Monday, August 10, 2009

The ghosts of Manali-Leh

A few days back, I called my cycling partners Ranjan and Mohit to the Barista below my office for an emergency meeting, and told them that I intend to drop out of the Manali-Leh trip the three of us were thinking of going for. “I have too much work,” I said, stirring my cappuccino, and acting as if I was single-handedly pulling the advertising industry out of the slump. “Martin Sorrell needs me in this hour of crisis. I can’t be a deserter.”

“You’re chickening out,” Mohit accused me with the sensitivity of an American GI interrogating an Iraqi detainee in Abu Ghraib. “You’re afraid you won’t make it.”

Well, I confess the thought did cross my mind. After all, it’s not the first time I was attempting Manali-Leh. In August 2003, almost exactly six years ago, Ranjan and I had tried the route with disastrous consequences. I still get nightmares about it, often walking up in the middle of the night in a sweat raving and ranting about Baralacha La.

In those days, Ranjan and I owned Taiwanese bikes that we had bought from a cycle shop in Green Park market for Rs 2500 each. They were simple contraptions, parrot-green in colour, with local gears and no frills like shock absorbers. While we were pleased with our acquisitions, I suspect they were meant for Taiwanese children to go to school and not for disillusioned advertising professionals to climb up and down mountain passes in the Himalayas.

We had given ourselves eleven days to cover the distance from Manali to Leh, with ten days of cycling and a rest day in the middle. Between us, we were also carrying a lot of luggage including jackets, windcheaters, mufflers, monkey caps, thermal underwear, rolls of toilet paper, candles, matchboxes, flashlights with spare batteries, bottles of water, energy bars, a medicine box, a tool kit, a pump, many spare tubes, sleeping bags and a biggish tent. We were ready for anything, except possibly an asteroid strike.

On day one of cycling, we had to reach Marhi, a steady 35km climb from Manali. It’s the sort of uphill that Lance Armstrong would have knocked off in an hour, with both hands tied behind his back, balancing a pumpkin on his head. Ranjan and I took ten-and-a-half hours, five of which were spent on the bike and the rest recuperating under various trees on the way. We realised early in the trip that this wasn’t like a Sunday morning ride to India Gate.

As we approached Marhi, I imagined a nice hotel suite waiting for us, with a hot water bath running, and a note by the bedside attached to a bottle of champagne congratulating us on our remarkable journey so far. What we found was a dilapidated outhouse that was originally a pigsty and now housed drunken truck drivers and gigantic rats. We climbed in through the window (the only entrance) and spent the night on bunk beds. Truckers burped, farted and snored around us while screeching rats scurried about on the floor and scampered up and down the side of the beds (these were unlike the timid animals that you see darting around in kitchens, but monsters that probably grew up devouring pigs). Ranjan improvised booby traps for the rats, strategically strewing parts of his luggage all over the bed. I lay awake through the night, ready to jump out of the window at the hint of any contact with a rodent or a trucker.

On day two, we climbed Rohtang (13,050 feet). Though we were agonisingly slow, averaging under 5kmph, the ride was exhilarating. As we reached the top, we literally rode into the clouds. I also enjoyed the downhill that followed, touching 50kmph on my Taiwanese bike. We were very happy with our progress and as we checked into a hole in a place called Sissu for the night, we looked forward to the next days with hope.

Day three was meant to be an easy ride without treacherous climbs. But then, our cycling scripts have a tendency to rewrite themselves during the rides. Ranjan, who is a cautious cyclist (he goes downhill with the air of a man inspecting the ground for landmines), had a bad fall, aggravating an injury he was carrying on his right knee. And during our pit stop for lunch, I recklessly experimented with a local broth, the main ingredient of which was goat intestines. It didn’t do my intestines any good and I ended up with an upset stomach. By the evening, as we crawled into a town called Keylong, both of us were on the edge, snapping at each other like a couple contemplating divorce.

On day four, we were in for more nasty surprises. Ranjan’s back gears fell apart just as we started. I was aghast, but Ranjan, who is good at fixing things, cleverly put the whole thing together using my bicycle as a reference. We were delayed, though, and started late. I hadn’t eaten anything in the morning or the night before because of my bad stomach and was feeling weak. Ranjan’s knee had gotten worse during the night and he was in a lot of pain. It was a long, difficult climb and we proceeded slowly with Ranjan virtually cycling with his one good leg. Finally, at a place called Darcha, when he realised that he was doing more damage to his knee by carrying on, Ranjan stopped for good. We bid each other a tearful farewell and I decided to continue on my own.

