Riding the Mountains Down
I had travelled about 40 miles and my thoughts were turning more and more to food and drink
(a frequent preoccupation of cyclists)when I was suddenly aware of a motorcyclist riding alongside,
regarding me intently.
'You are English, yes?' he asked.
'Yes, I'm English' I replied with caution.
'I like English woman,' he said with great enthusiasm. I said nothing but proceeded
with warning bells sounding loudly.
'English woman very sexy,' he confided.
'No,' I said, 'English women are not sexy.
'You are not being sexy?' he queried incredulously. 'Not being sexy?'
'No,' I said with even greater firmness. 'No, I am not being sexy.'
'Me, I am very sexy man, so then please I am saying goodbye and thank you,' and on
this splendid note he revved up the engine of his 90c.c. motor cycle and zoomed off.
For a long time I had seen what I had taken to be a thin line of cloud stretching along
the northern horizon. I hadn't paid much attention for all around me was the bustle of
heavy traffic and the reek of exhaust fumes. Endless lines of army trucks thundered past,
filling the air with choking dust. In an ugly little town called Batala, the traffic
finally ground to a halt, having woven itself into a gruesome tangle of trucks,
rickshaws, buses, flocks of sheep, cars, horses and carts and bicycles. All had tried to
squeeze through somehow, mostly on the wrong side of the road. Several carts had
overturned and one poor little donkey, who had been pulling a cart far too heavily laden,
was now hanging in his harness from the upended shafts. Several policemen were shouting
loudly and laying about them with their long wicked-looking sticks, adding to the general
chaos. It was then that having extracted myself from the melee - another advantage of
travelling by bicycle - and having by these means achieved a temporarily clear road, I
saw that what I had taken for a line of cloud was, in fact, a great wall of snow-
covered rock. Over a hundred miles away and dwarfed by distance, it was unmistakably
the Himalayas. They filled the horizon from east to west, sharply outlined against a
blue sky, infinitely remote and yet totally dominating the landscape. I felt wonder,
disbelief, awe and excitement by turn. If the journey were to end now, I thought, it
would have been worth it just to have seen this.
The Kangra Valley grew wider the further east I went and villages and small towns
became more frequent - squalid places these, in stark contrast to their idyllic
settings. Dead dogs and bloated corpses of rats littered their muddy streets
and the drains made their malodorous presence only too apparent. It was in one
such place I experienced a particularly nasty incident which could have ended the
journey right there. It happened around mid-afternoon when the day had become
hot and sultry. I had no intention of stopping, but a man had stepped out of his
little cafe as I passed and waved a bottle of soft drink at me. I stopped, but
before I had even got off the bicycle a crowd of men and youths closed in around
me. No one said anything, they just stood there slowly chewing betel nut and
occasionally spitting the red juices onto the dusty ground in front of me. One fat
youth pressed himself up against the front of the bicycle and was rubbing at his
crotch while he leered into my face. The bottle had been opened in the meantime
and was being tossed from hand to hand round the circle, until one of them thrust
it suddenly at me as though he meant to strike me with it. At the same moment
someone got hold of the back of the bicycle and twisted it over. Down I went in the
filth, breaking my sunglasses and grazing my leg - though I was unaware of this
at the time. Up to that moment I had been virtually paralyzed with fear, but as I
hit the ground I became so incensed with rage, I could have done murder. I
could hear them laughing and jeering above me, and I hated them all. But somehow
in the second or so it took for me to pick myself and the bicycle up the rage
evaporated and I knew that I had to do something decisive to end this ugly scene
before it became a tragic one. Then it was as though everything was happening
in a dream - I could see their open jeering mouths, the betel-stained teeth giving
the appearance of blood dripping. It's like a medieval bear-baiting, I thought, or a
cock fight, and then I remembered a painting of the Spanish civil war, where people
had been shooting and were being shot - their mouths too hhad been open; but I
couldn't remember who the painter was, and this worried me because I could
not concentrate. It was through this curious dream-like state that I heard my own
voice, icy-calm and authorative - as though I was addressing a class of fractious
eight year olds. 'I am going', said the voice,'to fetch a policemen'.- Even in my
disconnected state I remember thinking, 'That's torn it', for it seemed a most
feeble and inappropriate threat under the circumstances. But for some reason
it worked; the awful men fell back and I wheeled the bicycle yhrough the space
they left, trying not to hurry, or to show the fear now which perversely came
flooding back. In retrospect now I think this was the most dangerous moment
of the whole encounter, for had I rushed or shown the least sign of fear they
would have been on me like a pack of dogs and there might have been another
unsolved case of a missing Wrestern woman. As it was, I waited until I was
well clear before leaping on the bicycle and pedalling off as fast as my shaking
legs would allow - the babel of sound pursuing me showing that the temporary
lull was over.
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