My appetite for Morni is insatiable. I can wander aimlessly in these hills without ever getting bored. We were into the second day of a weekend and I had managed to convince my pals to accompany me for a photography excursion to the hills. The ‘Doc’ had lost 25 pounds since our last misadventure with the Thunderbird and was once again raring to go. The ‘Scribe’ had relented after some persuasion. He invariably needs a push to break his inertia but is swell company once he shakes-off the mantle of ‘maturity’. I had ruined his holiday the previous day. We had driven to Garhi-Kotaha in the afternoon to click pictures of the ruins of the fort and the small 17th century mosque. We had then proceeded to the Gulabi-Bagh Kothi of the Meers. The Kothi had served as the residence of the later Meers and was in a state of disrepair, overrun with weeds. The dank, musty air hanging heavily under the high-vaulted ceilings had spooked my friend completely. The dust and the pall of gloom had depressed his sensitive heart but this did not deter me from dragging him to the royal cemetery of the Meers of Morni. It had taken a couple of stiff drinks later in the evening for my pal to put the dark trip behind him. But, tomorrow is another day. His weekend was not yet over, so I had promised a brighter and happier excursion to the hills. The ladies cried foul at our disappearing for the second day in row. I convinced them that we would be back after a quick drive and we finally managed to leave. The stated mission of the day trip was to click some pictures for this website.
We halted at Green Park, a dhaba of sorts, just short of the Mandana valley. It was perched on the side of a low hill overlooking the valley. The owner of the dhaba had christened it the ‘Tara Hill’ to make his address sound more exotic.
The Scribe and the Doc got engrossed in some deep discussion on the future of our nation while we waited for tea on the airy garden terrace. The Scribe has a theory and definite views about everything under the sun and the Doc likes nothing better than contradicting him to enliven the atmosphere. I quietly slipped away and trekked up the pathway leading to the top of the ridge forming the northern flank of the Mandana valley. A small white-washed temple guarded the levelled hill top that afforded a breathtaking view of the Mandana valley and the plains beyond. A few semi-sculpted stones were arranged around the temple shrine. I walked back to check out the Tara Hill top, to the immediate rear of Green Park. It was occupied by a modest two room brick structure, a large water tank and a number of grassy terraces. The owner had planted numerous ornamental and fruit trees on these terraces to my immense satisfaction. I returned to find the duo still locked in some animated discussion. The difference in opinion was on the brink of getting out of hand and I had arrived just in time to break the stalemate. On spotting me they pounced on me for having disappearing unannounced. The Scribe reminded me of our commitment to return by lunch. I swore my deep commitment to his never ending timelines and wondered how much of a row he would kick up when I delayed him as planned.
On the way to the Tikkar Cottage I started on my favourite theme. How the British officers in the days of the Raj would hunt and camp at far-off locations for weeks on end. How the families would be content with the safety and comfort of the bungalows. How a table would be laid out every evening, next to the campsite fire and the sahib log would have their scotch recounting their narrow escapes in encounters with the big cats. There would be talk of hard won battles. Of leading cavalry charges, at the head of valorous men. Of defying deadly volleys fired by the enemy. Of storming of forts after long sieges. Of fallen comrades. What life. And here we were, condemned to the mundane existence of meek householders, worried stiff about the complaining wives, the demanding bosses, the kids’ homework, the grocery purchases and what have you. The Scribe protested that ours was a good life too, but I detected a lack of conviction. I worked insidiously on the minds of my pals. Trying to make them rebel, if only for an afternoon. To break free of the shackles of domesticity. To convince them that they needed no one’s permission for spending a couple of additional hours on the hills. They are sharp characters mind you! And are extremely suspicious of me when it comes to Morni. But I continued to prey on their minds as I restored their faith in being men-of-men, who could embark upon any dangerous journey to the end of the earth out of camaraderie. I achieved partial success in pulling wool over their sharp minds and they agreed to a short ride on the Thunderbird after lunch.
To complicate matters, the Thunderbird was out of fuel and the brand new Honda 100 cc, that I had intended borrowing from our neighbour, the Sarpanch, was not available. We managed to get hold of a worn out bike instead and hoped that it could carry one of us. The drivers had to be decided. The Scribe was yet to try his hand on the Thunderbird but it was ‘not wise’ to do it on the steep winding roads and the slippery forest tracks of Morni with the Doc riding pillion. He grumbled at not getting a fair deal every time, for by now he was keen on riding the Bullet and kick started the tired looking phat-phatti. The Doc was secretly toying with the idea of driving the Thunderbird and made a half-hearted suggestion to that effect. I ‘failed’ to catch the hint and he did not persist. There are several ways of getting your neck broken, but ending up so while riding pillion behind the Doc was not a particularly exciting prospect. So we started off with the Scribe leading on the phat-phatti and us following on our powerbike. We were headed for Sherla. I had spun some yarn on how wonderful and scenic my previous trip to the hill had been and they were mildly excited.
