Morning came, and I forgot my vow of not going in the hustle bustle that followed as preparations began for the start-off. I managed to exchange my un-zip able sleeping bag for one that could be, so that provided some relief. A cycle that I could ride was also obtained, and I made a final call to my parents before switching my beloved cell-phone dead for the next five days. As the screen blinked white and faded away, I wistfully thought of all the birthday calls and messages it would be denied receiving. Oh, well.
“Just do your best and cross one bridge at a time…” my parents had advised. It was to be my motto for the entire length of the yatra. I would stop myself whenever I began speculating about the next five days, and all the kilometers to go. One goal at a time. And first goal, reach Chetak Circle. We started. Cycling wasn’t that difficult, I soon realized, especially since my cycle had excellent brakes and was fairly easy to control. Chetak Circle came and went and soon we were crossing the main limits of the city and entering the outskirts.
My first challenge came when my cycling buddy, we were all given cycling buddies who we had to look out for and generally keep close to, went much ahead of me. Our cycling speeds were different; she was faster than me and raced ahead. Suddenly, she was just a speck in the distance and all my hollering for her to stop was useless. I looked behind, and although I knew there were more people behind me, either they were way back or had lost the way, for no one was to be seen. I suddenly realized I was alone in the world, with no money, no cell-phone and no way of going back (looking back, I can think of many things that I could have done then!) so I kept cycling harder and faster, throwing all my hope to the heavens that my buddy would finally stop somewhere. The area was the outskirts of Udaipur, crowded with noisy trucks and buses and lined with tea-tapris and makeshift mechanic stalls. For those five minutes, I was terrified for life. But then she stopped, as the other members of the group had stopped too, so all was well. She explained that she had kept looking back to make sure I was following her, but couldn’t stop because she wanted to catch up with the rest of the group. After that I decided that whenever I cycled, I would make sure there was a person in front of me and one behind me at all times, lest such a situation arise again.
Soon, we entered the glorious countryside and cycling became more fun. It was, quite literally, an uphill task sometimes, but then a slope would follow, and we would be rolling along nicely. Trees, fields, green landscapes and time flew past as the pedals were pushed. We often took breaks to quench thirst and empty out bladders. Snacks in the form of homemade chikkis, oranges and bananas were distributed. Some people in our group were wearing animal costumes sourced by our friend from Delhi, so we had an elephant, two bears, a tiger, a penguin and a duck that were cycling with us. We made animal noises, shouted some “Cycle chalao, sher ko bachao” slogans and sang Bollywood songs at the top of our voices. The group energy was contagious in the beginning. But as we rode on, people with different speeds started getting more distanced from each other.
The forest was starting. The terrain, too, started becoming wilder as the road took snakelike twists and turns. Around this time, the entire group had become scattered into groups of three-four. One person in our group got a puncture and we had to stop. We were in a ghat (mountain-pass) surrounded by cliffs and the jungle on both sides. It was beautiful, but at the same time spooked me out. For a long time we waited for the other yatris to catch up with us, for the person carrying the repair-kit would always cycle the last. Just when we started to wonder aloud what was taking them so long, a passing motorcyclist told us that a ‘girl’ from our group had fallen and was injured. We started worrying and began wondering who it could be, since there were only five girls, including myself! Finally, the last group turned up hitch-hiking on a tractor. The next village was around five kilometres away. We hauled the punctured cycle into the tractor and requested the driver to drop it off at the village. Harshita, the girl who was injured, also went with it. The rest of the group began cycling away, along the winding road and steep turns.
We reached the village where the entire group reassembled. Some of them were helping repair the cycle at a little repair shop where they offered to do it free of cost. Others were helping Harshita, who had sustained bruises and wounds to her arms, feet and head. Someone applied a local healing herb called ‘tata tale phat’. Turmeric, known for its antiseptic properties, was also obtained from the village. Although Harshita was coping with her injuries valiantly, she couldn’t help feeling de-motivated and wanted to go back. The collective encouragement of the group as well as her own courage facilitated her staying and even completing the entire yatra: a feat, I feel, that required strength and spirit that she showed in plenty.
The village was called ‘Kewda’; it was a moderate-sized village with a school, a blacksmith and even an electricity-powered mill. By the sun, we guessed it was early afternoon. We decided to split into groups of twos or threes and explore the village, looking for labour and food. The main objective, though, was to build relationships with the village-folk and to witness and understand a slice of their lives. I went with two fellow khojis to the east side of the village. We roamed around amidst farms, not quite being able to summon the courage to go into any of the homesteads. Finally, we befriended a couple of young boys who decided to show us around. They took us through wheat plantations and to a well, where we did a bit of bird-watching. We saw some monkeys as well, and the boys threw stones at a particularly mischievous chimp for our entertainment. While coming back, we asked them if we could work in their fields.
