The previous night’s bath and early sleep left me fresh as a daisy. It was the first time I was going to attempt three consecutive 100-km days and I was apprehensive. Depending on how the day’s ride went hinged the decision whether to make Hyderabad in five days or six. Bent on eating up the road in the waft of the cool morning breeze, I tried to work up a good rhythm. Achyu exulted when we came across a railway crossing with the bars turned down. I didn’t understand why. He and Arjun quickly jumped the railings to get to the opposite side. They set up the camera and sat cross-legged on the road, waiting for the train.
Within an hour, the wind had drawn apart the curtain of clouds; the sun stretched slowly, indulgently, like she had woken from a deep sleep. I had a vague premonition it was going to be a tough day in the saddle. Not wanting to blow myself, I stopped for breakfast at a dhaba. It was my first real breakfast on the road and being a city boy, my expectations were those one had from the city.
But prompt service is not an urgent necessity at a highway dhaba – it was something I would learn throughout the trip.
The dhaba was still rising; a majority of its inhabitants lay curled under blankets on charpoys deep within – it was both a home and business establishment. The saagoo was being prepared; finally the puris came. I shelved all dietary concerns about deep-fried food. I had shunned it since I had started training. I threw out all embargos concerning smoking too. It was wise to give up all resolutions on the road – it was the only decent way to travel. It was too hot to cycle. I wondered if it was wiser to recalibrate my sights to a more conservative 90-km. I wanted to pace myself, and it was as good a time as any to read Vivekananda. After an hour of the Swami’s ramblings that I was carrying, I headed to Gooty. Unaccustomed to cycling in the heat, I made slow progress, as slow as the buffaloes who impressed me with their intelligence while ambling across the road.
As I neared scores of them on the highway, I watched carefully to see if they did something daft like make sudden darts or break into quick trots like the countless carcasses of roadkill on the highway no doubt must have. I wound up admiring how they slowed their crawl as we approached, watching from the corner of their eyes as big as eggs, waiting motionlessly, almost with polite indifference, until we had overreached them – not once taking their eyes off Nautanki’s nose. The sun beat shamelessly on everything in sight. I made my peace with taking fruit and water from the car. I imagined I was cycling a Tour de India in slow motion. I began to yawn. Shikaari had told me the closer I got to Hyderabad, the hotter and more humid it would get. I didn’t feel like cycling but had no intention of taking a break; it would set a terrible precedent for the rest of the journey.
Unknowingly, I began to nod off on Nautanki. Twice, I jerked myself awake as she swayed uncertainly. It was ridiculous – I couldn’t believe I was falling asleep on a cycle.
I was like Inzamam in the slip cordon. I couldn’t understand the phenomenon. Shree had documented such an occurrence on his blog, but that was at the end of a crazed attempt to cycle 500-km in 24 hours. I wasn’t through 50-km as yet. I ploughed through each revolution in a stupefied daze. I stopped and tanked up on Electral. The problem of water not being readily available was solved – any one-litre packaged drinking water bottle could be cradled in the circular shock absorbers beneath Nautanki’s seat.
Cautious by nature, I decided that Shikaari’s suggestion of getting blow-refilled every 350-km to 400-km was best left for the faithful. I stopped at a cycle shop and got Nautanki filled with air. Wrestling with her had torn the crotch of the seat cover. I asked for a new seat. Padded seats were unavailable, but when the cycle-shop man heard I was cycling to Delhi, he threaded a couple of particoloured brushes through the spokes. Nautanki was getting pimped.
Gooty was the first major town since Bengaluru; after the lush solitude of the highway, I wanted to get away from the swarms choking the town’s thin roads like a tight collar. The road got choppy and crowded, it began to hump and haw; Nautanki rolled with it. I was determined to finish 100 km. The rises started. By two in the afternoon, Achyu asked if I wanted to stop for lunch. I wasn’t hungry and wanted to plough a little longer – better to leave as little as possible for the third leg. Ten kilometres later, I wanted a break. I had assumed the dhabas would be littered like dead dogs across the highway. We stopped and asked for places to eat. No one mentioned the same dhaba twice. Opinions varied when asked about the distance of the nearest dhaba; some said 3-km, others assured us it was 10-km. We were pointed in both directions. The crew car went ahead to see what lay in store food-wise.
I ran out of drinking water, my body complained as much as my parched throat. I got peevish; there wasn’t a place to stop and drink chai either. The crew car returned without any luck.
Achyu wanted me to wrangle lunch in a village home; I didn’t want to turn on the charm to forage for food. I wanted to stretch when I stopped, the politeness required while eating strangers’ food I didn’t have the energies for. I plodded along. I pretended I was Mr Plod and Noddy rolled into one. I passed a board pointing the way to Peapulli. I loved the name. “They must pull peas in Peapulli!” I thought. Achyu asked if I wanted to venture inside. I looked at the steep decline that swooped away from the NH7. Even if I got lucky with a free meal, I’d still have to cycle up the imposing slope – it would be an impossible feat post prandial indulgence. I shook my head. I was irritated for not stopping when I could have. It was the third day of shooting and Achyu was getting nervous about the documentary going to pot. He was insistent about eating at a village; I was fagged out and tetchy.
Late afternoon, we found a spacious clean dhaba. It was worth the wait. While we waited for our stock meal of egg curry, rice, chapattis, dal and sabzi, I stretched on the lawns adjoining the dhaba, wondering how many drunk people had peed in the grass over the nights. When we were done, I set out early. If I loitered, I would sleep. The crew stayed behind. When they caught up with me, they had a horrific story to tell. Not soon after I had left, they had been roused from their post-lunch dreams by squealing brakes. I had heard it too. Just 50 metres from the dhaba, a motorcyclist had fallen from his bike after colliding with a truck. Blood ran from his head, an ambulance had whistled him away. Naveen was convinced the motorcyclist had died on the spot; Arjun thought so too; Prashanth didn’t put forth such a dire opinion, but said it looked really bad. Achyu hadn’t bothered to decide. He had taken one look at the fallen motorcyclist, his stomach had churned and he had turned away. I was relieved I hadn’t witnessed the accident. Each time I saw a smashed vehicle on the highway my stomach acquired the depth of a coal mine.
Excerpted with permission from Nautanki Diaries, Dominic Franks, Rupa Publications.