A series of fortunate events

Rarely in my life have I experienced fame, or the illusion of it. India, however, has provided a commendable simulation. Despite travelling ‘solo’, moments of solitude have become increasingly sparse.
The attention on and off the bike is flattering and harmless. It belies an inquisitiveness which has resulted in many evenings in the company of local families, experiences which have richly coloured my days and nights. Despite having cycled more than 1500 kilometers here, I have yet to use my tent. If the locals are willing to expend their time and resources in hosting me in the evenings, I should be equally willing to reciprocate with a few selfies.

The attention is not limited to those times when I am stationary and conventionally approachable. Many times each day I am flagged by a passing motorcyclist while cycling. People, predominantly young men, draw alongside me grinning and ask where I am headed with a simultaneous forward flick of the hand and chin. Following this brief intercourse two things usually happen. Either I will simply be followed until my pursuer loses interest, or they will zoom ahead, pull over and flag me down for a photo.

If I have paused in town onlookers gather en masse, in a pattern which had become recognizable to me. Upon stopping I am left alone for one or two minutes. Some may not have noticed me, others are engaged in preliminary observations from afar. A few onlookers approach. Age doesn't discriminate these characters of first contact but they are undoubtedly men and, outside of cities, unlikely to speak English. A broken conversation ensues, during which time the ice is cracked and the crowd enlarges, focussing on the bike as much as myself. An English speaker appears, either because they have noticed the expanding group or because someone has been sent to fetch them. It is often the appearance of the English speaker that sparks those chains of events which have provided me so many unusual and meaningful experiences.

In the town of Tirwaganj, Uttar Pradesh, it was this process which catalysed one of the most bizarre and unexpected chain of events of my trip to date.

The time was 4.30 in the afternoon and I was near the center of Tirwaganj. The afternoon sun saturated the dust and the belching pollution which hung lethargically at street level. The thick air glowed orange. One might notice the shadows growing longer as evening gathered, but no one was looking and you couldn’t see the ground anyway. On every inch of the street, life was happening at a terrific rate. While the road and pavements were architecturally differentiated, the former of cracked tarmac and the latter of loose, flour-like dust, the vehicles made no distinction and the result was akin to the set of Mad Max. Cars, mopeds, bicycles, rickshaws, tuktuks and pedestrians repeatedly careered into the floury banks in their furious battle for road supremacy, bellowing great clouds of choking powder into the air. Lining the road on either side were haphazardly built shanty huts. In the huts are cigarettes, chewing tobacco, matches, cooking appliances, food stalls selling samosas and pakora, junk car parts, junk gardening parts, general junk, buckets, homeware, tea stalls and many other items.

The noise is deafening. Above India's backing track of car horns, sellers bleat their well practised calls in a widely adopted reedy tone which fades at the beginning and the end without sharp definition but reaches a nasal pitch at its climax which elicits a wince if you stand too close.

That day I had met my target of one hundred kilometers and stopped at a tea kiosk for some sweet, spiced tea which is ubiquitous in India. The roof of my kiosk was a jigsaw of corrugated metal sheets in varying stages of disrepair. Uneven wooden boards on upturned tree stumps for people to sit lined one mesh-wire wall and also the rear, a red brick wall upon which the whole structure seemed to hang. Against the third wall was the gas burner where the man made tea.

I had chosen that spot because the kiosk was several feet deep and dark in the rear due to its corrugated helmet. My head was blitzed after a day on India's highways and, wanting a few quiet moments to calm myself, I hoped to recede into the murky interior unnoticed. Unfortunately the confined space meant that the bike stayed outside, sitting proudly in the  maw of the stall and announcing my presence to everyone nearby. People gathered in the manner previously described, this particular event actually catalyzing my articulation of this process.

Within ten minutes the kiosk was rammed from the dirt floor to the patchwork roof. As people at the rear leaned forward those at the front were gently squeezed through the bottleneck created by my legs and the opposite gas burner and began to gather behind me as well. My bicycle and the last of the evening light were eclipsed by a dense wall of people. The man who made the tea noticed my anxious glances towards receding bike and gave me a thumbs up to tell me that it was safe.

