Dogster: Not Quite In Gujarat

Old Jun 23rd, 2009, 09:54 AM
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Dogster: Not Quite In Gujarat

I’m not quite in Gujarat.

I should be - but a number of Singhs led me astray.

Gujarat is that state way over on the top far-left of India, right next to Pakistan. I ought to be in Eastern Gujarat in search of tribal festivals but somehow I’ve landed off target. I paid a total stranger, the enigmatic and charming Mr. Harendrapal Singh, to make my bookings entirely because I liked the look of his picture on the internet; what could possibly go wrong? Neither of us had the faintest idea what would happen, quite when or even where - but whatever occurred, Mr. Dogster would be in Harendrapal Singh’s car, staying in his cousin’s tented camp somewhere I’d never heard of. As it turned out, it wasn’t quite where I thought it was.

Young, keen and full of beans, Mukesh tumbled into my life. He was a product of a tiny tribal village near Poshina in the far north of the state, barely educated, a creature of the hills. His English was a work in progress - as was his geography. He’d never seen a map – nor, I suspect, could he read the road signs - but Mukesh was a very good driver. He had just never been here before.

I didn’t know where I was going. Neither did he - but we had a list of towns scrawled on a shabby piece of paper and eventually found a highway that corresponded with the first name on the list. When we got to that place, we drove around and asked directions until we found the highway that went to the next city on his list – and so on. We were lost a great many times before we were found. Somehow, I remained calm.

It wasn’t his fault; he didn’t know about the greater world – Mukesh barely knew about Poshina. He thought the earth was only as big as Gujarat, that once you got to the border you fell into outer space.
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Old Jun 23rd, 2009, 09:56 AM
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Well, here we were - outer space. Suddenly, deliciously, we’re in the country; oxen plodding, families harvesting, colorful saris bent double working their guts out in the fields, sweet children lying filthy in the dust, a dog, a chicken; so photogenic, so-o-o ethnic, so-o-o-o Indian. Dramatically, the minute we left Gujarat the bitumen ran out.

‘Madhya Pradesh,’ said Mukesh solemnly. ‘Very bad - no roads. Pffftt!’


My driver was strangely alert.

‘What are you looking for, Mukesh? What’s here?’

‘Tigah-h-h-h!’ he said, grinning. ‘Gr-r-r-r-rrrr’.

I think he was really looking for the edge of the world.

Just before we got there we found Bakhatgadh; a tiny village about a hundred yards long, a dot on a map just across the border that boasts a marketplace, a wispy line of shops and a two story palace owned by faded royalty. Obviously the Rana was strapped for cash. Perhaps that’s why he’d leased the barren field next door to this opportunistic tented camp. I had the distinct feeling we weren’t welcome in town.

We drove slowly through a row of dead eyes in turbans, indifference and utter contempt all rolled up in a single inscrutable stare. The locals sat there; blank, impassive – sat and looked and looked and sat; a tribal tigah-h-h waiting patiently to strike. Somebody groveled, saluting in a very extravagant fashion at the gate to the palace and then waved us enthusiastically into the paddock next door. Hessian screens had been erected to keep the luxury from prying tribal eyes.

A row of safari tents blossomed in the dirt. Each had a strip of curling red carpet outside with a folding chair, a painted table and a bucket of dead flowers. The avenue of canvas led up to the hospitality tent, a place I never dared look inside, then the kitchen area, shielded from casual gaze by more hessian. A little way off was a larger tent without walls, crammed with tables and chairs; the dining room. Behind that the field sloped up to a rise overlooking the adjacent valley - on top of that rise, about two hundred yards apart, three enormous trees. A Hindu temple to Ganesh stood alone in the centre - domed, white and oddly empty.
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Old Jun 23rd, 2009, 09:57 AM
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Staff hurtled out into the sunlight in various stages of undress. Half a dozen grubby boys popped up from the shade; it was obvious all of them had been woken from deepest coma by my arrival. One wild young lad emerged draped in regional costume, wiping the sleep from his eyes. His trousers were slipping down, his white shirt crumpled and crooked, buttons undone, his collar sprawled open. The red sash around his waist unraveled as I watched. He had a huge orange turban plonked askew on his head and a tray in his hand. This was Raju.

