I’m glad they insisted I wear the helmet. As long as we were cruising swiftly and silently through the forest on the flat I could be forgiven for considering this an unnecessary cosmetic. But now, perched as we were on the lip of a crag with a perilously steep and rocky decline before me, I considered a prayer to fortify the helmet. Then I released the brakes.
The bike bucked as spiritedly as a young filly as we bounded down the slope, but I survived the trip. Looking up, I saw the others silhouetted briefly against a brightening sky before they came down gracefully, negotiating the boulders and dodging the inch-long thorns of the low branches of kikar trees with skilled expertise.
This was not the formal mountain biking club I had been led to believe, just a bunch of friends with a passion for cycles and the outdoors. But they had organised themselves admirably. Their bikes were sturdy, lightweight imports, their gear impressive. On weekends, they rode on the Ridge or did longer road trips: along the Yamuna to Noida, or from Gurgaon to Faridabad. Once in a while, they rode their bikes in the Shimla hills, and now they planned to do Ladakh. It was clear from their easy camaraderie that this had as much to do with friendships as with exercise. My reasons for agreeing to forgo the pleasure of sleeping in on the weekend had primarily to do with nostalgia, of renewing my relationship with the city I felt I had lost.
I had forgotten how beautiful Delhi looked at dawn, slumbering peacefully under a gossamer blanket of fog. I drove south in the soft, lilac light, to my rendezvous at the Ridge, passing the gurudwara where dogs still slept, tight as commas, and young turbaned acolytes swept the street clear of leaves with brooms twice as tall as themselves; passing too the grand bungalows of Lutyens’ Delhi where maalis worked discretely at lawns. Emptied of people and cars the city reminded me of another Delhi, one to which I had eagerly arrived so many years ago, excited and impressed.
Like most people going about their business in this vast, sprawling metropolis I don’t really belong. Unlike the others, though, I don’t curse Delhi; this city that has sheltered uncomplainingly for so long. And though it is true that I have consumed my share of smoke, particulate matter, abuse, viruses, thugs, and the barely filtered sludge, which comes out of the Yamuna and lodges in the gut, I have also eaten its salt, and so beholden I must remain. This isn’t blind loyalty. It springs from the early love affair we had, the city and me, when we were both younger.
Two factors contributed to the passion. The first was a membership procured at a pittance, to the President’s Estate Polo Club, which allowed me to explore the Ridge on horseback. And the other was my bicycle, a blue light-framed Hero with drop handlebars, upon which I glided through streets as yet uncluttered by the debris of flyovers and road rage. And yes, the third, most vital element of all, was time, unchecked by a job or deadlines, insouciant, stretching out as endlessly as the long road from Jangpura to the Qutub, where I would spend afternoons watching the minaret appear miraculously, trembling upon the damp paper under the careless strokes of my paintbrush.
All this ended abruptly. The city grew up and I suppose I did too, albeit more reluctantly.
But here I was again on the Ridge — that marvellous, rugged country of ravines and kikar scrub forest, packed red earth and peacocks. Time had rewound 15 years. The forest closed around me quickly, snuffing out even the most occasional of traffic noises. All I could hear was the light scrunch of dry leaves under my tires. Above, the sky was a vast, rose-tinted dome across which an occasional aircraft would silently appear and disappear in slow motion.
Turning a corner, I came upon the shattered battlements of an old fort, a few minutes later I was startled by a covey of partridges that whirred out suddenly in front. I passed a few morning-walkers with their over-bred German Shepherds and old mustachioed men with twigs of neem and brass lotas. Then, a small temple painted red, tucked away in a thicket, and later, in a clearing of the forest, an old saint’s dargah. The Ridge, I realise, is a secret, parallel universe in the heart of the city, the same city that reveals only its squalor to lesser mortals. It beckons and reveals itself only to the most ardent and persistent of suitors, those who would approach on foot, on horse, or on bicycle.
Some of the routes the mountain biking enthusiasts ride are: from Qutub Minar to Dhauj, Chanakyapuri to Greater Noida, and on the Delhi Ridge