Thursday, 15 March 2012

The Miracle of Jahanabad-Panditkapura Kunda-Pratapgarh

Airlie Beach 002

I hopped a train back from Kanpur to Delhi in the end, which was only disappointing to me because I'd put in so much effort to keep my bike running. It was my body which let me down, or rather my carelessness with the local water, but as I leaned out of the carriage full of Indian Communists on their way to Delhi for the People's March to Parliament (we discussed the UK riots, and I tried to sing the Red Flag as they didn't know it), I watched the flat plains of the Ganga roll by, and reminded myself that I was only missing the flat, easy, dull riding back to Delhi.

So don't think that catching a train was the easy option. Carrying a bike on a train in the UK, where the network has been fragmented amongst umpteen different operators, each of whom has a different policy, is a simple matter by comparison with India's ludicrous administration. I was at Kanpur Central for eight hours before I and my bike boarded a train, most of which time was taken up with cajoling, negotiation, explanation, firmness and eventually narkiness to ensure that I travelled on the same train as my bicycle. Even so, I came within five minutes of boarding the wrong train. And when we did arrive into Delhi at 1.30 am as a huge storm was threatening, and forked lightning split the sky, instead of scarpering before it hit, I was led off to an administration compound where I had to provide several proofs of the ownership of my bike before I could take possession of it back from the custody of the Indian Railway Authority. I hung around under the corrugated iron shelter as the rain hammered down and the thunder raged, watching street dogs mock-fighting until the storm subsided.

It had started so well. I'd hoped to ride the 800 km from Varanasi to Delhi in four or five days, to be back in time to arrange visas for the next stage of my journey, and to meet my sister who's flying from the UK to meet me in Delhi. I had an early start, winding my way out of the shit-strewn alleys by the Ganga and stepping aside respectfully for a funeral procession going to the burning ghats (though nobody else did).

I'd ridden over 100 miles into a persistent headwind when I was on the Allahabad bypass, a deserted stretch of highway circling the congested city. There were few facilities or villages, and I was having to take water from public pumps and treat it with chlorine tablets before I could drink it. I was about to cross the Ganga and get to the more populous section of the highway before nightfall.

Then my crank fell off.

I couldn't find the bolt in the roadside debris, but it would have been pointless anyway, as I'd neglected to pick up my 8mm allen key in Dubai. I pedalled on, one-legged and cursing.

I tried to beg water or an 8 mm allen key from passers-by. All knowledge of Hindi deserted me, and I became intensely frustrated that I'd stop someone to ask for water, they'd stop, become curious, and I'd explain the problem, but they could never help with water, or tools. Meanwhile, the sun was setting, I had nowhere to stay, no water to drink or to camp with, and one-legged cycling wasn't getting me anywhere fast.

I knocked at a house, which was full of women. They panicked at my arrival - various expressions of outrage, confusion, amusement and fear flickered across their faces. I made my apologies and returned to the road.

At the next village, I called up to a woman on a rooftop to ask for water, or if there was a pump in the village. "Wait there," she said. I waited obediently. She returned with nothing. Nothing.

Becoming increasingly frantic, I asked the next group for water, or a pump, but I couldn't make myself understood. They gathered around my bike, looking at the gears and other bits, and I lost my temper. Instead of people who'd try to help with my urgent problems, I'd found a pack of loafers who just wanted a nose at something new. I walked away, ranting about water.

Nearly in tears, I asked at the last house in the village, where a grandson and grandfather were sitting outside taking the evening air. This time, and at last, they understood me. The loafers had followed me, and paid close attention as I explained the problem, and clutched my water to me.

The grandad, who had mesmerising bushy black hair sticking out of his ears, sent me down to the other end of the village with my bicycle. Naturally the whole village came out to see. There was a guy with a bagful of ancient bicycle parts, and we tried to find a suitable bolt.

