The year is 1996. It is July. It is hot. I am cycling from Layyah to Lahore. I have cycled 70 kilometres since the afternoon and have crossed Choubara. The darkness has fallen in the Thal desert. The same desert where the love story of Sassi and Punnun emerges from. I have my eyes peeled on the road but can barely see anything in the dark. The torch I have with me, its batteries have drained. With every pothole, my internal organs are shaken up. I have a wave of nausea, but there is nothing in my stomach to vomit. My Shalwar Kameez is drenched in the sweat.
Before I left, my friends told me weird stories about the Thal desert. According to them, the place is inhabited by venomous scorpions and snakes, and that the wild boars roam free here. Their advice, “if you see a boar rushing towards you, dodge it by stepping aside on the very last moment!” The area is also notorious for road robbery, so there is very little traffic here at night.
“What will I do if caught by the robbers?” I ask myself. I will tell them that I have only 1200 Rupees to offer. Maybe, they will find it funny that I that am one crazy dude to cycle to Lahore, and will let me free. What if they kidnap me and ask for ransom money? My family doesn’t have any. They are not even aware that I am going to Lahore by bicycle.
With these thoughts in mind, I continue cycling. Having diminished sight in the dark, my focus is on the hearing. Crickets are chirping. There is rustling in the bushes. “Is that a boar?” The narrow road goes up and down the dunes and is sometimes covered under a thick blanket of sand. Tall bushes line up on both sides of the road. From the distance, their silhouette makes them look as though they are giving a guard of honour to the passersby by bowing forward.
Once in a while a roaring bus or truck passes by and I am dazzled by the headlights. The road is so narrow that I need to pull over to make the way for the crossing vehicle. A few times, I slip from the fill slope and hit the ground.
I want to cycle fast, but I cannot. I am absolutely dehydrated. The front wheel is losing air. I borrowed the bicycle from a friend. He already warned me that the front tyre had a puncture. Why didn’t I get it repaired? I scold myself. Why did I choose to begin my travel in the evening? I scold myself more. I should have at least kept more water with me. After all it is the July, hot and humid. And I don’t have anything to eat, not even a damn cookie.
I look to the right, I look to the left. It is pitch black. Not even the faintest hint of any civilisation. There is pain. There is anger, and then there is a realisation of helplessness. Garh Maharaja, the next town, is still 20 kilometres. There is no way I am going to make those 20 kilometres today. Not even probably one!
I become more and more dehydrated and my sight begins to blur. Stopping is not an option. No one is going to stop for me either. I keep my head down and push another pedal. Keeping on the road has become only a guess work; seeing and avoiding potholes, impossible. Keeping the eyes open is now strenuous.
Just when I am about to collapse I see a dim shape of what looks a tree. As I approach closer, a small building with a couple of trees fades in my view. I immediately pull over to the right, throw the bicycle and scramble to the location. There is a hand pump. I pump a few strokes. No water. “It cannot be!” I pump furiously. There is water! Plenty of it. I wrap my left hand around the outlet and drink as much as I can, and even more.
My stomach is now full of water. But there is an uneasy feeling inside. I am about to throw up. I sit on the steps in front of the premises gate. The white building turns out to be a little mosque. The gate opens to a small courtyard covered from the top by a tree like a giant umbrella. A door in the courtyard leads to a prayer room which is just a bit longer than my height. Inside the room, I grope for an oil lamp in the dark. My hands feel the lamp sitting in the wall holes. My fingertips touch the oil spilled over the wall surface. But there is no safety match to lit the fire.
In the room, there is a mat on the floor on which I lie down. It is too hot and suffocating inside. I drag the mat to the courtyard and rest on it; my stomach is still struggling to absorb the amount of water I’ve drunk. The night slowly wraps me in her arms. I am very hungry and have thoughts of food; the dinner mom would have cooked tonight. I suddenly remember my bicycle which is still left beside the road. I trudge back to fetch it inside the mosque.
In the courtyard, the desert wind sings the longing melodies once sung by Sassi when she wandered across the Thal desert in search of her beloved Punnun. The sky is full of stars. Animal bells are ringing in the far distance, maybe a caravan is crossing the desert. A gust of wind grabs me by the arm and flies me into the world of dreams.
My eyes open after a few hours. It is still dark; just past 4 am. I stand up and fill my empty stomach with water. The air in the front wheel is minimal; it is barely ridable. I give a last look at the mosque and then look up at the sky and say, “Thank you!”
After having the rest, I am riding considerably faster. A truck approaches from the opposite side of the sloped road and blinds me by its headlights. I pull over at the very last moment, almost escaping an accident. The driver brakes hard and gives a big shout. I am stuck in the sand. I have heard rumours of Pathan drivers kidnapping youngsters throughout my life. Suddenly a rush of adrenaline kicks in. I lift the bicycle and run through the sand. The driver opens the truck door and I hear his footsteps. I am now on the rear end of the truck. From there, it’s downhill and I pedal as I hard as I can. The distance between me and truck increases rapidly. I keep pushing and glancing back. I can finally breathe. I am a long way from the truck and can see the tail lights of the truck which hasn’t moved. “Why is the truck still stopping there?” I keep pondering the whole way.
Soon the sun breaks out. The temperatures rise ever so high. In Garh Maharaja, I get the bicycle fixed, have a breakfast and continue my journey via Jhang, Faisalabad and Sheikhupura. It takes me 40 hours to cover 400 km and reach Lahore.
Fast forward 19 years. The year is 2015.
It is the end of October; a cosy warm day. My brother and I decide to ride a motorcycle from Layyah to Lahore. After Choubara, our motorbike is touching a 100 km/hr speed on a somewhat familiar road which is now twice as wide as before. I keep looking to the right as if searching for a sign. In appears a tree by the edge of the road. I slow down a touch. It takes only one look to recognise the face of an old friend. This is the tree. This is the mosque. I pull over. The hand pump is still there, albeit moved from its original location. The oil lamps are also there. I tell my brother that this is the place where I slept my first night ever on a bicycle tour, nineteen years ago.
After spending some moments at the mosque and recalling what had happened that night, we resume our travel. The same journey which I did in 40 hours on a bicycle in 1996 takes us 10 hours by motorcycle. We take frequent turns on driving. Our back and bottoms are hurting when we reach Lahore, after having retraced the old route.
The memory of cycling through this area was so fresh that standing by the mosque felt like it was the next morning after that unforgettable night. Even though 19 years have passed. Finally, the night was over. A circle has been completed!
It’s now time to find a new territory and chalk a new loop; for life is nothing but a circle. It is only complete when the beginning and the ending reunite. Leave where you are now. Go furthest you can. And return. On the way, you will regain what you have lost. On the way, you will lose what you must!