Madame swished out of a tent, an efficient woman in her late twenties, followed by her fiancé Sir, a big man, big smile and big handshake, smelling faintly of Kingfisher beer.

‘Welcome,’ she said in a professional manner, scanning my body as she did so for tell-tale brand names. Her eyes lit on my Tommy Hilfiger shirt and then the laptop.

‘Business trip?’

She almost liked me for a moment.

‘No,’ I said vaguely, ‘I’m just a stupid tourist.’

It’s difficult to tell you much about Madame. I was too busy coping; I never really had a chance to look at her, she was all too hectic for me, too brittle, a strangely over-wrought woman with a prickly persona. I thought her fiancé was a brave man.

An elderly couple poked their heads through the tent-flap. Dad was a kindly patriarch with a heart of steel hovering in his mid-seventies, hearty and friendly, a veteran of the hospitality industry. He waved. Mum was a sweet old lady in a purple sari, her white hair neatly combed back, looking rather like Indira Gandhi. She looked at me sternly then disappeared again.

They were all called Singh. Everybody is called Singh in this story. Bear with me. My Mr. Singh had a lot of relatives.

Madame sniffed.

‘Bhagoria today is in Mathwad. You should go - now.’

‘Now?’ I just got here. She nodded. ‘O.K., chelo.’

I’d picked up ‘chelo’ on my travels. I like it. ‘Let’s go!’

‘Raju! Make Mr. Dogster a sandwich!’

Raju disappeared into a tent. He emerged with his turban askew, proudly holding a plate with two slices of processed white bread. His turban toppled into chaos around his eyes, as if an orange octopus had fallen asleep on his head. Both hands flew up to fix it. Of course, he dropped the plate and the bread in the dirt. His octopus secured he knelt down, absently picked up the bread, dusted each slice against his grubby trousers, put them back on the plate and disappeared into the kitchen.

There goes lunch, I thought.
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Old Jun 23rd, 2009, 10:05 AM
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Episode #2 tomorrow.

No warnings for explicit content required. But it will get tremendously scary later on. Oo-o-o-o-o. Will Dog survive?
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Old Jun 23rd, 2009, 11:05 AM
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Nice start, dogster. I look froward to this adventure.
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Old Jun 23rd, 2009, 11:18 AM
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How many lifes does a Dogster have?
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Old Jun 23rd, 2009, 11:31 AM
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I am bracing myself for what is to come. The dog never disappoints.
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Old Jun 23rd, 2009, 11:34 AM
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Oh good, more dogster. Of course, I'm still really keen to hear about the cruise, but almost-Gujerat should do nicely in the mean time.

I was going to write a memo-to-self about not trusting people selling travel that you only "met" on the internet, but I think I might wind up doing that on my next trip... But I do have lots of good intentions about taking maps.
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Old Jun 23rd, 2009, 12:50 PM
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Tent City was set in a barren field next door to a historic house, home of Rana Singh, last scion of the Bakhatgadh Singh family. The palace is crumbling, just like the Rana and his dreams, gently subsiding back into the earth from whence it came. The Rana was my personal guide for the day, eccentric, entertaining company, if a little overwhelming, a sprightly gentleman in his late sixties. A kind person would say he was a dreamer – others might say naive, even foolish; he certainly talked a lot, very fast and the more he talked, the stranger he became.

Hale and hearty, full of stories rattled off in impeccable English; my latest instant friend was an oddly tactile man, rather more tactile than I cared for. He loved to hold my hand and hug me, pat my thigh heartily and lean his head much too close to mine.

Harendrapal Singh shrieked with laughter when I told him.

‘I think I know what he was after...’ He wiped his eyes. ‘He’s the craftiest old fox...’

The Rana insisted on a guided tour of the front porch of the palace. Palace was a rather optimistic description for the disintegrating mansion I encountered. The porch was dominated by the front half of a stuffed tiger mounted high on the wall. Not only had it been shot and sliced, the poor old tiger had been wrapped like a piece of modern art, a Christo installation, tied in clear plastic, knots and string.

