When I drive 'Saira Bano' (our autorickshaw) I feel like a rockstar. Children wave and run after our rickshaw. Old people give us gap-toothed smiles. Women look up from their washing. Men's mouths fall open to see a girl driving a three-wheeler. When we stop at a town, we're swamped by onlookers, like any Bollywood star would be. Surveying the road from behind my semi-circular windshield, my hands resting on the handlebars, I listen to Saira's purring, and feel content, almost deliriously happy.
Shez named Saira after sitting inside her for 10 minutes. She said the rickshaw "spoke" the name to her. I pulled her leg about it a little, but Akshay and I quite liked the name, so we decided to go with it. I knew that for me Saira was just a name, it would only acquire characteristics later, as I got to know her quirks. I'd simply chosen her on the basis of her license plate number, the symmetry of 4114 appealed to me.
In the beginning, driving her was quite painful; I could feel the blisters rush up to the skin in my left hand, which I used for the clutch and to change the gears. Also, for the first 1,000 km we couldn't push her to full throttle and had to follow Bajaj's directions about top speeds at different gears.
That made things quite difficult, and we stalled a number of time, until we realised that instead of trying to follow written instructions to the letter, all we had to do was to listen to Saira. Her engine would tell us when we needed to change gears and just how far we could push her. Learning to listen is perhaps the most important thing Saira taught us.
The other was patience. Whenever we tried pushing her to higher speeds before she was broken in, the engine sputtered and died. Or if we tried starting her too suddenly, or didn't warm her up long enough in the morning. We learnt that we must take regular breaks, because even if we're not tired, our hardworking little rickshaw needs time to cool down. That if she stalls in the middle of traffic then instead of panicking, we must make our movements measured and purposeful.
She's a great little vehicle to travel and see new places in. You definitely can't complain about the size of the 'windows', plus she wins us friends and goodwill wherever we go. I may have done a shoddy job with her base coat (which Shez and some painters covered up rather well) but she's a bright bubbly creature who makes everyone want to smile at us and curiously ask where we're going and what we're doing with her.
We've crossed many a hurdle with trusty Saira. In fact, Nepal was an obstacle course of sorts. When it wasn't natural obstacles - rivers flowing across the road, a bridge collapsed like a pack of dominoes, steep and curving mountain roads - it was manmade ones. In the Eastern Terai, the Maoists had set up roadblocks everywhere using whatever was handy. Fallen trees, stones from bridge bulwarks, truck tyres. In many places we crossed the charred remains of buses and vehicles they'd burnt, and round burn marks on roads where tyres had been burnt.
The Western end of the highway was no better, suffering from general lawlessness. In one place, once I persuaded the protestors to let us cross their roadblock, Shez had to negotiate little Saira past flames that were as high and bright as her. There, fuel also became increasingly difficult to get. At one point, we'd used up all our fuel, included the extra five litres we carried in our jerry can, and our reserve was about to run our when we found a man by the side of the road selling petrol.
Since he knew our need was desperate (every single pump we'd passed over the last 220km had been dry), he sold the fuel to us at a 30 per cent markup, but we got ourselves enough to get us out of Nepal.
Driving through the mountains was another experience all together. When we first hit the steep winding roads, I was behind the wheel (handlebar?). I drove surely and carefully, and later when I asked Shez and Akshay they told me they did not feel unsafe at any point. But throughout that journey a voice in my head kept screaming that I was a horrible driver and I would not only crash Saira and myself, but endanger Akshay and Shez as well.
The two of them say that it is perhaps this voice that makes me a good driver. But as I grew more comfortable, I began to love the way a new vista would open up before us, each time we took a sharp curve. I even enjoyed the surreal feel of a bit of night driving that we did on our way to Kathmandu, when all I could see was a solid block of shadow to my left (the mountain) and only five feet of road was illuminated at a time by Saira's little headlight.
On the road, we drove past all kinds of creatures as well. The suicidal dogs of West Bengal, which would do their best to come in our way; the cows and buffaloes of the Eastern Terai; and the fireflies and frogs that took over the highway in the evening in the western part of Nepal.
What I liked best were the hordes of yellow and green butterflies that would scatter in our way as we drove past, some of them hurtling towards the windscreen in a fatal trajectory only to pull up the last minute and float lightly past.
We left Kolkata as a three-member team, but now as we get ready to make our way up the hills to Manali, we're a team of four that will be giving it everything we've got.