My grandfather’s bicycle always struck me as a very odd object. It was big, strong and sturdy enough to ride along the steep and rough mountains, but it was also the most uncomfortable ride in the world. It was painted black, so I always called it, ‘the Black Elephant’.
I would stare at it in awe every time Bubu (grandfather) rushed out of the house, sliding it off its heavy stand on which it rested, when parked. He would always urge me to hurry up after him. He would tilt the bicycle sideways towards me, so I could prop myself on the carrier behind him and sit on the makeshift seat.
The bicycle endured the bumps and slippery gravel along the narrow lanes of Mussoorie, as Bubu navigated the sharp bends effortlessly.
The aroma of burning coal fire and boiling rice melted into the air when we cycled through the edge of the village, but it quickly changed into a strong, woody musk as the bicycle glided into the pine forest. Even if I closed my eyes, I could tell where we were passing through, just from what I smelled.
Each time the tyres went over a bump, I would grab on to Bubu’s torso, his old checked shirt giving me a whiff of strong detergent.
I would try to distract myself from the poking edges of the bicycle carrier by looking up at the thick canopy of pine trees, evergreen and strong. It was always reassuring to look at these trees, which were about half a century old but still sturdy. They looked like they would probably be the same, half a century later.
‘Mahout of the black elephant, overlord of mountain shortcuts and warrior of goat traffic,’ I would tease him, as I hopped off the carrier, my backside sore and my bones rattled.
I always made it to school on time, no matter how many songs we sang on this journey or how many stops we made to pick wild berries along the way.
He would chuckle and say, ‘I’ll be back at 1500 hours,’ every time he dropped me at the school gate.
And he was always punctual. Even at home, my grandfather would be methodical and disciplined, a remnant from his days as a sailor.
I would pester him for stories every night, and his tales would often spill well beyond bedtime. But once he started recollecting his childhood days, he would forget about the curfews.
He would often tell me about how he and his little gang of village urchins used to explore the mountainside barefoot, identify birdsongs from across the hills and dig up fresh water springs straight out of the ground, whenever they were thirsty. He ended these stories with an anecdote about a broken bone or two.
Bubu and I had lived together for as long as I could remember. He took me to the village fair every Diwali and I read him letters that came from his Naval friends. The sweet-and-sticky, black-coloured sweet, bal mithaiwas the one common love we shared, and every Saturday after school, Bubu had a plate waiting for me.
On one such Saturday, when I rushed out of my class to greetBubu at the school gate at 3 O’ clock sharp, I was surprised to find that he wasn’t there. I walked around the back gate of the school to look for him but couldn’t find him there either.
I waited for more than two hours under a tree near the gate—the same one he would usually lean his bicycle against. As the crowd thinned and the chatter of students died down, I kept my eyes firmly on the gate, hoping to catch a glimpse of my grandfather. He had never missed a day, except when his cow went into labour one day exactly at 2:45 p.m., delivering a beautiful baby calf, two hours later.
But that was an exception. He didn’t even have animals anymore, so I wondered what could have possibly kept him from coming to school to fetch me.
Tired and irritated, I walked out of the school gate myself, dragging my schoolbag behind me. It would take me at least an hour and fifteen minutes to walk home, I calculated.
By the time I was half way home, I was completely out of breath. It would start getting dark in an hour, I thought, as I picked up the pace, despite my aching limbs and thumping heart.
As soon as I reached the final bend around the road, my heart suddenly sank. I saw my grandfather’s bicycle lying sideways on the edge of the road, its hind tyre spinning in a tizzy. My mouth went dry.
I tried to choke back tears, expecting signs of a possible accident. I took a few steps around the bend to look over the edge, into the steep valley below.
I turned cold. He wouldn’t have survived if he fell off the bend.
Just then, I heard footsteps echoing in the distance. I followed the sound to see my grandfather walking in the direction of our home, with his back towards me.
‘Bubu!’ I screamed as loudly as I could, my voice rumbling. ‘Over here!’
