Imran said we could go to Tungareshwar. It was only around 40 kms away from Borivali. I looked at him skeptically. I had been living in Goregaon and then Kandivali for the last five years, and had never heard of the place. By then, I was taking everything Imran said with a lashing of salt. But I did not want to pass on my reservations to Grace, the British producer. Particularly, since my doubts were purely instinctive. Imran had given no real cause for complaint.
I had met him about a month ago, while researching for a program on bikers for BBC3. He had a small automobile garage in Byculla. But a big reputation in the bikers’ circle as a daring rider. As usual, I wangled a ride across town on a Sunday morning from my husband. He grumbled a little that I treated him more as a chauffeur than a spouse, but the promise of a noisy beer-soaked afternoon in Café Mondegar quelled his noises.
The first time I met him, Imran came across as a well-dressed, well-behaved hard-working Muslim young man. Likeable, but not exciting television material really. But he knew everyone in the bikers’ circle, from the Indian Iranian college drop-outs on Grant Road to the super-rich kids and their imported Japanese bikes on Carter Road, to the professional racers. And the aging ones, who still raced on mud-tracks for fun. He modestly counted himself amongst the aging ones, someone who had left his wild days behind him. I was willing to go along with that. He was more useful to me if he was responsible and not reckless. I made an arrangement to meet up with him the next day, when he would take me around town, introducing me to potential “stories”. He also chivalrously promised to come to Bandra, so that I had to travel only half the way from home.
The next day, as I hopped off the rickshaw near the petrol pump, I was a bit disappointed to see that he had come in a Maruti van. I had braced myself for a motorbike ride across the town, but then perhaps it was better this way. It would be easier to talk to Imran, and take down notes, I thought. But as it happened, there was no talk and no notes. It turns out that I had been a little hasty in judging Imran. He was not well-behaved at all behind the wheel, and he had not left his wild days behind him.
Soon, we were hurtling down Turner Road, and before I could even gasp with shock, we were turning into Carter Road, where Imran seemed to get possessed by the old devil he had been. The van screeched, screamed, skidded, leaped, jumped, and the short distance down the road, was to me, a burning moment in Hell. I wondered what I had done to deserve this.
When we stopped at his “aunty’s” place to meet up with a couple of his old friends, and patch together the Carter Road scene, I was not even listening to their biker gossip, or bothered about taking names and telephone numbers. My mind was fearfully on the next drive with Imran. I no longer wanted to do the town with him, and wished I had brought my own production car with my trusted driver, Shaikh. I had often reprimanded Shaikh for driving his Sumo as if he were driving an army tank, regardless of anything in his way. But now I thought of Shaikh with regard. I also made a quick call to his cell, hoping that he would be free and would come and rescue me. But unfortunately, he was in Igatpuri with a magician client of his, who went there regularly to meet his guru.
After our meeting with Aunty D’Souza and her two handsome boys, Karl and Vicky, who predictably wanted to be models, I stood outside the van, sternly telling Imran that I refused to go with him if he was going to drive so recklessly. He laughed and said, “Come on, trust me.” At that moment, I did not even care to be polite, nor for the fact that my rudeness may jeopardize my research. I said I did not trust him, and I did not want to risk my life, on some mad-hatter ride. He took the wheel, and sighed that girls usually loved riding with him. I raised my eyebrows at that, and became all cold hauteur. “Well, I don’t.” Perhaps my marital status, perhaps the fact that he too wanted to be a part of this program, forced him into good behavior.
But over the next few days, he took every chance to rib me, sometimes teasing me for the old-fashioned cell that I carried around, sometimes trying to see if he could get away with a friendly touch here and there. I took him like I did most flirtatious men, with a schoolteacher’s prim and proper attitude. Especially since I knew that he was not even attracted to me. Flirting to him, was just part of his own self-image of a hot-blooded male. He regularly got calls from some girl or the other while we were shooting, and would walk away to coo some meaningless nonsense for a while, and come back with a smug look on his face.
Today, he was telling Grace that his group of friends could go cross-country racing at Tungareshwar. I looked it up on the Internet later at night, and told Grace that it would work for the sequence she wanted outside Mumbai. We arranged to meet Imran and his friends at Kandivali, on the highway.
They were a motley bunch of people, mostly in their 30s, but also an older man pushing 55, Mr. Irani with his youngest son, Sohrab who was 12. Imran asked me if I would like to ride on his bike to Tungareshwar. I said “No, thank you” and stayed safely put in the production car.
On the highway, the bikers weaved in and out of the traffic. Imran was showing off, but so were the others. By then, we had filmed enough bikers to know that they all did that. They loved to speed, but they also liked someone watching. All of them had Enfields. Black, simple, powerful. They also had a Jeep following them laden with big vessels full of chicken biryani and tandoori chicken. Imran said there was no food available at Tungareshwar.