Rustlings and raised voices at the rear of the group suggested someone important had arrived. A man slowly emerged being squeezed like toothpaste from the tube. Each consecutive blockage compressed himself sideways into his compatriots to allow the newcomer passage before, with an elastic release of tension, he was dragged back into his previous position.

The man was tall with light brown skin and short black hair parted neatly at the side. A thin, attentively trimmed moustache spanned a passive, downturned mouth. He spoke quietly and with calm authority and the people were quiet when he spoke.

He introduced himself as Anshul, a businessman and a local representative for the widely popular Samajwadi party (SP). The SP is a left wing party who were in power in UP for five years but were recently voted out in place of the incumbent BJP.

We worked through the introductions and the preliminary questions about my journey. Anshul listened attentively and translated the primary points to a second man and the information filtered through the crowd bit-part like a game of Chinese whispers.

Anshul asked if I would like to do an interview for a local newspaper. Seeing no harm and thinking that any publicity can only be beneficial when you are fundraising, I agreed. Anshul is clearly well connected, as within twenty minutes he had gathered at last five reporters in the nearby office of his firearms business. Someone sent for refreshments and presently a teenage boy forced his way through the crowd to place tea and samosas on Ashul’s desk, which partitioned me from the reporters and the encroaching crowd behind them.

Just before we had posed for the newspaper photographs. Twenty meters from the tea kiosk was a bust of Mahatma Gandhi. It sat in the middle of the road on a stone plinth surrounded by black iron railings. Around it the traffic writhed torturously. I was led through a gate at the rear and up onto the plinth alongside Gandhi. The bust was a sorry sight. A garland of decaying lotus flowers hung around his neck, and his marble complexion was spoiled by a thick layer of settled dust and road grime. Anshul unceremoniously ripped the greying garland free and roughly scrubbed at Gandhi’s soiled countenance. New exuberantly coloured wreaths appeared. Each taking one end, we placed them over the independence leaders neck and looked into the cameras which were thrust through the iron bars below. The crowd meanwhile had swelled to well over two hundred people and were beginning to interrupt the traffic.

Anshul in the brown jacket on the right

The bust of Gandhi


After the interviews Anshul suggested that I spend the evening with him or alternatively in a local hotel if I preferred. I said I would greatly prefer the former option. He gave little away but smiled and led me down a small alley off the main road. His house was large and suggested a degree of wealth. The windows from three floors looked onto a rich grass lawn, an unusual luxury in India's arid north-west regions which see little rainfall.

Anshul suggested we visit Kannauj, a nearby  town colloquially known as the “perfume capital of India” which supplied perfume to India's Mughal emperors for three hundred years. Anshul's personal friend and SP comrade owns the largest perfume manufacturing empire in India and one of their seven factories is in Kannauj. Anshul had organized a private tour for us that evening.

The factory was of the few perfumeries which still used old fashioned methods to produce fragrance. A mixture of water and various fragrant substances was heated above clay ovens. The vapour was condensed and collected to be combined with other fragrances. The hundreds of clay ovens are fired by hand, twenty fours hours a day.

The condensed perfume runs down the pipes into the submerged containers 


A selection of perfume in a Samajwadi Party box, gifted to me by the owner of the distillery.

The following morning Anshul gave me a tour of Tirwaganj on his Royal Enfield, including inside the historical Palace of the King.




Before I left Anshul insisted that I contact the current leader of the Samajwadi Party and ex-chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mr Akhilesh Yadav. Mr Yadav, and the SP headquarters, are based in Lucknow, the state's capital. I would arrive there in a few days time and Anshul thought it was a well matched meeting. During his tenure as chief minister, Mr Akhilesh expended considerable time and energy into promoting bicycle use and making Lucknow a bike friendly city. Bike lanes were built alongside the two hundred kilometer Agra-Lucknow cycle highway. Furthermore, the SP symbol is a bicycle.

Unfortunately, widespread bicycle use is restricted in India by its perception as a poor person's transport. This explains in part why I, perceived as a rich westerner, attract so much attention and am often questioned about why I am not travelling by motorbike or car.

