The last four years putting rubber on asphalt kept me from putting pen to paper. Thanks to Covid, publishing my second book was delayed by two years, which has another coincidence of two attached – the book being based around an event during the second world war.
A writer needs to write. But to write something substantial, something worthwhile, where does the raw material come from? For someone like me who likes to write realistic historical fiction, my inspiration comes from a library’s dustiest shelves and from travelling to remote corners of the earth where history exists in the present. I find the latter more exhilarating, and it contains my dust allergy.
I started riding a motorcycle at the age of forty-five. My wife and I had just shifted from Manali in the Himalayas to the Southern hill station of Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu, to a house located at the base of a gorge, at the end of a bad road, six kilometres from town. All those factors added up the bill of every taxi we took to and fro into town. Quickly tired of extortionate taxi drivers, I discovered a tinny 100cc motorcycle in the garage lying unused for five years. A mechanic took it to his workshop to put it back on two wheels. The repair bill was similar to what it takes to upfront buy a bike of similar vintage.
Till then, I had only ridden a gear-less scooter twice, renting them out on holidays in Thailand and Goa. When the mechanic jingled the keys in my direction, I told him I hadn’t ridden for a while. After a ten-minute lesson around the flat circular road of Kodaikanal Lake, I somehow managed to walk-ride the motorcycle for about a kilometer to the base of a steep hill, where my clutch-brake coordination was put to the test. For fifteen minutes, barely moving fifteen meters, and that too, mostly backwards, I tucked my male ego between my legs and stopped a Tamilian motorcyclist who, being polite, merely raised his eyebrow a bit and, with a smile, rode the bike to the top of the hill.
Four years later, more eyebrows went up, this time from a group of riders in Sonamarg, on the Srinagar-Leh highway, when I told them I was riding solo to Ladakh. By now, at least the tinny 100 cc was replaced with one having four times that power. The capabilities of a bike are proportional to the capabilities and experience of the rider. But, thinking my riding experience proportionate to the greys on my beard, they didn’t try to dissuade me. Within twenty kilometers of meeting the group, my biking skills and experience were tested on the sloshy top of Zozila Pass. Of course, once I ventured into the heart of Ladakh, I realized why having a riding partner makes sense.
While writing, I like to base every book on different themes. I don’t want to become an expert on any particular subject. That’s not my cup of tea or ride. So too, with riding. Of the 38,000 kilometers of experience I had thus far accumulated, those twenty kilometers on top of Zozila Pass added new experience – and it was only the beginning. On these rugged roads, at these altitudes, I needed to feel the movement of the bike in a new way, and listen to its sounds carefully. It was a new language that I had to pay close attention to. I had to become one with the bike – because one small mistake could be the last. Little did I know that those twenty kilometers at Zozila happened to be only the tip of the iceberg.
Finally, after a battle with rain and mud and eighty kilometers of smooth tarmac, I glided past the Kargil War Memorial and into Kargil. Exhausted, I checked into a guesthouse with a friendly owner and a friendly price tag, on top of a hill across from the bus station. In any other place, I wouldn’t have chosen to stay near a noisy bus station, but here, just across flowed the mighty Suru River, its white noise drowning all other sounds within a half-kilometer radius. After a hot shower and a warm hearty meal, I fell into bed, pulling the dark quilt of night over me.
The following day the sun was early and so was I. As both arms of the wall clock split it in half, I checked out of the guesthouse, hanging the lock and key on the door handle. On this pleasant morning, the tyres of my bike enjoyed the hug from the asphalt as it warmed to the morning glow. And soon, the smooth black of asphalt became one with the landscape; the lush green mountains of Kashmir giving way to the stark beauty of raw earth and rocky landscapes. The first fifty-odd kilometres came with good roads and beautiful scenery. Then, as the scenery progressed from beautiful to amazing, the road turned from bad to non-existent.
