they complain about being hungry. People have to pay whatever Jio wants them to pay.
Even large companies couldn’t hold their grounds against Reliance. The government was vehemently trying to establish that the new laws would bring more choice to the farmers by opening the market and bringing incorporates like Reliance.
The government keeps saying it wants to do good for the farmers, the farmers are vehemently against the new laws. Surely then, whatever motive the government has, it’s not doing good.
People say the farmers are dumb idiots who understand nothing. Even if that were true, they had sons and daughters who went to schools and colleges and universities. Would anyone let their fathers and mothers be dumb idiots in public and not explain anything to them?
Of course, the New Education Policy would be working hard to ensure the new generations of learners learn as little as possible… At this point I was overjoyed. Being a student myself, I knew the New Education Policy was deadly, but here was a labourer who understood exactly how devastating the policy would be.
I’ve had hard times trying to explain the destructiveness of the education policy to people who consider themselves educated.
I left for the road, he left for work.
I stopped for breakfast near Karnal. A man came up to me to ask my story. He was happy to see a student participating in the farmer’s protest. He treated me to tea and offered modified Bidis. The second offer I declined. He was the local MLA’s driver. I asked his opinion on the government’s policies. He told me he was totally against them.
He felt especially insulted by the government’s efforts to label protesters as “Khalistani Terrorists”. People from Haryana and Punjab make up a huge part of the national army, they die for this nation.
When they speak up against the same nation’s government, they get labelled as anti-nationals. He was hugely disappointed with the present government’s conduct.
I cycled on, the mist faded off into another bright sunny day. Around noon I started getting hungry, and sure enough, a Langar camp appeared. I reached there, this time there were no parking spots.
One of the organizers instructed me to use his bike as a cycle stand. I got one of the simplest and best lunches of my life. There were a lot of activists from the left front here, and I was really missing a red flag. I asked if anyone had a spare flag, someone got out a freshly printed flag for me. I started off again, happily flying one red flag and one green flag.
Strangers shouted out “Kisan Ekta Zindabad” to me. I was the happiest when workers from fields looked at me and stood up to give Red Salutes.
At one point two bikers stopped me. I assumed my luck had run out, I would be getting into trouble for flying the red flag. This was Haryana after all. They came up to me beaming, and declared that they had stopped me to give me a proper Scarlet Salute. Clearly Red wasn’t enough to express their excitement.
He was a leader of the local SFI chapter, and he didn’t care that I was not associated with his organization. I was welcome to stay over at his place if I was too tired to continue. I was not, especially after this interaction, and we parted ways.
In the evening I met a cyclist coming from Punjab, with medical supplies in a trailer, also going to the protest site. This guy was more than twice my age.
The sun went down in dusty shades of pink.
I was cycling towards Singhu in the dark. A string of yellow bulbs, hung in decorative splashes appeared on the divider. This was the first tent. Singhu (as shown on google maps) was still about 11 kilometres away.
The whole stretch of the highway was a different world. A little space had been left for vehicles to pass. New protesters, food supplies, other equipment, all came in through these channels.
It would have been the easiest option to use these channels as a narrower version of the whole highway, but the police had blocked the entire road off a kilometre or so away from the protest site.
The police blockade stretched from end to end, and comprehensively covered their one little kilometre with barbed wire, concrete blocks, and nails. To wrap up the military mood of the setup, barricades, swarms of police personnel, buses, water cannons all were there.
Effectively the police had sealed up the highway, not the protesters. In any case, the narrow channels left open by the protesters now had traffic going through it, to the narrower local roads beside the highway, bypassing the police blockade, to get into and out of Delhi. A traffic control system had been set up by the farmers.
While waiting in a traffic jam, someone came up to me and said “I want to fuck Modi’s sister”. Haryana was being Haryana, just in a different direction. Probably the BJP is easier to fight than the social structure they rose out of.
