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An epic BMW ride through southern India


I slept late and was only woken by the rising heat in our room due to midday load shedding and a silent fan. We spent the day saying our goodbyes and paying off credit at various chai shacks, whose trust was always impressive and an endearing feature of the Kovalam ethic. I have since tried it at Sainsbury’s but to no avail. In the evening Samba produced a wonderful spread which we ate on banana leaves cross legged under his porch. After, with coffee and somewhat doctored beedies, Samba declared that we were like brothers. Surely an inexplicable bond was there and it was a sad cheerio that ended the evening with that singular fan of Wuthering Heights. Mind you, a cheerio infers you are coming back.

Finally back at Quilon, there was an overdue repair to be made with socket and spanner. As it turned out, this would involve scalpel and swab. The bike came together predictably quick and all worked well, as Beemers were intended. Now, I really needed to be fixed up. I had had enough of hobbling, wincing, and volcanic scabs.

Across the dusty maidan from the guest house I had noticed a small hospital when driving out in Manu’s car. It was a good opportunity to check out my work and anything, any hospital, despite my fear of such places, fear of inflicted pain and death, was worth a try. The nurses were kind. The nurses were rather pretty. They also had puncture wallahs for fathers or brothers. They were brutal!

Without any local anaesthetic, they cut back the skin around all my wounds, all toes and both elbows. They then proceeded to gouge out the mess of weeks and douse all with peroxide, which feels warm and makes your blood bubble. The pain was worse than any extraction and even the crash itself. The coup de gras was the iodine. I may just as well have kicked a hornet’s nest or dunked my elbows in a chip fryer. Luckily my expletives were beyond their translational skills and excruciating pain just a tool of their trade.

They really were now more than rather pretty. They had been decisive, thorough, and efficient. I slithered down from that plateau of pain whilst they gently bound each toe and elbow, all with a smile of excitement at having handled such an unusual creature. It did pass through my tortured mind that under different circumstances I would have liked to have handled them too!

That evening of our imminent departure was propitious. The Krishna temple, whose morning and evening chanting I had enjoyed so much, was putting on a show of Kathakali dance. It is an enactment of Hindu and Keralan lore, the battle of good versus evil. Only men do this and are dressed up in wild costume with facial features exaggerated by painstakingly applied rice paste masks and lurid make-up. They can be either sex and the strutting and postulating is accompanied by a constant, rhythmic drumming. Stories are told by mime and with emphasis on bloodshot eyes. It was a village affair. We did not understand a single nuance but the locals new their folklore and laughed when appropriate, and all cheered when the bad guy was trounced. So did we.

Normally from our position on the coast, most travellers and tourists headed up to Munnar for the tea estates. We had seen the best at Sandringham in Sri Lanka and so our ploy was to head due east for Tamil Nadu and Meenakshi Temple. The architecture was on our ‘must see’ list, and the arid climate of the Deccan should finally help my healing. We had a simple map of Kerala and Tamil Nadu which showed the lesser roads, and these to date had always proved the most interesting. National highways bring modernity along their length and it was the hinterland that might give us a taste of real India.

It’s a sinuous and spectacular run to Madurai the former seat of Dravidian kings who knew unbounded wealth. Going east through this part of India takes in the best of southern geography. The coastal plain here is lush with coconut groves, shimmering paddy, and fields of tapioca. In Kerala tapioca is the preferred staple over rice, and no fiery fish curry would be complete without it. This low country is the bread basket of the state and apart from overly crowded district cities, it is home for most.

Because vehicles are few, and their ownership beyond means or dreams, there is a continuous ribbon of development all along the roadsides. It provides easy walkable access for shops, markets and buses. To have a roadside house is a sign of status even if what was a pleasant garden has mushroomed into a building site of hovels for extended family. It was quite usual to see a fine old bungalow with ornamental fretted fascia boards, and with intricately carved ventilators in the gables, shoe horned between tacky new structures with flat concrete roofs, the inspiration of some gulf returnee. They have caught on fast as they require minimal maintenance and concrete is so much cheaper than timber and tile.

