To provide a little context on why we found ourselves eating breakfast out of a newspaper in the backseat of a Qualis that smelled like cigarettes and beedis on our way to illegally jump off a mountain, let me tell you that this was not Plan A. Plan A was to have gone through an actual paragliding company, with its own office and online reviews and some semblance of professionalism, but what we had neglected to realize before flying to Delhi and then driving north for fifteen hours through open Punjabi fields and treacherous Himachal Pradeshian mountain passes, was that monsoon season could be dangerous in Manali, and that because of this, paragliding was banned for the next few months while the rains passed.
Still, this was India, anything was possible. We lucked out on a sunny forecast the next day, and found a barebones office nestled between a tailor shop and a corner store in Old Manali that sported a paragliding advertisement on its walls. We asked about it, and the man said that he had a contractor who did jumps not out of Solang Valley, but out of another location that he couldn’t tell us for security reasons. But if we paid half now, he would schedule us to be picked up at the town square at 8am sharp, and we would be taken to the jump site, and picked up from the landing site, and driven back.
Do we have to jump alone?
No, he responded, bored of us already.
We tried bargaining but were unsuccessful. If you want to jump we’re your only hope out here. Otherwise go home.
Our driver did not like the idea when we told him that night to be ready at 7am. I wake up at 5am it’s not a problem, but sirs are you sure you want to do this? The government banned it for a reason you know.
Fuck the government, Kumar said within our first two minutes in the car. And fuck these police, chutiya, what is this shit yaar?
He was mad because they had put up a roadblock and so he had to circle the town to get ahead two blocks. He flipped off a traffic officer as he whizzed past, cigarette still pinched between his thumb and index finger. Every other day now, they set up these barricades because they get a big blood rush from inconveniencing everyone. He swerved to avoid hitting a rickshaw and then again to miss a fruit stall.
There was some construction back there looks like, we pointed out.
There’s always construction. Probably for some rich bhenchod. You know something, if you have money in India you can do anything? Even this, you know how I can take you guys paragliding? It’s because the fuckers just want money, they don’t give a shit about your safety or any bullshit. If anything happens they will come after my ass anyways. I pay them so they look the other way when I do the jumps. He saw the discomfort flash in our eyes in the rearview mirror. Don’t worry nothing will happen it’s perfectly safe, I’ve been doing this for fifteen years and have been jumping for another fifteen before that. You’re in good hands. He swerved again to narrowly miss and then pass an oil truck. Saala.
Shit, do you have some water, he asked, rubbing his temples with his smoking hand. He drank with it as well.
You don’t seem so well.
It will pass. I’m still drunk from last night. My boy has something for me though don’t worry, I called ahead. He pulled squarely into the middle of the lane and slowed down behind a convoy of covered army trucks.
You know the only thing that rivals money in this country? The army. Never fuck with them. They hit my Pajero once years back. I went to the base and complained to the lieutenant, gave him the license plate number of the goddamn truck and everything, I even drove the damn Pajero there, busted taillight and crushed bumper. You know what the asshole said? He said this never happened, get out or I’ll write you up. I said sir I respect you I just want money for the repairs, you have this big budget and everything and I’m just a small guy. You know what he did? He said my shoe has a big budget too, you want some on your ass or on your face? So I left and went away. What can a normal guy do? I don’t have money, I don’t have big connections, all I know is the station chief of the police in this valley and I know the cousin of the Chief Minister, he was a classmate of mine. But they’re not going to go against the military for my shitty Pajero. So I went back.
The road gained a lane. He leaned his head out of the window to spit at the ground before he overtook the convoy, slowly. You know if you’re rich you can get away with murder. Just ask Salman Khan!
Salman Khan. He killed that poor guy, ran him over with his jeep and made his bodyguard take the blame. Drunk driving, that bastard he killed him, and he walked away. And you know what the irony is?
We said no.
He has a charity called Being Human. The man is all ass, that’s the only part of a human he has, and he has this foundation, and he killed a man and made his bodyguard take the fall. Maaderchod.
We stopped abruptly in front of a small house, and three men got in the car, two in the front and one in the trunk. They hopped in quickly and silently— one was tall and lanky and walked with a limp that could almost be mistaken for a gangster-esque swagger, the second had sleeked back hair but was obvious from his general lack of hygeine that his hair got its look not from any kind of product that would give it a greasy texture, but rather just sweat and dirt and actual grease, and the third man was just skinny and wore a red T-shirt. Limp slapped the side of the SUV through the open front passenger window to signal to Kumar to start driving again.
Saale did you bring any Ibuprofen, Kumar welcomed Greasy-hair.
No bhai, just woke up.
Bhenchod, no worries I’ll get some after we drop these guys off.
