Ashutosh, my friend, and I were studying for our Intermediate in Dehradun. He had rescued an old issue of National Geographic Magazine from a kabari (waste paper dealer) which described how flowers could be dried while retaining their natural shape and colour. We were fascinated and decided to give it a try. All that was required was fine sand. Fine sand is something you do not find in Dehradun. There being no river.
The one characteristic Ashu and I had in common, and which cemented our friendship, was that we were both loonies. We would take pride in doing what most people would consider lunatic.
We mounted our bicycles and peddled to Doiwala, a mere 18 kilometres away. We knew there was a seasonal river near the town and hoped to find what we required. We were disappointed. The sand was not as fine as we wanted. It was useless for us. We could either return to Dehra Dun empty handed or we could cycle another 26 kilometres to Rishikesh. We favoured the latter course and, as a result, what had started as a short jaunt to Doiwala turned into an excursion to Rishikesh.
Rishikesh is situated on the banks of the mighty, and the holiest, river Ganga. There was no reason why the sand we sought should not be available there. Mounting our bicycles again we peddled to Rishikesh and on to Lakshman Jhula, a suspension bridge across Ganga, a couple of kilometres upstream. We descended to the river and happily filled our bags with the finest of sands. Mission accomplished and fortified with heartiest of meals, we embarked on return journey. Both, Ashu and I were carrying three bags each, heavily full of wet sand. Two bags were suspended on each side of our carriers and the third was deposited in the basket suspended from the handle bar.
We expected to make the return trip, about 50 kilometres, in a couple of hours and be back home in time for our evening snacks and tea.
We were making good time when disaster struck a few kilometres out of Rishikesh. Our bicycles, it seemed to us, had grown their own wills and, in spite of our best efforts, would not move. Dismounting, we first rested a while to get our breathes back and then started an examination of our unwilling steeds. Soon, we discovered the cause, which was the heavily loaded basket hanging from the handle-bar pressing brake levers which, in turn, jammed the brake pads on both, the front and rear wheel rims, effectively making the force we applied on the peddles null and void.
We sat down and counted our options. We counted two. One – jettison the offending load of sand, and two – disconnect the brakes and put our lives on stake. Prudence pointed to the first. But prudence was the last thing a pair of loonies like us would consider. We could not sacrifice our precious sand. We chose the second option. The bicycles we now rode were bereft of brakes. Pedalling carefully, we approached the short winding hill road which had to be negotiated. Pushing our bicycles uphill sapped our strength but we made it to the crest. Going downhill would have been a cakewalk only if we had not disconnected the brakes. Our strength would have returned. As it turned out, we were forced to use whatever strength we could muster to keep pulling back the bicycles trying to downhill at 100 kmph. Back at the level road, we spent the better part of an hour lying down and getting some strength beck.
It was dark by now and no moon to show us the road. Fear of wild animals kept us going through the dense forest. The sky was a narrow strip through the tall trees along the road. Slowly we kept peddling till our legs weighed a quintal each. Totally exhausted, we could peddle no more. Just then we saw a feeble light some distance away. Hoping to find shelter, or at least a cup of tea, we almost crawled to it. A hurricane lantern suspended from a pole outside a straw hut was the source of light. Four or five men of varying age, drinking something, which we took to be tea, from kulhars (cups made of baked mud, commonly used in north India for serving water and tea) sat on a couple of charpoys outside the hut. There was no sign of a stove nor any vessels and other paraphernalia associated with making tea. We asked if we could get tea. A finger was raised pointing inside. We entered and found that something more potent than mere tea was being dished out. It was tadi, a locally brewed alcoholic beverage. We had never had alcohol till then. We quickly conferred and decided that the circumstances warranted it. Enquiry revealed that the least quantity we could buy was one chatank. Chatank is a measure gone in oblivion after the country went metric. In terms of millilitres, a chatank would be less than 90 ml. Loud guffaws followed our order of one chatank divided in two. We seemed to have made their day. We did not mind one bit being their laughingstocks when we found that the tadi had given us wings. We peddled away to glory for nearly half an hour when we started panting again with fatigue. Eyes kept open could not espy another hut serving the much-needed nectar. Happily, by now we found ourselves in the suburbs of Dehra Dun. Even the prospect of having to explain and justify our truancy did not dampen our elation. We had not only successfully accomplished our mission, we knew that a wholesome, delicious hot meal would be awaiting us.