I felt hollow cycling without Ranjan. I spent that night alone, in a dhaba in Patseo. The dhaba owner played sentimental folk songs on his two-in-one, while I sat outside staring at the stars and missing Ranjan’s reassuring company. I wasn’t looking forward to the next day’s cycling either: it included Baralacha La, a 16000 feet climb mostly through rubble, the toughest pass on the route.

Baralacha La is the sort of mountain pass that makes you a believer. Not in God, but in the devil. The secret polices of various countries have no idea of the kind of torture method they are missing out on. Forget sleep deprivation and water boarding. Put your suspect on a bicycle (preferably a Taiwanese one), throw in some 20kg of luggage and ask him to climb Baralacha La. He’ll confess to anything by the time he reaches the top.

I stopped often during the climb, panting, puffing, cursing, wailing. I wished Ranjan was there with me. There were short periods when I cycled at a steady pace, but a group of snails on crutches could have overtaken me without stretching themselves. At one point during the climb, I encountered a wild horse. It took a couple of steps towards me in disbelief, threw its head back and laughed hysterically. Then, it ran down the mountainside, no doubt to share the joke with other wild horses.

It was growing dark when I reached the top of the pass after spending over ten hours crawling up the mountain. I was scheduled to cross over to Ladakh and stop at Sarchu for the night, but as it was late and I wasn’t feeling good, I stopped at the first dhaba I came across, in Bharatpur (14,000 feet). It was well below zero degrees and I was shivering as I went to bed next to two grim-faced truckers. I tossed and turned during the night, often waking up gasping for breath.

The next day, the sixth on the bike, I did the short ride to Sarchu and made it to Ladakh. I didn’t have the will to go any further. In the afternoon, I flagged down a Qualis, put my bike on top, and continued the rest of the journey in the car: going over the winding Gata Loops, through the spectacular Moray Plains, up 17,500 feet to Tanglang La (the second highest motorable road in the world) and down to Upshi and Leh, at over 40kmph. It is, I realised, the best way to travel to Leh. Or rather the second best, the first being by air.

On the seventh day, like God, I rested. I put my feet up in a small hotel in Leh with mixed feelings: I was glad that I had done half the trip but I wished I had been braver and carried on for a bit more. Four days later, I was on a flight back to Delhi, soaring over mountain passes that seemed innocuous when seen from an airplane window at 35,000 feet.

Since then, Ranjan and I have gone on many more trips, often accompanied by our friend, Mohit. The three of us also own Treks (a well-known American bicycle brand), which are a bit more sophisticated than our parrot-green Taiwanese ones. Ranjan joined a karate class soon after the Manali-Leh trip and he is now well on the way to becoming a black belt. Thanks to his tough fitness regime, he also possesses the strongest pair of knees in Gurgaon.

The Manali-Leh trip is a wonderful adventure and I told Ranjan and Mohit that I’ll be with them in spirit as they give it a try this year. I am certain it won’t be long before I go again as well; it’s just the mode of transport that I am not sure about.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Nuts in June

Rahul was evidently in much discomfort. His feet kept sliding off the pedals and he was swerving around as if the sugarcane juice he just drank had been spiked with a generous amount of vodka. I was trailing closely behind and noticed, to my alarm, that his ears were turning bright red. Either the man was receiving signals from an alien spaceship or he was suffering from severe heat exhaustion.

We, Rahul, Ranjan and I, were cycling from Delhi to Manesar to attend a workshop that was being conducted by the bosses in our ad agency in the misguided notion that it’ll make their employees more productive. It was noon and the temperature was steadily rising on the Jaipur highway. The workshop was scheduled to start at 3 pm, and it turned out that we had chosen one of the hottest days of the year for our little expedition.

Rahul was cycling for the first time since his school days, and to his credit, he hung on gamely, not complaining even once. But now, he was in danger of seriously falling ill.

We stopped at a Haldiram’s on the highway and convinced him to call it a day. He had done about 40 km, a remarkable feat under the circumstances. We made arrangements for him and his bicycle to be picked up by another colleague who was heading to the workshop in a car.

