It's true the Tour of Nilgiris is all about cycling, but the story's incomplete without the after-hours. On a good riding day, the evening was always effervescent.
The first one in Mysore was understandably low key, just a rest stop. By the second day, in Mercara, everyone was ready for more. That afternoon and early evening were filled with easy conversation, mostly post-mortems and story-swapping of the day's experiences. Later, it was cold enough to have a bonfire, which always helps. Though it was early to bed (we were in the middle of a sporting event, after all), and it was only a small group that remained after dinner, there was time enough for a little music and a ghost story or two. Avinash produced a flute, Vasu, Satish and our good doctor revealed singing talent in addition to the many other sterling qualities we'd already seen, and a brief power cut brought out the most brilliant stars I've seen since my camping times in Oman.
The next day was difficult, Sultan Bathery was unprepossessing and the night equally solitary and troubled. But the morning dawned bright and promising, the ride to Ooty more than made up for the previous day's shortcomings. That night was the fourth one; by then everyone had more or les found their level, made at least acquaintances so the group round the campfire was a gathering of comrades. There was much music, the volume was high and when the fire died down, the cold drove everyone in, so they crowded into the "girls' room" to continue into the small hours. I was tired and sleepy (and can sleep through an earthquake if need be) but Avinash is a rollicking storyteller with a beguiling ability to laugh at himself, so not listening was not an option.
The fifth night saw it turn into a group of friends, the entertainment enlivened further by dragging people forward to sing songs in their native languages (Kerala was conspicuously absent for once, since the two representatives that might have contributed were not present and the two that were present were not quite qualified to do so). An unexpected bonus was the Swiss farming song from George and it set me thinking that my discomfort on his behalf when we were singing Hindi songs was uncalled for – he probably didn't feel left out at all because there were so many degrees of fluency present in the room that translation was constantly being demanded by someone or the other. It was one of those times that made you sentimental about the diversity of the country and what it could be like in an ideal world.
There were two flutes that night, Murali having produced one that morning and entrusted it to my reluctant care (foster-parenting the delicate musical instrument of a serious musician is a lot of responsibility). Diksha turned out to be one hell of a singer as well, so the overall quality of the group singing was higher than is usual in the circumstances and it mercifully never had to come down to Antakshari. A formidable amount of talent was displayed that evening, but for me the most memorable part was Sourabh's own composition. Both words and music were his own, a sweet, lilting song about not being able to bring himself to tell someone he likes her, a sentiment with which every listening mind could quietly empathise.
(Epiphany: I need a thing, an act that I can trot out and hide behind. Not being able to do anything and being too awkward to attempt something impromptu makes one far more conspicuous than if one did anything stupid.)
The last evening in Mysore was prolonged a little, everyone aware of its finality. A little bit of amateur fortune-telling, a lot of laughter, a pleasing sense of schoolgirl truancy in breaking the Youth Hostel curfew, some sharing of pleasures, a few uncertain steps towards new friendships, perhaps.
The warm TFN nights fortified the relationships shaped by cycling or working together in the day, like clay in a kiln.
Chinna Chinna Asai, Roja, 1992
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- White tigers, slumdogs and softening of the brain
- The sun also rises in Burdubai
- The Englishness of America
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- So was the winner of the marathon a perfect 10?
- What's that song?
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