This was, he told me enthusiastically, a heritage hotel. Alas, as his heritage hotel had no bedrooms, staff, running water or toilets it had no guests, either. He just needed a small investment.

One hand grasped my knee in a grip of surgical steel. He leant over. Just a li-i-i-i-ittle investment. I swear I felt his tongue slither in my ear - but I can’t be 100% certain. I don’t think he was asking for sex. I think he just thought that if he stuck his tongue in my ear I’d give him money. It’s worked in the past.

I told him gently and very firmly I wasn’t interested in investing in his heritage hotel. Not now, not ever and please, don’t do that tongue thing again. He stopped pawing me and stood up abruptly, rather confused, exactly like a jilted lover. This scenario wasn’t going to plan but he was an optimist. It didn’t take him long to recover.

‘I told you,’ Harendrapal cackled later, ‘just after your money. What a rogue.’ He laughed and laughed about this. I didn’t quite get the joke.

‘What shall we do?’ Rana Singh shouted, clasping my shoulders.

‘Take me to your favorite places,’ I said, ‘and stop hugging me.’

‘Ah-h-h,’ he smiled, completely unruffled, ‘I know just the thing!’
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Old Jun 23rd, 2009, 12:51 PM
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An hour later we were high in the Vindhyachal Mountains, deep in Adivasi country, crunching our way two and a half thousand feet up the side of a very steep hill. My latest Mr. Singh was determined to show me something on the top of it.

‘All this was teak forests,’ he said wistfully, ‘all this was my land...’

His palace was built by in the glory days by Rana Baght Singh Ji, ruler of Bakhatgadh State, a tiny kingdom in rural west Madhya Pradesh. Now the palace was all that was left. The forests had long been chopped down, the soil eroded; the hills were disintegrating, literally blowing away. The Rana’s land had been summarily acquired by a forestry regeneration program decades ago. Of course, they hadn’t planted a single tree. He was still fighting in the courts for compensation. Like the tiger in his palace, he’d been shot, stuffed and tied up with knots and string for years.

Mukesh was silent, negotiating the increasingly treacherous landscape. The vegetation had fallen away; just rocks and no people, a rough road bumping up, up, up to the peak. This is the edge of the world, Mukesh thought, just up here.

‘Go, go...’ waved the old man airily.

He was a wiry, busy chap with fine grey hair and elegant features. Rana Singh looked far more intelligent than he really was.

‘Yes, sir,’ muttered Mukesh.

He’s driving up, up, the road getting worse. Up. Up. This isn’t a four wheel drive.

We pass an abandoned green Vespa by the side of the road.

‘Ah-hah!’ yelped the ebullient Mr. Singh, ‘that’s my son!’

Mr. Singh’s son, yet another Mr. Singh, was home for Holi. He was evidently a religious youth and spent his days bumping around the area on his motor-scooter from pilgrimage site to site. By a quirk of fate he was ahead of us, trudging up the hill to the unknown thing on the top.

Mukesh went very quiet.

We were very high up now with just one more hurdle to overcome. A newly cut road led to the tip of the mountain. It was very steep indeed. On one side was a precipitous slope than ran uninterrupted to the valley a very long way below. I remember thinking that if you went over, you would roll and bounce forever, tumbling to Jesus, till the final crunch and tinkle of grace.

‘Go, go!’ Mr. Singh hissed, ‘get some speed up!’

Mukesh hesitates. He knows the car won’t make it.

‘Go, go!’

He’s between a rock and his Rana. We gunned up the road.

About two thirds of the way to the top things went horribly wrong. Suddenly we weren’t going anywhere, surrounded by a growing cloud of dust. The wheels began to spin in the dirt, the brakes seemed to lock, useless against the soft, dry surface of the road. Mukesh revved the motor, changed gear, the noise of the engines increased. All I could hear was the scream of the rubber in loose dirt, the thump as rocks hit the chassis. We were going nowhere with the force of gravity working hard against us. The wheels whipped up more dust but steadfastly refused to move, spinning furiously, achieving nothing. We hovered there for a while churning up earth – then slowly, slowly, the car started to slide.