Ranjan and I carried on. We increased the pace, two cocky veteran cyclists who surely can’t be bothered by something as trifling as a 45C heat wave. After a few kilometres, we were slowed down by a winding climb and a ferocious head wind that felt like riding into the arms of a flame thrower. Soon, it was Ranjan’s turn to succumb.

He collapsed under a tree, complaining of headache and nausea and insisted that we go no further. His lips had turned pale and he looked like a man who had come in the way of a Mike Tyson uppercut.

Surprisingly, I was feeling all right, and rather unsympathetically, I egged him on. “No pain, Ranjan,” I said pouring water over his head. “No pain.” The phrase is from Ranjan’s three-year-old son’s favourite movie Rocky, starring Slyvester Stallone. It’s what Ranjan says to his son to stop him crying when he hurts himself, but I don’t think Ranjan appreciated my choice of motivational words now.

I was very impressed with my own performance in the heat. “I have lived for many years in the South and my body is used to all this,” I boasted to Ranjan as he reluctantly got onto his bike again. It was soon after that I got my attack of heat cramps.

We had stopped for a sip of water when I suddenly felt my legs freeze. I couldn’t move an inch and was rooted to the spot. It was like being paralysed from the knee up. I wailed for Ranjan who, gallantly ignoring his problems, came to my rescue and helped me remove the bike from between my legs. I was in a state of panic. I talked hysterically about stretchers and ambulances. The ‘No Pain’ philosophy obviously didn’t apply to me.

The people travelling on the Delhi-Jaipur highway were then treated to the intimate act of Ranjan vigorously massaging my thighs. After a few minutes, the circulation slowly returned to my legs. I discovered that I couldn’t walk for more than a few steps or even stand still for long without getting badly cramped again. The only thing that seemed to work was riding. For the next hour or so, till we reached our destination, we cycled non-stop in the midday heat, Ranjan and I in our different worlds of agony.

We made it to the venue just in time. It was one of those landscaped resorts, the sort of place where families who aren’t really adventurous spend a weekend in the swimming pool and pretend that they went on a real holiday. An exhausted Ranjan was looking forward to a shower and a nap, but I insisted that he first fetch me a glass of water mixed with salt.

I waited for him on my bicycle outside the reception area, going around in circles like a stunt man in a local fair. A couple of gardeners who were pruning the bushes nearby put down their shears and came over to stare at me. I drank the life-saving salt concoction while still riding and got off only after I was certain that I wouldn’t turn into a statue again.

I found the workshop surprisingly tolerable, possibly because I wasn’t on a hospital bed in the heart of Haryana attached to an intravenous drip and attended to by a local doctor fresh from milking his cows.

Our return trip to Delhi the next evening was also uneventful. The weather was better and all we had to do was survive the Jat drivers on the way who seemed intent on mowing us down.

After our misadventure, Ranjan and I have sworn to never attempt anything like this in the summer heat again. Unless, of course, there’s a frightful office picnic on the horizon.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Lance Armstrong vs The French

There are two Texans that no Frenchman or woman would want to be seen dead in a Parisian ditch with. One of them spent eight years in the White House and the other has seven consecutive Tour de France wins to his credit.

While the first, George W Bush, has slunk back into his hole in the Texan outback, the second, Lance Armstrong, has crawled out of retirement to torment France again. No doubt French blood is boiling from Nantes to Nice.

The nation has never really recovered from Lance’s first Tour win in 1999. You’d look pretty silly too if you organised one of the world’s toughest endurance events around your greatest passion, and a brash young foreigner climbs out of his hospital bed after battling life-threatening cancer and wins the damn thing in a canter.

The French coped by claiming that he was pumped up on banned substances though no tests have been able to prove this.

Lance’s return trips weren’t greeted with raucous cheers befitting a defending champion and hero, but with the French people standing around their countryside yelling Dope as he whizzed past, often in a blur of yellow. Leading newspapers like L’Equipe and Le Monde competed with each other to insult the American.

You’d think Lance would take the hint and stay away. Instead, he kept coming back, he kept winning and he kept pissing off the French by testing negative in every one of the hundreds of drug tests.

In 2004, Lance was dating Sheryl Crow and she followed him like a giddy groupie throughout the tour. Imagine going into a French restaurant with your rock star girlfriend when you know that the waiters are likely to spike your drink and Gallic undercover agents are possibly lurking around the restroom trying to siphon away precious drops of your pee.