I cycled past the first tents, towards the main stage of the site. On one side of the road was a village, on the other side were farms and buildings. They were steeped in darkness, the highway of protest was lit up with street lamps, floodlights, tractor headlamps, bulbs, and every other illumination technology known to humans.
The divider was filled up with tractors and trailers. Some were covered with colourful tarps, and had sleeping arrangements inside, complete with lights and mattresses laid down on a straw.
Tents had been set up too, all along the way. Some of these tents were from gurdwaras from all over Punjab, and they served food to whoever came to them. Some served tea, and in one of them, I had the best jaggery tea I’ve ever had. There was one camp that served only warm milk.
In a few places, tractors fitted with disco lights and loudspeakers had turned the highway into a dance floor. The protest had been going on for months, and would probably have to go on for longer.
Just because the government was apathetic didn’t mean the protesters should live on the road depressed or go back home defeated. Music and dancing were an integral part of this protest as anything else.
They were farmers. They knew how to feed themselves, they fed the whole nation. They knew how to live a hard life. Government officials living in offices and apartments built on the labour and taxes of physical labourers were counting on the workers giving up because living on a dusty highway was too hard.
I saw a long line of women going to get their dinner from a huge tent. Foodgrains piled to the roof of a tent higher than a two-story building was being cooked in fires reaching the dark sky in orange sparkles. These huge tents were quite common.
In one place there was a truck converted to a Gurdwara, people were singing from there, through speakers, out to the people going around.
People from Haryana had formed little groups around Hookahs. They had little bonfires going too.
I reached the main stage area. This area was under heavy guard, as it had suffered repeated attacks. People from the BJP and other tentacles of the RSS had come and tried to tear down the tents and beat the protesters up. They had tried to pose as “local people tired of the never-ending protest”.
I asked around the town, at the local tea shops what they thought of the protest. Not one of them said that they were upset with the farmers. Everyone agreed that the issue had to be resolved, and the government needed to step up to its corporate masters and take a stand for the nation’s farmers.
For all the inconvenience, the police were the identified culprit. Perhaps the biggest achievement of the protesters was that they had successfully brought everyone over to their side with logic and love, as was the union’s call.
The locals were happy with them, there was enough delicious food for everyone at the protest site. Everyone was welcome. Even the policemen came over to have lunch and dinner.
There were plenty of ex-BJP supporters from various states, and the BJP had made sure over the past few months that they wouldn’t remain BJP supporters. BJP/ RSS supporters who believed they had no connections with farming, or the ones who thought the nation’s flag and pride and was tainted by the protest came over to destroy it.
The farmers had to set up vigilante teams to guard the area. Some of them stood guard in a traditional blue uniform, others just moved around in groups on foot, circling the whole area. I knew my organization had set up a library somewhere, but it was in the high-security zone. Of course, no one stopped me from going in after seeing my JNU identity card.
The ASIA-AICCTU library was just closing down for the night when I reached, and I wasn’t really done with exploring the site, so I decided to find a sleeping place later.
There were medical camps and even dental care camps. I wanted to go up to the very end of the site, where the police were stationed.
One guard asked me to bring some firewood for him, and I spent some time collecting firewood from huge piles of wood. Two people came to escort me to the end of the site.
They didn’t want to have more victims of the BJP. From the end of the protest site, all I could see were concrete block after concrete block, laid down in the belief that the farmers could actually be stopped by force. Farmers’ horses were grazing constantly near the barricades.
I went back to the living area. It was pretty late, and most dinner langars were wrapping up. I finally found a dinner camp set up by people from Haryana, they had just served the last batch, and we’re sitting down to have their own dinner.
They sat me down, told me they’ll make more for themselves, I could have whatever was left right then. Whatever was left was more than enough for me, but not quite enough to satisfy their hospitality…
One place had a bunch of camping tents set up by a radio station. Dr Gurjeet (emphasis on the Doctor) was in charge of the place, she allotted me a tent, gave me some mattresses and blankets. Now that a place to sleep was ensured, I went off to walk around a bit more.