My fellow mates were soon hard at work, taking out weeds from a wheat field. I tried my hand at it too, but soon got tired and a little frustrated. I was very hungry, we hadn’t had any lunch or any substantial meal at all since breakfast, and I wasn’t sure of a chance of food with these boys. The sun was going down, so I decided to head back to our common meeting point with some other members of our group whom I spotted. Nobody was back, and some random people we caught wandering around were all going to their respective hosts for dinner. Seemed like I was the only one with no luck of getting food. As I was dejectedly wondering what to do next, our Swaraj facilitator turned up and asked me to go to a house down the road where another chap from our group was housed. I ambled there uncertainly and entered to discover my co-yatri in deep debate with a man who seemed to be drunk. He had ‘suspicions’, it seemed, about our group. He wanted some proof, otherwise how could he trust that we were who we said we were? I was quite scared and suggested to Jayesh (the person with me) that we ought to leave. But Jayesh was impassioned and bent on making Drunken Guy understand the purpose and intentions of our Cycle Yatra and how ‘modern development’ had made all of us into cynical and suspicious people who had forgotten how to trust others. Finally, Drunken Guy got his point (or maybe realized he was late in wherever he was going) and started to leave, all apologies to the extent that he held his ears in an “aapki maafi chahata hoon” gesture. He was a relative of our host family calling in to inquire about them, it seemed. Our host family, too, was very apologetic about the entire debacle and begged us not to leave.
They were a middle-aged couple with five children, three daughters and two sons. They were entertaining, apart from us, other guests— the son-in-law of the man’s brother who worked in Udaipur as a driver, and his friend. The family was very warm and welcoming, especially the woman, who spoke to us enthusiastically, even though she couldn’t fully express herself in Hindi. They spoke a Mewari dialect, which also had words from Gujarati and Marwari, in that region, hence communicating with them was challenging for me. My friend Jayesh was having a slightly easier time, since he spoke both Marwari and Gujarati. The children were shy and only responding in giggles if we addressed them.
My antics that evening caused quite a few moments of merriment for the family and embarrassment to me. First, I yelped and leaped up when a few goats came right at me as they were being herded into their shelter for the night. Then, as we prepared dinner together, I decided to test my skills of making makka rotis, but failed pathetically as the rotis kept breaking. Finally, I made a thick but tolerably edible one, which, I insisted, that I would eat myself and spare everyone else the misery of chewing through it. The other rotis our hostess made were delicious—thin, crisp and straight from the chulha! There was a curry made of sev along with the rotis, which we ravished, except that the curry was so spicy I had to ask for sugar to eat with it! Jayesh had an idea about how hot it was going to be as he had hand-pounded the red chillies himself, but he braved it with watery eyes! The nephew-in-law, while inebriating himself, offered some local ‘whiskey’ to Jayesh as well, who politely declined it stating it was his ‘fast’. Soon, when the nephew became dazed and asked us again about where we had come from, we decided it was our cue to leave.
Throughout the evening, I had started to feel increasingly comfortable and belonged. The family and their life, it was all so dissimilar to mine, and perhaps they felt that disparity more than I did. But all along, they were fully accepting and opened their hearts and hearths to us. They offered us food, many of the ingredients they had to go buy to feed us, but that didn’t dither them. They inquired about our sleeping arrangements, and were worried that we would sleep in the open and be exposed to the cold. They offered us their ‘godadis’ (hand-stitched blankets) and when we declined, saying we had enough materials with us, forced us to take a couple of mats just for safety. I realised that they had already accepted us as a part of their family, while I, as it steadily got colder and darker, was restless to go back to the security of my belongings (however little they were), my cycle and my group. I had come and eaten as a guest, without doing any work to earn my food. Somewhere, that didn’t feel right, and Jayesh and I promised them we would return the next day at daybreak to help in whatever daily work they did. They laughed it off, saying we needn’t do anything but just feed ourselves as we were leaving the village at noon the next day to continue the yatra.
As we walked back to the common meeting place, we both talked about how warmly they had invited and fed us, and whether such hospitality was possible in our fast-paced urban lifestyles. Our group was re-assimilating as the various pairs and trios came back, all looking satiated and radiant, as if the glint of embers from the hearths they had dined at was still reflecting in their eyes.
The owner of the mill, at whose place we’d kept all our cycles and luggage, was kind enough to open a room at the school for us to sleep in; he also threw in a blanket and some mats. As were unrolling our sleeping bags and laying out whatever other bedding we had, another drunken guy walked in, stating that he was the caretaker of the school and how dare we get in without his permission. Drunken Guy #2 was from Madhya Pradesh, it seems, and boasted of a gun in his room. A few people in the group decided to deal with him and quite soon he was cajoled and even came to wish us a safe night and advised to keep our door shut from the cold and winds. We decided to do a quick sharing of interesting stories or highlights of our day, but I was so tired that as soon as I got into the warmth of my sleeping bag, that dearly-awaited lass called Sleep came by me and drifted me away to the seas and lands hitherto undreamt of.