Lance hasn’t exactly had a lot of nice things to say about the French either. For example, in 2006, during his speech at the ESPY awards, he remarked about the French world cup soccer team, “All their players tested positive… for being assholes”.

Preparations for Lance’s comeback Tour this year haven’t gone too well. He’s already had a run-in with the French anti-doping agency, calling one of their men ‘suspicious’ and refusing to be tested after a practise session. His favourite bike was stolen and he also broke his collarbone after suffering a nasty crash in one of the warm-up races. It’s highly unlikely that any French tears were shed.

Indeed, if there’s one thing that’s going to put the French off their wine and cheese more than a cancer-surviving Texan winning seven Tours is an ageing, retired, cancer-surviving Texan training with a broken collarbone winning his eighth. I don’t know what the headlines in L’Equipe and Le Monde will say but I suspect the word Dope will feature prominently in them.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Fitness blues

Cycling in the mountains is a lot harder than whizzing down a flat straight road. It helps if the cyclist is strong and in a reasonably good shape.

Unfortunately, I am neither. I also hate all kinds of fitness regimes. I am allergic to gyms and the idea of lying on mats and tying oneself into knots doesn’t hold much appeal for me either.

I remember asking my friend Shubho, our local cycling expert, about the importance of fitness for mountain trips. One of his many remarkable cycling feats is climbing from Manali to Leh on a monstrously heavy iron bike while chain-smoking all the way. “Highly overrated,” he assured me, adjusting his gel-filled gloves imported from France. “You get fit as you go along,” he added before proceeding to light a cigarette.

My cycling partners Ranjan and Mohit take fitness more seriously.

Ranjan is a karate champion. He breaks bricks with a nod of his head and flips people over his shoulders for fun. He also goes for kickboxing classes to strengthen his legs. The other day I saw him carrying a copywriter on his back up eight flights of stairs to our workplace. “I thought it would do my hamstrings good,” he told me when asked to explain his odd behaviour.

Mohit prefers more conventional training methods and hits the gym at the basement of his office complex. With the help of his trainer, he has drawn up an intricate chart full of specific leg exercises to help him climb better in the mountains. Every day, Mohit spends six hours in the gym and about an hour at work. I don’t know how he gets away with it. You’d think the management of his ad agency would suspect something if one of their key art directors stopping churning out layouts and started growing disproportionately large calf muscles.

Meanwhile, I have been avoiding all physical exertions and drinking lots of beer instead. After a couple of bottles, I am usually so confident of taking on any mountain that often I have to be physically restrained from getting on my bike and setting off immediately.

Our different training techniques were tested when we went on a mountain trip recently. I realised that Shubho’s tactics don’t work for me: I didn’t get fitter as I went along, I got more pooped.

Ranjan and Mohit, I must admit, did remarkably well. They climbed the mountainous stretch effortlessly as if it were a flat straight road. I brought up the rear, puffing and panting like I was suffering from a severe asthma attack. There were moments when I couldn’t breathe altogether.

My friends mockingly referred to my wheezing, contorted look as the ‘Dead Elvis Grin’, after the name given by fellow cyclists to Lance Armstrong’s snarl when he cracks during a climb. While it is very rare to see Lance wear such an expression, it’s my default look in the mountains.

Next, we are planning to go on a long trip through the Himalayas sometime in July or August. I know that I need to do something drastic and have decided to turn over a new leaf. To start with, I intend to stop guzzling all that beer and switch to vodka and whisky instead.

Ranjan on the climb to Kasauli.
Even from a distance, it is evident how easy
these things are for the martial arts types.

Mohit and Ranjan discussing the state of
world’s economy while waiting for me
to catch up during our climb to Lansdowne.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Loitering without intent

If I ever make a list of rules for cyclists in Delhi, then ‘Avoid Jat cops’ would be up there among the top three. Indeed, ‘Avoid all cops’ is a good general rule to follow, but the Jat variety is a particularly dangerous species and should be steered cleared of at all costs.

I had the misfortune to run into them at the Delhi-Faridabad highway border a few weeks back. It was a warm Sunday morning and I was out on a ride with my friend Mohit. We had covered some 30 kms and were going back through this less-explored road.