We stopped on the highway, just before turning on the road to Tungareshwar. All the bikers, and our drivers tucked into samosas, jalebis, and sugary tea. Grace and David, the cameraman busied themselves with taking shots. Imran too surprisingly stayed away from the snacks, and made a face when I decided to have some tea there. “It’s not too clean”, he said. I ignored him.
Then, began the unbelievable ride to Tungareshwar. Our first stop was the temple, where we left behind the jeep and the food. Imran also advised us to drop some of the luggage from our car if we possibly could. But David and Grace refused to forsake any of the shooting equipment from their car. The bikers began to whirr and whoom seriously, and in the tranquil quietness their noise was magnified a hundred fold.
The track from then on was “kaccha”. Just mud, and a lot of it flying as the bikers raced and turned and twisted. Grace and David got busy. There was only so little that I could do now to be useful. I had found David an assistant to carry his tripod, and fetch his batteries, etc, so there was nothing for me to do but hang around. I wandered off a little, astonished that so much beauty laid virtually at my doorstep. The cliffs, and the valley below were a different world, from the highway we had left behind. A couple of years later, I was to read about panthers being found in Tungareshwar, and could imagine why they would seek the sanctuary of those green mountains, away from the confusion of the Borivali National Park.
A few hours later, Imran got the boys to spread our lunch in a small shack near the temple. It was a bit odd eating chicken outside the temple, but the people running the tea-stall did not seem to mind, as long as we promised to take the bones back home with us. Imran was at his best bossing everyone around, seeing all of us ate well. He did not eat, even then, high on the excitement of biking and being filmed.
Grace and David too ate very little, impatient to get back to filming. I finally agreed to go with Mr. Irani and Sohrab on their bike to the top of the cliff. Imran looked a bit miffed at this treason, but Grace called him just then for a shot, and he went off obediently.
A little while later, we could hear the other bikers roaring towards us. Mr. Irani laughed and raced off towards them. I had hopped off, preferring to meander at my own pace. The cell phone was off, without any signals, and it was good to be away from Grace and David. We had been shooting for the last week, and I was a bit weary of their demands, legitimate though they were. But then, that was my job.
I went back to the production car that had appeared around the corner, and began chatting with Shaikh. It turned out that he had come here before. Of course, tourist drivers get to see a lot of the world around them. He began to tell me there were some interesting caves there, which I should come and see some time. Just then, we saw David furiously racing towards us on a bike. The bike’s owner sat behind rather helplessly. David barked at Shaikh to give him the car keys, and before we knew what was happening, David had driven off with the car. The biker, Manas who had brought David here, told us that the equipment car had broken down with the load of the equipment. Shaikh had told David to distribute the equipment between the two cars, but David was more comfortable having all his equipment with him all the time.
By the time, we reached where the others were supposed to be, they had already gone off somewhere else. Imran had told them about a small village near Tungareshwar. It had a pond, where they could bike in wet mud, and where they could also “do” the sunset. Manas, not wanting to miss any of the shoot, hurried off, to find them. The broken down car was left in the middle of nowhere. Its driver had taken Shaikh’s car, fortunately, because David, impatient and angry was not in the right frame of mind, to drive down the hill.
Shaikh and I looked at each other, and at the abandoned car. There was some equipment in the car, and Shaikh and I both agreed that we must take the car at least up to the highway. A couple of pilgrims helped to push the vehicle to the edge of the slope. From there, we descended for half-an-hour in neutral, without brakes. Down a hilly road, with it’s fair share of twists and turns. No wonder that Shaikh and I became firm friends since then. He proved that he was a good driver. Like most people in desperate situations, I was calm and resigned. What was the option?
When we reached the highway, we felt we had come home. To the city, where everything was manageable, everything was possible. I forgot the green hills and their tranquility. Shaikh called his boss, who arranged to come with a towing van to pick up the car and us. We waited patiently, drinking some foul tea. And going over and over the bizarre incident.
I was angry and shocked that David and Grace had left us and the car, in the middle of nowhere, in their hurry to complete their shoot. Without any communication. I knew they would not even remember us until the sun had gone down and the shoot had been wrapped up. Just then, Imran called. He said Manas had just found them, and told them of the incident. Imran wanted to know whether we were safe. I forgot all his annoying ways, touched by his genuine concern.
As the towing vehicle came in sight, so did Imran on his bike. He had raced away, as soon as the shoot got over. He had also told David what he thought of him, for his irresponsible and arrogant behavior.
Shaikh settled down at the back of the tow truck. I looked at the truck, wondering if I should hitch a ride back home on it. I did not even want to meet David or Grace, until my anger had cooled down. I’d call them later. And arrange to have the equipment dropped off to David’s hotel.
Imran said he could drop me home if I liked. I said. “Yes”. Finally, I sat on Imran’s bike. I was too preoccupied to even think about the stunts he would pull off, now that he had persuaded me to sit pillion. But after a few moments, I noticed that he was riding with extra care, mindful of the bumps, mindful of me sitting behind him. I realized that my first impression of him had been right. He was a well-behaved young man. Occasionally wild. As befit his image. But not bad.