Meet Ajit Harisinghani who hopped on to his Enfield, rode across India and into Bhutan in the pursuit of that most elusive of all human desires — happiness. 

Photograph courtesy: Ajit Harisinghani

Just how far can you go to look for happiness?

Ajit Harisinghani, a Pune-based speech therapist, decided to head to the wondrous kingdom of Bhutan, where they believe Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.

Along the way, the 57-year-old biker had a few fascinating encounters and some epiphanies.

Below, we bring you an exclusive excerpt from his book about his fascinating journey, The Living Road:


 

The bike is cutting its way through a dry brown, barren, rocky, dusty road. Fields of green periodically spring up and soothe my eyes. A red-turbaned boy, minding his small herd of goats waves. Lone men clad in saffron robes walk with bags containing all they own; many holding aloft the flags of their faith.

Up ahead I spot five women clad in absolute white, walking ahead of me in single file. I go past them, then stop under a tree about a kilometer ahead which gives me enough time to take care of certain basics and even finish smoking a cigarette before I spot them grow in size as they approach me. I know these are Jain nuns — women who have given up their families and their femininity in search of nirvana. They are walking barefoot on the hot asphalt. They all wear half-face masks covering their nose and mouth, saris wrapped over their shaved scalps and carry a tiny broom with which to sweep the road ahead.

They present a rather grim picture of extreme abstinence from all the pleasures this life has to offer. Their goal is nirvana which is something they seem to be chasing with the zeal of extremists. Their weapon is compassion. They are so non-violent that they don’t even want to breathe germs in because then the poor creatures would die. They sweep their pathway because they don’t want to step on and kill even the tiniest of life forms. They don’t even eat anything that grows underground because it would hurt the bacteria around the roots as the poor plant was pulled out of the earth.

As they walk past, they look at me but there is no change of facial expression. Surely they haven’t seen many like me, sitting on a bike in the middle of nowhere. They don’t look interested as they go by which does leave me feeling rather ignored.

I mount the bike and wave out as I pass them yet again but none of them show even the slightest response. Maybe they are forbidden by their belief system to wave back. I wonder what’s going on in their heads. Many of these are intelligent, educated women from wealthy families who have voluntarily chosen to live in the extreme way they do.

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The road is flat and straight and except for a few trucks, there isn’t much traffic. I slow down and overtake a tribe of nomadic herdsmen. Entire families with their life’s luggage loaded on mules, horses and donkeys walk in a disciplined single file along the left side of the road. The ponies have the hair of their tails shaped in a trendy step cut. The women are attired in colorful saris and seem to favor heavy silver jewelry; each could very well be carrying a kilo of silver in their anklets, bracelets and necklaces. Many have babies in hammocks on their backs. They form the rear of this walking caravan. In front are the men and older boys shepherding a hundred woolly sheep, careful to not let them stray onto the middle of the road. There are half a dozen pie-dogs that seem trained to keep the herd under control. The men are tall and thin and dressed in loose white clothes and a distinct red turban which must keep the heat of the sun off their scalps as they walk the long hot roads of India. They wear brass earrings and silver neckbands and bracelets. Each is carrying a long bamboo shaft resting on his shoulder.

These nomadic herdsmen move from pasture to greener pasture following the rain. There is a tribe of them that comes to an open field near my house in Pune every year just after the heavy rain has subsided. In no time they put up their tents and seamlessly reboot their lives to fit into a new locale. India’s laws allow such nomadic shepherd tribes to seasonally use government land for grazing.

A pressurized blast of hot air swerves the bike off its course and I just about manage to prevent it from heading into the culvert that lines the highway. I keep my balance as a huge container truck coming from the opposite direction whooshes past me. That was close! When the adrenaline rush subsides, I think about what could very well have happened. If the near-death experiences are to be believed, I could right now have been hovering over my body and seeing tunnels of white light! Again, I wonder how it will be to die. But I don’t want to die! Don’t even want to think about it. I want to live…more…more…more… I try to compose a song with the beat of the engine providing the rhythm. More…more…more… Life can become a bore, if all I want is more. I search for rhyming words and the first one that surfaces is sore… Oh! My butt is so sore… (which, by the way, it really is.) My mind is in stupid mode and that’s all right for a while, so long as I don’t encourage it to begin composing songs with lyrics that sound suspiciously similar to some of the crap that gets sung in today’s Hindi films. I’ve been talking to myself for too long. Better shut up and concentrate on the road!

It is near noon as I wind my way eastwards on NH6 which is approaching its own final destination—the big, Bengali metropolis of Kolkata. I’m now on a flyover which is letting me bypass Kolkata and get on to the north- bound NH34. I’m relieved I don’t have to ride through the messy metropolis where, reports say, the citizens have yet to agree to certain common rules of traffic management.

***

Elephant, Ahoy!

I AM NOW in a river basin and around me are large tracts of flat farmland, verdant green with a dense cover of young paddy. Collections of thatched houses form small villages all along this road. I’ve been riding for an hour and feel the need for a break. Stopping by the roadside, I go sit on a milestone to enjoy a bit of immobility. I’ve attracted the attention of a group of four ten-year-old boys who come and stand grinning around me, saying nothing. I ask them what they want and after a period of more silence, one of them puts his hand out and asks me for a pen which prompts the other three to follow suit and stretch out their hands and make the same unusual appeal. Surprisingly, they don’t look at all disappointed when I say I’ve no pens with me and scamper off emitting peals of laughter as if the joke’s on me. Maybe that’s the way they get their thrills.

