If you’ve chanced upon this post, I’m glad you have!
It may make a little sense by itself. But, if it doesn’t seem to add up, do have a look at my previous post, Le Trio Aventureux, which is the ‘prequel’ to this one.
I’ve borrowed the title from Cat Stevens (now Yusuf Islam). He sang his song “On the Road to find out” in 1971. The title and the lyrics do express, at least partially, our reasons for our small adventure of December 1972, a cycling trip from Chennai to Bangalore and back, that this post is about.
So, first, here’s the song. (It’s from his album Tea for the Tillerman).
And now – to use a much misused idiom – I’ll cut to the chase!
It was 4.30 in the morning when I left my place at Nandanam to embark on this adventure.
There was no fanfare, except in my head. But there was an affectionate send-off from my mom, who walked down to the gate with me, took me through a quick checklist, gripped my arm for a couple of seconds, and waved me off.
Every inch the army mother, you’d think! Stiff upper lip, and all that! (Actually those are just cliches. The truth has always been that most mothers, and army mothers no less, ache to deliver a hug at such times but are unsure whether they should, because 18-year-olds who imagine they’re making the transition into men are unpredictable fellows – might respond as children who hold on tight or as unthinking adults who deliver a gentle brush-off.)
I don’t know about now, (since it’s been years since I last lived in Chennai) but in those days 4.30 am (though only the crack of dawn) was well into the morning for a good number of folk working hard for their living. While there were only a few motor vehicles that went by (mostly buses), there were a good number of pedestrians and cyclists about – carrying newspapers, milk, vegetables (kaay-keeraiiii!) flowers (kadamba-mallliiii!), rock salt, and a host of other things that help households start their day. And there were the ladies and girls of the houses out at their doorways or gates, sprinkling water to damp the dust down, and laying down their ‘kolam’ (chalk-dust art) with amazing deftness, in patterns that were mostly traditional, but sometimes innovative.
Uday, Madhukar and I were to rendezvous at 5 am. With the roads somewhat free, I sailed through T’Nagar, Nungambakkam and Chetput into Kilpauk, arriving at Madhukar’s place by 4.50. He was already waiting at his gate, with his cycle loaded. Uday arrived just 2 or 3 minutes later. Madhukar called out to his mother, who emerged in a jiffy with 3 glasses of Bournvita. We would’ve gulped it down, but had to sip since it was steaming. In about 2 minutes, we were ready to go.
We left just a couple of minutes after 5 am, Mrs. Kamath waving at her gate. Dawn had broken, and we had the beginnings of daylight. With a few minutes of riding we came onto Poonamallee High Road, the arterial road connecting to the National Highway. There were quite a few other cyclists out on the roads, mostly tradesmen going about their business, so we weren’t paid much attention save for the few that we got for what must have seemed unusual attire – shorts, hand painted T-shirts, and field caps!
We pedalled at a brisk pace and quickly passed the brick kilns at Aminjikarai on the outskirts (in those days) of the city. Soon enough we were out in the countryside. We rode through Poonamallee (which was, in those years, just a little more than a village by the highway) towards Sriperambudur.
(That’s how we set our immediate goals, from one town to the next. The possibility of charting a course through a series of staging points is just one of the reasons that road trips, of any kind, will always be more engaging than interstellar voyages!)
By 7 am the sun was well and truly up.
When we were about 10 kilometers short of Sriperambudur, two cyclists overtook us (with ease! And we thought we were cycling at a brisk pace!)
They slowed down in front of us, waited until we came level before they started pedalling again beside us, and chatted with us for the next couple of kilometers (about 5 or 6 minutes, measured in time). Going by the speed they were cycling at when they overtook us, they could easily have been racing cyclists, but they weren’t. They were wiry men (perhaps in the mid-20s), barefoot, in checked lungies covering loose shorts, and they were fishy smelling (though not fishy looking). Both of them had large, fully laden baskets on the carriers behind them, and bulging canvas bags slung from their handlebars. We didn’t have to be geniuses to know that they were carrying fish and shrimp; anyone with a nose (even if stuffed) would have been able to tell.