We were slipping backwards and slewing sideways. On my side was that unbroken slope to the valley floor, on the other a two-foot ditch where the road had been chopped into the hillside. None of us had any control. The car was going to go where the car was going to go; only swirling dust and destiny stood between us and the edge. Dogster was too stupid to be scared. He left that till later.

Slowly my view was shifting. The last slope of the road up ahead slid away from my gaze. I found myself staring directly into the valley. Mukesh hit the gears. Reverse. In slow motion the car bucked, shuddered and skewed diagonally across the road. Boof! We hit the hill then toppled gently backwards into the ditch - which, I guess, was the better of the two options.

We could not go up and we could not go down. One wheel hung in outer space.

It was noon.
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Old Jun 23rd, 2009, 01:03 PM
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Episode #3 soon.

Everything gets much worse.
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Old Jun 23rd, 2009, 01:09 PM
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Noon --- time for a stiff drink!

What is it about Gujarat???
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Old Jun 23rd, 2009, 02:07 PM
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Gujarat, car, places unkonwn, "everything gets much worse," ~ I am short-circuiting ~ zap, pfft, sizzle . . .
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Old Jun 23rd, 2009, 02:28 PM
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I'm not going to encounter this in Phulbari, am I?
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Old Jun 23rd, 2009, 02:28 PM
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I await the next installment with great anticipation.
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Old Jun 23rd, 2009, 02:56 PM
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I am overwhelmed and confused and a tad uncomfortable. Much like I expect you were at the time. Good job.
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Old Jun 24th, 2009, 02:57 AM
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We were stranded barely five hundred yards away from our destination, trembling at the tip. Strangely, I felt a lot safer when I was out of the car. Mr. Dogster graciously abandoned the others to sort it out - life is short, this is India. Things could go on for years - best I walk away.

I couldn’t see quite why we’d come here in the first place. The tiny shrine at the peak was completely undistinguished, scarcely worth a detour two and a half thousand feet up a cliff. Why had Rana insisted I come? Was this Hindi hovel the reason? Maybe it was of some great importance on the parikrama circuit, I didn’t know. Outside were a dozen or so pottery horses, inside a rounded lump of stone painted red, the usual oil stains and a pile of coconut shells; nothing very special to me. Two small Adivasi boys appeared from nowhere. They sat and looked at me, solemn, unblinking. I looked solemnly back.

Mr. Singh arrived, puffing.

‘Look!’ he waved his arm, ‘look! Narm’da!’

And there she was - a broad ribbon of brown far down below. I was astonished. Stupidly I’d been looking in instead of out. A great expanse of India spread out below. There was the same holy Narmada I’d spent a week beside in Maheshwar, just six months earlier and not that far away. I had no idea we were this far south, hundreds of kilometers away from where I thought I should be - not quite in Gujarat, indeed.

We discussed the Narmada, art and life before he finally cut to the chase. This was all just foreplay. Rana Singh was getting tactile again.

‘I would like to build a hill-station here,’ he said, leaning over and clasping my knee, ‘a wonderful tourist resort. Look at this view. We just need a little investment...’

I had a flash of irritation - so this was why the old bugger had dragged me up to death on the summit.

‘Investment would bring benefits far exceeding...’

‘Stop patting me,’ I said removing his hand. ‘No. Stop. Erk.’

He produced a prospectus from his inside pocket. I pushed it away. I could feel a tongue in the air.

‘Rana, you need to stop right now.’ I stared him straight in the eye. ‘Look at me. Stop.’

He seemed completely crest-fallen. I couldn’t bring myself to be cruel.

‘I think we should invest our time, my friend, in getting ourselves out of here.’

‘Ah-h-h, yes, there are a few small problems there...’

He laughed just a little too loudly. I could see the fillings in his teeth - even they had eroded.

‘Don’t worry, everything will be absolutely fine.’

I knew he was lying, I could see it in his eyes.