We were still unsure who these men with stained clothing were when we passed by a banana stall, and he slowed the SUV. You guys want any? They’re the freshest you’re gonna get, buy some if you want some, so we did. We hit the road again and crossed a loud metal bridge that sang to us as the tires went over it. He pulled off onto an inclined dirt road right after it and put the car in neutral and pulled the hand brake. A burly man with too much arm hair (but ample self confidence) for rolled-up sleeves got out of a pickup truck and walked towards us, flexing his biceps as he attempted to twirl his bushy mustache. Kumar’s three friends hopped out of the Qualis, and Kumar reached over to the glove compartment and pulled out a beedi and lit it. Get out.
Get out. You’re with him now.
We thought you were going to jump with us.
I run the business now, I only jump sometimes. I have to run a few errands before I pick you up, go with these guys they will jump with you.
We looked at each other feeling a little confused and a little mislead, but ultimately powerless in the situation, so we got out.
Arm-hair sized us up in a second. Only two of you can sit in the cab with me, the rest will have to sit in the back with the parachutes.
Where are we going? He looked at us like we had asked where cows go to shit. To the top, so you can jump with these boys. You still want to jump right? We nodded. Good, let’s go I’m on a schedule. He looked down at his golden wristwatch as if to confirm with it that he was indeed on a schedule, and it seemed to reassure him that this was the case. He turned and walked towards the truck and got into the driver’s seat.
Limp, Red, and Greasy-hair finished arranging the parachutes in the bed of the truck. Each was the size of two full laundry bags and was worn and faded from use. Red opened the front passenger door, and immediately we smelled a deflating hotbox. Can we all sit in the back we asked. Sure, Red acquiesced, and he and Greasy-hair got into the front with Arm-hair while Limp stood out back, waiting for us to sit. Sit on top of the bags if you want, it’ll be more comfortable he suggested, but sitting so high above the sides of the bed seemed risky to us, and we told him. He shrugged. It’s your ass after all. He settled on top of the parachute closest the edge of the truck while the rest of us snuggled in between the parachutes and on top of some old empty sacks, cuddled in a position where we each could hold onto something.
No sooner had we settled in than Limp slapped the side of the truck and Arm-hair brought the engine to life with a low roar, and the hunk of metal we sat on started sprinting along the dirt road up the mountain.
The air was beautiful up here: crisp, free of the pollution by the river below, and positively sparkling save for the weak wisps of smoke that would escape the front passenger window. The road was bumpy and boy could we feel every jump and rumble. We could see dust rising in front of us as we were whisked backwards up the road. We passed by schoolchildren with backpacks that seemed as large to them as the parachutes were to us. We saw a man milking a goat. We saw a girl putting the wash out to dry, and then a sharp bend in the road tore her away from view, and we were left staring at the beautiful hills on the other side of the valley, until our direction changed once more. Onwards and upwards we continued. The clouds always seemed just out of reach—just a little further up and perhaps we could touch one of the few that were out in a mostly sunny sky, but they always remained out of reach, like mirages promising moisture in a deserted sky. The trees on either side began to bear down their branches over the dirt road, and every so often a pothole would jolt us upwards, and we would be within arm’s reach of plucking a leaf or two. The only sounds we could hear anymore was the groaning of the engine and the creaking of metal. We breathed in the fresh air with contented smiles, allowing our lungs a reprieve from the flavors of city air.
Arm-hair pulled onto a small dirt patch at the base of a small hill near the mountaintop. Here the road ended, and as soon as he parked his associates sprang out of the truck and began hauling the parachutes up the hill. We followed them, the trepidation in our nerves growing.
Bhai this is safe na?
Of course, these boys jump every day, sometimes twice even. You’ll love it, don’t worry, worst thing that can happen is a bird might fly into your parachute but I’ve only seen that once, and the bird can fly so no worries about them falling. Arm-hair chuckled at his own joke. He delivered it with a rote-ness that implied he said it as often as he claimed these boys jumped.
Over the crest of the hill the descent was a lot steeper all the way down the mountain. At the very top the three associates began unzipping the parachutes and spreading them out on the angled ground, as wide as they could, untangling and unfolding the straps and holding down the generous swaths of canvas as the wind tried to blow some life into them.
Okay, who wants to go first? This is simple, we will strap you in in front of one of these boys. They will do all of the steering, so don’t worry about that. All you gotta do is when we say run, you run downhill as fast as you can. If you stop you’ll fall and get tangled and will make a falooda of yourselves so just run and let the wind do the rest.
Will we be able to take pictures in the air?
Do whatever your heart wants, but if your phone downloads from up there you can never upload your pictures again. Arm-hair chuckled at himself again. Then, as if it was an afterthought, he asked, You guys signed the paperwork at the office right?
We looked at each other, puzzled. Saala officewala always forgets. No matter, come on, let’s get it moving.