Bad roads and amazing scenery lead to a really slow ride. There is something interesting to look at every turn. After seven hours on the saddle, I covered only 120 kilometers and decided to call it a day at Rangdum. I found a quaint little “duk bungalow” that reminded me of our family stays in government rest houses around the North East of India when travelling with my father on his official visits. After a nostalgic sleepover, I was back on the path that, although crude at the moment, would one day become a road.
It’s funny how our minds work. When I started the ride from Kargil, I wasn’t prepared for bad roads, so the road seemed more hazardous than it actually was because, it was more about testing my abilities. But the Enfield Himalayan was built for rough mountainous terrain. If I had the guts to go, as I was coming to learn, it would take me to my destination. That morning I started the ride knowing the roads would be bad. However, one thing that unnerved me was water crossings. And the first one appeared almost as soon as I started. The intimidating thing about water crossings is the unknown. How deep is it? Is there a big rock hiding/blocking your path? Would it be slippery underneath? The mind creates a horror story out of a mundane puddle. But, knowing the bike was capable, I gunned it and crossed with a smooth splash over to the other side. After twenty or so water crossings, some the size of a backyard drain, some the size of a decent-sized stream, they became joyrides in a waterpark.
That day, at the end of a welcome twenty kilometer black-tar-carpet, was Padum, an aspiring town. You could see that not so long ago it was a quaint Ladaki village. Now, with the impending highway from Manali connecting it to Kargil, it was on its way to become an arterial town. Its aspiration was to becoming another tourist hotspot like Manali or Leh. Located in the heart of picturesque Zanskar Valley, it would definitely attract the bulging population of India’s weekend tourists. Though the road is a couple of years from completion, the town is already gearing up. There are as many new buildings sprawling as there are existing houses. And the new constructions look nothing like the traditional Zanskari or Ladaki builds. Perhaps they aspire to look like “city” buildings, hoping to accommodate city tourists expecting nothing less in comfort in a remote place than what they were used to in their city apartments.
To break away from “progress,” I needed to go remote and decided the road-less Pukthar Monastery would be the perfect destination to get away from the frenzied construction.
Sometimes turning back isn’t an option. So plan B is to add more throttle and keep pushing ahead because the road is too narrow and precarious to turn around. Solo, on the way to Pukthar Monastery, at least twice, the thought came to give up and turn back. Here the reason why people ride in groups became apparent. But then the Himalayan can be quite a buddy to get you out of a sticky situation. I held my nerves, and it kept pushing on. And boy, would I have missed something if I had turned back! To say the landscape was breathtaking would be a cliché because it had nothing to compare to anything I had seen or breathed in earlier.
At length, I reached the village of Purne with a total of four or five houses. On the way, I crossed paths a few times with a small group in a Scorpio. They turned out to be architects from the firm Windows to Vernacular on a research project to study and save the traditional housing of Zanskar Valley. It was lunchtime, and though I usually don’t eat lunch, I decided to treat myself and ordered “rajma-rice.” The warm heaviness of the meal kicked in and made me lethargic. A room was available on the roof of the oldest house at the homestay. Being the furthest one, it was the perfect place for stargazing that night along with the three architects. Thanks to them, in the afternoon I had a grand tour of the 150-year-old house on whose roof I was perched. The next morning, we headed to Pukthar Monastery in their car because something told me Pukhtar wasn’t going to be just a day trip. The road ended at a parking area, a meadow on a hilltop, and from there we had a 4.5 km hike.
Myself, the three architects, one a seasoned hiker and two not with much experience started off, the path snaking along a gorge, curving beside the turquoise waters of the Tsarap River. Our progress was slow, but the leisurely hike gave me an opportunity to observe how each mountain, at first glance, looked barren and similar to the entire range but was, in fact, an individual with a personality and visage of its own. While one mountain was a solid gigantic piece, the next was a crumbly mass of rocks defying gravity, some were curvaceous, some muscular; the subtlety of colours, different shades of grey, green, violet, yellow, was remarkable. They were bordered at the bottom by the turquoise blue river, and at the top, by the bluest blue sky, with gossamer white clouds floating by.
