This would need a bit of preamble. I did this trip starting on 15th of June 2009. I wrote it after coming back, well almost wrote it. Initially I had a feeling this could even be publishable :P. Mailed the first 3 chapters to some publishers (we can always hope right?), who promptly replied back with, “We are not interested in this genre”. That made me just forget about the whole issue.
Something to note before starting to read: It has invariably happened that when people come to know of this, they first get flabbergasted. Then after getting to know the details, they are like, oh…that is not such a big deal. And indeed it is not such a big deal. I rode, something like 1100 km in around 9 days of riding. Comes out to about 120 kms a day average. I have seen guys who commute 80 kms daily to work. In fact recently saw a blogpost about a cyclist who did 370 km in one day. To be fair my trip was in the peak of summers, and I was always carrying around 6 liters of water + some luggage. And my bike was an MTB, not meant for such long rides. Think of this as an alternate kind of travelogue. I believe that the speed with which you travel has a direct affect on the things you are able to observe. Also your though process is different. Without further delay, here is the first day of my trip. Have a few more days written. Will definitely write down the remaining days of which I have notes, tweets etc. Thanks to Sudarshana and Shilpa for copyeditting and other related helps.
Sitting besides ganga watching others washing their sins away.One guy says,’saare paap dhone hain bhen@&od’. Tweeted @ 7:10 PM
As planned, I woke up on the morning of 15th June at 4.30 am. Everything was packed and ready to go. I took off at 5:15 am. Alas, with one inaugratory glitch which I realized 20 minutes into the ride, that I had forgotten the rubber mat. I had bought it as a emergency mat which I could unroll and lie down, during breaks. Or if push come to shove I could sleep in one of the small roofed bus stops which every nepali village seemed to have. With the only alternative being to return and get the mat back, I chose to think that I could do without it. But what should I do about the nagging thought, that I could have left more essential things behind. Then putting ‘faith in almighty’, which is the phrase I use when I don’t want to take action and leave things to providence, I kept riding. There were a few hiccups and missed turns caused because my navigational aids the roadside hawker, or the autowala were simply not around. My GPS being the passerby, it was difficult to find one in the early morning. With some luck, and almost 10 kms extra riding I got on the Hapur bypass.
It was around 2 hours since I was riding, and other things had started to act up. My butt for instance. This was the first time I was riding with both my newly acquired cycling tights and the gel filled seat cover. And the irony was, my double protection wasn’t working. And my left cheek was sore in just an hour. Not getting any bright ideas, I removed the seat cover and put it inside the bag. It worked and my butt cheeks were back to their normal self in about half an hour. That was a big relief, because the initial sore cheek had irrationally put a small seed of ‘how am I going to survive 10 days of this if I can’t take an hours worth’ in my mind.
Rode till around 9 when hunger pangs made me realize it was time for breakfast. Stopped at a dhaba, which seemed to be just waking up. The waiters were busy sprinkling water on the vast dusty expanse in front of their small concrete structure. Finally I got what I ordered, and had a very filling breakfast of 2 paranthas, with a double omelet along with a cup of hot steamy milk tea. A very normal Indian breakfast, one would think. Everything was normal, but my craving for tea was not. The reason being that I have mixed feelings as far as tea is concerned. During my childhood, my mom used to keep tea strictly out of my diet. And as forbidden fruits always look yummy, I was always on the lookout for a glass. This was very difficult in practice, under my mom’s hawk eyes. At home it was almost impossible, and the best I could do was wheedle a small shot of it on top my regular glass of milk. This which would slightly change its color and give me a psychological kick. When we visited friends and relatives, and they served tea, my mom would, say, ‘no no he doesn’t drink tea’. And if they asked beforehand, ‘tea for everyone? Anand does drink tea, no?’, it would be a battle of wits as to who answered first, me, ‘yes yes sometimes’, or my mom, ‘no he doesn’t’. The reason mom gave me, was that tea makes a person dark. Keeping off tea doesn’t work, trust me on that. Anyway what’s the fascination of Indians with fair skin? That would need an entire book to ponder over. Anyway growing up, there came a stage when I had the freedom to drink tea and much more, and I did. But surprisingly I didn’t like it. Maybe the taste buds have to get used in the childhood to like something. Occasionally I have had a cup, giving company to a friend but hardly two or three times in my life, have I ever liked it. So it came as a real surprise that I craved for tea and actually liked it. Wonders of the tongue and psyche, I guess.
After polishing of the plates, I started again at 9.30 not taking much of an after meal break, because I wanted to cover as much distance as possible, before the sun started showing its fangs. Now to my surprise the clouds began to roll in, though small wispy ones with no potential for rains. But still with enough clout to give some nice shade. Was it divine intervention? I thought. Or help from a friend. There is one of my friends who is into yoga and meditation, and claims to be at least a semi-professional. He also claims that he has power over local weather. When I asked him why only ‘local weather’? He said his power only gives him control over an area within 50-100 km radius. I had LOLed when he said that, and requested him to give me good weather for at least the first 100 kms of my journey. And here were clouds. Gautam dada did you really close your ‘gross’ eyes, opened your inner eyes and did whatever mumbo jumbo that you do, and do this?
