In the times of Thunderbirds, Triumphs, Activas and Vespas, it might be considered strange to be thinking about a childhood spent on a Bajaj Classic SL scooter.
Most of my early years and even a large part of my adulthood were spent on my dad’s beloved scooter. It might appear as a sign of penury, or insufficiency or stagnant lower middle class growth because we do live in times where upgrading vehicles on a yearly basis has become a sign of status and affluence. But that isn’t the case with us.
My parents are both educationists and earn well enough to be able to afford a decent lifestyle in a remote borderland district in Jammu. I studied in well-known institutions such as Miranda House, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Ambedkar University. My younger sister is at Delhi Public School, Mathura Road.
The point is that this story is about more than wealth, affluence and upgrading vehicles.
I have spent many years away from home for my studies, but it is only now that I have realised that a large part of my life at home was about scooter rides with Dad on his Bajaj.
Some of you might not know what it means to be ‘scooter-riding’ around a place like my home. Have you ever driven through the pockets of Himalayan Panjals, through lush green maidans and majestic hills, across higher reaches that take you closer to the passes – which in good old days served as gateways to the greater Himalayan Vale of Kashmir?
Perhaps the tourist-savvy Bullet riders en route to Leh might have also not discovered this place. Here, I am writing of and from the other side of Himalayas in Kashmir, the one that is sumptuously scenic but its charm and magic had been frozen in the annals of a history of conflict and violence. I am writing of the peripheral spaces infamous as the borderlands of Kashmir.
Poonch, a town sitting in the valley of a river that defines its serenity and constricts its growth, is a historic land that served as a gateway to Kashmir for centuries – especially for invaders entering Kashmir through the Hindu Kush passes.
In his book Tareeq-e-Aqwam Poonch, social historian Mohammad din Fouq writes of Loharkote (the present day scenic village of Loran in tehsil Mandi of Poonch), as a strong fort that took a conqueror as fierce as Mahmud Ghazni more than 20 attempts to breach its walls. The famous queen Dida of Kashmir belonged to Loharkote dynasty.
Due to the nature of conflict here, archaeologists have not prioritised studying these lands. But the mind minutely excavates through such imaginations, and thus one such ride across Loran a few years ago has been etched in my memories.
I remember after having paid our respects at the ziarat of Sain Ilahi Baqsh, we collected some freshly baked delicacies from the local bakery near the dargah and began our journey back home on Dad’s scooter through the curvilinear downhill road on the riverside. A few minutes into the ride, we heard the sound of water gushing down a brook. Surrendering to our temptation of spending a few minutes by the stream, we parked our scooter nearby and began our ascent to the brook.
All of a sudden, Dad, who was walking ahead of me, signalled at me to be quiet. I kind of knew what it meant, but wasn’t too sure. It was only when he took a few more steps back that I realised that he had spotted a bear. The sight of a bear is not uncommon here and encounters such as these only add to the infamous bear-tales of these lands.
In no time, we sprinted back to our scooter. It was surreal. Dad later told me that it looked like a small bear cub, or so it had seemed from the distance we were at. The danger was of a mother-bear nearby. They, like us, also may have been enticed by the sound of brook.
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A ride through the traditional wooden-mud houses reminiscent of a rich bygone tradition of constructions and architecture that evening, with Dad’s never ending rumination over nature and mankind, these lands and his ancestors had me spellbound. I closed my eyes and surrendered myself to the tunes of nature. A gentle breeze brushing my face transported me back to the times when these hills would have stood tall through numerous incursions. I was trying to enter these mountains and their spirit through the reign of queen Dida, trying to peep into the lives of women and girls here, their lives of Pahari-ethnic origin and upbringing such as mine but with diversities of their own, only manifested and separated by time.
My eyes marvelled at the sight of children huddled under a huge walnut tree. The sight of lush green terraced fields with women in salwar-kameez and pots of water on their heads, stacks of wood to be used as timber for the night on their backs – mingling figments of my imagination about the past with the realities of the present.
I remember riding across Loran in silence with Dad – a silence that was out of respect of the memory of our ancient lands.
Purchased in May 1999, the scooter has been kept alive by my Dad’s careful nurturing and gentle handling. For the past three years, my ethnographical ventures into the frontier border-regions of Poonch have been rich and resourceful, particularly because of my companion – Dad. And his companion, of course – the Bajaj-SL. Crossing barbed fenced gates, getting clearances, riding through groups of young ones with school bastas on their back, Dad reaching out to the children with a fist full of sweets has become a ritual every time we ride.
The villagers know him just as well – thanks to his innumerable postings as a school-master all across these lands, and I guess he too attributes his social ties to his scooter as greeting people while riding is easier when you are on a scooter. You are visible there, can stop, slow down and pace up based on friendships that have been built. Perhaps people now know me as his daughter, who rides through these lands with a recorder and a pen in her hand. My image of the ethnographer in me is not without our scooter.
Often, we have stood on these fronts and gazed across these boundaries onto the other side, discussing what it would have been like if these borders never existed. We would have ridden to Rawalakote (only 40 km from Poonch town) and Hajira-Kalote – my Dad’s ancestral house.
Often, we stand with our scooter near these fences, wanting to ride on into an undivided peaceful world which exists only in our dreams.
As I write this, Dad, who has had his Bajaj repaired the 100th time, tells me that we are good to go. This piece is an ode to our never ending quest.
Here’s to many more such experiences of learning, research and writing on a Bajaj Classic SL, my Dad’s third child.
Malvika Sharma is a PhD Sociology Research Fellow at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She can be reached at [email protected]
Featured image provided by the author