They figured that we were college students from the city. When we told them that we were cycling to Bangalore they asked us why. For fun, we said, and to satisfy ourselves that we could do something that required toughness, stamina and endurance. They looked a little perplexed.
We asked questions of them which they answered willingly and cheerfully. In brief, here’s what we learnt. They were from a village just outside Sriperambudur, and their family had stalls in and around the town, where they sold seafood. Twice a week (with other men of the family taking their turns on the other days), their routine was something like this – Leave home at 2 in the morning. Cycle to the fishing harbour in Chennai (about 52 kilometers). Get there by 4 or 4.15 am. In about 45 minutes, make purchases of fresh catch just landed. Leave by about 5. Get back to Sriperambudur by 7 or 7.15 am. All in a morning’s work!
They’d have loved to coast along and chat a bit more, they said, but they had to get going – business called. They wished us well, as we did them, and took off, the distance between us lengthening at a pace that made us feel like the amateurs we were.
We looked at one another with jaws dropped. Those guys were covering a minimum of 210 kilometers in 2 days every week on their cycles, and with heavy loads, at that! Let alone the distance they must have been cycling over the other 5! No wonder they’d looked perplexed when we told them we were on an adventure. They must have wondered what toughness, stamina and endurance we were talking about!
About 10 kilometers past the town, we stopped for breakfast. Reclining under a tamarind tree by the highway we consumed our sandwiches and washed them down with Glucose-supplemented drinking water. We took about 20 minutes, by which time an audience had gathered – about 8 to 10 silent little children who must’ve thought that watching 3 freaky looking types stuff their faces with white triangles was definitely more interesting than trailing behind buffaloes and goats that were (presumably) being taken down the road from point A to point B, time not being of essence. We stood up when we finished, dusted off the seats of our shorts, and, more with the intent of making human-to-human contact than anything else, one of us – Madhukar, actually, with his 28-intact grin (no wisdom teeth yet) – asked “What games do you kids play?” To a child, they froze, momentarily, before they dissolved in giggles and ran off after their animals, as fast their little feet could carry them.
Let me interpret those actions for you:
Freeze – Hey, this thing speaks!
Giggle – It speaks Tamil!
Run off – Then these must be just ordinary creatures in weird clothes, not worth wasting time over!!
Right through the trip, to and from Bangalore, we encountered curious groups like this one, whenever we stopped by the roadside – whether it was when we stopped for a break, or to fix a puncture (happened just once, surprisingly), or (as the euphemism goes) to ‘answer nature’s call’. In the last case, though, since our postures and our vacant stares into the distance indicated the obvious, the kids wouldn’t stop, they’d just chase each other down the road chuckling.
(No matter what you’ve heard, folks, and in all seriousness, kids in rural India are just as genteel and sensitive of delicacy as anyone else.)
A little digression here. The thought of children and playing brings to mind another Cat Stevens song from 1970 – Where do the Children Play.
Listen to the lyrics. They represent what he perceived then – something that still holds true, perhaps even more so.
This song is also, originally, from Tea for the Tillerman. This video is from the Earth Tour that he undertook in 1976:
And so, we progressed, our next target being Ranipet, which we hoped to reach by about 4 in the evening.
It was strenuous going, but truly enjoyable. The 3 of us would have 10 minute conversations, pulling one another’s legs and recounting happenings at college and elsewhere, and we would lapse into 30 minute silences in between when, while the body was pedalling away, the senses would take in colours, shapes, outlines, and smells, and the mind would process the totality.
It was during those silences that I realised a basic life-truth: there’s nothing that helps you connect with yourself more than being alone (though not lonely) out in the country for a while, with the only sound being that of the flapping of your homemade foreign-legion type cap as the handtowel streams out behind your head.
And here’s another song from 1970 that presents a similar sentiment – Out in the Country, from Three Dog Night, from their album It Ain’t Easy.