But as I got farther the clouds started disappearing, and around 11.30 the sun was back from its tea break. Time was ripe to take out my Lehman Brothers’ cap. The cap also had a story behind it, like everything else. Many of my friends were with Lehman Brothers when it existed, and during my Mumbai trip, I had taken one of the caps that was lying around. Now this trip gave me an opportunity to wear the cap. Who else but Lehman Brothers can provide for a traveler whose one reason or shall I say opportunity for the trip, came because the bulls on different share bazaars had tumbled down the slopes. The company I had worked for, a few months ago had fallen to recession. And I had become a freelancer, a dhandewala who took each day as it came, and who had lots of flexi time on his hands. So ironically Lehman Brothers became something like the Shesh Nag protecting me from nature’s fury.
Riding on the highways one cannot help but notice a particular kind of advertisement. Also besides railway tracks, and always near cities. The headlines which advertise, cures for sexual inadequacies, or other ‘unmentionable’ diseases like ones associated with the excretory system. There must be a logic behind this, I thought. The sexual part I can understand. Like the age old doubts guys have, of ‘Am I man enough?’ The doctors or quacks must be targeting this common doubt and transmuting it into an impulsive decision. Most of these quacks have clinics near the bus stands, or railway stations, which would give them a very large number of foot falls. A lot of impulsive visits by insecure men. But what about genuine medical problems like Hemorrhoids. Why does that have to be impulsive? Why don’t people go to regular doctors in regular hospitals? One reason might be that people are embarrassed to go to their regular doctors, and keep the problem to themselves. They may rationalize or procrastinate till the time they see an anonymous ad on the highway and go for a discreet, impulsive visit. But there can be an even bigger reason. That society or government does not give adequate attention to many such diseases. A case to point out is the fact that malaria kills around as many people as AIDS but gets far fewer soundbytes than it. Why is that? Maybe because talking about malaria or things to do to prevent malaria, is boring. Who wants to talk about mosquitoes, or standing water, or cleanliness. While everybody is interested in sex or anything related to it. Or is it that the pharmaceutical companies have more expensive medicines for AIDS compared to Malaria, or NGOs who think AIDS as a more credible way to ask for donations? I think the numerous ads seen on the highways is evidence enough that formal medical system is neglecting a huge group of diseases. This results in quacks taking over the unmet demand. The situation demands as much concern as AIDS or cervical cancer or any of the such other ‘famous’ diseases which have hotlines where people can call in and ask about their concerns. So I pedaled, seeing ads of Doctor Hashmi, who boasts of a host of specialties. He also claims to satisfy in one week or will pay your money back.
Lots of people asked me and even decided on my behalf that I should have had a partner in this trip. Off course a companion would have been nice, but I don’t think necessary. Because everyone always has a companion, that is oneself. I don’t know how some people get lonely, or can’t spend time with themselves. I agree with Sartre who said, ‘If you are lonely when you’re alone, you are in bad company’. Whenever I am alone there is always a dialogue going on, with a part of me countering one of my points My theory is, if one cannot find one’s own self interesting enough, they can not and should not expect someone else to find them interesting. Also being alone keeps your mind on a different plane and lets you think in ways not possible with company around. So here is a million dollar advice, give at least half an hour to yourself, everyday, and enjoy it.
All this dialogue was making me hungry. And since it was time for lunch, and I stopped at a trucker’s dhaba. One benefit of the trucker’s dhaba is that they double up as free lodges. They have facilities for a bath as well as cots for a nap. Definitely beats the relatively formal atmosphere of the tourist dhabas. Bathing under a hand pump, after cycling for 6 hours, is as close to bliss I have been to. After roti-daal and 1.5 hours of a nap, I was back on the road. Even though the sun was shining hard, the wind was cool, a sign that it had rained somewhere near.
On the walls by the road were posters of movies like ‘Laila meri jaan’ and ‘Judwa’. These seemed to be quite different from the latest releases lining the roads in Delhi. If it was a mainstream ‘A’ grade film it had to be old. Which makes sense since the theater owners can only afford the reels of old films, after the bigger towns have had their fill.
So if it is a new film it has to be the soft porn, B or C grade film, with either violence or horror thrown in for added attraction.
