The improvised spacer made out of the inner ring of a ball bearing did not get be back to Delhi although I managed to get out of Ladakh and reach the town of Rampur where I knew I could find help from the local mechanic. I’d already met him in November last year when my decompressor cable came out of its socket.
By the time I pulled up to his garage, the wobble in my back wheel had returned with a vengeance. The mechanic was very amused when I showed him the improvised spacer. True, it had got me out of Ladakh but in the process it ruined the cushion rubbers and the two ball bearings in the back wheel.
He also laughed when he discovered that my chain, sprocket and ball bearings were Enfield copies. I wouldn’t mind so much except that they were replaced in the official Enfield dealership in Lucknow, one of those that have signs on the walls warning against using the cheap Enfield imitations.
Unfortunately with so much movement in the back wheel, I had found it very tiring controlling the bike and had not enjoyed the ride down to Rampur. It took all my concentration to keep the bike upright and the few times I did let my mind wander, I started imagining all sorts of accidents.
I did have some pleasant moments too. The previous night I had stopped in a small mountain town with a guesthouse over the bus station. Like in most countries, bus stations here seem to attract the more seedy elements. The damp smelly room allocated to me gave onto a balcony occupied by a group of men drinking alcohol. The expression on my face must have shown my reservations because the guesthouse owner suggested I may prefer to take a spare bedroom in his family home instead.
Gratefully I accepted and he invited in. The house was built around a courtyard with a Hindu shrine in the middle. Although his parents were away at a wedding, his two sisters, aged 15 and 17, were there and they spent a few hours with me. They taught me how to make chapatis and giggled at my miss-shaped attempts, looked through my toiletry bag, showed me their own make-up and applied pearly pink varnish on my nails.
After Rampur, I continued towards Delhi. I was now only 250 kilometres from the capital on India’s main highway (the four laned Grand Trunk Road) and the temptation to open the throttle was very strong. Only the persistent monsoon rain and the knowledge that most accidents occur near the final destination restrained me from going for the maximum 120 kilometres when the speedometers needle, and the rest of the bike, start shaking violently.
Suddenly I heard a rattle and lost all acceleration, as well as all my gears. The chain had broken. Was my journey going to end in the ignominy of having to load the bike into a truck? No, I’d find a way to deal with this myself. I unloaded the bike and took out my toolbox and a spare chain link.
As I bent over to start the job, two men on a Honda Hero (a 100cc motorcycle) stopped to help. They suggested that rather than try to do it myself; I go to a mechanic just three kilometres away and offered to push me there. I refused.
For once I wanted to try to deal with my own mechanical problems. And furthermore, I couldn’t ask two strangers to push 200 kilos of bike all the way there. But they insisted and explained they would use their own bike to push me. They rode behind me and slightly to the side whilst the rider placed his leg on my bike’s frame and off we went.
In a few minutes we’d reached the mechanic who quickly repaired the chain.
The two men then invited me to their home for lunch in a nearby village. My first reaction was to decline. Many times men like this have invited me but every time I’ve refused fearing this would be seen as a come- on. But now my trip was almost finished and I’d never have another invitation like this. I checked their wives would be at home and accepted. At the end, I stayed overnight in their home.
One of the men, Balwan was visiting his family for the summer. He’d emigrated to Italy two years ago where he worked in a foundry. Although my Italian is bad, it is much better then my Hindi so we managed to have reasonably coherent conversations.
I’m not quite sure how Balwan managed to obtain a work permit there but he did have one which he proudly showed me and I understood it involved using, and paying for the service of an agent who arranged all the paperwork. He hoped his wife and two children would be able to join him next year.
He also bragged that he made over $1,000 a month, a huge salary by Indian standards, although I thought it must be difficult for him to support himself as well as send money home. Despite this, he only had good things to say about Italy, so much so I should think his friends and relatives in India must have been getting rather sick of hearing how much better things were in Europe. He compared the telephone systems, the electricity grids, the state of the roads, the quality of the coffee and so on.
I, for my part, thought he’d gone too far when he told off his cousin for burping after a meal: a perfectly acceptable custom here. Shamed, his cousin apologised to me, thus also embarrassing me.