The Doc’s missing extra-pounds were easy on my shoulders and this time we cruised effortlessly as we climbed the winding road to the shops at the Trilokpur road turn, from where some fuel was to be arranged. We then turned back and turning left under the fort took the road to Badiyal. The Scribe seemed lost in some happy thought as he drove ahead, having forgotten his disappointment over not getting to ride the Thunderbird. We drove through the Morni town and crossed Ramsar and Chhooyi villages to reach the turn for Sherla. The dirt track rose sharply to our left as we turned to climb the hill. The Thunderbird suddenly experienced a loss of power and the engine spluttered and choked. The Doc hopped off and took a few pictures taking it for a minor glitch. I struggled to start the bike and in my anxiety to not waste time, received a vicious kick from the brute. I finally managed to get it started and revved up the engine. The gears were feeling clunky. I wondered why the bird was suddenly acting arthritic. The Doc ran to take his seat as I slipped directly into the 2nd gear, at full throttle and the bike took off with a dangerous forward lurch. There was something definitely wrong with the bike and it was groaning with strain as I tried to compensate for the drag in the transmission with high acceleration. The Doc clung on the pillion, oblivious of the grave peril that his life was under. He is a trusting guy when it comes to friends and he did not doubt my ability to manoeuvre the bike over that tricky track. I would certainly have gotten off and proceeded on foot, had he been driving. I halted briefly to indicate the cottage I had visited on my earlier trip which was looking deserted today.
We drove on until we reached the level patch of pumpkin fields short of the village. The engine seemed to have heated up and I decided to switch it off to give it a break. I was intending to drive through Sherla to reach the lake and then turn left to drive till the Himachal border after crossing the Ghaggar. I was keeping my cards close to the chest lest the duo turn back in protest.
I was wondering what the odds were of their making out in time that we were headed for Himachal and not Morni. But man proposes and god disposes. Or as my witty classmate from the university days with his earthy sense of humour would put it, ‘Jab kismat ho gan**, toh kya karegah pandu!’ The 200kg piece of obsolete machinery decided to ruin my plans and refused to start again. I cranked its engine till my leg hurt. The Doc suggested that we push start the bike, drawing from his rich experience with the Lambretta scooter. He was sweating profusely before we decided to give up our attempts of reviving the dead monster.
We now started thinking of plans to get out of our predicament. It was impossible to drag the bike all the way back. The teeny-weeny phatt-phatti that the Scribe was driving could not possibly bear our collective weight. The Scribe and me, perhaps. But certainly not the Doc. The Thunderbird would have to be left behind. We were close to a small brick house with a broad cemented terrace to its front. A school-going girl stood outside the house with some little kids and was eyeing us curiously as we struggled with the bike. I parked the bike at a distance and asked the girl to get her father. She emerged with her father who came out with a welcoming smile and shook hands warmly, totally unmindful of the white wash splattered all over his clothes and face. He readily agreed to my request of leaving the motorbike parked on his terrace till we could have it collected but insisted that we have a cup of tea before we left. He had been busy whitewashing his kitchen that Sunday and did not seem to mind the interruption. Hill folks are nice and happy people by temperament. The conversation revealed that he owned some of the pumpkin fields we had seen earlier. He taught in the school by the side of the lakes and did the daily journey on his motorcycle. I considered asking for his bike to complete our own ride to the Himachal border but the Scribe would have found it preposterous and I did not broach the topic.
We were struck by the good-humour of the teacher. He seemed content and at peace with the slow, relaxed pace of life at his quiet hill side home. The house itself was simple and clean and exuded warmth. The ceiling had a cute pattern of bird feet painted in different colours against a white backdrop. The pattern seemed hand painted and would have been a tedious affair. I asked about his neighbour I had called on earlier that year. He was all praise for the gritty lady and the way she ran her tiny ‘estate’. Having thanked him profoundly for his hospitality and help we decided our next course of action. It was decided that the Doc and the Scribe would walk back till the metalled road and wait at the intersection while I took the phatt-phatti back to the cottage and returned with the car. I reminded them about the frequent leopard sightings at Sherla and the likelihood of an encounter with the cat on the forest track, to give them some food for thought, as I rode off to get the car. By the time I reappeared they had walked back a considerable distance towards the Morni town and looked fatigued but happy. The Scribe is a curious character. The short ride on the miserable bike and the chat with the cheerful hill man had put him in good humour. To my complete surprise, he did not grumble at all about my having delayed him. They had managed to inform the ladies about the breakdown when they got mobile coverage for a brief period. The ladies would be sufficiently anxious by the time we got back and would not badger us about their wasted weekend. We drove back happily. The Thunderbird was eventually retrieved after a fortnight in a pick-up jeep. The mechanic said that the clutch-plates had given way due to clutch driving by an inexpert rider!