‘It’s a monstrous waste of money,’ I beseeched my brother-in-law for the nth time. He was in the process of buying a ‘Thunderbird’, a jazzed up version of the Royal Enfield’s 350 cc motorcycle, the classic ‘Bullet’. ‘A fuel-guzzling world war II relic that is bought only by the doodhwallahs (milkmen) for door-to-door delivery. An archaic contraption that is somehow passing off for a motorbike in this modern era of fuel-efficient Japanese technology,’ I argued. ‘It kicks back viciously on the shin,’ I warned ominously. ‘It’s 200 kg. You’ll get imbalanced and you’ll break your darn neck. I have heard of people getting the leg trapped under its weight,’ I continued. ‘I’ll buy a leg guard,’ answered the twenty-two year old doggedly. He had decided not to see reason. Was probably having visions of riding in the shiny piece of steel with the deep throated ‘dhuk dhuk’ to his college. The ‘bult’ would be his style statement, his macho response to the snooty rich brats who came in chauffeur driven cars to his upmarket business school. ‘Why don’t you buy him a car instead?’ I reasoned with my mom-in- law. At 80 grands it was costlier than a decent second-hand car. She gave him an exasperated glance and shrugged. She had explained the situation to herself by labelling it as an episode of total cerebral failure. ‘Damaag fail‘ as she put it in rather plain but clear terms. She had realized that he would not be dissuaded and had probably exhausted herself earlier in a similar effort. ‘You’ll regret the purchase,’ I grumbled, having realized that the battle was lost. So he had his way and grinned ear-to-ear, avoiding my eye, as he rode out the shiny purple-coloured Thunderbird.
Years later, when the ‘Thunderbird’ had lost its thunder and was lying dumped in an open-to-sky parking I started convincing my brother-in-law to sell off the piece of junk. ‘Why do you waste money on its insurance? It will still fetch some money if you sell it off now. Maybe some ‘doodhwallah’ will be foolish enough to purchase it!’ My prophecy had come true. He had bought a car and drove to office like all ‘respectable’ men of his age. He had persisted with the bike after getting a job but the Delhi roads and weather don’t go down well with a on-my-way-up youngster clad in a business suit! He parked it reluctantly, still wasting money on its maintenance. Eventually, even his pals tired off the novelty of riding the ‘bult’ and it was dumped. The gleaming steel was now covered with rust. The ignition key was lost. So was the kick. The console was gone. It had no battery. No papers (Registration Certificate was lost too!).Tyres had cracks. The tubes inside were punctured. The leather seat was torn and the foam pecked out by birds. The leg guard was twisted, as was the mud-guard. Accelerator and speedometer cables were missing. Clutch lever was gone. The brake shoes were worn out and the foot brake was jammed. The central stand was broken. The silencer had holes. The bike was parked tilting crazily on its bent side stand. It was obvious to all that the monster was dead. An ignoble end. As I had prophesised! But, the man was beyond reason. ‘I love this machine. I’ll get it fixed and ride it to Leh. It just needs some minor repairs.’ ‘Why don’t you get it back to Chandigarh, employ a driver and go pillion! You’ll recover something of your investment,’ I joked with my mom-in-law. It was a sore point with her and she didn’t find the joke funny. It was a dead-lock and the bike continued to rust.
It had been a couple of years since I had started my monthly day trips to Morni, on car, listening to Lucky Ali and clicking the hill birds on the way. The windows would be rolled-down to allow in the fresh breeze and to register the scenery. The 30 km drive to Morni along the winding road through Mandana is scenic and a spiritual experience for the initiated. The road has been cut into the hill-side close to the ridge and winds continuously along the contours of these small, clay hills of lower-Shivaliks. The drive offers breath taking views of the Tipra range that runs parallel to the Morni hills and the Ghaggar river that seperates the two ranges. Wide expanses of the plains become visible near Mandana and the view is impressive.
As the road dosen’t lead to any major town, there is virtually no movement of goods traffic on this road unlike the busy roads to the Himachal hills. The hourly bus service of the State Transport is the only noisy interjection that briefly jolts the serenity. On the way up one encounters an occasional car bound for the Tikkar Tal. One can spot a few cars parked by the roadside with couples looking for ‘privacy’. The ubiquitous Punjabi revellers also make their loud presence felt in this otherwise quiet corner of Earth. But the most striking are the scores of youngsters weaving their flashy motorbikes through the winding roads of Morni. The breezy road through wilderness with sparse traffic is a biker’s paradise. Maybe, it was the gay abandon of these youngsters or possibly, the Spanish film ‘Motorcycle Diaries’ that unleashed my urge to breakout and experience life through nature. And I wanted to do it on a motorbike. With friends. I broached the idea with my friends. I proposed our getting hold of a motorbike to drive down the narrow hill pathways leading to the obscure villages and hamlets of Morni (I have been fancying the idea of writing a book on these hills someday). At forty nothing of the old life excites you much. You realize that you have successfully reached nowhere in particular. Work is an everyday drudgery and larger questions of existence start bothering you. The ‘doc’ jumped at the idea. Boredom with years of successful clinical practice was getting him down and the thought of biking in the hills caught his imagination. He suggested our transporting the Thunderbird back to Chandigarh and getting it overhauled for our biking expeditions. The ‘scribe’ was sceptical, as usual, but promised to help me with the repairs as he was known to the owner of a bullet workshop. I checked with my brother-in-law. He promptly agreed to hand over the bike provided it was not sold off by us. He is a good lad and concealed his snigger. My wife did not think much of my plan. It reminded her of the irritating ‘uncles’ of her childhood who unsuccessfully tried similar gimmicks to look young!
