The man pedals his rickety, one-speed bicycle along the treacherous road near Pushkar, a stunning figure in billowing white clothes contrasting with the rock, sand and scrub brush of Rajasthan.
A bulbous brass vessel strapped to either side of his bike, he makes his way from the farmlands outside of Pushkar to the markets of the city to collect and sell the vessel’s contents: fresh milk from the countryside’s buffalo herds.
His days start early and end late as he makes two round trips along a road less traveled. His path takes him along pothole-strewn roads that rise and fall among the rolling hills populated by tiny villages along this remote stretch of road.
In the morning, cool mountain air and bright sunshine makes the ride a thing of beauty. Yet the expression on his face is unchanged when we come across him well after dark, when reckless drivers, potholes and meandering cows and donkeys all pose serious threats.
His white clothing and turban are his only defenses from the motorists that race along in the typical frenzied style of Indian drivers.
How and why there aren’t more wrecks on these roads will forever be a mystery to me. So is the reasoning behind painting the words “Honk horn” on the back of every truck here. Encouraging an Indian driver to use his horn is like inviting a starving man to eat. It’s a natural response here, a means of expression with a vernacular all its own. My friend Tim knows an Indian family here who due to limited financial resources once had to choose between repairing their car’s broken horn or failing brakes. They went with fixing the horn. Some things are essential.
The man seems unfazed by traffic, weather and the ebb and flow of people with whom he shares the road. We see him every day as we make our way to and from the city his stern countenance unwavering as he makes his way on his rounds. He is equally unmoved when we stop at the side of the road and, aided by our driver Anu, begin to pepper him with questions.
This interrogation began when I casually asked Anu about the guy, wondering aloud how old me might be.
“If you want to know we will stop and ask,” said Anu, his matter-of-factness a refreshing departure from the normal reserved distance a westerner would keep when it comes to asking personal questions of strangers. Anu responded the same when we noticed a string of women in brightly colored sarees walking along the side of the road to Udaipur.
“Where do you think these women are going?” I inquired. “I don’t know. Let’s ask,” he says. So we pulled to the side of the road and did just that.
The interview with the milkman is brief, as his terse answers and the awkwardness of translation (not to mention the fact that we’re partially blocking the road) are not ideal conditions for getting to know one another.
Turns out the guy is 60, two years my junior, yet his weather beaten face framed by white turban and bushy white mustache makes him look much older. I am certain his body is less aged. Endless miles of cycling keep a cardiovascular system in good working order as long as the truckers and tour car drivers don’t catch up to you.
Questions answered, the man says something in Hindi that makes Anu smile and laugh out loud.
“He says you can give him something so he can stop at the sweet shop in Pushkar and buy some sweets.” So I fork over 100 Rupees, likely enough for candies for the week. The man and I make eye contact as we shake hands, his eyes coal-black, clear and bright. We head back to the car.
And onward we go, two cyclists from difference places and different walks of life. One in a steel box with four wheels; the other on a two-wheeled steed with a couple gallons of buffalo milk strapped to the back.