“Kitna paisa lagega? How much is it going to cost?” asked Mark addressing the repairman.
This was the first time that Mark had asked the price of a commodity or a service that he wanted. He never got into situations like these as he usually dealt with plastic cards or virtual online accounts. Born in Bangalore to an industrialist, and a real estate baron, Mark was quite the Marie Antoinette of our generation. He loved Belgian chocolate cakes.
Mark attended college only in his ‘free time’ until his attendance percentage dropped below the minimum threshold. In one of the missions to float above the threshold, he was fighting off sleep in an economics lecture.
“The Indian rupee is an example of a fiat currency” explained Professor Sharma in his loud voice. He had delivered over a hundred lectures on this topic throughout his teaching years. “This means, the value of the currency notes are guaranteed by the government that has issued it. Take, for example, the 500 rupee note. It is valuable because the issuing authority (The Reserve Bank of India in our case) has promised its value to the bearer. If you look closely, you will find that any Indian rupee note will contain the statement saying ‘I promise to pay the bearer a sum…’”. Prof. Sharma was interrupted by the sight of a pupil who had dozed off.
“Markandeyulu” shouted the Professor.
Mark was unmoved. His neighbour ebbed his elbow whispering “YeddeLo. Wake up”.
“Markandeyulu” thundered the professor, now approaching towards him. Mark woke up rubbing his eyes and in a moment of stark realization of what was happening, he stood up.
“Get out of my class”. Plain and simple.
Mark glanced at his watch. Fifty-five minutes had passed in the lecture and five minutes left. To be thrown out now would mean on losing out on a class’ worth of attendance after ‘attending’ the (well, almost) whole lecture. The horror, the horror.
“Sir, sorry, sir. Last chance” he mumbled.
“I will be recording you as an absentee anyway. You better end our mutual misery by leaving the class right away” said the professor, with an snarky grin on his face.
Distraught, Mark left the class.
Named after his great-grandfather, Markandeyulu insisted on shortening his name to the anglicized and ‘stylish’ sounding version. His father had made it clear that the consequence of meddling with his name would result in the deactivation of all his credit cards. With friends, though this was easier to handle. Any person calling him by his full name would be banned from attending the parties he hosted.
Mark went home to find that the fancy biking gear that he had ordered had been delivered. This was the preparation for the solo biking trip which he had planned from Manali in Himachal Pradesh to Leh in Jammu and Kashmir. The schedule was such that he would complete the trip and be back in Bangalore on the morning of his 21st birthday. A grand party had been planned for the occasion.
Next thing he knew, he was in the hilly town of Manali. The lovely weather and beautiful place made for a great start to his bike trip. He went into one of the shops renting motorcycles and picked up a Royal Enfield Thunderbird. The store owner promptly pointed to a signboard that said “No Card. Only Cash” when Mark brandished his platinum credit card. He made the payment in cash and set out for the journey.
The view from Rohtang Pass (13,000 ft) was breathtaking. He was enjoying the ride, although he was starting to feel the fatigue. He had planned to stay the night in Pang (15,100 ft) which was on the Leh-Manali highway. With the altitude sickness setting in, he wondered if he could last till Pang. As he zoomed past Sarchu (14,100 ft), he regained confidence and decided to stick to the original plan.
The highway is an engineering marvel with the Border Roads Organisation making way in the cold desert and its unforgiving conditions. As Mark traversed the exquisite highway, he felt something was amiss and his doubts were put to rest when the Thunderbird coughed twice and came to a dead halt. Dusk was fast approaching and Mark was staring at the dry and arid desert, hoping for a miracle. He tried kick starting the vehicle, but with no avail. He had zilch idea of the workings of a motorbike to even take a look inside. All of this adding to his fatigue that had compounded into a splitting headache.
He stood on the side of the road with his gaze transfixed on one end in the hope of catching the glimpse of an oncoming vehicle. The sun was setting on Ladakh and the cold desert was preparing to live up to its name. Mark was on the brink of panic due to the miserable situation and a dearth of ideas.
He had stared at the empty road long enough to accept Zeno’s argument that all motion, in fact, was an illusion. A dark figure finally disproved this by moving towards Mark from the far end of the road. It was an old lady with a bunch of twigs on her back. He approached her and asked something that involved the words Motorbike, repair and night.
“Yahan kuch nahi milega, gaav me jaana padega. (You won’t find anything here, head to the village)” said the lady.
She was old. Her face was wrinkled, yet firm. She spoke softly and her back had hunched because of the sticks she was carrying. There was a string beaded with colourful stones around her neck. She managed to respond in Hindi.
“Kahan hai yeh gaav? ” asked a feverish Mark, desperate for any sort of respite.
“Main wahin rehti hoon, chalo mere saath. Come with me” she said with a toothy smile.
Both of them started towards the nondescript village of the Manali-Leh highway.