Behind the premium property was a maze of footpaths and palm fronded, mud walled huts, the preserve of lower castes. This was clay soil, Hindu territory, landlords and farm labourers. The Catholics, mostly fishermen, on the sand, enjoyed their ribbon development along the entire coast of India. Their interaction was really an exchange of protein for carbohydrate.

Similar terrain in Sri Lanka had taught me that the road was not prioritized for our brisk use. It was considered a rather broad and good footpath. It was also a convenient space to dry copra, the shaved meat of coconuts, chillies, peppercorns, and the odd sheet of local rubber, brown ‘crepe’. As traffic was minimal why look to cross the road? Why not just let the buffalo chase after her calf? Why not, two up on a bicycle, just do a ‘Uey’ and dive across the road to a chai shop? Why not indeed, do an emergency stop in your bus and talk to your bus driver mate parked up in the remaining width of road?

It was decidedly hairy and required the peripheral vision of an owl and long sight of an eagle to avert the onset of scrapes or a crash. Surviving all this was an enjoyable discipline but the downside was that I could not take in all around me. Paula got the benefit of that and I should imagine a fair dose of awe.

By the time Tenmala was crossed of our list, we were climbing in the foothills and all changed. Plantations of red banana gave way to rubber which has that particular phototropic stance with their crowns facing west like blown out umbrellas. Scarred trunks trickled white latex into coconut shell receptacles, and all was fenced with cleft granite posts and rusty barbed wire. There was money in rubber and presumably distrust, unless the cows were six feet at the shoulder.

The road was much quieter and the linear villages we passed through had that hill country feel. It was getting cooler and drier. Away from the masses, these little settlements had that aura of detachment and sufficiency. They were a nuclei for all provisions needed by the estates which in turn were microcosms in their own right. Apart from a birth, death, or marriage, there was never a reason to leave them. Holidays did not figure in estate life.

Climbing and winding still further, it was a hill climbers paradise. Steep, tight hairpin bends would pail Cadwell Park into insignificance. Yes, there were potholes, but that made the ride more exacting. At least there were no man hole covers injudiciously placed right on an apex! It was marvellous fun and the engine in second pulled like a train. The growth was now tropical forest. Tall exotic monoliths fought for light which barely filtered through the canopy. In this dim world, pepper entwined the trunks of younger trees and cardamom carpeted the forest floor. The green of the tropics does not have the variance that we enjoy in our northern holt. It’s as dark as ‘racing green’ and monotone, a far cry from my favourite beech wood and bluebells. The sylvan melody of home was replaced by whoops, screeches and booms echoing through the high canopy as we thrummed higher and higher.

All the corners were blind, but the road builder of old, or surveyor, had set out this ghat section with precision and a foresight of bikers to come. All the bends were constantly radiused and became predictable. I was now getting faster and clipping the apex just right. The old bike was in its element and so was I. You can ground the rocker boxes on the flat twin! I was pretty much on automatic pilot when I nearly had a head on with the only bus I had seen for an hour. It would be worth noting their timetable! Luckily that ‘hand of caution’ had been with me all along.

Although this pass through the ghats only reaches a few thousand feet, the drop in temperature of just four or five degrees was pleasantly noticeable and by splaying my feet on the footrests I could get them into the breeze and away from those hot cylinders.

It was to be short lived. Heading down was hard work. The brakes were now fighting gravity and kinetic energy. Our all up weight was about four hundred kilos and the discs were scorching, fading the pads. We eased up which reduced all wind chill and faced the rising temperature. Way below we could see the haze of the Deccan plateau and parched land.

The rain, when it comes in the dry season, falls on the Kerala side, and even the south west monsoon gets blocked by these ghats. So Tamil Nadu only gets the benefit of the north east monsoon in October and the odd November cyclone.

Now on the flat somewhere before Sivagiri we stopped under the shade of a banyan tree and a well positioned chai shop. It must have been approaching thirty seven centigrade and despite this heat and dust, the dryness made it more acceptable. Our old surveyor had accounted for this and modernity as well.

This road, as we found most, was avenued with ancient banyan which have that wonderful feature of dropping long tendrils from their major limbs, wanting to be roots, arboreal rastafarians. For the most part the road was in shade. It had been made broad for cattle droving but now was a narrow tarmac single carriageway with dirt bullock rides to either side.