The road continues to cut through farmland which stretches flat around me. This wet, fertile land is recharged every year by rich silt from China. I have a 360-degree- view of green fields fading away into the horizon. It is midday but the fields are empty of any activity. I see no one around. Maybe the planting is done with. I come upon a culvert; a nice place to stop for a private picnic. I finish with my water ritual and go sit on the cement block of a culvert which doubles as a milestone. I can afford to take it real easy today. It’s a wonderful day. The green fields, brightly sunlit, are soothing to the eyes which have long focussed on the grey tarmac of the road. Patches of fields are covered with sheets of still water which gleam like mirrors and seem to energise the scene. 100 feet away, a group of egrets takes off and moves to another field. I feel so much at home here. I must have been a Bengali in my last birth. I just can’t stop myself from bursting into song.

O nodi re
ekti kotha shudhai shudhu tomaare bolo kothae tomar desh
tomar neiki cholaar shesh
O nodi re

So engrossed am I in my reverie that I haven’t noticed the approach of two men dressed in the saffron robes of sadhus, one with a cow in tow. My song stops in its tracks, leaving me a bit embarrassed. I was in a boat, gliding over the softly rippling waters, singing an ode to the river of life but the sudden presence of these two brings me back to reality.

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I smile them a greeting which they respond to in a subdued friendly manner. One smiles and says I sing very well but I didn’t sing like a Bengali. Where am I from? Where am I going? I answer their questions and ask a few myself. They are returning from the market in Debra where they have purchased the cow. They are from Jhalia a small village 18 kilometers away.

I ask if they are sadhus and they laugh and say no. The reason they’re wearing saffron is that it helps them drive a better bargain in big town Debra. ‘Traders seek our blessings and give us discounts,’ says one. After they leave, I cannot get back to my daydream so get back on the road, amazed at how misleading appearances can sometimes be. First the fake hijras of Gurupur, and now these two
‘sadhus’ from Jhalia. Is no one who he claims to be?

The road has become a bridge flying me over a tributary of the Mahananda and then gliding down into more farm land. A shirtless man walks the road pulling a buffalo, two women sit under a tree on which is nailed a metal plate with a sketch of a bus, an old man fishes in shallow water with a hand-held net. There is natural grace in the faces I glimpse for the three second exposure that a moving bike allows. I notice the women have lustrous hair and then discover the men have them too. Must be all the fish they eat!

The land begins to gently undulate just as I exhaust my stock of the three Bengali songs I know. Two signboards warn of Elephant Crossing but don’t make much impact on my mind which is occupied in searching its database for a song to sing next. When a third elephant warning appears, I think wouldn’t it be great if I actually see the pachyderms. Thoughts of tigers turn me into yellow jelly (as I proved to myself that Nagzira night), but elephants I can handle. I’ve seen many on the streets of Pune. They’re peaceful creatures. Divine even. I’ve ridden one (in the Mumbai zoo). So no, I’m not afraid.
The next fifteen minutes would show me how ignorant and arrogant I’ve been, at least about elephants.

Riding through a sparsely forested section I take no special notice of a car full of people halted by the roadside on the left, but as I pass them, I hear panicked shouts from the car. I stop the bike and look back at the stationary vehicle to find out what the ruckus is about.

‘Hathi, Hathi,’ they are yelling from inside the car. I look at the road ahead and see an elephant spraying himself with dry brown mud which he is sucking from the roadside with his agile trunk. He is a magnificent specimen with long matched tusks and is shaking his head from side to side as if refusing to leave. Then he turns his face and sprays one consignment of brown dust in our direction. It is a National Geographic kind of moment and deserves a picture or two. I hear someone shouting again but ignore it, my attention on quickly getting my camera out of the backpack strapped behind me on the rear seat. Oblivious to the danger, I look up, raise my camera and freeze in panic when I see the beast ambling towards me with purpose in its beady eyes. He is not moving in the familiar docile manner of his domesticated cousins. In fact, he looks positively threatening and he’s coming on fast.

The camera drops from my hands and clatters on the road (I should have put the strap around my neck as the manual advises). I am glad to have kept the engine running. I quickly turn the bike around and rush back to the waiting vehicles which now include three cars, a truck and an SUV lined one behind the other. A young man shouts at me from the open window of the SUV wanting to know if I’m crazy. The truck driver employs more colorful language.

‘Saale, jawani ki masti chadhe hai?’ (Feeling the headiness of youth, are we?) I shout out a loud ‘Sorry’and go to the end of the waiting line, thankful to the helmet for hiding my red face. Soon they’ve forgotten about me. All eyes are on the elephant which has stopped his advance and is now facing sideways. The crowd is chattering. ‘Maharaj is alone today.’ ‘There might be more following him.’

‘Every night they raid our village.’

‘I saw many elephants pass by in the night.’

‘This is an elephant corridor.’

‘He’s going.’

‘Namaskar, Maharaj.’

‘Gone.’

‘Wait for 5 minutes.’

I place myself in the middle of the convoy of vehicles as they begin to move. One of the cars stops near my fallen camera and the very man who had asked if I was mad, gets down to pick it up and hands it to me. Everyone is blowing their horns to scare away any animals in the vicinity. As I rush through this human-cum-elephant thoroughfare, I’m no longer singing.

Excerpted from The Living Road by Ajit Harisinghani (Rs 350) with kind permission from Westland Books.