It was in this pre-lunch phase that I pulled off what, for me, was the ultimate in stunt photography (not your everyday photographs of stunts, mind you, but, more exciting, stunts to take photographs)! I cycled ahead of Uday and Madhukar and, pedalling at 20 kmph, steering my cycle with my left hand and holding my camera in my right, I swivelled around 180 degrees to photograph the 2 of them. You can see the results of that snap below. The blur may make it seem as if we were travelling really fast, but the lack of focus tells you that I just couldn’t hold the camera steady.
At any rate, as you can see, I caught them posing (Uday) and smiling (Madhukar) for the camera in the instant before their faces took on a look of alarm. It didn’t take long before I knew why. (And when you consider the angles in the photograph and combine that with the recognition that, in India, we stay on the left of the road, you’ll know why as well.) The cycle flew off the verge into an irrigation ditch by the roadside, and I ended up spreadeagled in the dirt, on my back. There was no water in the ditch, just earth, so I ended up with only scraped elbows, a muddied back, and temporarily injured pride. (As is evidenced from the rest of the photographs in this post, the camera remained intact.)
It took us 10 minutes to get going again, by which time, of course, we had our audience!
At around 1.30 we stopped under a tree for lunch. We’d been in the sun for quite a while by then, and we were perspiring profusely. It was really pleasant in the shade. There was a very mild breeze blowing, but it did help us cool off. (We’d considered taking off our T-shirts for a bit, but were deterred by the little group that was gathering.) We devoured Mrs. Kamath’s ‘parathas and sabji’, which seemed to taste even more delicious outdoors than at Madhukar’s place. We drank our ‘Glucose D water’. I then recalled the medical expertise that had been passed on by my sister. She’d said “When you engage in strenuous activity for prolonged periods and sweat a lot, take a little salt to make up for what you lose in sweat, so that you reduce the possibility of cramps”. So, I swallowed a teaspoonful of salt (difficult though that was, and though I almost brought up my lunch), much to the amazement of my friends. I then offered them the packet of salt, the spoon, and the advice. “Idiot!” they said. “She probably meant a couple of pinches, not a whole year’s supply in a teaspoon!” They followed that with a few crude jokes at my expense, about the nature and density of the fluids I’d be passing over the next few weeks whenever I ‘answered nature’s call’.
Anyway, we got going in about half an hour after I took a photograph of the other 2. It’s the one below. (Madhukar changed his T-shirt for the photograph. It wouldn’t do, he said, for posterity to see him in a sodden shirt.) Thinking about it now, I wonder why it didn’t strike us to show one of the watching children how to use the camera, so that the 3 of us could be in the picture. As it is, I’m represented by my duffel bag – the white one that you see on a cycle carrier.
As we were approaching Ranipet, perhaps 15 kilometers out, I started to feel very feverish and tired. I felt l wouldn’t be able to continue that day. My friends were solicitous, and kept me going. They didn’t jump into reminding me of our original plan of getting to my grandmother’s home at Chittoor by evening (and they even refrained from bringing up the matter of a teaspoonful of salt). “Let’s get till Ranipet,” they said. “Let’s decide on things once we’re there”. We got to Ranipet around 4 pm, as planned. We stopped at a little wayside teastall. I propped my cycle against a post and lay down on one of the benches to rest for a bit. The next thing I knew, Uday was shaking me saying “It’s nearing 5. You think you can get up?” I walked over to the tap and washed my face. Actually, I was feeling much better. We had some of Uday’s sliced cake and biscuits with tea.
I had the tea with sugar, not salt.
We got going again at 5 pm. I found that I was not feeling just better, I was feeling fine. So fine that I started off at a pace that had my friends saying “Hey! Slow down! We didn’t get an hour’s sleep like you did!”
But, generally speaking, we did achieve the fastest speed of the day (and let’s not make comparisons with our fish-vendor friends). The cool of the evening helped, and we were also driven by our intent to minimise the time that we would spend cycling in the dark.
That 45 kilometer stretch was serious stuff. We were in single file and concentrating because we were pedalling fast, and the highway, winding gently through rocky outcrops, was narrow in various bits.
