‘I asked if water was available; he said food was available too’

One man, two wheels and a 22-day journey from Bengaluru to New Delhi. Dominic Franks documents his 2010 bicycle ride in Nautanki Diaries. An extract:

Timbaktu

The detour from the tarmac gave way to a mud track; a few minutes later we were awash in swathes of green vegetation. It began to drizzle. The sounds of birds, the slightest hint of rain, the green leaves waving to the breezes speaking in Chinese whispers—it seemed I was cycling through utopia. The kachcha road began to heave and dip and while this made the cycling more difficult, the surroundings were beautiful enough to be immersed in. When you’re cycling, 3 km on a mud track is longer than 3 km on a highway—or so it seemed. I began to tire.

We came across five large huts grouped inside latticed bamboo fences. Assuming it was the fringe of the village I carried on, no more huts came. In a space of open clearing, I surveyed the landscape. Surrounded by green hills, each one of us was surprised by splotches of black rock that stood out like ugly scars amidst the dense foliage. Why hadn’t they been greened over? Prashanth wondered if it was volcanic rock. I cycled Nautanki back to the village. As I approached the door of one of the large huts, a bespectacled man walked out. I asked if water was available; he said food was available too. I jumped at the offer.

The man was Babloo Ganguly, Benagli by birth, social worker by vocation, and resident of Andhra Pradesh for the last 30 years by choice. He was in a hurry to go somewhere, but threw open his grounds to us. I took a walk. The place was faultlessly clean. There was hardly any iron and steel. It was all stone, trees, thatch and wood. I bit into some raw tamarind drying on stone benches in an open clearing. We were called for breakfast. After washing off the sand from the groundnut pulling in a spotlessly clean stone washbasin, I sat down on the cloth mats rimming the cool black-slabbed floor under the tiled roof topped with thatch. Light crept into the large commodious space. Chitranna and puliyogare was the menu. I had met my guardian angels of the road. Where in a city could you stop at someone’s house to ask coyly for a glass of water and have six people invited in to gorge on a fresh meal, besides the run of the land to roam and inspect? The food was delicious and less oily. I was convinced the groundnuts in the puliyogare grew in the backyard, possibly every ingredient grew in the bosom of that bamboo-picketed village. Only the rice was bought in a store probably. I was famished from the cycling and helped myself generously.

After breakfast, I got talking to Vinod, the contractor for the village. He was from Madhya Pradesh, a witness and victim of the Latur earthquake of 1993. Forty members of his family died in that earthquake, he was merely struck on the head by falling debris. His work with the United Nations Development Programme led to him witnessing the aftermath of the Bhuj earthquake in 2001 and the tsunami in 2004. After working for a while with Babloo Ganguly, he gave up the travel of UNDP to settle down in Timbaktu. Vinod was searing in his honesty; since he had arrived in Timbaktu he had never felt like leaving, he said. He thought he might live there forever. It was many an itinerant workers’ dream—a place to take root. Babloo Ganguly had recently given him a house in the village; he had married four months ago, aided by a loan he was paying off easily because his wife too had become a salaried employee of the Timbaktu collective, the NGO that Babloo ran.

Vinod said the village lived collectively, partaking in each others’ lives—there was not one above the other. That struck a chord. All through my short working life, I hated the sham of offering respect where none was due—it was one of the many reasons I wanted to live without a regular job. Now I had met a man who had found his ideal place and position in society. Vinod liked to work hard, as was evidenced by the pride with which he pointed out the pathways he had paved and the guest rooms he had built. He had wanted a job that promised advancement and just rewards as fruit for his toil, and he had not wanted to pay obeisance: he had found it all in Timbaktu. The way he spoke, I imagined Timbaktu had softened him considerably. He seemed at ease, content, more than happy, like he was on a drug, and everyone we met in Timbaktu seemed to be spun from that same fibre. They were all genial and warm, welcoming without being effusive, with receptive smiles leaping to their faces. I was embarrassed at being unable to keep up with the conviviality; even worse, I didn’t know Telugu.

(Extract published from Nautanki Diaries by Dominic Franks with permission from Rupa Publications India)

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