HERMIT ON A BIKE

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

The forty something News Editor looked up from the articles he had been reading.

“ I liked the one on the biker. May be you could send that to our Deputy Editor who handles features,’’ he said.

It was now over a month since I had earned anything from writing.

A newspaper, which used to accept my articles, had shut down its opinion page. Everywhere else I sent my work, the feedback was – we run articles with quotes in it. Apparently, a quiet man passing through life and scribbling down his observations had no place in the media. Insistence on quotes was actually the more polite side of the media-treatment. Very often, the submitted article disappeared into a black hole of no response or elicited a much delayed sorry-I-forgot-was-busy kind of indifferent response. The News Editor seemed helpful and my fortunes may improve further if I got the Deputy Editor interested.

I pinned my hopes on Paul’s story.

Living alone in the outdoors is serious business. The year was 2008. I had been intrigued by the lone biker, camped out in the woods beside the Tons River in Uttarakhand. Probably that’s what put him in perspective for me – the biker as camper, as much alone and wrapped up in a world of his own as any hiker. Those days, it was quite common to open a typical automobile magazine and come across some account of high altitude travel that sought to equate the driver to a mountaineer or trekker. “ I pressed the accelerator and the engine strained to pull, in that rarified atmosphere,’’ rarely reminded the reader that the driver was inside a climate controlled cabin breathing normally, probably enjoying his favorite music and at best suffering a mild headache. Accompanied by glossy photographs of a car with high mountains for backdrop or the driver posing at Khardung La Pass, it sold the man behind the wheel as a fantastic example of adventure. The same individual would be a different case altogether, hiking up that pass with a loaded rucksack on his back. Then, the engine, chassis, torque, acceleration – everything is you. Who wants that? You can strain a lot less and sell it as high adventure when the industry in question is as powerful a marketer as the world of car manufacturers.

However, two wheels made the setting marginally different. True you still didn’t haul anything yourself, but at least you didn’t ride in climate-controlled comfort. The motorcycle is the modern day horse, the next best thing in movement to an adventure on a raft or bicycle. Adding to it was the talk in nearby Mori – Paul apparently camped at the same spot every year for a month or two. It was like an annual pilgrimage; same place, same spot. On a drive down the adjacent road, I waved to him. He didn’t respond reinforcing a leave-me-alone attitude. Alright baba, keep your peace, I said and moved on.

Peace? If you are a city journalist, that’s the toughest promise to keep to yourself and others. I told my friend Jeetu of my wish to meet this man. One day we mustered the courage to walk away from the road and into the woods where the biker was camped. The distinguishing feature around was a pair of large rocks, roughly twenty feet high, that sloped towards each other providing a crude shelter below. It was the most obvious place to camp but Paul Kramer was some distance away from there. A weathered Enfield Bullet, a hammock strung between trees and two to three clothe lines with faded, patched up garments hung out to dry – that was his home. Above the hammock an additional line had been tied ostensibly to support a plastic sheet as roof during rains. On the ground and near the bike, arranged neatly, were a steel mug or two, flask, plate, some spoons. The man was tall, broad shouldered and bald with big hands and weather beaten feet strapped into sandals. He wore layers of worn-out clothing and had a slow pace of talking in English. I sought permission to speak and for quite a while through my chatter, his demeanor betrayed the desire not to be intruded upon, to be left alone. It hung in the air, fading reluctantly as my monologue grew into a conversation and then a warm chat. That conversation hinted at the possibility of dropping by again. My friend Ravi had also seen Paul camped out in the forest and wanted to say hello. So another day, the two of us – Ravi and I – walked off the road and into the forest to spend some time with the traveler.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Paul was 62 years old then, from Cologne in Germany. A keen football fan and erstwhile club player, couple of decades back he had gone to South America to see a World Cup. From then on, he had been traveling. Save some years in between when he ran a restaurant in the Caribbean, which he later sold off. Eight years before I met him near Mori, he reached India and bought the Bullet in Delhi. He reckoned, he must have traveled right around the country at least thrice. His favorite states – Uttarakhand and Meghalaya. “ That’s my baby,’’ he said, pointing to the bike. Baby was a special reference. Reserved for a dog he once owned; the girlfriends he once had – when he called one by the name of the other, he quickly realized the value of calling them just `baby’ – and the bike he now rode.

It had taken him some time to access this spot at Sandra near Mori, for staying. Having done so, every year, he tied his hammock to the same two pine trees, put his feet up and amazingly, was able to happily spend his days watching the simplest of movements in the surrounding wilderness – a leaf falling, a bird flying, clouds drifting. “ I know it’s difficult for you to digest my life. You are from the city; have family and all. I don’t,’’ he said. Paul hadn’t married. He realized early that if he wanted to travel it was best to stay single. Neither did he yearn for crowds and cities. Having seen that plastic life abroad and knowing what was due here, he preferred to steer clear of Indian cities; except when football called.

