An Oral History of the COVID-19 Crisis: 'I was strolling through land once ruled by the infamous dacoits of Chambal'

This account is part of Firstpost’s Oral History Project of the COVID-19 Crisis in India. The Oral History Project aims to be an ongoing compendium of individual experiences of the pandemic, with a focus on one significant day in our respondents’ lives during this time.

Andrew Menezes February 13, 2021 12:43:13 IST
An Oral History of the COVID-19 Crisis: 'I was strolling through land once ruled by the infamous dacoits of Chambal'

Andrew Menezes is a Mumbai-based IT professional.

Once I began working from home due to the ongoing pandemic, I realised that instead of cycling in circles, I could head out in one direction and take my work with me. How difficult could it be with the roads being empty and hotels cheaper due to the dwindling demand? I was, after all, used to cycling in Mumbai, sometimes for three hours at a stretch. And so, in preparation of my upcoming journey – much of which was spontaneous – I began venturing out, keeping myself safe but still getting a taste of the outdoors in the age of social distancing.

In October, I finally took off on my second-hand gear bicycle to Nasik, marking the first leg of my tour. The three-day segment was to be an indicator of whether a longer trip would be possible, and to my surprise, I surpassed my own expectations on the second day of the journey itself, covering about 120 kilometers. I had always dreamed of breaking out of the set circuit and cycling long distances, and it was finally happening during the lockdown. Soon, it began: my 3,000-km journey across three states and 23 Indian cities, beginning with Nasik. Next on the map was Indore.

It had been raining and I had just crossed the Chambal river, a sight to behold with the desert on one side and the lush grassland on the other. Watching that view in the rain and cycling on those highways was sheer joy. And then I heard it, the loud snap. My pedal broke and the gear came apart. I slipped as my left thigh braced for the trauma of the fall. It took minutes, if not seconds, for the euphoria of the journey to wear off and be replaced by a familiar feeling of disappointment. I realised I couldn't cycle any further as I began retracing my steps to collect the machine parts that had fallen along the way. It almost seemed like a mean joke to be rewarded with that view of the Chambal, and have it taken away like that.

Read more from the Oral History Project here.

I somehow managed to pull myself together to contemplate my next course of action. Immediately, my attention went to a small shop nearby selling mawa cakes. While I ate from a box of sweets to keep my spirits up, the shopkeeper told me that the closest cycle repair service was actually 17 kms away in Morena.

An Oral History of the COVID19 Crisis I was strolling through land once ruled by the infamous dacoits of Chambal

Andrew Menezes' 3000-km journey in photos.

'Why is that guy walking with a cycle?' puzzled dhaba owners on the highway seemed to wonder. I had decided to walk the 17 km stretch, politely refusing help along the way. It was important that I truly lived the solo-travel experience, trials and tribulations included. This is probably what sets cycling trips apart — you get to immerse yourself in your surroundings in a way that no other mode of travel allows, I thought.

During my walk to Morena, I noticed there weren't a lot of vehicles on the road and the sun was beginning to set. With that came the realisation that I was strolling through a land once ruled by the infamous dacoits of Chambal. I started thinking of the warnings that people back home had issued about the perils of crossing this seemingly notorious stretch of Madhya Pradesh.

Surprisingly, I had never felt alone on the road despite thinking I was invisible to everyone around. From the dhabawalas who invited me in for a cup of tea to the truck drivers who kept stopping to offer me a lift to the nearest town, so much in the span of an evening had challenged my prejudices and the 'smallness' of this small town. My final encounter of the day was with the mechanic in Morena, who was about to shut shop but readily travelled to the other side of town to fetch the part needed to repair my bicycle. He was intrigued by my story, he said. And I was intrigued by him, the dhabawalas, the tractor drivers, and the evening spent cycling by the Chambal river.

— As told to Anvisha Manral

Write to us with your COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown experiences for inclusion in the Oral History Project at firstculturefeatures@gmail.com

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