A punctured tyre, Delhi autowallahs, and memories of Spiti

It’s an average day on the streets of Delhi (read: hot, humid and ceaselessly chaotic). I’m on my way to office and an hour late when the worst decides to happen. The auto-rickshaw I’m riding in veers to the very edge of the Barapullah flyover and wobbles to a stop.
“It’s a puncture.” The dreaded words seem to reach me from the farthest, deepest realms of hell.

My first instinct is to inquire how long it’ll take to replace the tyre, as the autowallah fishes out his tools and a spare. It’s then that I realize – my own words ringing in my head – how selfish a question that is. Behind this epiphany is my last travel assignment.

A few weeks ago, I was in Himachal’s Spiti valley, a singular place where everyone seems to adore everyone else. There are few means of public transport, if any, in this remote, treacherous hilly terrain. So hitchhiking is the norm. A stunt I would never pull in Delhi. It took me by surprise first when we were on our way to the valley from Manali – a grueling 11-hour bumpy ride in a shared Tata Sumo. As some of the passengers got down at Lohsur, the first village of Spiti, we finally had some breathing room in the SUV. Much to my ire, the car stopped only a few miles further at the gesture of a local Bohti woman, a farm hand by the looks of her luggage.

“Here we go,” I thought, used to the business acumen of urban transport service providers. “He’ll make the most out of the empty seats.” However, these seats weren’t traded for money, but given out free of cost to locals looking for a ride to their villages. I readily scooted to my cramped end of the jeep as soon as I realized this unspoken protocol between the drivers and the locals. It was a gesture I wouldn’t dare expect from the fast-paced cities I’m used to treading. Nor would I have ever thought of lending a hand to someone on the road myself. Be the change you want to see, they say. Perhaps, we can all learn from Spiti. (I got more glimpses into the bond all Spitians share over the next few days as a yak owner insisted on hosting me for tea after completing a four-hour trek alongside me, and a rope twiner explained how a whole village gathered to help a family prepare for their boy’s birthday bash, where the whole valley would congregate. )

Cut to current day, we’re standing atop a scorching flyover in the heart of India and my auto driver is struggling to replace a punctured tyre on his own, sweating profusely on the sizzling tar. Autos do not carry a jack so the punctured tyre itself is used to prop up the vehicle while the new one is put in its place. Of course, this requires the auto to be lifted from one side briefly. The driver, who looks guilty of imposing this situation on me, hesitates to ask me for help. “I got this,” I tell him and recline the auto for him to do his thing. With adept hands that know their job from years of habit, he unscrews one and installs the other tyre. In the meantime, as I prop up the auto with some help from the deflated tyre, another auto-rickshaw slows to a halt a little further up the road.

Finally! Someone to offer help in Delhi, I think. But this man is in no mood to lend a rival a helping hand. Instead, he delivers the most surreptitious of nods only autowallahs can pull in his rear-view mirror, inquiring if I want to abandon ship and ride with him instead. When I reject his benevolent (not!) offer, he drives away without a second glance. A mere 10 minutes of teamwork later, we’re on our way again.

Places you travel to, change you. And you, in turn, change them back. Among other things, Spiti taught me to lend a helping hand when I can. Have you brought any souvenirs of the soul from your travels? Tell me in the comments below.

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