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One night in Mannat

The balmy gale that was lashing at me, trying to throw me, became a full-blown storm now. Motorcycling toward Delhi along the NH1, I was the only one on the road. Everyone else seemed to have scuttled to the safety of dhabas, parked beneath juddering awnings, huddled inside maybe over chole bhatura and lassi waiting it out. 

Kos Minars make my day. And night.

There was no way I could have seen it coming. Nor heard. There was nary a whistle nor a rustle. There was no dry duff flying around. But for that you need some vegetation. Like pine trees which make wind howl. There was hardly a spindly shrub along this terrain I was traversing – being the peak of summer the fields had become swathes of pewter-fine soil which now rose, wan blankets over the horizon like a billowy ghost tarp. Because of the hanging, pervading opaque-ness, switching on my headlamps didn’t add to visibility; I just hoped to be visible to incoming traffic. (Many come the wrong way having missed an eatery or a petrol pump; I barely missed one who was coming in reverse.)

My night riding goggles fought a losing battle and soon enough I was bleary-eyed with sand. I pumped some out through squeeze-shut tears and rode on. I felt like a hero, you know, one of those valiant knights who ride through hell and highwater because a lot depended on them reaching the other side of hell and highwater. The only thing that depended on I reaching was, well, nothing I could think of then. Nothing I can think of now either. I rode on because I didn’t want to stop. I guess it was that simple.

Ranjan Tiwary. Give it up for him.

The ‘tap-tap’ of a newly installed tappet that crept up from the cylinder of my motorcycle now and then had become faintly insistent now. I knew it wasn’t good. Then sometimes you want to cover max ground when the going is not good; you build up anticipation of the eventual collapse because you are really miffed at yourself for missing something which was obviously cooping in from all around you. It was ominous and on your face, still you chose to turn a blind eye toward it. Now you want to pay the price. So, hoick it so up that you don’t forget you fucked up. Or maybe you hope the self-punishment will make all the shit go away. Shit seldom goes away on its own.

Tap-tap. Tap-tap. Tap-tap.

My motorcycle lost throttle and the engine idled to a stop. I sat impassive letting the cycle roll as much as it would go on its own. It was not the thought of pushing all the dead kerb weight that made me coast on the clutch any more than relishing what lay in store. Pushing my big, fat, Royal Enfield Bullet, a Standard 500, along the dark highway, in the midst of a raging sandstorm. I even decided by then – as the free ride came to a stop – that I would keep the helmet on because:

  1. It held my goggles in place.
  2. That way I would prevent the sand from getting into my hair and soiling the helmet.
  3. Being on a dark highway, I could be sitting duck for someone who didn’t want to stop. Somebody like me.

Daybreak. At Mannat.

I might have pushed for a kilometre, maybe two, I don’t know as my mind was blank. All I could see shit. Strangely I felt calm, at peace with myself. It wasn’t because I felt like I was squaring the circle but could have been the self-punishment thing I spoke of earlier. Even then I wasn’t sure – there was no sense of achievement. Nor victory. Impassion, I realised, is the face when one is shorn of options and there is no dearth of difficulties. My hair became drenched in sweat and trickled into my eyes fogging up my goggles. Just like fortunes change as you are about to give up, three guys came on a motorcycle. Under the circumstances from an earlier lifetime – when I blazed across highways in a two-litre Chevy Optra – these guys would be drunken thugs out to mischief and I would watch them from the corner of my eyes till I passed them:

  1. Will they swerve to make me veer out of control?
  2. Will they scatter nails so I will pull over ahead?
  3. Was one of them whipping out a country-made pistol?

This fear was borne out of an experience when I was driving through Bihar where I was accosted by two armed guys on a motorcycle asking me to stop the car. My then wife slept peacefully next to me, seat low and music and air conditioning jacked up.

They were still drunk but thugs they weren’t. After the primary curiosity-settling questions like where I was coming from and headed to and what happened – at least my version of it – they began their own set of inquisition.