Once darkness fell we had to slow down. The headlights of oncoming vehicles (mostly buses and lorries) were blinding, causing us, on some occasions, to dismount and get off the road till we could adjust to the dark again.
We got to the outskirts of Chittoor by 7.30 pm, and to my grandmother’s place by 7.45. I had wanted to surprise my uncles and my grandmother, so I hadn’t told them we were coming. My uncles were relaxing in the frontyard when we rode in and got off our cycles. It took them a minute to identify me. Once they did, and I’d introduced my friends to them, the handshaking, backslapping and general noise just didn’t stop. The commotion brought my grandmother out of her kitchen. She didn’t seem too amazed! Gave me a big hug, and then gave Uday and Madhukar big hugs when I introduced them.
Then, true matriarch that she was, she then took charge of us. Got the boiler going so that, after the coffee and snacks that she seemed to conjure up, we were able to have a warm bath. By 8.30 she had dinner ready, and some truly sumptuous stuff, at that. She had us sit in the kitchen and served us herself, sitting next to us while we ate so that she could keep refilling our plates until we begged her to stop. She then had spare bedding laid out on the living room floor. Since we’d told her that our plan was to leave by 7 in the morning, she insisted that we go to bed by 9.30 pm, with Amrutanjan applied on our foreheads, throats and chests (ample precaution against possible colds or sniffles).
Not that we resisted. The day’s effort had caught up with us, and the 3 of us fell asleep the instant we laid our heads on the pillows – out like a light, as the idiom goes.
A gentle hand on my shoulder woke me up at 5.30 am – my grandmother’s. She was up before anyone else! I woke up the other 2. We had exclusive use of the facilities and therefore had ample time to get ready. By 6.15 she served us dosais for an early breakfast, and a dose of her amazing coffee. She had also packed idlis with ‘podi’ for the road.
She decreed that since ‘rahu-kalam’ began at 7 that morning, we should leave by 6.50 – and so we did, after donning sweaters (to counter the ‘early December morning’ nip we would face once we got onto the hill (or ‘ghat’) section beyond Chittoor). She also directed one of the farm-hands to accompany us, on his cycle, for about a kilometer since, she said, it was not ‘auspicious’ for an odd number of travellers to begin a journey!
Superstitions are such complex things, aren’t they? We don’t believe in them (or, at least, our rational mind tells us not to), but when someone we love or hold in regard does, we acquiese, since their happiness and sense of satisfaction is far more important to us than mere rational argument.
For those of you whose recollection of the geography of the Deccan peninsula is hazy – the hills on the road between Chittoor and Bangalore are part of the Eastern Ghats, the range that forms the rise from the eastern coast to the Deccan plateau. So, heading east to west (Chittoor to Bangalore) you ascend to the plateau, about 800 metres above sea level by the time you reach the Karnataka state border a little beyond the town of Palamaner (so, more ups than downs), and, on the return, you descend.
By 8 am we were into the hills and pedalling with all our strength, struggling with our first steep climb. We had slowed to almost a crawl. An old man standing by the side of the road stepped onto the road in front of us and motioned that we should stop (we were virtually at a stop anyway). “If you find it difficult to pedal up the slopes, don’t try,” he said in Telugu. “Get off your cycles and walk with them up the slope. Even though they’re loaded and you’ll have to push them, that’ll be easier and faster. When you get to the top of a rise, get on, coast down the other side until the road rises steeply again. Then get off, and do the same thing. This way, you’ll get to Palamaner without causing some injury to yourselves.”
It doesn’t matter what one’s intelligence (or lack thereof) and level of education may be. Sometimes one misses the obvious, and it’s only when someone else points it out that one realises its truth and ends up feeling like an absolute idiot!
We thanked the old gent and followed his advice. At the top of that rise we decided we needed a break for pressing reasons.
Having dealt with urgent matters, we decided to fortify ourselves for the assault on the rest of the ghat section by polishing off our supply of idlis
Then we resumed movement and progressed slowly up that 30 kilometer stretch – push a lot, coast a little, push a lot, coast a little… – over what seemed like countless (but were actually about 18) upward gradients that varied, in length, between 200 and 2000 metres, and, in degree of slope, between 15 and 25 depending on length. We reached Palamaner, quite exhausted (but with no injury to ourselves) around 2 pm.