An hour and a half into the hike, we came across a delicately woven reed bridge that swung in the gentle breeze beside a new, solidly built wooden bridge. After four adventurous kilometers, we decided to take the easier crossing across the Tsarap. After negotiating a steep climb back to the level path, breathless, we came face to face with a golden, green and orange gate, and walking through it, the Pukhtar Monastery. It looked as if it had bloomed out of the tops of the mountains it sat on. The monastery cantered around a cave where three ageless Himalayan yogis had meditated for 3200 years. Five hundred and forty years ago, when Monk Serab Zangpo walked up to the meditating yogis, they welcomed him, passed on their knowledge to him and disappeared into the thin air of the Himalayas. Serab Zangpo decided to build the Pukthar Monastery there.
After riding through the most challenging off-road I ever had, I was off the saddle for ten days. Only then, as a traveller, you get to see what a tourist passes by. It was as if I had fallen through a portal and been transported back a few centuries. The rituals in the monastery, the life in Ughar – a village of eight households across the river on the other side of the valley comprising descendants of the founders of the monastery, have remained unchanged over centuries. Holding partly on to customs and traditions and partly due to no road access, ‘modernity’ finds it hard to venture into the valley.
Familiarity opens doors that remain closed for strangers. Seeing me around the monastery daily, the monks became friends, and the playful side of the young and old monks was revealed to me. And the hardworking family of four who shared their home, their food, their love with me so willingly, accepted me as part of the family. Each day, each household member’s share of work equalled what I would do in a week or even a month. Yet the smiles from their faces never waned. With time, a treacherous narrow path difficult to negotiate on the first day, even in full daylight, became familiar enough to walk on in the middle of night after sharing a bottle of the finest locally brewed arak with a new-old friend.
On the days I stayed at Ughar village, my routine was set. Get up in the morning, get a gallon of water from the nearest spring for washing up. Do my morning practice of yoga-kriya. Have breakfast with the family and then head to Pukthar Monastery, a 45-minute walk via the strongest bridge across the river.
I broke that routine one day. When it was the family’s turn to take the village demos (female yaks) to the grazing grounds, I decided to go along with the daughter, Stanzin. Once before, when Chombole (the son) was taking the demos for grazing, I had asked if I could accompany him. He enquired if I could keep up. That day I wisely decided to keep to keep my date with the monastery. This time I thought I would surely be able to keep up with a seventeen-year-old girl. But boy, was I wrong! She was an ibex herding demos. But thanks goodness for mothers! All mothers, whether human or animal, have a mothering instinct when they see someone struggling. One demo kept giving me sideways glances, slowing down, sniffing at shrubs that the other demos ignored. Then, when she was sure I had caught my breath and was ready to move again, she would pick up her pace and join the heard.
On my penultimate morning in Ughar village, I reached the monastery early for a special prayer with thousand lamps for a departed soul from a nearby village. Once the prayers were over, I met Serena, a filmmaker from Auroville, who had come to the monastery the previous evening. I knew a wedding party was to arrive from Shaday, a village 28 kilometers from the nearest motorable road. Being in a mood to just be, I wasn’t keen on witnessing a merry wedding party. But thanks to Serena, I learned it was not just another wedding procession. It was, in fact, one of the last weddings being performed following ancient traditions.
It was amazing to see the wedding procession on horseback, riding towards us on narrow paths that the horses could barely place one foot at a time. But the wedding participants were all riding Zanskar’s famous Zaniskari horses, as sure-footed in this terrain as mountain goats. It’s a breed well suited to the mountains and yet endangered. They were carrying a wedding tradition that was about to go extinct. I was lucky to witness this rare event and the next morning headed off to Cha with Serena and Waleed, who was assisting her in the shoot, riding triple on the bike on a road I wasn’t confident to ride single while coming. The wedding culminated at Cha with elements of tradition mixed in with modernity. I had tasted a slice of Zanskari life and was ready to head off on two wheels to find a new chapter.