He didn’t turn, so I raced ahead to catch up, my heart thumping.
‘Oh! Chotu, you’re here!’ he said, as he turned around to see me. ‘Good heavens, I have lost my way! I…..I can’t tell if it’s this way or that,’ he tried to explain but couldn’t complete the sentence.
‘What?’ I was aghast. ‘Bubu, you forgot the way to my school?’ I asked, shocked. We had taken the same route for the past eight years, every day.
‘I don’t know, I just don’t know….,’ he mumbled under his breath. ‘School? Are you coming back from school now? Why didn’t you wait till I picked you up?’
I held his hand and led him to his bicycle, a strange feeling washing over me.
I wanted to tell him he was meant to pick me up two hours ago. I wanted to ask him how he managed to forget the way to my school. Maybe he had some work to do and he was simply pretending to hide the fact that he had forgotten to pick me up from school. I wanted to be angry.
Instead, I was frightened. And sad. Something is wrong with him, I thought.
As I sat on the bony seat behind him, navigating the rest of the way home, I realized he had been forgetting small things for the last few months. I just hadn’t noticed.
In the past few months, he had complained that he had trouble calculating the change he got from the vegetable vendors. ‘I don’t remember where I have kept my socks,’ he had exclaimed one morning. He had even left his bed unmade a few times, which for a former sailor in the Navy, was nothing short of a crime.
That evening, I was hesitant to let him go alone for his daily trip to the vegetable market, so I accompanied him on his walk.
I walked one step behind him, watching his heavy-set frame slouch slightly, and his shoulders droop downwards. I followed him to the local shop in the market.
‘Two litres of milk, one kilo ghee and one kilo … one kilo….uh, I… I… I don’t know what I came here for,’ Bubu mumbled, rubbing his forehead. His face was flushed red.
‘And a dozen eggs,’ I chimed in.
‘Oh yes, eggs…uh…probably eggs,’ said Bubu, a look of confusion sweeping across his face. He thrust a few notes into my palm to give to the shopkeeper and stepped out in a hurry.
When I followed him outside, trying to juggle the items in my hand, Bubuturned towards me, ‘I don’t know what’s happening to me, bal. It’s not normal…this is not normal – I just forgot what I came to buy,’ he said, his voice trembling while he spoke. ‘I was never this forgetful and…confused…something is wrong with me, I think.’
He rested his hand on my shoulder as he stepped onto the sidewalk and sat on the bench, facing the sun setting between the mountains.
‘It’s getting blurry,’ Bubu said, looking into the distance. ‘Everything is blurry because of the fog, ha?’
‘Don’t worry, Bubu, we will be home safely,’ I reassured him, even though there was no fog that evening. Perhaps Bubu’s vision was failing too.
The next day, I went to the village chief’s house to inform him of my grandfather’s condition and perhaps get some advice on what I should do next.
‘Probably just old age, boy, don’t worry,’ the chief said, while examining his vegetable patch in his backyard.
‘You see these leaves, they get old and yellowed with age,’ he was wielding a pair of scissors in one hand and holding a bunch of yellowing leaves in another.
‘They must go when they have to, boy. Do you understand?’ he asked, as I nodded, even though I didn’t understand.
‘New leaves will come in its place. It’s simply the law of nature,’ the chief said, peering at me over his glasses that rested on the edge of his pointed nose.
Was he talking about Bubu? Yes, I knew he was old and someday would die, but I loved him, and I simply could not imagine what would happen to me if he went. We had only each other as family.
I walked home, angry and sad. ‘How could the chief have been so casual? It wasn’t his loved one who was suffering, I guess, so he didn’t care,’ I thought, as hot tears rolled down my cheeks.
‘Oh, why Bubu? Why me? Why us?’
I stopped to sit on a lone bench by the road, sobbing till I thought my heart would burst.
By the time I reached home that evening, the postman was at the doorway, arguing with Bubu.
‘But it is addressed to you!’ the postman was saying to Bubu.