‘What’s up with the car?’

‘Well, we can’t use the car,’ he said, ‘everything is too dangerous. Slippery, slidey...’

He waved his hands and pulled a face.

‘Did you call to get someone to pick up us up?

There was an unexpected pause. He cleared his throat, ever so slightly, braced himself and replied.

‘Well, of course, you know there’s no mobile signal up here.’
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Old Jun 24th, 2009, 02:58 AM
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Rana Singh hadn’t told anybody where we were going; he didn’t want anybody to know he had kidnapped the rich guy to sell him dreams.

‘It’s not even his land!’ chuckled Harendrapal, ‘he’s famous for stunts like this that go wrong.’

Now we’re famously stuck two thousand five hundred feet in the air on top of a Vindhyachal mountain with a dead car, a dead phone and a problem. The situation had dramatically worsened – or become more ridiculous, depending on my current state of mind. It veered from one to the other. I could see a cluster of houses way, way, wa-a-a-aay below.

‘Is there a village taxi?’

‘Nobody has any cars. These are tribal people. There are no cars.’

‘A tractor?’

‘There’s a tractor in Kavant.’

Kavant is a two hour drive away.

‘Maybe some men could come up and carry the car down.’

‘Today is bhagoria. Everybody is drunk.’

‘Can we walk?’

‘That would be very dangerous...’

I knew it was stupid when I said it. We were twenty kilometers from anywhere. I was running out of alternatives. Minute by minute the situation got worse. It felt like the still centre of an unfolding storm.

Now, if anyone could solve the problem in the district, it should be the local Rana. Unfortunately, since the local Rana had created the problem, he was in no rush to ask for anybody’s help – most definitely not from the only guys around who could provide it; Madame Singh and her family back at the camp. Why? Because then they would know there had been a problem. Everything was pride; everything was loss of face for this old Rana - we all sat there respectfully while he wrestled with the obvious, searching for a way out of the labyrinth he’d created for himself.

I had the feeling this was how Rana Singh spent a lot of his life - like the car, he’d become trapped on the dirt road. He couldn’t go forward and he couldn’t go back. He was hopelessly, blithely ineffectual in a crisis, a crumbling ruin about to collapse. All he had were dreams. They just need a little investment...
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Old Jun 24th, 2009, 03:00 AM
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We walked back down the road to find Mukesh and Rana Singh’s son cramming rocks under the wheels to stop the car rolling backwards. By now the crowd watching had grown to five little boys and an old man. The Rana joined then. I just waved and kept going – I needed some relief from the old guy. I’d spied a big tree and a sadhu’s hut at the bottom of the hill. I was going to sit under that tree and wait till something happened. This was all going to take a really long time.

Sitting under my tree, all alone on this barren mountain, watching the crowd scene on the road above, I realized that there was absolutely nothing I could do to help, other than stay sanguine. I sat and smoked and looked at the view, the swoop of the valley on one side, the holy Narmada flowing strong on the other, trying to forgive my Rana Singh for bringing me here in the first place. A trio of temple bells hung in the tree over my head. There was a little shrine just behind me; more red-painted rocks and coconut shells. One by one people appeared – a pilgrim, the sadhu, an old lady who plopped down onto the dirt. They sat and looked at me. I sat and looked at them.

This single old tree was the last remnant of the teak forest. It only survived the sawmill because of the tiny temple in its roots, left to stand sentinel over a spirit. My tree stood there at the edge of the slope, refusing to die or topple. The soil was being blown out from under it. Soon the last teak tree would fall.

I realized there was nothing to forgive. He was just hanging on while the world crumbled around him. I should be thanking him. I wasn’t quite at the gratitude part yet, maybe later, but compassion I could do right now.

Everybody quit the car, walked down the road and regrouped under my tree. Rana Singh looked rather crest-fallen. He was suffering extreme loss of face. He’d shut down.

‘My son is here!’ he chuckled mirthlessly, ‘everything will be all right!’

I saw the desperate twinkle in those old foolish eyes.