This time, we halted for an hour. Lunch was at a little ‘meals ready’ type hotel just outside the town. The meal included what we declared (unanimously) was the ‘best curds and buttermilk on the planet’. The reason was not far to seek; it was in the next yard, in fact – a dairy farm that was also owned by the hotel owner. To make sure that the place would be ever remembered, a photograph was taken:
Onward then, to Mulbagal, just across the border in Karnataka. We started from Palamaner at 3 pm. It was back to relatively easier cycling, since all the steep slopes were now behind us.
While we’d passed various milestones in the 2 days of our trip so far – a couple of hundred or so – we had resolved to record, in photographs, our presence at the major ones, those marking the state borders. We couldn’t photgraph the one between Ranipet and Chittoor (Tamiland/AP border) the previous day since we’d passed that one in the dark. So, this one was the first:
We got to Mulbagal by 5 pm. After a brief halt for refreshments we set off for Kolar, and reached there by 7.
A stop at Kolar was not in our original plan, but we were very tired and decided to stay there the night and get to Bangalore by lunchtime the next day. We found the Traveller’s Bungalow (in those days there were such things run by the Public Works Department!) and took a room there for the night. It was not five star quality, but it was a neat bedroom, with fresh linen and a clean bathroom, much like one in an average middle class home. We slept well and were served a South Indian breakfast (upma, vadai and coffee) at 7.30 in the morning. For all this, the room and the food, we (the 3 of us together) paid the princely sum of 15 rupees! We felt we had got value for money.
We left Kolar at 8.30 am. Just before we started, Uday took a photograph with me in my foreign-legion type cap, since that hadn’t been photographed till that point. Here it is:
The ride to Bangalore was easy and uneventful. We got to Ulsoor by 12.30, as planned. We then split up. I went to an aunt’s house in Ulsoor, Madhukar went to an uncle’s house, while Uday went home. I don’t recall, now, which parts of the city they went to.
We spent 3 days in Bangalore – went around on our cycles, visited the parks and watched a couple of films. (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was one of them, I don’t remember what the other was.) In that time, we also finalised our plans for the return trip that Madhukar and I would be making. (Uday was staying home for the rest of the term break, and would come back to Chennai by train, for the start of the new term.)
This time, we planned, we’d make the trip in 2 days, since we’d be descending the ghats.
On the day, packed and victualled, Madhukar and I met at Ulsoor lake at 6 am, and started off from there.
This time the focus was on speed. We had our backs bent and heads down, and we put everything we had into our legs in our effort to maintain a really brisk pace. What I remember of that Bangalore – Palamaner stretch is the strenuousness of that effort. I recall that we really sped, the first couple of hours. We halted at Kolar around 8.30 am, for breakfast, and at Mulbagal around 11 for a breather and a snack.
We stopped at the border milestone for a photograph –
– and then pushed on, and reached Palamaner around 1 pm.
We got going again at 2 pm, after lunch, and within a few kilometers, came to the first steep descent.
This was what the 2 of us had been looking forward to! (On our way to Bangalore, as we had pushed our cycles uphill, all we could think about was the fun we were going to have on the return.)
We stopped at the top of that first slope and had a little chat. We agreed, like good and sensible cyclists, that “We must be careful. We must use our brakes while coasting down the slopes, so that we keep speed under control, and reach the foot of the ghat section without any mishap. And let’s put away our caps, spectacles and anything loose so that they don’t fall off as we go down.”