I left them to it. I sat on the step and played with the village kids for a while. I tried to stop them putting in a bolt which nearly fitted, but the thread wasn't fine enough and it was going to ruin the threads inside the bottom bracket, if it fitted at all. They assured me that they could fix it, and since I was fucked either way, I let them get on with it. Use of a hammer was involved, which was more ultra-violence than I'd have been prepared to use on my bike.

bike fettling in Jahanabad

The whole village was there, and the scene was lit by the full moon. An angry man had taken charge of affairs, and when he declared that it was fixed, everybody cheered. I let him have a go on it around the village, and tried to give the guy with the bagful of bits some money for his trouble. He smiled and refused. "This is India," he said, "we won't take anything."

cheering in Jahanabad

Even better, the head honcho was offering me back for tea, and a bed. As we went back through the village, the angry man demanded a labour charge, so I slipped him 10 rupees with a smile and a handshake. This is India, alright.

That night, under the shelter of the huge Tripathi family, was wonderful. They did ask me a few questions which put me on edge a bit such as "are you alone?" and "do you carry Indian or foreign currency?", but that's pretty common in India. They did seem very insistent on telling me how safe I was in the bleak, lightless shed which was to be my abode, but somebody explained that they'd recently been burgled by robbers from the riverbank, so their concerns were understandable. I was never worried: the atmosphere was warm and convivial, I was fed, and entertained, and... well, the feeding was fabulous. A bowl of dhal, a bowl of paneer, a bowl of something else which didn't last long enough to be identified, half a dozen chapatis, a plate of rice and another bowl of paneer. They were an enormous family, and I believe I met them all, apart from the women.

They even mocked me gently for my ranty behaviour when I'd arrived at the village. One youth who spoke excellent English told me "you will meet many challenges on your journey, and you must bear an open heart". I smiled and said "you have no idea." Turns out, he always spoke like the Little Book of Indian Koans.

The name of the village was one thing I tried to establish: someone said Jahanabad, someone else said Kunda-Pratapgarh. And someone else said Jahanabad-Panditkapura Kunda-Pratapgarh. I never quite got to the bottom of it, but I think there are two villages side by side. I asked if it was like the Sharks and the Jets, but no one got the reference.

I was tired, though, and they left me to my sleep, which was as the sleep of the dead.

In the morning, I felt quite despondent as I expected the crank to last 5 or 6 miles before falling off again. I wandered through the village and took more photos and played with the family cows before they told me I should get going and continue my journey.

me and the Tripathi family cow
some of the Tripathi family

Fatehpur was 50 miles away, I hoped to get there and get a train back to Delhi. But, miracle of miracles, the fix held. The angry man must have Igored the thing on with all of his strength. It even lasted the 100 miles to Kanpur, and I was fantasising about being able to ride all the way back to Delhi. As the crank has since come loose again while riding around Delhi, I was probably right to get to the train, but it was the water which I so carelessly drank in Jahanabad-Panditkapura Kunda-Pratapgarh which did for me. I couldn't keep anything down (or up) for the two days I was in Kanpur.

I've said before that things going wrong can be the best thing to happen. I'd have never met the Tripathis or been to their village if my crank hadn't fallen off. Even now, when I still can't find a suitable repair in Delhi, I'm not sure that it wasn't the best thing to happen in India.

The story has quite a punchline, as well. I'd asked what they all did for a living. "Agriculture," they said. Crops? "Yes, crops."

In the morning, one of them asked if I smoked ganga. Not quite sure where this was going, I said no.

"We are ganga farmers," he said proudly.

And rightly enough, out the back, there were fields of the stuff.


  1. Bloody hell, you are an object lesson in finding the positive in everything.

  2. Bloody hell. I offered to leave you an 8 mm Allen Key when I was there! I've been carrying one around with me for about 2 years, since my own crank fell off in Middlesbrough. I also carry a spare bolt. Although, sounds like you probably had a better time and you've got a better story out of it.

    Another excellent post. Enjoy Delhi (again)!