The bike landed at Chandigarh in a Mahindra pick-up. It was a dismal sight. The overalls of the delivery men were covered with rust and grease as they struggled to off-load the beast. They were quick to refuse the cup of tea. Probably wanted to put as much distance as they could between themselves and the bike, before we realized that it was beyond repair and asked them to carry it back to Delhi. A week later it was lying at the workshop. The workshop owner got the machine fixed part by rusty part. The workshop mechanics did a phenomenal job and removed most of the layers of rust, grime and grease. The lubricating oil inside the engine block had turned into solid grease due to long disuse and the muck had to be tediously removed from the heart of the metal brute. Our request for a paint-job and new chrome parts was, however, refused with a mild reference to our age. The owner convinced the scribe that it was unlikely that we would actually ever use the bike, that biking for fun was only a fancy (crazy?)notion and that he had himself never even sat on one, that it would be a waste to spend beyond what was functional and absolutely necessary. My idea of an olive-green vintage look bike (World War II German relic!) had to be given up and I tried to get reconciled to riding a violet-blue bullet. It took a new battery, headlamp, turn-indicators, foot-rests, parking-stands, horns, seat, chain assembly, mud guard, leg guard, tyres, silencer and days of polishing, servicing and fine tuning before the Thunderbird resurrected itself. The weathered paint, the dull chrome, the dents and the missing console made the bike look tired and beaten, but there was no mistaking the guttural throb of the 350 cc engine that gives the Enfield Bullet its cult status in India. Its state was quite close to that of its forty-plus riders. Somewhat worn-out but not likely to call it a day in the near future!
I drove the motorbike home from the workshop. It had been nearly twenty years since I had given up motorcycle riding and the evening rush-hour traffic made me nervous. I could not help imagining myself being retrieved from under the bike with a fractured leg and bruised ego, with everybody telling me ‘I told you so!’ I controlled the involuntary shiver and managed to get home without any major episode. My brother-in-law visited us that week and proudly roared up and down the city lane on his dear bike and this bolstered my confidence. My wife and daughters got a diffident first ride. The confidence was getting back. Then the doc and I decided to overcome the diffidence with a bang and do a day trip to Morni. My wife baulked at the idea. Said it was crazy and risky at ‘my age!’But I was completely hooked to the idea. We bought new helmets, slung the camera on the shoulder and started off for Morni sporting our Raybans for style. I had pulled on my heavy knee-length shoes of the Italian Carbineri under the jeans for safe measure.
We avoided the main trunk roads. The doc was a far cry from the petite pillion riders of the youngsters who had inspired the trip! But we lumbered on cautiously until we reached the turn for Morni. It was sheer pleasure, thereafter. The doc had my camera and was busy clicking anything and everything by reaching out at impossible angles, all but unbalancing us. But the Thunderbird doesn’t get imbalanced easily. Half-way through and we were riding like pros. We took our first break at the famous viewpoint at the start of the Morni forest range next to the much photographed hair-pin bend. The bike gave its first scare when it gave trouble restarting as we continued with our journey. We had parked it on a slope on its side stand and the carburetor got flooded with fuel. This was a common technological hassle with the bikes of the 70s and the solution lay in working the engine with the kick till it decided to oblige. The bike had kicked back viciously several times before the engine coughed back to life and we continued the descent to the Mandana valley.
We lifted the helmet visors to feel the fresh breeze on the face as we drove through the golden mustard fields of Mandana.
The lonely forest stretches registered on the mind like never before. The colourful winter birds added their charm. We reached the Tikkar Cottage around lunch.
The back was beginning to ache. Shoulders were getting a heaviness, probably out of the strain of balancing against the antics of an amateur pillion rider. The 50 km ride back home was seeming a challenge. A single shot of vodka was all that the doc was ready to permit but it did help fortify the flagging spirit and arrest the mild tremble in the back. We had lunch and hot tea and were off again. On the way back we took the shorter hill route via the Trilokpur Road.
The road had been damaged extensively during the monsoons, earlier that year and the gravel near the turns was treacherous. The scenic drive offers breathtaking views of the hills that recede into the plains below. Sunsets give the hills amazing hues. That day the hills were appearing blue and the doc captured the scene in an amazing photograph.
We stopped to pose before the picture perfect rolling mustard fields at Bhood, at the foot of the Morni hills. We posed with the Thunderbird against the amazing backdrop.
I dissuaded the doc with great difficulty from taking an arty shot of a village woman heading back home from the fields with a head load of fodder. I had caught the belligerent eye of her husband watching from a distance and avoided a disaster by zooming down the Trilokpur-Raipur Rani Road that is lined with majestic Eucalyptus trees. We halted at a roadside tea stall and continued through the equally scenic road through Toga to Bhanu, Ramgarh and Panchkula. It was getting dark and the fast moving trucks on the busy Panchkula-Ramgarh road seemed threatening to the tired body. I turned left to take the inner HUDA road along the Ghaggar river, then crossed through the riverside slums through the inner city roads to the Mansa Devi-IT Park road-to the Lake road and then to doc’s home at 21. It was a long detour and did not help our precarious condition. The decision to not invest in an original leather seat as a replacement for the torn one was a disaster. The cheaper imitation had caused havoc with our backsides and we would raise the sore, aching butts from the seat every time we halted at a traffic signal to get some relief, however brief. The wives were anxious by the time we reached back. We narrated our adventure to our amused spouses over wine and dinner, with an excitement that belied our years. I had fever that night. The body was rigid and sore for days. But we had done it. The journey had begun.