From movie posters, to a different kind of advertisement. It was in the village of Gulavathi that I saw a parked bicycle with an audio system and a gramophone style speaker attached to it. A hand painted sign on the box said ‘NS advertisers’. And the tagline was, “Accha prachaar vyapaar ka aadhar”; which could be translated into, “Good publicity brings prosperity”. When I was photographing it, the owner Mr. Khan came running towards me, thinking of me as a prospective client. He was neatly dressed in an old but taken care of formal white shirt and black pants. His hair was oiled and he maintained a thin moustache. Even when he understood that I was far from a client, he did not seem disappointed. He told me that small agencies, sometimes medical, sometimes theatre owners, sometimes a new brand of fertilizer would commission him for a few days. He would then have to cycle around the town and play the advertising copy over and over again. When someone would show interest he would also stop and explain the benefits of the product. I wondered if this advertising model would work in bigger cities? Why does it work in Gulavathi? One reason could be that Mr. Khan, seemed like a town icon, seeing that he was taking a break talking to a bunch of shopkeepers sipping tea, whom everyone recognized. He was not just a guy advertising, he was Mr. Khan to them. What if hundreds of people start cycling with blaring speakers in Delhi?
If anything, people will find it painful. And anyway people in cities are already saturated with advertisements, be it television, radio or the hoardings which line the roads. Also many products which might be very useful for the villagers, like fertilizers, might not have the budget to advertise on TV channels or other mainstream media.
This the one good thing about traveling by a bicycle compared to a motorbike or a four wheeler. It is easy to stop, and the rate at which you see and process information is close to the speed of the two wheels. That means there is no unused information. I can stop, talk to people and start again without feeling guilty about loosing too much momentum. Like when I stopped somewhere after Pilkhuan, when I saw an interesting looking fruit. There was an old seller and two people sitting nearby and eating it. They told me that the fruit was called Sendh. It
looked like a cucumber but came in different colors. Varying from green, to shades of yellow, and orange to red. I decided to taste it and bought 2 small ones.
They invited me to sit on the cot while I tasted the fruit. It tasted like a mongrel breed with cucumber and musk melon as its parents and pumpkin as its uncle. The men who were relaxing were friends of the fruit seller and they were as usual, interested in my undertaking. When I told them about it, one of the guys told me as a matter of fact that he had never left Hastinapur in his life. Once he had been to Ghaziabad for a job, and once to Palwal for a marriage, but never outside these two points. I mentioned that I was planning to stay at Garhmukteshwar for the night. This led to to a converstation about river Ganga. I was slightly surprised when the fruit seller who was a Muslim, named Salman, sang praises of Ganga’s magical powers. He said that whenever his tori, or melon plants are attacked by pests he sprays Ganga’s waters on them, and voila the pests die. Hindu’s have long since thought of ganga’s waters as miraculous, with purifying properties, but this was a new one. It being used as a pesticide. He could be a good poster guy for hindu-muslim brotherhood, I thought. Taking their leave, which they protested asking me to sit and talk for some more time, but I had to because I had still much road to cover.
The town of Garhmukteshwar appears with signs of a small auto stand and
ganna ras machines. And after about 4 kilometers comes Brij ghat which is the actual pilgrim spot. And this is the place where I stayed that night. There are different stories about the place’s importance. The story I had heard at the Sendh seller, was this, “there was a King Sassar who had 100 sons. He was performing ashwamedh yagya, and let his white horse loose to roam at its will. The horse came to this place, and strayed into the boundaries of Rishi Kashyap’s ashram. Off course Rishi Kashyap did not like this and tied up the horse. This according
to protocol was a challenge to Rishi Sassar, whose 100 sons came with swords withdrawn. The powerful ascetic Rishi Kashyap stopped them here and thus ended the tyranny of King Sassar.” Also when I researched on the internets, I came to find out that this was also the place where one of Lord Ram’s ancestor, a king named Shivi, was supposed to have performed asceticisms. And since he was a devotee of Lord Shiva, the place came to be known as Ganamukteshwar. Ganas are the terrible aspect of Shiva’s followers, comprising of pishachas and other attendants. Since then with time and people’s tendency to mispronounce, the name changed to Garhmukteshwar.
I have my own theory about this place being a pilgrimage. Is it a coincidence that the place is the intersection of river Ganga and the grand trunk road. The nearest point on Ganga, if you travel by road from Delhi. The grand trunk road was built by Sher Shah Suri in the 16th century. But it was there as a trail since the Mauryas, since the BC. Slim chances of it being the closest point on ganga, and also being the hotspot for so much spiritual happenings. Much more are the chances of a pilgrim spot born out of convenience.
I got a cheap but fully loaded room at the only hotel in Garhmukteshwar run by a religious trust.
After taking my time with a long relaxing bath, I went to sit by Ganga. People were at it, doing pujas assisted by pandits. Whole car loads of families were here. While the older ladies bathed gracefully fully dressed, the young girls were having a hard time. There were groups of guys who were having a nice time looking at them, some of them well fortified with alcohol. I heard one of the bathing guys saying, “Aaj sare paap dhone hain bhenchod.”, or “Let me wash all my sins away, sisterfucker”. That sounded like a full stop for the day, and I came back to my room and slept like a log for 11 hours.
Read the next day’s log here.