Mohit likes to take pictures of strategic locations and upload them on Google Earth for the benefit of other cyclists who he thinks would be inspired by our pioneering efforts. Unfortunately, this particular border was outside a police station and it was being manned by Jat cops, one of whom happened to spot him. (I shall call him Constable Hitler, though in real life they tend to have innocuous sounding names like Ram Singh.)

Constable Hitler came charging at us. “How dare you shoot me?” he thundered. Mohit calmly explained that he was just shooting pictures of the road and meant no harm. The story sounded very thin to Constable Hitler who was now joined by two of his colleagues who I shall call Constable Mussolini and Constable Franco.

The three constables took turns going through Mohit’s pictures: there was one of the road preceded by one of me posing in front of a dump truck near the border; there were also a few other pictures we took on the way like that of a bare-chested old man who owned the dhaba where we stopped for tea, and some cows curiously nibbling at our parked bicycles. Mohit volunteered to delete the pictures of the road and the one with me in front of the dump truck if they were causing distress.

“What are you doing cycling around these parts?” Constable Hitler asked, losing interest in the pictures and changing tack. “You have long hair,” he said looking at Mohit. “And what’s worse, you have a beard,” he accused me, glaring hard.

“Show me your identities,” demanded Constable Hitler who was now treating us as if we were members of the Laksher-e-Taiba.

Mohit said he usually doesn’t go cycling with his driver’s license and passport but fortunately I was carrying my wallet. I fished out my British Council Library Card with my photograph on it and gave it to Constable Hitler. He took it, turned it over and spent and inordinate amount of time reading the fine print that explained in great detail what to do if the card was lost or stolen.

Constable Mussolini and Constable Franco were beginning to lose interest in the proceedings now that there were no more pictures to see and slowly drifting away. We thought our ordeal was coming to an end but Constable Hitler was just warming up.

“I know you are here to take pictures of ladies,” he said, making a startling accusation. “So I am going to book both of you for loitering without intent,” he continued more bizarrely and hurtled a series of Indian Penal Code sections at us. “A bail will cost you Rs 5000, not that you are guaranteed to get one.”

I wanted to point out many inconsistencies: that the camera did not have any pictures of ‘ladies’ (unless he was referring to the cows); and that if our objective was to shoot ‘ladies’, the last place we would be is outside a highway police station at noon on a Sunday. Besides, if he wanted to book us for loitering without intent it was also illogical to accuse us of such strange intent in the first place. Instead, I kept quiet and let Mohit do all the reasoning.

“Please let us go,” he pleaded, trying to see if Constable Hitler had a soft spot. “We are just out cycling for fun on a holiday. We haven’t done anything.”

“You are unruly elements out to create trouble,” said Constable Hitler, getting nastier by the minute. “Follow me,” he barked and marched us into the police station across the road.

In Haryana, I believe the accepted practise when accosted by cops is to whip out your Blackberry and start making calls to various high-ranking officials. The other recommended method is to take out your AK-47 (which everyone carries around for such eventualities), and start firing in all directions. Since we didn’t know anybody important or have any firearms at our disposal, we were entirely at the mercy of Constable Hitler.

Inside the police station, we saw the Inspector (whom I shall refer to as Inspector Stalin) with a tough-looking chap in plain clothes poring over some files. No doubt they were calculating the number of terrorists who infiltrated the border or perhaps taking stock of the cocaine they seized that week.

Constable Hitler went up to him and proudly presented us as Exhibit A and Exhibit B. “Sir, I caught these two cycling.”

Inspector Stalin stopped everything he was doing, waved away Plainclothes, and looked us up and down. He was not a man who believed in preambles and came straight to the point. “Why are you cycling?” After a short pause he added with a sneer, “Are you practising for the Olympics by any chance?”

“No,” I replied in all earnest, ignoring the sarcasm, “We are not that good.”

“Why are you cycling then?” he repeated.

“For exercise,” I said, thinking of a good one.

“Exercise?” boomed Inspector Stalin, “Why don’t you go to a park and do your exercise?”

What I wanted to say was that I live in a free country and have all the right to cycle wherever and whenever I jolly well want to. What I did, of course, was shut up.

Constable Hitler passed my library card to Inspector Stalin who gave it a cursory glance. Mohit showed him the pictures and tried to convince him that we were recreational cyclists and not terrorists on a reconnaissance trip with plans to blow up the police station. Inspector Stalin was more interested in fiddling with the camera than looking at the pictures or listening to Mohit.