Is there petrol? Yes? Enough petrol? Are you sure? Do you want to open the tank and see? Do you need money to buy some petrol? No? Don’t be embarrassed to ask for money, alright? We all land in trouble and tomorrow it might be you helping me out, right?

New day. I still love her.

One guy sat on my pillion seat while the other two pushed my motorcycle from behind – all the way to Mannat, a well-lit dhaba in Samalkha. Delhi was still far – by about 50 km. They bid their goodbyes and the one who sat behind me even tried to slip a rupee note into my pocket asking me to ‘eat something.’ I used to believe that those who didn’t drink weren’t good people. It turns out that I was right about some things. I did not park on the main lot but along an unpaved interstice between the dhaba and an open field. I knew I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. 

The goodness continued with Ranjan, a waiter at Mannat, who talked a good game about motorcycles. Though I told him it was the tappet, he came with a pair of pliers and loosened the spark plug whose head was crumbling soot. Aha! Things are going to be alright. These little interludes of relief and hope, however hopeless, are important, especially when you know they are short-lived and the main issue shall continue. Three kids in pinafores were brought from the kitchen who pushed the motorcycle to start it on gear. They retired only after I announced that I was staying put the night and would arrange for a mechanic tomorrow.

‘Who’ll stay in Mannat – or anywhere in Samalkha, for that matter – when, as Chandra Bose said, Dilli noor nahin? (Delhi is not far?)’ Ranjan chuckled when I queried about room availability. I remember being too tired even to express surprise but just gawking at him in groggy admiration. Did he know that it wasn’t Bose who said it first? The next morning I remember waking up deciding to ask where he picked his history from. That night I was shown into a backroom of sorts with a much-needed swirling fan that sounded like ricocheting gunfire, stacked up with DVDs, spare furniture and some hookahs. There was a bed on which two others were already sleeping.

Ranjan moved one pair of legs and made just about enough space for me. He bade me ‘good night’ and went out back to work. Mannat was open 24 hours and he was on night watch this week.

“Have a chai with me if you wake up before I go,” he called out before shutting the door behind him.

There was only one pillow which was taken by the guy on the other side. I entertained half a mind to slide it from under him – after all, he must have had his share of comfortable sleep. As if sensing my evil design, he opened his eyes and peered closely at me. What would have been eerie under any other circumstance didn’t strike me as such as I was too exhausted and ready to drop. I looked around and saw a pair of pyjamas lying on the floor. The chap snoring loudly next to me was under a fleece blanket, I didn’t know if there was a connection. Anyway I bunched it up and used it for pillow for what must have been the soundest sleep I had in a long time. 

There’s a bed. Somewhere.

Next morning was Sunday and I woke to the roar of superbikes from Delhi making their weekly Panipat run. (These machines are largely owned by doctors and other highly paid people who plod hard the rest of the week. Maybe why I have mine.) Vehicles trickled in – those who started early from Chandigarh or Shimla late last night. Families sat around tables watching gleefully as the toddler son threw cutlery around after licking them. Ranjan patiently picked each one up as he took some impossibly torturous orders.

I forgot to ask him where he read history, instead made the following note:

  1. Smile when they repeat the order, don’t sit morose and motionless – after all nothing said it wouldn’t be you taking the order.
  2. Slip a tip. Trust me, these kids need every extra rupee they get.
  3. For god sake take that kid off the table – and not just because it’s bad table manners. 

 

6 Comments »

  • Veena said:

    Really nice and informative article you must have enjoyed the ride I will also visit this place.

    • Admin said:

      Thank you. You must visit – hopefully not following a breakdown. The food here is good too.

  • Agness of eTramping said:

    Mannat seems amazing! How long would you recommend staying there?

    • Admin said:

      Mannat has no staying option, I was stuck there. The recommended duration would be till you get unstuck. Haha.

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