Sunday, November 26, 2006

As the bike bobbed up and down in an attempt to traverse what was a rather bad excuse for a road, it ground its way over dust and stones, while its usual purr steadily degenerated into a whine. The best of journeys, I tried hard to convince myself, could have inauspicious beginnings. I was trying to make my way to the Nasik highway, for I had never ventured due north of Pune before.

The highway, once reached, pacified the body, jangled and rattled as it was by the connecting road. The seismic shuddering of the bones that appeared all set to continue forever was soon eased, courtesy National Highway number 50. While the said highway was well short of the dreamy playground-like expansiveness of the legendary NH4, the space it afforded more than sufficed for pleasurable driving.

Most cities taper off as you approach their periphery – colourful high rise homes give way to the dull grey of industrial estates, which make way for the dusty single homes and shops of townships, which in turn diminish to shacks and farmhouses, which eventually fall away to open up vast free, unpeopled stretches. Like every city, Pune too withered away before my eyes. As the last of its colourless chimneys exhaled dark wisps, the lonely, unpeopled hillocks that stood behind them intently watched the puffs of smoke meander upwards.

Even as the city was dissolving into the emptiness of the countryside,
there were hills to be gone across. The highway took a forthright approach – it refused to round the hills and tortuously wind its way around them. The NH 50 simply mounted every one of the slopes much like a kid would amble atop a slide in a park. On these hillocks, the upward moving roads evaporated into curly clouds – you couldn’t see the road plunge downwards on the other side of the slope.

Not all hills, however, take kindly to be treated in such an impudent manner –the Khed ghat was one such. It refused to let the highway through without a circumambulatory payment of respects. The highway, unmindful, wound its way through the ghat, greeting the taller of the trees in the valley that craned their necks so as to peep onto the road.

As the highway snaked its way to the top of the ghat, and I prepared to switch my engine off during the descent, surprise – there was no descent to be found! The highway continued straight on – only, wedged at a higher altitude, as the slopes evened out into flatter tracts, and only the bald emptiness of vacant sweeps of land remained as they strolled away towards the faraway skies.

Once upstairs, the blankness of the terrain was intermittent. Just when you thought you were going to get a good long spell of nothingness, along came a town, swathed in the afternoon redness of mud and dust. The metallic shimmer of the highway’s black faded to an uneven mishmash of ginger and cowdung-green, as the omnipresent sand drowned out the dusky tarmac of the road.

Quarter to three. Time, perhaps, to turn back? Slowed near what appeared to be a hamlet. Right sole went gently down upon the brake as I eased to a halt underneath a banyan tree. Gloves and jacket came off, a swig of water went in, and I tried finding a place to sit or perhaps lie down while I let the engine cool.

At first sight – no place promising enough to sit down. Go down the road, find another spot? Then it was that it caught my eye – this decently big milestone across the road. Wondered if the candybar shaped yellow and white tombstone would be comfortable enough. Tried – wasn’t too bad, so decided to park self upon the stone.

Hamlet residents one and two walked by, clearly not accustomed to seeing young men perched upon their friendly neighbourhood milestone, and issued me a what-the-hell-is-the-matter-with-you stare. I refused to pay attention to them, they walked on.

Settled thus, I had the time to do all the nothing I wanted to do, as Bill W. would have put it, and so proceeded to do the same. Looked around, past the fields on either side, beside the knoll that looked an enormous haystack, noticed the footpath etched onto the side of the said hill and spotted a cyclist amble upwards on it, saw a group of young men walk away with baskets atop their heads, perused the silhouettes of the looming hills a long, long way off that the road seemed to dissolve into, realized that I’d watched only the land, only what was terra firma, even though the vaster, larger horizon was all around me. I hadn’t noticed the enormous balls of fluffiness in the sky even though they dwarfed everything upon land that I’d watched. Made amends, watched the skies, and all the emptiness inherent therein.

The highway beside my perch, of course, continued to flow unabated. Rattle, buzz, purr, roar, grrr, tinkle, beep, pom all reached the ears. The little flowers flanking the road on either side of my perch nodded in response to the airflow engendered by the passage of traffic. The flora shook their heads vigourously to trucks and buses, and acknowledged cars and jeeps with a more understated hello.