The time I met him, Paul was hunting for a family with a television that may allow the biker to watch the 2008 European Cup. Germany was in good form (this was before they lost to Spain in the final) and he was willing to ride up to Shimla for a hotel room with a television if the situation so demanded. Eventually, he found a friendly family in Mori who allowed him to see the telecasts. Over the next few weeks, Ravi and I dropped by several times to spend time with Paul. Sitting on the ground while Paul talked from his hammock, you looked up and saw his daily perspective of the world. The pine trees rose like slender pillars into the sky, the branches at their apex swaying in the breeze. The rapids of the Tons, a river that hosts white water rafting, was a furious flow just beyond the lip of Paul’s camping ground. It was a calming mix – the sound of rushing water, swaying trees, passing clouds and verdant, often wet wilderness. “ There’s a strange energy here,’’ he said gazing at the pine trees and shrugging his shoulders. I revisited the question I had been asking myself ever since I met him – what would this man be, biker or hermit? He called himself a “ professional traveler,’’ a description loaded with the itch to move. In contrast, Paul seemed at the other end, at peace in a world he had slowed down to celebrate the details while everyone else rushed by without design. I could visualize my city self darting around like some sub atomic particle, hitting walls randomly while Paul sat unmoved in meditative peace. “ You smoke?’’ he asked, big hands extending a thin, carefully rolled cigarette. We politely declined for neither of us smoked. At night, the tiny camp changed texture. It was cloaked in pitch darkness. The faint glow of Paul’s kerosene lamp cut through the inky blackness, a slender flame in enveloping gloom.

Paul had little to offer – some Kashmiri tea, the cigarettes – but coupled with the place and his journey in life, the meet-ups became enjoyable moments for us. Slowly, Paul began waving back every time we passed by on the road. He dropped by at our camp for lunch. We brought him mangoes and the odd newspaper sporting football news. Sometimes the severity of survival bit too hard to permit sharing. Like the day, Paul got some fish from a local fisherman. Three small fishes, they whetted the big German’s appetite. He sliced them, lovingly poured olive oil and added green chilies to marinate. “ I want to offer them to you but they are just three you see,’’ he said apologetically.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

When the time came for us to leave Mori, we decided to trek across the Rupin Pass to Kinnaur (for this story, please see https://shyamgopan.wordpress.com/2013/09/15/a-river-story-part-one/). Bad weather and landslides had ensured low fuel stock at depots in the hills. We desperately needed petrol for our camp stove. Paul spared a liter from his bike’s tank. The last time I spoke of him to Ravi was several days later, in the upper Rupin Valley. We had gone through rain and, on that day, lighting a fire – we wanted to save our petrol – had become a challenge. As the wet wood stubbornly refused to ignite, we spent a near full day laying this way and that in the mud, blowing our lungs out into the crude choola we made. When I got up to stretch my stiff limbs, I realized that I was tired yet happy. My pants were mud stained, torn, my T-shirt hung loose on a thin frame and I had a sweaty scarf around my neck. My feet, trifle swollen from altitude and dusty from weeks in the outdoors, looked weather beaten in the sandals I wore at camp. Just like Paul’s – I thought!

The Deputy Editor was a fidgety, young new generation-type who kept himself and others on the edge of their seats. There was some commitment phobia, I thought, to settling into a chair. It was the in thing at offices. Always look busy. Even if you are doing nothing, you have to be busy doing nothing. “ I am pretty busy right now. Send me your stuff, I am certain we can do something,’’ he said poised in half flight from his chair to somewhere in the swanky, air conditioned office. The articles I sent him the very next day sank into the usual media quicksand. I waited, mailed a couple of reminders. Almost three weeks later, he replied rejecting the whole lot including Paul’s story. As for the delay in delaying another’s journalist’s already delayed food coupon – well, he is an employed media person, not a wandering freelancer. He owed me no explanation. Did he read what I wrote? – I still wonder.

I thought of Paul and the absolute unhurriedness to his life, his ability to give every moment his full attention. That piece of forest bordering the river, the hammock, the bike – all were at best a curio to the unlived in media offices. It could be something to show off, use as embellishment in the news flow. Probably an article for the weekend supplement when the media product has to taste like a lazy cup of nice, warm tea. Weekend is the assigned time for life in the slow lane, when everyday traffic hurtling at break-neck speed on the highway to wealth and survival, pauses to notice dumb, stupid outdoors. They have a term for it – offbeat stories. I had asked Paul if he ever wrote about his travels. “ No,’’ he said, waving his hand dismissively. It conveyed his conviction in what he said. I remember gently touching upon the subject a second time. But he seemed to have buried it in his head, planted two pine trees and strung a hammock right across for the life unexplained.

After that Deputy Editor and some more years of freelancing, I understood why.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)

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