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Chapter 17 – Escaping the Heatwave (June 1998)

Chapter 17 – Escaping the Heatwave (June 1998)

Having spent the duration of my one-month visa in Nepal, I said my goodbyes to John and made my way back into India and to the town of Ayodhya, a focal point of Hindu-Muslim conflict in India.

According to fundamentalist Hindus, Muslims committed sacrilege in Ayodhya by building a mosque in the 15th century on the site of the birthplace of Lord Rama, a major figure in Hinduism. In 1992, the more extreme elements in the Hindu movement stormed the mosque and destroyed it. This set off major rioting throughout India, with thousands killed.

Till today, nothing has been built in its place and any solution is likely to inflame the hatred between the extremists: one side wants the mosque rebuilt, the other wants a temple dedicated to Lord Rama.

With my fully laden bike, I rode up as close as I could to the site until the police turned me back. They were very polite in doing so, although I’m not sure I deserved it, given the potential for violence. What I did see of the disputed area was not very impressive: it looked like a wasteland of rubble with a dozen sick looking cows, standing there as if in a daze.

India was in the midst of its worse pre-monsoon heat wave on record. So far there had already been over 2,400 people killed by it. Temperatures were regularly hitting 45 degrees Celsius and even 50 degrees on some days. Newspapers were full of advice on how to avoid heatstroke: work at night and sleep in the day, and if you must go out when the sun is out, keep a raw onion in your pocket. I have no idea how that works.

The press in Lucknow was also reporting the panic overtaking the city in anticipation of June 7th: Doomsday. Various pundits were warning the population that on that day, the sun would come 200 kilometres closer to the earth, and all sorts of horrible things will happen. Some religious leaders were talking about divine retribution and many teaching institutions and shops announced that they would remain closed for the day. The way I saw it, they should remain closed till the onset of the monsoon later this month as I found it amazing anybody could work in this heat. I was full of admiration for those policemen directing traffic in the middle of the day, with only a black umbrella for protection from the sun. The heat was so intense the tarmac was melting, and my poor bike slid all over the place as if it were riding on ice.

Even while travelling on the bike, the movement of air didn’t cool me down. In fact, there comes a point – about 40 degrees Celsius – when it’s so hot that it’s more comfortable to ride with the visor closed, otherwise it feels like having a hair-dryer set on very hot blowing into your face, burning your eyes and throat. Another cooling technique I found useful was to wrap a wet cotton scarf around my neck. I never did try the onion in the pocket.

One day, as I checked into my hotel in Lucknow, I suddenly felt very dizzy and had to sit on the ground. Obviously the hotel receptionist was used to this and brought me a pitcher of water that I drank in record time. Two more pitchers quickly followed it.

In my room, I discovered the prickly itch I had felt all afternoon on my forearms and upper thighs was a heat rash. I decided I had to get out of the hot plains as soon as possible. This meant I’d miss out on the Hindu pilgrimage city of Varanasi (Benares), probably the most famous Indian sight after the Taj Mahal, but I couldn’t face the prospect of walking around in this heat in a crowded city.

Instead, I’d head for the hill stations as soon as the Enfield dealer changed the bike’s chain and sprocket. Normally, I shouldn’t have needed to change them so soon on a nearly new bike but once again my mechanical ineptitude, and laziness, were responsible. The tension on the chain should have been checked regularly and tightened as necessary; a slack chain means a damaged sprocket.

It’s now midnight and the temperature in my room has only dropped to 39 degrees Celsius. I’ve covered myself with a wet sheet and I’m watching the ceiling fan painstakingly cut through the heavy air. A few minutes ago, when the electricity died, I had a moment of panic and was about to drag my mattress onto the roof of the hotel when the fan started up again.

Lucknow has a number of tourist sights and I decided to attempt them in the cooler post-dawn hours between 5 am and 8 am. First, I went to the old British Residency where the Indian Mutiny of 1857 started. The buildings where the British were held still stand as they did at the end of the 109-day siege that killed over 2,000 out of the 3,000 captives. Today the area is a peaceful and beautifully kept park where Indian children play cricket and hide-and-seek amongst the bullet ridden and canon damaged ruins, and their parents go for their early morning constitutionals.

I also visited a nearby mosque and meandered in the intricate labyrinth built above it. This building is an example of Keynesian economics: it was commissioned by the local ruler in 1784 to provide famine relief to the local population. Another building, a few hundred metres away was also a famine relief project built in 1837 by Mohammed Ali Shah as his future mausoleum. The courtyard houses two small dilapidated copies of the Taj Mahal.