“Subah mein repair wala theek kardega, yahin se nakalta hai woh. The repairman will fix it in the morning” she said, looking at the bike in an effort to assure him. She succeeded.
The moon was out now and darkness had started to descend upon them. It was getting colder and the bike was getting harder to push along for Mark.
“Kitne saal ki hai aap?” he asked, in a bid to strike a conversation to keep his mind off the hardship.
“Solah. Sixteen.” she replied, laughing heartily.
He smiled and they walked. The old lady could walk a lot faster, but she had adjusted her pace to accommodate for Mark’s sluggishness.
He could now see a few structures at a distance as the dusk gave up upon them by embracing nightfall. She led him to one of the structures, which was a crude hybrid between a tent and a thatched hut. Mark was now having his doubts about spending the night here. What if a gang of goons who barged in and looted him? What if she was the goon? But then he had no other choice.
The ‘room’ in her house was strewn with blankets. One end of it was designated for cooking and the other led to an enclosure which Mark assumed was the toilet.
She brought out two glasses of piping hot ginger tea and held one out to him. He took a sip and was instantly impressed by the magic ginger and honey could weave.
“Aap akeli rehti hai yahan pe?”
“Mera ek beta tha. Teen saal pehle mar gaya. My son died three years ago” She said it in such a matter of fact fashion that it caught him by surprise. She nonchalantly went on to prepare dinner.
As they ate steamed Momos, Mark put into words what he was wondering from a while.
“Aap kaam kya karte ho? What do you do for a living?”
“Sweater bunti hoon factory mein. I weave sweaters. Paas mein hai.” she said, beaming with pride.
“Kitna milta hai aapko mahine mein?” How much did she make in a month, Mark wanted to know.
“Poore teen hazaar rupiye” Three thousand, she prided. Holding up three of her fingers to Mark’s face. She was now showing off, with a grin on her face.
“Chal jata hai, teen hazaar mein sab kuch?” Mark wondered if three thousand was enough for a month. He could survive a week on that much.
“Buddhu bacchha. Do hazaar mein sab kuch nikal jaata hai. Ek hazaar saving hai” she winked at him, grinning ear to ear. Two thousand was enough for her.
Mark was taken aback. She called him a dimwit for no good reason and he wanted to retaliate by telling her that his sunglasses were worth 3 months of her work. But then, he decided to take the high road and keep mum.
“Taron ko dekha hai kabhi, bacchha?” Have you seen stars, kid? Asked the lady as she gestured him to follow her out of the house.
Of course he had seen stars, what kind of a question was that. Mark followed her and looked up. The question made sense to him now. Every inch of the night sky was filled with tiny dots of light. Each of these carrying the message of a billion years ago and billions of kilometres away. Spellbound, he stared.
A few minutes later, he sat down shivering. The lady was sitting a few feet away. Unexpectedly, she pulled out a bottle of Old Monk that was three-quarters full and pointed it at him.
“Piyoge?” she asked him mischievously.
She brought out two steel tumblers and poured carefully. He sipped on to it with gratitude, humbled by the old villager’s generosity.
Dawn broke and Mark woke up rubbing his eyes. The magnitude of the events of the previous night struck him hard. The old lady might have saved his life, for all he knew.
He washed his face and changed his clothes. He went up to the old lady and pulled out all the currency notes that were there in his wallet. He offered them to her.
“Amma, yeh aapke liye” Thanks for saving my life.
“Arre buddhu, sab paisa mujhe dedoge toh gadi kaise theek karoge?”
She was right. He needed the money for the repairs. He promised that he would give her whatever remained after the repairs got done. He headed to the what looked like the only shop in the village.
“Kitna paisa lagega? How much is it going to cost?” asked Mark addressing the repairman.
“Teen Hazaar. Three thousand”.Mark counted the money in his wallet. Six notes of 500 each. No money left for the lady.
“Kam karoge?” He tried his hand at bargaining for the first time in his life.
“Teen Hazaar or no repair” was the response. He gave away all the notes right away. He failed.
The repairman replaced a few parts and got it working again. Mark took the bike to the lady’s house struggling with guilt. He had no money to give her. He thought of giving her his jacket or sunglasses or his shoes, but he was sure she would not accept. They were of no use to her.
“Sorry, poora paisa repair mein lag gaya” He apologised.
She laughed. “Mujhe paison ki zaroorat nahi”. I don’t need money. She waved him goodbye and left for her day’s work. He snuck back into her house and left her his sunglasses, just to satisfy his guilt.
He got his backpack from her house and started his journey towards Leh. He felt that he had validated her condescension. He was indeed a buddhu.
Mark had an enjoyable trip which culminated at Bangalore on the morning of his 21st birthday. Later that evening, during the party in one of Bangalore’s premier pubs, Mark was spotted sitting in the open air section.
He sat there, staring at the sky while sipping on lukewarm rum from a steel tumbler.