A punctured tyre, Delhi autowallahs, and memories of Spiti

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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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The Breed

Until recently, it was a place far far away to the east of my land – a place I had heard of only at midnight gatherings of journalists scrambling to get into a company cab which would take them home. That is until i moved here. This is Area M.

I prefer to drive back home myself. I need not elaborate on the lure of a deserted highway that would lend itself to a city circuit in Need-For-Speed any day and a bike that derives its design from a racetrack winner. What I didn’t know:  I wasn’t the only night creature out on the streets at 2 am. Enter the vicious canines of Area M.

The dogs here are not your everyday tail-wagging, puppy-faced, lovelorn angels. Well, some of them are: these innocuous ones are usually seen during the day, scavenging at tea-stalls and following nomads, their only companions in the pursuit of garbage. But the breed I hereby introduce prowls at night. These members of the species are much closer to their wild ancestors- the wolves- than the current evolved lot that licks, cuddles and eats poop. These ferocious ones aren’t looking for love. No. They lurch in dark corners, waiting for an unsuspecting biker lost in his embrace with the cool wind. They are virtually invisible until the very last moment, when it is too late to swerve or turn around.

This is when you see it: The eyes of the predator locked on you like a homing missile. A dog of Area M in this moment reminds you of skillful predators of the wild: Cheetahs/lionesses/tigers who stalk their prey from a distance, map out the weakest points, predict all possible routes of escape, and with an uncanny stealth, reach a vantage point from which the attack can be launched. You feel like an antelope you once saw in a wildlife  documentary- feeding nonchalantly in a green field, oblivious to the big cat crouching a few meters away, camouflaged in the tall grass, cleverly placed in the direction of the wind. You don’t see them until they have measured you up, taken aim, and taken their first silent strides gaining the momentum they need, to go into the full sprint.

In a fraction of a second, they are on you, running parallel to the engine that boasted of an impressive horsepower – only numbers at this moment when you see four paws matching your velocity, staying as close as they can to the exposed part: the leg. Time to hit the panic button. The engine roars, the victim makes one final dash, a desperate attempt to survive (read: go unbitten). If you are lucky, you outrun them to the end of their territory.

But the word has spread. And round the next corner, another predator awaits, perhaps with his pack, waiting to ambush.

Okay, exaggeration and metaphors aside, dogs chasing cars/bikes is a common phenomenon. And the canine community has a very understandable grudge against things on wheels. After all, it is these machines that turn their loved ones into roadkill. And while I empathize with the paws and respect their fundamental right to cross the road without being turned into pulp, I fail to understand the misdirected acts of vengeance against every passing vehicle. It only increases their chances of being run over; not the smartest way of getting back. Territorial heads, take note.

While I have been lucky enough to get away every single time, I do wonder – to my utmost horror and curiosity- what a dog would do if it actually caught up with me. What if, on one of these chases, I decide to stop instead of speeding up. As the Joker wondered out loud in ‘The Dark Knight’: I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one, if I caught it!

Well, I do not intend to find out.

Disclaimer: Having said that, I’d like to add: I’m still very much a dog person and love these animals. The few who I described here are exceptions to a species which loves more selflessly than humans know of. I’m dying to adopt another one; if only I had the resources to take care of it! A backlash is expected when one species (we) goes about its business in the coldest way possible, indifferent to the plight of the other living creatures around.