Doomsday came and went without any incidents and the next day I left Lucknow and the hot plains to reach the hill station of Pithoragarh. The first day I covered a leisurely 130 kilometres and the next day a gruelling 320 kilometres, most of which on small mountains roads, made worse by an additional 60 kilometres because I again ran out of petrol and had to backtrack to fill up. Fortunately the road to the petrol station was mostly downhill so I was able to switch off my engine and free-wheel most of the way.

Running out of petrol once was embarrassing but twice in the space of one week was ridiculous. Convinced it could not possibly be my fault – by my calculations I had another 100 kilometres in the tank – I went to a bike garage to ask the mechanic to check for a leak. He checked various tubes and blew into the tank but found nothing untoward. However, he thought the engine did not sound quite right and suggested it could simply be a problem with the tuning. He explained that adjusting the air and petrol mixture should give me an additional five kilometres to the litre, bringing it back to the usual 30 kilometres per litre. It turned out he was right.

As I continued up the mountains, I passed yet another road improvement project. If the Indian Railway is the largest single employer in the world, I would think the Indian Department of Roadwork’s must come in a close second.

I watched three men dig a trench with a single shovel: one man planted the shovel in the earth while the other two pulled it up with the help of two ropes tied to the wooden handle. I’m sure two men with a shovel each would have done a much more efficient job, although obviously it’s much cheaper to hire extra labour than to buy another shovel.

I ended a twelve-hour day with a tumble into a small gully – actually a drainage trench – by the side of the road as I swerved unsuccessfully to avoid a yapping dog. The dog seemed to come out all right from the encounter, at least well enough to run away shrieking, and I came out with only a few more bruises to add to the collection on my legs: I still hadn’t completely mastered the temperament of the bike’s kick-start.

Lifting the bike out of the 80 centimetres trench took six men and a woman.

And encouragement from a gallery of 20 spectators.

Thirsty, slightly shaken and again suffering from a heat rash, I went in search of a room for the night but every hotel was full of people who, like me, were escaping from the heat of the plains. In addition the town was hosting some military exams and there were many young students occupying hotel rooms.

Eventually the manager of the fifth hotel asked one of the students in a single room if he would share with another boy. I was very grateful and must have shown it a little too much because the youth knocked at my door a few minutes later and asked, ‘Do you like sex with me?’

That evening I watched an English language music show on television presented by an Indian pop star. This is how she closed the show:

‘A few days ago our beloved Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, did a great thing: with the nuclear detonations he showed the world that India is a great nation, a nation for world peace, for love. So in honour of this I want to play Michael Jackson’s Heal the World. Remember all you people out there, love the world.’

We then saw a video of the song with images of children asking for a world with no war, hunger or poverty. I’d like to think this pop star had a highly developed sense of irony. I fear she didn’t.

I stood in front of a fruit stall, next to a well-dressed middle-aged man sporting the potbelly of Indian respectability.

He smiled at me and said, ‘The apricots are delicious, you must try them, they are local.’

He turned to the shopkeeper and asked him to give me one.

Hesitantly, for they hadn’t been washed, I took a bite as the man looked on expectantly. ‘Indeed, they are very good,’ I remarked.

You must buy a kilo; it’s only 20 rupees. Give the lady a kilo.’

‘What about the mangoes? Could you ask him how much they cost?’
‘No you mustn’t get those, they are imported, they come from the south. Get the apricots, they grow here.’

‘But they look quite nice.’

‘No. Just get the apricots.’

He left. I paid for the apricots, and checking he was still walking away, quietly asked for a kilo of mangoes.

Next, I rode through Rishikesh, a town on the Ganges where Hindus come for pilgrimages and Westerners for meditation. The next day was the beginning of a ten-day course called Vipassana, which is very popular with Western tourists. Should I go?

During this trip I’ve already had three other opportunities to go on this course (in Dharamsala, Gujarat, and Kathmandu) and each time, although tempted, I decided not to. What am I afraid of? Well for starters: not being allowed to talk for ten days, or even read; then of being told when to wake, when to eat; and suffer the physical discomfort of sitting cross-legged for hours, unable to move, while trying, probably unsuccessfully to learn to meditate. That’s all.

I had hoped to keep ahead of the monsoon and maybe even make it to Ladakh, which is in the rain shadow (i.e. protected from the rain clouds by the high mountains) without being caught up. The radio and the newspapers said I was at least ten days ahead of the rains, but they obviously got it wrong because today I was overtaken. Not that it made much difference, I was getting wet even before but, till now, everybody called the heavy rains of the past two days, pre-monsoon showers. The meteorological office has now declared the official start of the monsoon.