Constable Hitler, sensing that matters were getting out of hand, played his trump card. “Sir,” he said, “I think they are out to shoot pictures of ladies.”

There was a nerve-wracking moment as the Inspector mulled over this. And then, looking at Constable Hitler, he said, “What’s wrong with shooting pictures of ladies? Let them shoot pictures of ladies if they want to.”

Even on this surreal Sunday morning, we were not prepared for such an extraordinary outlook. Nor for that matter was Constable Hitler who was totally deflated and was sulking like a child from whom all his favourite toys have been confiscated.

Inspector Stalin, now thoroughly bored of the whole affair, dismissed us with a brusque wave of his hand. “Go away,” he said.

“But,” he warned us as we proceeded to leave, wagging his finger like a stern principal admonishing a student he caught doodling dirty pictures on the toilet wall, “don’t ever repeat it!”

One of the 'ladies' we were
accused of shooting.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Point and Shoot

About a year back, I got myself a pocket-sized Canon ‘Point and Shoot’ with the intention of recording some of my bicycling trips.

I have no technical knowledge and take the camera nomenclature very seriously: I point. I shoot. Mostly I end up pointing at and shooting my friends Ranjan and Mohit as they happen to be the ones I often go cycling with.

Mohit, being an art director, is at ease with photography and also carries a camera. His method is loosely based on George Bush’s tactics during the invasion of Iraq: Carpet Bombing. He shoots everything in sight and then uploads it on Google Earth.

Ranjan, like typical writers, doesn’t see the point of the whole thing. He’d rather be climbing another 1000 meters instead of being asked to pose in a certain way because the light is falling right just there.

I, on the other hand, unsure about my photography skills, fret over each picture. Since I also don’t know any Photoshop, I spend a long time trying to frame the perfect shot before either saving it for posterity or consigning it to the trash can. This can hold up the cycling for hours and it irks Ranjan no end.

“I have realised we don’t go on bicycling trips any more,” he complained bitterly to us as we reached for our cameras during a break on the way to Lansdowne. “We go on photography trips. The bikes are merely props and I am the model you take along.”

Looking at our cycling pictures is a bit like flipping through marriage albums. It’s the same picture repeated over and over again, with the occasional unknown character or location thrown in. The main difference is that while people usually get married only once, we go on cycling trips every three months or so.

While we combine cycling and photography, I have come to realise that we don’t do either very competently. As Mohit once put it, “We probably shoot as well as Lance Armstrong and cycle as well as Ansel Adams".

Ranjan just hates being photographed.

One of our numerous bike-against-wall shots. This one
is enhanced by the presence of a young man who turned
up to clean our rundown hotel room in Lansdowne.

A local cyclist we met on the way to Ranthambore.

Ranjan refuses to pose, but that never stops me.

Restless Mohit posing for me in Lansdowne.

Ranjan writing his memoirs in a hotel in Ambala where
we stopped on our way to Kasauli. It was one of the
better hotels we stayed in. It had things like a chair
and a light bulb.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Tiger Hunt

An open-topped Mazda, one of the designated government canters allowed inside the Ranthambore forest reserve, arrived at our hotel on schedule at 2pm to pick us up. Our guide, a tall young man named Altaf, was standing inside, holding tight to a railing, his eyes peeled as if he expected a few tigers to emerge from the hotel with us.

Mohit and I got in the front alongside the middle-aged driver who seemed to be a veteran of many such trips. The canter quickly filled up with an assortment of excited young couples and foreign tourists we collected from various luxurious resorts on the way. Some were carrying binoculars and a few even had tele-lenses attached to their digital cameras.

Mohit and I had earlier cycled to Ranthambore from Jaipur and gone up to the beautiful fort inside the reserve. Usually we head straight home after our cycling trips, but this time, since we had time on our hands, we decided to give the safari a try.

The forest area covered around 400 sq km and was divided into five zones. We made our way into Zone Four, where apparently tigers were spotted earlier in the day. We drove slowly through the lush forest, scanning every inch for any movement.

Suddenly our guide screamed for the vehicle to stop. All eyes followed his pointed finger and I saw a couple of rodents disappear into the undergrowth. “Mongooses,” he said reverently. “Not one, but two. According to Rajasthani folk wisdom, seeing a pair of mongooses during the start of a journey is a good omen.”

