With the pandemic in 2019 came travel restrictions and work from home policies that transformed our lives. Besides, our daily help, an immigrant, had to go home, leaving us to fend for ourselves. With all this, I’d been deprived of the long, relaxing motorcycle rides that I loved. But in October, following the early death of a cousin, I wanted to visit her father and sister in Thrissur, some 350 kilometres from home. Here was a chance to ride down.
My last such ride had been in 2018, before the pandemic. I had since crossed the age of sixty, been through several eye operations and accumulated many age-related niggles, so I wasn’t sure I’d be able to make it. Here, I thought, was a chance to find out.
Also, I was fed up with the bike. Three years in our home by the seashore had turned it into a rust-bucket, and the Chennai-based manufacturers didn’t honour the guarantee. It was time for a change. I decided I’d take a long ride, and, if it was fun, I’d replace the bike with a comparable one. Otherwise I’d replace it with a little runabout for errands and shopping trips.
Early one morning in late October, I set out, full of fear and hope. Over the next four days, I covered a thousand kilometres, mostly in Kerala, through territory that had changed dramatically. I got back home tired and discouraged, because although I’d managed that long trip, the aches and pains and niggles had taken away most of the fun.
So, no more daylong rides to faraway places. No more thumping around magical misty hillsides on chill mornings, fingers frozen and heart aflame. There was a gap in my life that I didn’t know how to fill.
For the time being, though, there was work to be done, because the bike had to be sold. I had to sell it at the best possible price, and decide what to replace the damn thing with. Being bone lazy in matters of money, I decided to combine the two, and to decide first what to buy. After that it was a matter of leaving it to the guy who sold me the new vehicle to get the best price for the old one.
I tried lots of popular scooters, and they all seemed the same: small and light and cramped, with my knees hitting the apron if you braked hard. They all even sounded the same, like an angry sewing machine.
But they were simple: you sat on them and pointed them and twisted the throttle and off you went. You turned by shifting your bottom on the seat, and if you wanted to swerve to avoid a pothole or something you wiggled your bottom instead. When you wanted to stop, you just hit the brake: a single lever that operated both front and rear brakes. That was it. None of this business of gearshifts and clutches and using the brakes separately and so on.
There were, of course, disadvantages. If you opened the throttle wide the engine sounded like a sewing machine throwing a tantrum but the scooter didn’t seem to move any faster. On the few kilometres of highway between home and town you were surrounded by vehicles fifty times heavier and at least as fast as your own, which was terrifying at first.
And then I happened upon a scooter that didn’t seem too bad. Like the rest, it sounded like a sewing machine and didn’t understand how to hurry, but the seat was large and my knees didn’t keep hitting the apron, and so I bought it. But I didn’t stop complaining until my wife got fed up. “You haven’t done your scooter justice,” she said, “Take it for a long ride in the hills, and, if you happen to like it, stop whining about it!”
And so I set out for the Subramanya temple at Kukke, a little over a hundred kilometres away. I hadn’t been that way for over a decade, and had no idea how the roads had changed, but Google Maps found me a route that kept me off the highways two-thirds the distance.
I left home at half-past-seven, hoping to beat the traffic, and, on the empty roads, found the scooter frustratingly slow. Then came a stretch of highway where I was stuck behind convoys of slow-moving lorries, suffering noise and heat and dust and exhaust fumes. When I stopped for a coffee-break ninety minutes out, I seethed at my own stupidity at having set out on this trip.
And then, two-thirds of the way, some kilometres off the highway, everything changed. The road wound through forested hills, with not another vehicle in sight. Riding slowly though the forests, I became suddenly aware of the breeze in the trees and the birdsong and the sunlight glinting off water in a pond and an egret standing meditatively on a bank of a river as I crossed the bridge spanning it. I’d have noticed most of this on the bike, but, because the scooter forced me to slow down, I noticed more of it, and at greater depth.
Time slowed, and the frustration disappeared. This was the temple I was looking for, I thought, not the beautiful stone structure where devotees lined up to pray. I noticed a cloud of butterflies about a thicket on the riverbank, and stopped, knowing I needed go no further. Then it struck me that the real temple was this place in my heart, and not the riverbank on a pleasant morning, or even a misty hillside. As I watched, the egret flew off, and I, too, moved on, at peace with the world, and with the scooter.