Bubu was shaking his head vigorously. ‘I don’t know a Bisht. This has been wrongly addressed!’
When I reached the doorway, the postman thrust the postcard into my palm.
‘The old man is losing it,’ he said, walking away.
As I looked at the sender’s name, I realized who it was. As we sat down for dinner, I placed the postcard in front of Bubu.
‘You remember Bisht?’ I asked.
‘Oh for god’s sake! The postman kept asking me this, and now you. I don’t know anyone by this name. There has been some mistake!’
‘Bubu, Bisht has been your friend for the past thirty years. You were in the Naval training academy together.’ I gulped, trying to swallow the big lump building in my throat.
‘You have told me so many stories about him, Bubu’ I said quietly. ‘You forgot him?’ I asked.
‘Would he forget me too?’ I thought, nervously.
Just before bedtime, I decided to open the envelope addressed to Bubu. Inside, was a postcard from erstwhile Bombay. It was a picture of a ship docked in a yard and a flock of seagull flying above it.
Behind the postcard was a message that read, ‘Nautiyal, old chap. Enjoy the present moment. It’s all we really have.’
I could barely sleep that night. What did it mean?
Early next morning, even before the sun rose in the sky, I rushed to Bubu’s room to wake him up.
‘Wake up, Bubu! We have to go,’ I said, shaking him out of bed.
Bubu mumbled something sleepily but thankfully didn’t ask questions as he followed me outside the house. I threw him a sweater and said, ‘Bubu, let’s take the Black Elephant out for a spin. It’s been a while, hasn’t it?’
‘But, Nayan, you know very well I have been asked not to ride the bicycle anymore, especially after that day when I got lost on the way to your school,’ he said, his face grim. ‘The villagers have advised….’
‘Bubu, please. Do it for me!’ I pleaded. I knew he couldn’t argue with that.
I hopped on behind him. Bubu was excited to be riding the metallic beast again and it gave him a fresh burst of energy. He peddled quickly, and we glided through the pine forest, going farther inside than we had ever ventured before.
‘Where are you guiding me, bal?’ asked Bubu with a smile, as the cool morning breeze swept across his face. I knew he didn’t actually care where we were going. He was simply enjoying the ride.
‘Just keep going straight, Bubu,’ I said, pretending to have a plan.
As soon as we reached the small mountain bend, I asked Bubu to park the bike against an old pine tree. I got off the carrier seat, my backside sore from the ride.
‘This way,’ I said, as I led him across the hillside. ‘Oh, but let’s take our slippers off, first!’
Bubu grinned and nodded, as he loved walking barefoot on the soft mud. He would do so as a child, and I knew that only because of his many bedtime stories.
We walked up the mountain, picking wild berries along the way—some of whose names Bubu remembered and some of which I recollected from his childhood tales.
He stopped in his tracks suddenly, only to hush me into silence. A bird was humming in the distance. ‘The blue whistling thrush,’ he whispered, triumphantly. ‘It only whistles at dawn and dusk, like a sleep-time and wake-up call for the rest.’
We walked for a long time until the sun was overhead, relishing the sweet-and-sour colourful berries along the way until we realized we were thirsty.
Bubu smiled, dropped to his knees and to my bewilderment, started digging the soft mud out beneath him. He dug furiously and let out a squeal when a fresh, cold fountain of water sprouted out of the ground, exactly like his childhood story!
He chuckled as he gestured for me to drink the water. It was the sweetest water I had ever tasted.
On our way back home on the bicycle, I hugged Bubu to shield myself against the cold, evening wind, the whiff of that familiar detergent filling my senses once again. Then, he said something I would never forget.
‘Bal, I don’t know how many days I have left and I can barely remember the past, but I can tell you that today was the best day of my life.’
I nodded and smiled, thinking of the postcard and thanking his old friend silently.
From that day on, Bubu and I shared many of these ‘best days’, until he passed away, exactly one year later.
I wasn’t sad anymore. I wasn’t scared or angry either. Instead, I was happy because together, my Bubu and I had the time of our lives, every single day.