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Pedalling around the paddies

I am peddling on a clunky, old bicycle about a couple of hours from the town of Aurangabad in central India. I’m not too sure where I’m headed, but I have a feeling that if I follow this road long enough I’m bound to see something interesting. It’s mid-afternoon and I feel like I’ve been churning through waves of heat and light. It’s so hot I can’t help worrying about sunstroke. I wonder whether my water will last until my turn around time. There is no traffic here, no sane person out at this hour, and I’m moving in complete solitude. The paved road is level, very narrow, not much wider than a private driveway.  It is a little ripply from the heat, and two rows of shade trees are planted along the sides. Their thick trunks are painted in red and white stripes. The road skirts the edge of the highlands, winding along the contours of a huge escarpment. This is an alien, unfamiliar countryside. The vegetation is scrubby, and the land doesn’t appear to be cultivated. Dark thorny bushes sprout on the hills which rise on my right and left. There is an eerie silence whenever I stop the bicycle. I can see piles of stones heaped neatly along the sides of the road and a large earthenware jug of water with metal cups inside. Before long, I pass a gang of skinny people breaking rocks with sledgehammers. They are young men and women, working in couples. They look to me like they’re married. The men are wearing torn, sweat-stained undershirts, the graceful women, are dressed in bright green or red skirts and tops, their midriffs bare. The women carry the big rocks over to their “husbands” who whack them into smaller pieces – I notice that one of the women is wielding a sledgehammer herself. They work in complete silence. None of them even looks up as I pass. On the other side of the road, between two trees, a bright green cloth is waving like a bed sheet in the wind. It has been strung up like a hammock. I can hear the wailing of an infant inside.

The afternoon wears on, slowly taking the edge off the heat. Just a little further, I keep telling myself. Suddenly the road veers to the right before dropping into a lovely valley, a wide canyon of lush trees and irrigated fields. The view from here is enticing, and though it is well past my turn around time, I can’t stop myself from pedaling on. It’s as if the valley were beckoning to me, and I want to keep going. In the distance the reddish cones of volcanic hills, sandy eroded mountains swell on the horizon. They are glowing red and purple in the setting sun. The landscape has an incredibly ancient, exhausted look, which reminds me of the Mars shots taken by Voyager. I coast downhill in the cooling air, past villages of mud huts with thatched roofs. I can see the smoke rising from cooking fires. I’m only a few of hours from the city, but this is another world. I am overcome by a feeling of peace as evening descends. A group of children in a stubble field catch sight of me. They start scampering towards me in V formation like a flock of little birds, waving chapattis in their hands and shouting “Aye,Aye, Khana”.  With the generosity of the very poorest, they are offering me their dinner. I feel I’ve arrived.

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