I was expecting some sort of deluge but the onset of the monsoon lacked the drama it deserved, especially after the excruciating heat wave. Over a period of a few days, the temperature began falling, the sky became hazy at first and then overcast, intermittent drizzle fell, got increasingly heavier and the breaks in between each bout fewer. That’s the monsoon.

Riding the bike involves navigating through small murky ponds whose depths I often underestimate and find myself in water up to my ankles. I read some local children sometimes erect a small platform in the water; one child stands on it with the water just reaching the top of his feet. Passing motorist use him to gage the depth of the water and confidently ride into the puddle and flood their engine because the level is in fact much higher. The children then appear to push the car out. For a fee (of course).

I went back to visit my friends Minal and her son Vikram whom I’d met last November. Vikram who is still only 26 years old, looked considerably older than the last time I’d seen him. He’d spent the past few months campaigning for the local MP, running his farm and getting engaged. His wedding later this year will have 4,000 guests.

Being a member of the local royal family, I got a sense of noblesse oblige in his attitude. Even his choice of bride is just so right: a cosmopolitan woman from a traditional Rajasthani royal family – the Indian royal circuit remains alive even in the late 20th century. Vikram has chosen to fulfill the role he was born into and he sees no anachronism. Actually that’s unfair, he sees the incongruity but he also believes it is his responsibility to propagate a long tradition even if it means a loss of personal freedom and a need to put on a façade. Thus is the burden of royal families the world over. Laughing, Vikram told me how he and his future wife had to arrange clandestine meetings in distant towns where nobody knew them.

For the past few days my bike was making strange throaty sounds. I took it to a mechanic who diagnosed a problem with the crank shaft, and then proceeded to disassemble my bike. He spent one whole day painstakingly stripping the engine, identified some play in the ball bearings, spent half a day going to every bike shop in the town of Mandi in search of suitable replacements and worked another full day reassembling the engine. I would have left him to it but Vikram recommended I stay in the workshop to speed up the process. I’d hate to think how long it would have taken if I hadn’t.

I watched the mechanic, a Sikh man in his late twenties work. Unlike most Sikhs, he did not wear the turban and his black hair shined with health. Despite the dirty nature of his work, the nail of his small left finger was an inch longer than the others.

His work pace was very slow but methodical. He arranged all his tools in a neat row on the floor besides him and he carefully placed the various bits of the engine according to function. No risk of confusing the nuts for the gear box with the nuts for the oil filter.

Despite my presence, he’d stop every 15 minutes to greet a friend, have a cigarette, comb his hair, drink a cup of tea or even, and I found that most irritating, jump on his scooter without a word, or even a look in my direction. Sometimes he’d come back a few minutes later and sometimes a few hours later. I’d never know. My presence here seemed inconsequential and unacknowledged.

I occupied myself reading, pretending to study his work on my motorcycle, or talking with the odd customer.

Three young men rode up on a Yamaha 100, for a service. We started with the usual questions and then moved on to more personal ones.
‘Why aren’t you married?’ ‘You have boyfriend?’ ‘You like Indian men?’
Of the three men, one was married, so I tried to direct my conversation to him, asking him about his wife and children, thinking that he would be less flirtatious.

I asked him if his was an arranged marriage. Proudly, he replied, ‘No, it was a love match. I love my wife very much.’

It didn’t stop him, though, from asking me, once the service on the Yamaha was completed, ‘I come to your room tonight?’

Later on, as I continued sitting in the garage, the 13 year old boy who lived next door, came back from school. He was eager to practice his English with me and he invited me to his home for a meal. As most Sikh boys, his long hair was held up on top of his head in a bun encased in a piece of material. His was made out of white cotton crochet. He lived with his parents above their electrical shop in a two bed-roomed apartment. One room was for his parents and the other room was for guests. The boy slept in the living room.

We sat there, not on the velvet covered three piece suite, or even the boy’s bed, but on the floor. The walls of the room were covered with pictures of the ten Sikh gurus looking down on us with benevolent expressions. The boy’s mother brought out a meal of rice, lentils and salad.

His mother didn’t speak English and the boy acted as our interpreter.

‘My mother saw you yesterday with your motorcycle. She says you are very courageous.’

Smiling, the woman took my right hand in both her hands and spoke.
The boy laughed. ‘She is asking if she can come with you to the mountains. I can stay here and cook for my father.’

As if on cue, we heard heavy footsteps come up the stairs. Before he even opened the door, his wife leapt up to go to the kitchen to fetch his plate.
For the rest of the meal, she never uttered another word while her men bombarded me with the usual questions.

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