Across from us in an open field was a man charging down a ramp with a fine pair of Brahmin bulls. They’re the ones with a huge hump, normally white, and with long horns. They are placid and sacred, the beast of burden of rural middle India. These two had blue painted horns, a left over from the Pongola festival when they are even painted with pink spots! The ramp was man made, and was the spoil from a huge deep well.

Attached to the bulls’ traces was a long canvas ‘sock’ about eighteen inches diameter and say ten feet long. When the bulls backed up, the sock went down the well and filled. When they tumbled back down the ramp, up came the sock which disgorged its contents into an irrigation channel. All very Jack and Jill, Heath Robinson, indigenous and ingenious. I was well impressed and wasted quite a bit of film on that one.

The startling feature of this leg to Madurai was how agricultural and medieval it was. The pace of life was the speed of an ox cart. They are not inclined to gallop! I remember when reading Dickens, there was some mention of a coach ride from Yarmouth to London that took three days. That was a coach and four. How we have progressed, cramming so much distance and work in to a day! Here was a cart and one!

I got to thinking that the Brahmin bull is a quietly clued up bovine. He has set his pace at the dawn of agriculture. Man by need or greed just keeps raising his game. Judging by the fit and lithe labourers I saw in the fields, they were at their limit in this gruelling heat, all for a meagre percentage of the crop. This was not their land.

All this revelation from pigeon English with a friendly bystander over a cup of tea, and, well, just being observant. It was a living, happening history lesson in the present tense! India was as they say ‘Incredible!’.

The road was enjoyably quiet. We did make two impromptu stops, Tardis occasions when we witnessed huge brickyards using the ‘clamp’ process, catechisms of firewood and mud brick all ablaze, and the labour fuelled by too many waif children. They carried the bricks to be dried and stacked; blackened, they broke out the hot bricks from fired kilns. The work was endless. The second was a wheelwrights shop, all fellows and staves, and we actually witnessed the firing of a rim and its smoky union with a new cart wheel. Two craftsmen, local timber and a recycled lorry leaf spring! Their lives revolved around what could be made or repaired and sourced from no more than a day’s cart trip away. A narrow horizon. If anything failed on the bike, bar punctures, we would be at the behest of all that infrastructure that we so readily take for granted, or at worst stopped dead in a time warp.

Conversation on the bike was not really possible as Paula was wearing a full face Bell with the visor down. It was a toss up between heat or dust and my distraction or concentration. I could gesticulate and point out local life which she may not have noticed but otherwise I was alone with my musings. You can do a lot of thinking in six hours.

Motorcyclists and pilots too, are masters of multi tasking. Physically we use all our limbs, constantly. Hands feather clutch or throttle, stick or quadrant; feet proportion braking and change gears, input rudder in a climb. It becomes second nature. Additionally we have to be mindful. An ear on that engine, an odd vibration through the controls, a sense and sight of the medium on or through which we are travelling. Where are we going? Where is the sun? Why am I here?! There are no sign posts in the sky and the ones I was reading were unintelligible. Ordinarily we don’t get tired because we are busy, the scan is always there, and in a mildly heightened state, we can drift off into lateral thought without losing the plot. There is an ultimate sense, may be the hand of caution, which protects us and swings into action surprisingly fast if matters take a turn for the worse.

With the sun setting behind us in the ghats, India was cooling off for a well earned rest. In the twilight, bumbling towards Madurai, I could not help but think that our journey was two fold. It was a history book, and as we headed tortuously north for home, every page turned would bring us closer to our time. It was also turning out to be a very personal journey. Although not in reference to India, the words of Gibran echoed ,’he kneads you to make you pliant…’. Maybe ‘He’ was.

On the outskirts of the city we were met by the rush hour coming out. Any lane discipline was a non entity after five. We were swimming against a strong tide, and the ring road junction for Meenakshi defies simile but I’ll try!

