With a bunch of irises stuck in the spare tyre, the author and her sedan take on a punishing Himalayan car rally along a historic route.

If it’s a car rally in the Himalayas, it has to be on a mean machine; bristling with equipment, GPS, protective roll cages, terra trips to calculate the speed and distance, time and more. To attempt one in a delicate Honda City with its oh-so-low ground clearance  is foolhardy, said the big boys barely able to hide their sniggers when I turned up for technical scrutiny at the Royal Palm Springs Golf Course in Srinagar.

It is the end of June and this is the fourth edition of the Mughal car rally started by the Jammu and Kashmir government to popularise the newly-opened old Mughal route to Kashmir that Emperor Jehangir used in the 17th century. We are a two-member all-women team drawn by the thrill of tearing along the same route as the emperor. We thought we’d be able to stop at Chinghus fort near Rajouri where the innards of Jehangir lie buried, or savour other delights like the breathtakingly beautiful Peer ki gali and Bafliaz, but these thoughts perished slowly as more pressing matters, like following the road book, took over. One wrong turn and we could end up in areas with hostile militants, or worse, miss a Time Control (TC)! Eventually, we missed three. Survived the militants, but faced disqualification on day one!

Despite the J&K government’s security clearance, political unrest lurks behind the placid mountains. That, only days after the rally, the area erupted in violence and curfew was imposed is in hindsight, just another one of the hazards a rally driver has to be prepared for.

My Honda did reasonably well on day one and we finished 19th, ahead of some of the beefy metalwork that was flagged off from Srinagar. The route was designed by the fiendish Vijay Parmar and his cohorts in the Himalayan Motorsports Association (HMA). The HMA’s meticulous standards and world class system of recording and calculating timing have begun to draw more rallying enthusiasts from different parts of the country than they can handle. Their signature Raid de Himalaya held in October every year for six days is the world’s highest mountain rally and possibly the toughest.

Night halt was at the historical Hari Vilas palace hotel in Jammu but, by now, the missed TCs had taken a toll. My navigator — the lady with the calculator and a stopwatch that she discarded in exasperation somewhere near Sundarbani — declared that she wanted out. There were two other all-women teams and I could see my hopes of winning in that category going up in a tantrum. Rallying in the Time Speed Distance (TSD) format is particularly hard on driver-navigator bonding and tales of them coming to blows within the confines of a car abound. Incidentally, one of the reasons given for the accident that claimed the lives of a driver and navigator last year, was a heated argument while negotiating a mountain curve. More prudent to dump a quarrelsome navigator than risk a tumble over a cliff.

So, on day two, I had another navigator and the stress was now on the car. There was hardly any road to speak of. I could visualise Parmar waiting with glee for the cars to begin breaking down. Some did. I allowed just one thought to play in my head: “Keep your car intact and you are in the race. Without a car, the rally is over.” It’s quite easy to end up with a broken clutch or damaged axle on a remote mountain side where help will take hours, if not days, to reach. That’s why we carry emergency ration and sleeping bags. We’ll keep that for another day, I told myself, and began to cross one stone at a time on the killer stretches.

Navigator number two happily dumped the timings to jump out now and then to remove freshly fallen rocks or steer the car away from a murderous outcrop. I said a mental thank you to Parmar and his insistence on an aluminium under-protection plate for participating vehicles. Mine went thwack and thud; rumbled in anger when it scrunched rocky highs but ensured that the car came out on the last TC at Ramban in one decent piece.

When I finished, my car looked nothing like the genteel sedan it was mean to be. The rear seats had been removed a month ago to make place for spare tyres, sleeping bags, helmets and other paraphernalia, all bound with bright red straps. It was covered with a coat of wet mud that hid its real colour and the sponsor stickers that the HMA stuck on it. Having driven non-stop since 5.00 am, I was so tired that I could barely stand to inspect the damage — if any — to its undersides. But stuck in the hollow of a spare tyre was a bunch of irises grabbed from a hillside. They were beginning to wilt but are my keepsake from this rally. Through the toil and grind, the fear and heartbreak, small joys like this one make it worthwhile. Enough to make one want to do it all over again. And again…