And so began the ride of our lives! Once we started that descent, we didn’t so much throw caution to the winds as have the winds snatch it from us! I don’t know which one of us decided to let go of the brakes first, but in less than half a minute, the 2 of us weren’t coasting down the slope, we were flying headlong down it! Everything by the roadside was just a blur. One look at Madhukar told me what I probably looked like too. His hair was absolutely horizontal, yanked backwards from his head. His T-shirt was plastered to his chest and billowing out behind him. His all-star grin was almost a grimace, with the wind pushing his eyes into slits, stretching his lips, and filling his cheeks. He had a vice-like grip on his handlebar to keep the cycle in control. And there was this long whoop – whether it was from him, or from me, or from both of us, I still don’t know. The velocity we gained by the time the downward slope bottomed out was enough to take us up the following rise without our having to make any effort.
And all this wasn’t for just this one slope, but for every one that followed till we levelled out at the foot of the hills.
We didn’t have speedos on our cycles, but let’s do the maths. We covered those 30 kilometers in 40 minutes which means, when you factor in the slowing down on the upward slopes, we must have touched 65 to 70 kmph on the downward slopes. That may not seem like much on paper, but, on basic bicycles, on an open road with no other wheeled traffic to measure ourselves against, and with the hollowness we carried in the pits of our stomachs, it felt like the speed of sound! And 40 minutes of that, with just enough gaps now and then (on the upward slopes) to be able to draw breath!
I don’t think I’d ever have the words to truly describe that experience.
We stopped for a few minutes after that manic ride. We were speechless. Not only because we were breathless, but because we didn’t know what to say to each other. We could only grin like clowns.
It was only after we got going again, and some semblance of mental normalcy returned, that we realised just how lucky we had been to have avoided stones, ruts, pits on the road, anything and everything that could have caused a blowout or a loss of control with tragic consequences.
I have not done anything as mad since.
By the same token, I have not had a greater thrill in or on any vehicle, wheeled, winged or afloat, since.
And, all through that thrill, I had the refrain of one Steppenwolf song running through my head, “Faster, faster, faster than the speed of light!” (It was only some years later that I found that the song was actually ‘Faster than the speed of Life’!)
It’s from their album The Second. Here it is, played off an LP.
Well, back to the rest of the trip.
Everything after that amazing ride was sedate in comparison. We got to Chittoor by 5 pm. As a result, apart from enjoying my grandmother’s TLC, we also played a few hands of rummy with my uncles, with pakodas as stakes.
Since we were able to hit the sack early, we were able to get up early enough to start by 6 am. An ‘auspicious’ start this time, since we were an even number!
We crossed into Tamilnad around 7.30, duly recording that milestone in a photograph:
My recollection of that day’s cycling is really hazy. I guess that’s bound to be the case since we were still, in a sense, in a hangover, each of us going over the previous day’s experience again and again, in our minds.
Chittoor to Ranipet to Sriperumbudur to Poonamallee to Chennai. It must have been very much like our first day out, with the required breaks, I suppose, but not much registered, with the exception of the unintended halt we had to make an hour past Ranipet when Madhukar’s cycle had a rear-wheel flat. We pulled up at the side of the road, propped his cycle on its stand, and with an almost professional briskness, pulled out the tube, used water to find the leak, pasted a patch onto it, reseated the tube in the tyre, inflated it with the hand pump we were carrying, and resumed our journey.
All this, of course, to the silent appreciation (we assumed it was) of the inevitable group of children who’d gathered to watch.
It was dusk by the time we entered Chennai city limits, and the streetlights were on by the time we reached Kilpauk, about 6.45. Mrs. Kamath insisted I stay for a quick cup of tea, after which I left for home.
I got home to a warm welcome not only from my mother, but also from my dad, who had managed a week’s leave to come home from his border area location.
It was 7.30 pm on the 31st of December 1972. What an end to the year!
You might ask how I’m able to recall most of that trip so vividly, though 4 decades have passed. I guess it’s because it has always meant a lot to me. It was the one experience that helped me learn that there are no set or defined ways in which one gains confidence in oneself. It doesn’t have to be through a competitive or even comparative environment. It can also be in goals that one sets for oneself and sees through, with effort that is entirely one’s own.
Enfin, an instrumental composition by the Mahavishnu Orchestra (MVO to their fans), called Open Country Joy. When you listen to it, I think you’ll agree it’s a fitting piece to close this post with.