One by one we put on our helmets and allowed ourselves to get strapped in. There was a firm padded strap that was just big enough to sit on, and two other straps went up to the top of the parachute from it, and our harnesses connected to these. One by one Arm-hair would yell out, Go! and one of us would sprint downhill with our buddy, running and running until suddenly, gently, the parachutes behind us would expand with air and we would feel a strong tug on our shoulders and a lift underneath the seats of our pants, and our legs would continue their motions but would no longer find ground. We would blink in wonderment and find ourselves a few feet higher each time, closer and closer to the treeline, at a such trajectory that we would cross it with our shoes just a few feet above the tops of the pine trees. And then once the wind had tired of lifting us, we found that we stabilized in the air. We were almost stationary up there for a few seconds at a time, our parachutes preventing us from falling, physics preventing us from moving much until the wind blew us forward.
It was enchanting up there, to be so gently suspended over the valley. The view was enchanting: rolling furls of the mountains all along, carpeted with the lush green of treetops, divided by a mighty river below, fields divvied by slim roads and pocked by small huts and low buildings. Slight breezes would come and push us towards the landing site. Our buddies would pull on either of their cords to cause us to turn in a given direction. At one point they pulled hard to send us into a spiral and sharp fall, as if this was a roller coaster ride. Our laughs escaped our lungs and joined the birds that flew away from us now, aimless and lost amongst the grandeur of the moment and yet perfectly at home in the scene. Perhaps the only thing that could have enhanced such a moment would have been a cup of hot chai, aromatic and soothing, perhaps the only thing that could make the seconds pass a little slower, count a little more.
The trepidation that we had felt before at being whisked into the air, and that too in the banned season with such company, seemed almost stupid in the air. Would fear have stopped us from this blessed moment? Would reason have?
As the minutes and meters dwindled together, our buddies maneuvered us towards a grassy field, with trees on one end and a parked Qualis on the other.
Stick your feet up when we tell you to, and when you hear a thud. Don’t worry about the landing, you will land softly on your bum. And, as promised, one after the other, we did.
Ain’t it amazing? Kumar beamed from behind stained teeth. I tell you, ain’t no feeling like it. Shit man, you know most people never know what’s up there, they’re too busy pissing in the dirt.
We watched the men pack up the parachutes as we packed ourselves into the back of the aging SUV. They folded efficiently and hurriedly shoved some in the trunk and tied the rest to the roof. With a quick slap of the side of the door, we were off again, headed back to Manali, but through a different route than the one we had took in the morning.
Kumar bhai, how did you even get started paragliding?
He drove with his knees while he struggled to light a joint. He let the question hang in the air until he replaced it with smoke.
I grew up in this village yaar. We didn’t have shit. One day some angrez came and bought a house down the street. He’d stay for just a few months in the year when the weather was nice, and one year he came with his own parachute. I used to sit on a hill and watch him come down, and one year when he was selling his house and going back for good, I asked him if I could have it and he sold it to me for cheap. He chuckled under his breath as he took another puff. That bloody thing was a few sizes too big and he only had time to teach me the basics before he left, but I kept at it. I eventually got a proper one my size and all, got some funding. I competed for India in the world championships, my brother and I did, I won second place two years in a row.
Is that so?
Yessir, I twisted my ankle right before the finals the first time around, and the next year my mojo was gone and the new talent was a notch better. But I held my ground, I had some sponsorships and stuff. I knew this is what I was born to do man, I was built for the skies. My old man always told me to get a degree so I got a bloody accounting degree but after I made it to the Indian team, that was it man. I traveled and competed all over, Italy, Australia, Switzerland, South Africa, seen all these beautiful places and met all these beautiful women. After my competing days I came back and settled down, got married, had a few kids, started this company. I take people like you out, sometimes tour groups, sometimes celebrities.
Yeah celebrities. You’ve seen Krrish?
It’s been years.
I taught Hrithik to jump for that. Shah Rukh Khan came by once too to train for a role, I almost made it as a cameo in his movie but they cut the scene at the last minute, bhenchod. These days I focus mostly on tourists and tour groups, all these angrezaan come by to find themselves, so I do that.
Seemingly randomly he pulled up next to an older man on the side of the road. Dad says come by for chess tonight!
Tell him if he wants to get screwed so badly he should buy his wife flowers, miser maaderchod.
They both laughed, then Kumar responded, Come by for dinner at least, no pressure or anything. See you uncle.
He peeled off quickly, leaving behind a a plume of dust in our wake. You see that building over there? That was the first hotel around here, I remember when it was small, nowadays you got all these new places across the river. Changed the place up man I tell you, used to be different.
Businesses like yours attract a lot of tourists, we pointed out.
He leaned out the window as he drove and spat. Business is like paragliding, he said, picking at a tooth with his finger. You gotta go with the wind.
We continued on in silence for a few minutes, watching as he honked and swerved and waved and shouted at different people along the way. He rounded a corner hard and pulled the hand brake abruptly, and motioned out the window at the stall where we had bought breakfast. This is you, he said. He called the stall boy over and asked for a cup of lemondade, which the stall had now started selling. We checked to make sure we had all of our stuff and then shuffled out. No sooner had we closed the door than the Qualis grunted into first gear and took off with a squeal, without so much as a good bye or a chance to say thanks. Just like that, the bhenchod was gone.