Mr Akhilesh is attempting to present cycling as a fun and healthy transport for all classes and castes, regardless of wealth. For example, he himself cycled the Agra-Lucknow expressway upon its completion. Paradoxically, his efforts are perhaps not aided by the adoption of the bicycle as the SP symbol. The SP represent minority demographics such as Muslims and also ‘other backward classes’, historically poorer, politically peripheral groups for whom the bicycle is an affordable transport, hence the icon. The reasoning behind the bicycles selection is maybe at odds with the image Mr Akhilesh puts forth, of the bicycle as an attractive transport for all, rich or poor.

I was able to get in touch with Mr Akhilesh through Anshul and organize a preliminary meeting with a senior SP member and Uttar Pradesh cabinet minister, Mr Abhishek Mishra.  

Mr Abhishek organized my meeting with Mr Akhilesh for the following day, although the specific time, place and conditions of the meet were unknown to me until the final moment. Mr Akhilesh is predictably a fantastically busy man, even more so with the springtime general elections approaching.  

Anshul and I returned to Mr Abhishek's the next morning, anticipating an 11.30am meeting with Mr Akhilesh. On our arrival we were informed that he had been out of contact that morning and we should stay tuned for further developments.

Throughout the proceedings of the previous days which had led to this meeting, I had wondered what Mr Akhilesh's motivation was for meeting me, and what form this meeting might take. I stood to gain some elusive facetime with one of the most powerful men embedded in the world's largest democracy. I have no investment in politics beyond a keen interest, but this was a rare opportunity to see beyond the newspaper pages.

But what was the motivation for Mr Akhilesh? I knew he had a personal interest in cycling, but was this the sole motivation for adding one more event to an already exhausting schedule? Given Mr Akhilesh's efforts to present cycling as both cheap and desirable to a younger, increasingly international generation, I had subtle suspicions that I might be bargaining for me than tea and biscuits.

Anshul and I killed  time in the car, waiting for the confirmatory call from Mt Abhishek. It occurred to me it might have been useful, if indeed Mr Akhilesh intended to publicize our meeting, for me to have had my bicycle with me. Bollocks. I had cycled more than 11000 kilometers without being parted from it and yesterday I had broken my first spoke and checked it into a bike shop.

My phone rang in my pocket. It was Mr Abhishek. The meeting was on.

On turning onto the approach to the SP headquarters you would be forgiven for thinking you were approaching a football stadium on game day instead of a complex of political offices. Everywhere SP darlings stared down from enormous green boardings. Banners hung proudly over street stalls selling SP supporters tat. Hats, mugs, flags, scarfs. The street seemed to writhe with hundreds of the bobbing res ‘khadi” caps which signify SP support.

We were left into a large rectangular room adjacent to Mr Akhilesh's office, connected at the far end by a dark wooden door. The aesthetic was minimalist. The walls were whitewashed and bare, save an SP bicycle adorning the wall shared by the the ex chief ministers office. We sat in a square on neat brown leather sofas around a glass coffee table, at the opposite end of the room from the connecting door. The flowers I had brought sat on a side table to my right and the chocolate on the coffee table to the fore.

There was a delay in Mr Akhilesh's appearance. The minutes ticked by as we made small talk. A man entered and exchanged some words in Hindi with Mr Abhishek. Mr Abhishek wasn't sure of the cause of the delay, but suggested that “boss” was waiting for the appearance of two bicycles. I became more assured in my suspicion of imminent exposure to journalists, photographers or both.

The unmistakable sounds of a meeting being concluded emanated from the next room. Booming voices, parting jests and the customary laughter, the slap of clasped hands.

The connecting door swung open and Mr Abhishek appeared. He was a foot shorter than me and covered the distance between us with an air of accustomed efficiency. His hair was short and neat, his nose curved downwards and his smile emphatically upwards in a casual grin. We had all stood at his appearance. I shook hands first and warmly, thanking him greatly for taking the time to meet me.

With the same practised efficiency that a man of his responsibilities must carry into most of his businesses, we talked through my journey, Parkinsons UK and his work in UP to promote cycling. Upon hearing about my fundraising and my motives, he conferred one or two sentences in hindi with Mr Abhishek and turning back, said firmly and concisely that the SP party would contribute to my cause.

Words of gratitude had barely escaped me when the situation rapidly changed once more. An aid entered carrying a fresh red khadi which Mr Akhilesh donned as he stood sharply.