I asked a person how they organized this big protest. Getting people to give up their comfortable plans and turn up even for one protest is hard enough in my personal experience. I had to get water-cannoned, thrashed on the ground by police boots before my classmates agreed to go on a strike for even one day. The answer I got was beautiful.
They had called meetings in all the villages. They had talked amongst themselves and everywhere they had come up with the same conclusion.
The new laws were a life threat to everyone, directly or indirectly. To fight meant to join the protest, to not join it would be suicide. No one could afford to stay apolitical, and the parliament could not be trusted. Their only way forward was to Delhi.
Almost half of the protesters had left after the chaos on Republic Day. The BJP would have descended on the opportunity to shred the protest to pieces. But in the end, the hope for the republic survived.
More people came back than had left when the old leader Rakesh Tikait broke into tears trying to explain the simple demands the farmers had. It became clear to everyone that the intentions of the union were honest, and the protest was reignited.
I went off to sleep that night to the sound of vigilante teams patrolling the site on tractors. I felt safe, I felt like I belonged.
The next day I cycled out for Delhi. To go past the police fortifications at the Delhi border, I had to cross a few fields, go down a riverbank, march through sands and then cross a few iron and steel construction frames, and move through a few bunches of concrete beams.
A woman was making the same crossing with her child, trying to go to the other side of the highway. She gave me a smile and said “see, Modiji is sending us to so many places”.
I wondered how she’d explain to her child why we had to do so many antics to cross just a road. I have crossed international borders with lesser security reinforcements. A state that tries to guard its capital against its people is ruling with fear, but living in fear too.
It was quite a scene on the police side. Loads of policemen stood in formation, wearing armour, pretending that they were doing a dangerous job. Music from the protest site drifted over them, in the early morning breeze and soft sunlight. Tall crops looked with complete amusement at the figures standing amongst them, wearing camouflage.
As I reached the New Delhi municipal corporation area, I faced a completely new surprise. A bunch of policemen stopped me. I thought I would be getting in trouble for not having my mask on. They couldn’t care less about masks. They told me the flags I was flying were not allowed inside Delhi.
Only the Indian national flag was to be flown here. This was especially a major problem because I was near the president’s house. Plenty of rulers have been afraid of the communist international flag, our president was afraid of the inherently Indian farmer’s union flag too.
The police tried to drag the flags out of the stick they were attached to. They had been tied by a farmer. Needless to say, the police failed. I told them the only compromise that I was prepared to make was to cover my flags with my jacket.
The police picked out some barbed wire they had ready, wrapped the flags up around the pole, and tied them up with barbed wire. The flags were now just a colourful stick. Satisfied with their work, they told me “You’re free to come into Delhi with sticks, not with flags”.
This journey was like no other for me. I had started off with plenty of plans, money and time. The plans turned out to be restrictions that had to be thrown into the wind, and the storms showed me the way ahead. Every blocked road opened into a new adventure.
When I almost ran out of money, there was enough kindness all around.
I was happy to be a small part of the mountain roads, a temporary presence in the enormous mountains. Maybe I didn’t make any friends forever, but the few hours with them were enough to keep me warm in the snowy winds. I would probably never meet them again, but I did meet them once.
In small conversations on empty little alleys in Himachal, in shouted exchanges with passing cars and pedestrians in Punjab and Haryana, in the discussions in tea stalls, I saw people starting to challenge the game the fascists play. People had invited me into their homes and lives, even though my contributions to the protest were simple.
India is a republic. The farmer’s protest asks whether we make it a republic of the people, or let it become a republic of profit.
The farmers were showing a glimpse of the India that had been dreamt of, an India where everyone was welcome, everyone was cared for, where everyone cared about what they were doing, where everyone watched out for each other, where everyone contributed, and where everyone belonged.
The maps may say I took the same route as I did a few years ago. But I was not on a trip through a country, I travelled through a revolution.
Also Read: Pedalling My Way To Shimla.