Did you ever play with bar magnets and iron filings at school? One magnet was pretty neat, but if you put down three or four, as was the effect here, flux took on a new meaning! If physics was not your forte, maybe you have seen marauding blue fin tuna hit a shoal of sardine off the spawning grounds of Madegascar. Carnage seemed imminent, but amazingly, like the fish, nobody bumped into anybody. The absolute confirmation that there is order in chaos, came when I noticed, threading their way through all of this, two men pushing two bicycles. Between them, balanced on the handlebars, was an eight by four feet sheet of glass. For them, any hint of danger was apparently transparent!

We were heralded into the old city of Madurai by a fanfare of trumpets, trombones and a blocked way. There was no way we could continue as the road was completely packed out by colourful sareed women and men in formal national dress, white dhoti worn long and white shirt. We dived into an alley and parked up. The cacophony was not for us. It was a funeral cort├Ęge. There in the street was a funeral byre made from some charpoy and an elderly lady strewn with flowers, jasmine, marigold and roses. I could just make out her peaceful face. Suddenly there was a look of concern from immediate family and a short conflaberation took place. Faces were quizzical. A man, perhaps a son, dashed upstairs to the family quarters over the street. There was a palpable lull in the proceedings and the brass band took a breather. The man appeared again, and in hand were a pair of spectacles. He dusted off a few petals with great care and reverently placed them on the deceased. With a huge cheer and smiles of satisfaction from all, the byre was raised up, the band fired up, and off they all went in jubilant procession to her funeral pyre.

Death was clearly not a sombre affair. Hindus believe that regardless of station, we are borne with free will and that our earthly cycle of life is not singular. A rebirth for most is a forgone conclusion. The quality of a next life will depend on our Karma, the sum total of our deeds good and bad, thrown in the balance. Demerit will be met with rebirth in a lower state. It is not so much seen as punishment, but an opportunity to reacquire good soul skills. Merit, any merit, is the goal, and rebirth will surely be in the next ‘class’. Just as we progress through school, ease and contentment come with new knowledge and privilege. For the Hindu, there is a reasoned acceptance of the physical and material trappings of this life. For any poor labourer, the rickshaw wallah, or sweeper, any chance to escape this mortal coil for a better one is worth the ride. Thus a life well lived is celebrated on death.

A simple enough analogy for us bikers would be thus:

On our twelfth birthday, by which time we should be reasonably haptic, we are given a basket case of bits, a tattered handbook with the front few pages missing, and a tool box. Amidst all that apparent junk a circular aluminium cap has ‘Vincent’ cast in raised letters.

We can, at this unique gift, be indifferent and just not interested. We can go and take a smoke with our mates down by the swings on the playing field, and impress the girls. We could, reluctantly, compliant with parents, throw everything together with mishap and bloodied knuckles. We like the exploded diagrams but ignore the words. We have built a motorcycle but it won’t start. The cases and the frame are covered in greasy finger marks and, well, it looks a mess. Those little circlip things that had been tied to the pistons with string, are lying on the bench with a few rather thin washers. A lot of time spent but still a basket case. No added value. With luck you might be able to exchange it for a clean two fifty!

Alternatively, you might be excited at the challenge. You spotted those caps and remembered your grandfather extolling the virtues about some huge and very fast vee twin, something about the pinnacle of fifties motorcycling, an Aston Martin on two wheels. You might even enter the name ‘Vincent’ in Google or Yahoo. You had heard the name before, a vampire? an artist ? Don Mclean might not figure! You now know what you have got, and a little research tells you that its value in concours condition is huge. Luck is when opportunity meets preparedness! Accordingly you prepare, ask around a few mechanics for advice. Seek help. With clarity and care, mindfully, you assemble your steed from cleaned and polished parts. You read the bit about valve timing and ignition. Maybe you bought a dial gauge to get it just right.

This has all taken more time than anticipated. It has been an involved process. Working odd weekends and holidays you have saved and paid for some new parts, paint work, and a little chrome plating. By the time your sixteenth birthday comes around it is finished, resplendent, an old master of alloy, enamel and steel. With a muscular adolescent swing of that long kickstart the dormant beast springs to life with an unmistakable offbeat roar. It’s a time to celebrate….. the girls are waiting.

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