“Now we will go outside and take some photos and speak to the press, there are quite a lot of them, we've gathered quite a lot! Mr Abhishek will introduce you and then you can tell them about your trip.”

My suspicions were realised and I silently gave thanks that I had mentally prepared to some degree.

Mr Akhilesh was already striding out of the room. I was ushered up alongside him as we left the building and quickly paced round towards its front courtyard. One photographer had stolen a march, or perhaps he had special priority. He scuttled around us like an excited puppy, pausing here, and there to take aim. Each time the camera rattled like a burst from machine gun.

Mr Akhilesh in the red khadi

I had only a few seconds. My brain skimmed over the vitals of my journey. I recalled I had been subtly debriefed during our meeting on the SP's cycle infrastructure work in Lucknow, and gathered they would probably like me to commend the party accordingly. I had also confirmed with mr Abhishek that I should mention the SP parties contribution to Parkinson's UK.

We rounded the final corner and were struck by an adrenaline inducing barrage of noise and light. Cameras flashed like a terrific firework show and the mingled cries of thirty  journalists and at least two hundred SP supporters behind was overwhelming for the unaccustomed ear.

We took our places in the fiting line of the television cameras. Mr Abhishek began speaking and to my dismay raced through most of the introductory points I would have mentioned myself. My heart drummed against my ribs at an uncomfortable rate. Thankfully over the previous weeks I had visited some schools and had developed a customary introductory routine. Over a few minutes I was able to outline the skeleton of my journey with adequate composure.
Mr Abhishek Mishra in the brown waistcoat far left


At my conclusion the kneeling journalists in front of us exploded into a second barrage of questions, articulated at a volume and pitch white would be quite unnerving in any other setting.

The first question: “ So what is your experience of the Agra-Lucknow expressway?”

Shitshitshitshitshit!

Only moments before I had specifically praised this initiative and despite having spent the last five days cycling between Agra and Lucknow, I hadn't ever actually seen the expressway. Bad start. I waffled a vague answer about having to take an alternate (southern) route between the cities to see a friend, despite having no idea at all whether a “southern” route even existed, or where the actual expressway would lie in relation to my hypothetical “southern” route. Oh well, I guess learning to avoid questions is lesson number one in a budding political career.  

A few more questions came and went, and then My Abhishek brought proceedings to a close. With a pang of guilt I realised my second mistake. I had forgotten to mention the SP contribution to Parkinson's UK. Unfortunately the moment had passed and as a crack of thunder pealed overhead the assembled crowd and press rapidly dispersed.

The meeting and the press conference had been mutually beneficial. I had been given a rare and grand stage on which to publicize my trip and raise awareness about Parkinson's UK. Mr Akhilesh had publicly connected with  a young, increasingly internationally minded generation and given people a timely reminder ahead of the upcoming elections of the work he had completed during his tenure as chief minister.

Our party moved into a nearby building and Mr Akhilesh was soon embroiled in other responsibilities. Before though we had a minute to exchange a few parting words. We stood in a sort of ‘green room' adjoining an amphitheatre full of expectant SP supporters who the ex chief minister would momentarily address. Motioning towards the door to the bustling amphitheater beside us, Mr Akhilesh said “if I didn't have to do this, I would join you!” It was said in jest but I sensed the smallest hint of frustration, and perhaps longing.

The meeting had been politically beneficial for him, but following those final parting words I also believe Mr Akhilesh held a sincere wish to help me. Mr Akhilesh is young, progressive and international, alongside being a bike rider himself. When he was appointed the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in 2012 he was the youngest in India's history. He has chosen his path and is committed. This encounter was his opportunity to support a young person endeavouring to do something that deep down, perhaps, he would enjoy doing himself.

Left to right: Me, Mr Akhilesh, Mr Anshul and Mr Abhishek

Comments

  1. It just gets better and better. Well done, making the most of every opportunity.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Kit,

    This is Anshul here (the guy you wrote about in above blog :D ).

    How are you doing these days? Are you still on some trip? Hope everything is great at your end.

    I keep remembering you and today I thought of dropping a comment on your blog just to let you know that I do remember you.

    Wish to hear from you!

    With best wishes,
    Anshul Gupta

    ReplyDelete

Post a comment