His son was strangely full of beans. He was animated; always respectful and kind to his father but I sensed that the more the old man lost it, the more young Singh was secretly delighted, as if he were eagerly waiting the final collapse. I felt very relieved I had this bright young man on my side.

‘Hopeless,’ young Singh said with a broad smile, ‘everything is completely hopeless,’ then he laughed.

My job here was to not add to their problem. I had three men with three mobile phones that didn’t work trying to get me out. They all looked a lot more worried than I was – but then, they knew a lot more than I did. So we all sat there together. Lunch was shared thinly among four, water sipped sparingly as we gazed into space. Conversation died out a little – they were all thinking too hard in Hindi to talk in English.

Like the hills around us, Rana Singh had eroded. All that is exposed now is bare rock, cracking in the heat. Remember, he is not quite a mortal man; he carries the dynasty inside him. Despite his poverty, his relentless prattle, his febrile business schemes, the Rana must be respected. The last tree in the forest is still standing. Nothing new has grown here, nothing for years.

I looked over at him, a crumpled King Lear staring into the valley, frozen by confusion. A sudden gust of wind sent the dirt flying into the valley. This was all my land, he was thinking, all mine. He waved absently then resumed his planning. It was as if he had been blown away, too. Young Singh knows his father. He knows this frozen moment will last forever

It was two p.m. In a last-ditch Rana move, little boy emissaries had been sent out to the closest village. They come back, puffing, offering nothing, snatch their baksheesh and run. Now it’s three p.m. By six it will be pitch black. The clock is ticking.

‘Chelo!’

Young Singh has grasping the initiative. I’m witnessing generational change, right here under the boughs of the last teak tree on the hill.

He stood up, beckoned to me then walked away without a word.

I did as I was told and followed. I didn’t quite understand and young Singh is too busy being masterful to tell me. I guess we are walking out of here. He turned round and waved to Mukesh. I felt a little guilty leaving him alone with Rana so I waved too, to make myself feel better. The kid was very quiet. That business on the road really scared him.

My latest Singh and I strode off down the road in silence, our feet crunching loudly in the dirt. There was nothing; not another tree, a bush, not a flower - just rocks, just road, just a young man and a Dog. After five minutes we rounded a bend.

Young Singh turned and smiled broadly.

‘Get on,’ he said.

Of course!

The battered green Vespa.
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Old Jun 24th, 2009, 03:08 AM
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Now, I’ve never driven on an ancient motor-scooter down a steep dirt road on the side of a mountain before and I never will again – but I didn’t want him to know that. I straddled the Vespa, encircled his waist in a grip of death, closed my eyes and tried not to scream with terror.

Bump, swerve, slide, slither, bump, out of control, out of control, things are out of contro-0-0-0-0l...

You know those little high pitched sounds you make when you’re really scared? Those little ‘oh-h-h-h-h’ squeaking sounds? There were a lot of them from Mr. Dogster. My eyes stayed shut and I gasped a lot.

Down, down, gasp, swerve, slither, bump, ‘argh-h-h! God!’ just shut your eyes, bump, slither; breathe, breathe, remember to breathe, if you don’t breathe you’ll die...

Of course I didn’t die. All that squeaking was in vain. Young Singh was an expert at downhill Vespa sliding, as hearty young men in Gujarat always are. My hero was a university fellow, clean-living, quick-thinking, a dependable Eagle Scout who, if he wasn’t such a nerd, would be a captain in the Army. I felt as safe as I possibly could while slithering over a dirt road down a mountain on a motor-scooter - which, come to think of it, wasn’t really very safe at all.

Luckily, my ordeal was punctuated by several stops as he searched for a mobile signal. The tension ratcheted up as the minutes ticked away. Three-thirty. Four. Young Mr. Singh was getting agitated. Everything rested on him and his heroic dash across enemy territory, the quivering shell of old man Dogster surgically attached to his Vespa. Save the foreigner first! This wasn’t just heroic – this was saintly. His mobile still wouldn’t work. The late-afternoon sun hovered. His father and Mukesh were trapped. He couldn’t organize any help, anywhere he stopped.

Of course, it was in nobody’s interests to help him.
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