Devraj Singh Kalsi writes of a hilly (or hilarious?) ride
I began to think about insurance after riding a pony on my way to a hill station some years ago. Those scary minutes worked better than the life insurance commercials that generate fear of untimely death and disaster.
As the pony gathered speed while moving along the edge, the danger of tripping and falling into the gorge became palpable. But the man holding its rein assured me that it was highly experienced in such climbs and never made any mistake if the person seated atop did not spoil its mood. I displayed no such intention and maintained dignified behaviour to deserve a safe transit. The pony owner assured me that his pony enjoyed every bit of the muddy ride after the early morning downpour. He advised me not to touch its shampooed mane or any other sensitive part of its body because a tickling sensation could make the poor chap misinterpret and take a wrong step that would spell the untimely end of the rider. When it came to a close shave, I closed my eyes and thought of hugging it like a nervous child embraces the mother. The words of the pony owner rang alarm bells. Throughout the steep climb to reach the snow-capped heights of Kufri, I was firmly in the saddle, but I felt like a coalition government that could be toppled anytime by the withdrawal of support.
All kinds of thoughts entered my mind. I thought the poor animal suffered from suicidal tendencies after demonetisation but, then, it became clear that freedom meant everything to the pony who was finding its path in the treacherous terrain. It was safe not to imagine myself as one of those pillaging dacoits shown in mainstream Hindi films or fancy myself as a gallant king on horseback, galloping forth to counter the cabal of invaders, marauders, and plunderers.
The panoramic scenes of the valley did not grab my attention to click a single photograph as the pony seized all my attention with its stroll conducted in the zigzag style of a drunkard. From the unfenced edges, the pine trees and dense forest cover looked intimidating. One slip and gone forever, making this my last journey on planet earth. I felt so close to death that I regretted leaving behind my incomplete novel, realising the colossal waste of time very late. I fervently prayed for the pony to stop flirting with danger.
I sought from the pony owner an estimate of the time left to reach the destination. But he was clueless. All he said was the pony appeared to be faster than on other days. I wondered how the pony got to know I loved fast cars and speed. I had paid an exorbitant fee without the faintest idea of the terror-stricken expedition to rejuvenate my senses. It was now a test of nerves and faith in the Divine. To ensure I did not do anything stupid to disturb its gay abandon. I did not even swat a fly near my nose nor scratch my itching neck. The pony’s upward climb continued at an accelerated pace. When in a contemplative frame of mind, it slowed down to collect the string of thoughts. The pony owner smacked his long, slim stick on the shiny brown wobbly posterior when the pony came to a grinding halt without any compulsion of obeying the traffic rules.
The pony owner boasted of the clean track record of zero casualties and no injuries either. He said the pony performed twenty trips in a single day and had been doing this stressful job without any break for four years. After going through the impressive CV ( curriculum vitae) of the pony, I felt it was fit for corporate life. He explained that the pony was comfortable with snow rather than sludge. The sudden rainfall had made the entire path muddy. It was difficult for the pony to maintain a steady gait. We engaged in a freewheeling chat about animal behaviour, how they lose cool, get provoked, collide against tree trunks, or kick them in the frustration of leading a celibate life. This diversion calmed my frayed nerves. He claimed to have the best pony in town and, though it was impossible to corroborate that, it was a relief to be safe in trained hands or legs.
While peace was returning to life, a charged pony from the opposite direction with a portly lady came running down at top speed. The angry pony was ready to collide against anything that came in its way, and the lady on its back looked prepared to be tossed in the air, with her sari pallu flying high to reveal her hefty bosom. For a moment, I felt she was going to land up in my lap as a beautiful gift from the skies above, but then it was a narrow escape as her pony applied brakes when it gradually came to senses after facing a human chain of tourist guides blocking its way. The worst appeared to be behind us now, but my pony stood and watched the thrilling show. The pony owner pulled it ahead, but it refused to budge an inch. Maybe it was keen to have a word with the other pony. Their communication was beyond my comprehension, but the pony kept looking in that direction while making a strange sound that was Greek to its owner. Probably it had no meaning of the kind I was imagining, and the poor fellow stood there to breathe easy before resuming the long walk.
While I was forbidden not to touch any part of the animal, the pony owner petted it and set it in motion. God knows what was so sensuous or seductive in the constant rubbing of the belly that the pony began to accelerate, and this last stretch was anything but sober. I lowered myself and almost buried my head in its back, resigned to fate, waiting for this exercise to end.
Respite came within a short while. Once at the peak, I did not revel in the natural vistas of beauty. Rather, celebrating the fact that I was up and alive was more fulfilling. I dismounted with the pony owner’s mild assistance and felt like thanking him for the safe journey that the railways do not provide. I felt the pony deserved a round of applause and a grand salute.
The pony, parked in a corner, was given a plate of grams to munch as a healthy snack. It was busy keeping a close watch on me when its owner was sipping tea at a food stall. I looked the other way, at the orchards with melting snow. I took pictures of the mountain range and shot a portfolio of the photogenic pony from a distance – to go back and share with the world the harrowing experience of the pony ride.
It appeared the pony was in an apologetic mood and, during the return journey, it would take parental care of the rider. But the descent contravened my expectations as the pony rushed along at great speed. This time the pony owner also lost control, and the reckless pony hurtled down the slippery path. My only fear was whether it would take me on a blind date somewhere in those verdant valleys and gorges. Finally, I must thank the pony for exercising restraint and giving up the fascination for the thrills of walking along the edge. The fact that I am alive to tell this pony tale is nothing less than a miraculous escape. When the pony owner finally caught up with us, he apologised and patted the pony for taking good care of me. Perhaps good care meant depositing me safely at the ground level from the heights where I had started this journey.
Devraj Singh Kalsi works as a senior copywriter in Kolkata. His short stories and essays have been published in Deccan Herald, Tehelka, Kitaab, Earthen Lamp Journal, Assam Tribune, and The Statesman. Pal Motors is his first novel.
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