Cheered by this extraordinary slice of good luck, we continued on our way, the canter groaning as it negotiated dirt tracks, lurching wildly like a drunk on his way home. Once we stopped and took a long look at a deer that was spotted, which our conscientious guide identified as a spotted deer. A few minutes later, we halted and gazed at a few noisy parrots.

After an hour or so, people were tired of taking pictures of birds and they had enough of deer, spotted or otherwise. The possibility that the tigers of Ranthambore were lying low dawned on us, though no one said it aloud.

Good fortune, though, was around the corner. The mongooses, it seemed, were blessing us after all. We met a canter on its way back, filled with beaming people who looked like they had won lotteries. The excited guide of theirs assured us that there were tigers ahead and if we climbed a hill nearby, we too could see them.

Our driver, who was somnolently going through the motions, transformed into a DTC bus driver. We clung on for dear life as the Mazda thundered through the forest, skidding and swerving past trees whose branches grazed our arms. The couples behind us screamed and whooped.

Years ago, the Maharajas rode on elephants hunting tigers with their shotguns. Now, here we were in our 4x4 with our zoom lenses, charging through the forest, adrenaline pumping, on our own tiger hunt.

Soon, we were on top of the hill only to discover that there was quite a traffic jam up there. A half a dozen canters and many jeeps were jostling for space – it seemed all the tourists of Ranthambore were assembled and staring through their binoculars and tele-lenses.

I had expected the tigers to be walking up and down, posing like models on a ramp. I was quickly disillusioned. As we squeezed into a space between two jeeps, I looked across at the valley and examined it closely. To my naked eye, it seemed devoid of any big cats. A man from the nearby jeep informed us that the tigers were in the open earlier but now had gone under the cover of the trees.

A bespectacled young man from our canter claimed to spot one. “I can see it,” he exclaimed. “What does it look like?” asked the man next to him with the binoculars.
“Yellow with black stripes,” replied the wise bespectacled one.

All of us peered intently.

“Look, I can see its tail wagging,” the bespectacled man added.
“I can see it too,” said another man, who looked like a corporate big shot, quietly from under his straw hat.
The man with the binoculars was making no progress. “I can’t see anything. You must have great eyes,” he told Straw Hat.
“God given gift,” muttered Straw Hat modestly.
The man with the binoculars passed the equipment to his excited wife who looked all around with it. “I can’t see it either,” she whined.

All this while our guide was looking very distressed, as he too hadn’t seen anything. Now, with the help of the driver, he spotted it too. “Follow my finger”, he screeched jumping up and down, “Look where I am pointing. It is a tigress. With two cubs! Next to the trees near the cactus shrub.”

I looked hard into the distance. I saw many trees. I saw plenty of cacti. I didn’t see any tigress or cubs. I looked at Mohit who shook his head. “Nothing.”

The wife with the binoculars exclaimed, “I can see a black spot. Is the black spot the tigress?”
“That’s her mouth,” said the guide.
“It’s got deer meat in her mouth,” added the bespectacled one who wanted to be back in the limelight.
“I think it’s spotted deer,” said Straw Hat, not to be outdone.

I still couldn't see anything remotely resembling a tigress.

“The tigress has moved and is now sitting inside the cluster of those tall bushes,” said our guide, who seemed to have suddenly developed X-ray vision. “The cubs are to the left of her.”
“A sitting tiger doesn’t get up easily,” said the driver philosophically and proceeded to chew some pan.

Mohit, who was sneakily taking pictures of people looking at the tigress, now abandoned all stealth and clambered onto the canter’s railings and started shooting them like paparazzi.
“There are hundreds of pictures of tigers on the internet,” he said to me, “but I bet there aren’t any good ones of people looking for tigers. I can sell these to Getty Images.”

As the light started to fade, the canters began turning back. We were the last one to go, reluctantly leaving the tigress and her cubs behind.
The people inside our vehicle convinced themselves that they had seen the tigress and the cubs. The couple with the binoculars thanked God for making it their lucky day. The bespectacled man and Straw Hat argued about the kind of meat it was feeding on.

For Mohit and I, the cycling trip was the high point and though we enjoyed the safari ride through the forest, neither of us saw the endangered cats. Maybe we too would’ve had better stories to tell if we had visited Ranthambore just as tourists.