The next day, the families wouldn’t let me go. It took me over an hour to convince them that I really did want to leave. Eventually, the two men escorted me to the main road and bought me a juice before I set off. As we sat under a corrugated iron roof, Balwan met some friends of his. As they spoke together in Hindi, I watched the traffic negotiate the monsoon rain.
There was a lot of joking and laughing among the men, none of which I could understand.
I asked Balwan to translate into Italian.
‘One of my friends says he recently met a Western woman and she had very large breasts. He wants to know why you don’t.’
I rode up to Delhi in torrential rain and arrived at my final destination soaked right through. Delhi was still as confusing to me as the first time, with its hundreds of roundabouts. It was rush hour and I had no idea how to get to the YMCA.
At a red light I stopped alongside a white Maruti to ask directions to C.P. I was trying to impress the driver with my local knowledge: only locals call Connaught Place, C.P. As I hoped, he said, ‘Follow me.’
He was a young man keen to show off his driving and it took all my skills to keep up with his weaving in and out. At the next light, he rolled down his window and asked over the noise of the traffic, ‘Where are you going?’
‘The YMCA. It’s just off C.P.’ I shouted back.
‘Are you staying there?’
He pointed to the young woman sitting in the passenger seat. ‘My girlfriend is asking if you want to go see a movie with us?’
I thought. Why not?
We went to my hotel where my two new friends waited for me to check in and change into dry clothes.
Ritu was a petite woman of 24, working as a quality controller for an Indian company exporting clothes to the US. I was amused, but not surprised, to hear that their American client had asked that the Indian manufacturer leave out the zip fasteners from the finished product: every single item I bought in Indian (jacket, trousers, bag) had the zip break in a matter of days. Her boyfriend, Jai said, ‘India can make the atomic bomb but not zips.’
We rode in Jai’s car to the cinema theatre but it was sold out so instead they brought me to the five star Ashok Hotel for a drink and we toasted the end of my trip with a spicy Bloody Mary.
Ritu and Jai spoke about their relationship.
‘We’ve known each other for two years,’ Ritu told me.
Since tact has never been one of my strong points, I asked. ‘Do your parents know about your relationship?’
‘No,’ Ritu replied.
‘Do they know that Jai exists?’
‘No, he never calls me at home. I call him on his mobile and sometimes he’ll call me at work. But I don’t like that because people there will start talking.’
‘What would your parents say if they knew?’
Ritu answered. ‘Mine would be very angry to learn I had a boyfriend but I think they would like him. With Jai’s parents it would be more difficult.’
She glanced over to Jai who looked down at his drink. ‘They are very important people and my family is not so rich. I think they will want to arrange a suitable wife for him.’
Over the next few days I met other young Delhiites via an Enfield motorcycle club and got re- introduced to the delights of modern civilisation such as ice cream, pizzas, lamb hamburgers and the consumption of too much alcohol.
Following a particularly heavy night, I took an early train for a day trip to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal. Unfortunately my eyes found the light bouncing off the white marble too bright and my ears found the ohhs and ahhs of admiring visitors too loud to appreciate the magic of the building.
Anyway, I was preoccupied with Big Thumper. I’d planned on giving it a complete overhaul, repainting it, re-chroming it and shipping it home. But at the end however, I decided to sell it.
It was reading Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that did it.
In it, the author explains that there are two types of people: the romantics (the Zen part of the title) and the classics (the motorcycle maintenance part of the title). Romantics are interested in the pleasure of riding a bike while classics are interested in the pleasure of understanding how the bike works.
If there’s one thing this trip taught me is that according to that definition, I am a romantic, which is definitely the wrong character type for a bike such as the Enfield. This bike requires a lot of maintenance: the points, the tappets, the carburettor, the chain, the nuts and bolts all need regular checking. And although this is not too much of a problem here in India, where I was never far from a mechanic, at home it would mean I’d have to learn how to do it myself.
And if I hadn’t learned on this trip, when would I ever learn?
Anyway, I decided the thrill is greater, the sense of adventure stronger when the motorbike retains its mystery. Knowing about combustion and compression, valves and tappets would demystify the riding experience and reduce my Enfield to a mechanical machine.
Not a responsible attitude I know but it works for me.
With the monsoon rain-washing away a tear, I said goodbye to Big Thumper at Nana Motors, a dealer beneath the Hilton flyover in Delhi.
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