‘Getting on a cycle is a tremendous act of independence’

Dibyajyoti Sarma
Saturday, 10 March 2018

A doctor, who became a sports journalist, and then cycled from Bengaluru-Delhi, Dominic Franks’ book Nautanki Diaries describes one helluva of a journey

Sometimes you pick up a book because it’s a gimmick and then it surprises you with its content. Dominic Franks’ Nautanki Diaries (Rupa Publications) is such a book. The book recounts the journey that the medical doctor-turned-sports journalist undertook from Bengaluru to New Delhi in 2010. 

Inspired by his mentor, nicknamed Shikaari, Franks trained for the ride, got a ‘doodhwallah’ bicycle and embarked on a 22-day ride. And Nautanki? She is the cycle, says Dominic Franks... 

Let’s talk about Nautanki, the cycle. Why the name?
I flirted with the idea of the cycle-ride for almost a year; I almost didn’t get off the ground. The idea of reaching Delhi was always something I never entertained in early training. Whatever physical activity I managed was either because of dancing or walking. So to cycle 100 km everyday for 20 days seemed impossible initially. 

When I first met H Shivaprakash (Shikaari) to chalk up a training regimen, I suggested maybe 70 km/day, just to be safe. He opined, ‘If something is too easy, what’s the fun in doing it’. He also believed I only needed three weeks of training to be fit. I opted for five. So the first time I began to fantasise about Delhi while scaling the slopes of Savanadurga, I began to think it was a mad idea — me fit enough to boom for 2000 km in a time-bound manner. 

As far as the name is concerned, I always wanted it to be vaguely subversive or against the grain because everyone (except Shikaari) thought using Nautanki — a Hercules DTS — was a bad idea because of its weight. 

But I loved the way you gave Nautanki character traits, a personality throughout the book…

Thanks. Every piece of sporting equipment I treasure has a name. It’s nice to believe that inanimate objects have souls. My motorcycle and car have names too — Black Betty/Kaari and  Sevalai Maadu. But, Nautanki had to stand out because it was very important to emphasise her road-worthiness. I had never ridden a Nautanki until I bought her. None of my friends had either, and hence they always advised me that it wasn’t clever. So it was very natural for Nautanki to become larger than life and take on a personality of her own.

I imagine, the title stems from the fact that you wanted to write a funny book. The book is indeed funny, even flippant at times. With this material, you could do a traditional travelogue…

I didn’t start out to write a funny book, but I’m pleasantly surprised that people are finding humour in it. The title is self-explanatory in that Nautanki is the cycle and these in a sense are her/ our travels and the book is written in a diary form. 

I did, however, set out to write a book about cycling across the country. One of the reasons why I wanted to write a book was because when I was searching the internet, I never found someone who’d crisscrossed the land on a cycle like Nautanki. 

Most of the people I found were cycling aficionados, or a part of cycling groups, or people with some form of specialised cycles. Another important idea was to travel as cheap as possible — to try not to sleep in hotels and lodges, ‘sleep free’ would be putting it best, and I thought detailing my sleeping circumstances would be helpful too for anyone who might want to venture forth.

If I read it correctly, you made a film on your cross-country bicycle journey, called It’s Not About the Cycle, which won an award in Toronto. Is the book a follow-up of the film or both are totally different? 

I didn’t make the film, unfortunately. When a friend/ex-colleague heard that I was cycling from Bengaluru to New Delhi, he wanted to document it. The film won best adventure documentary in Toronto. 

The book and the film happened simultaneously. I knew I wanted to write a cycling book because there are a lot of travel books on motorcycles, trains, chai, cars, cars modified for disabled people, but I hadn’t yet seen a travelogue in India where the mode of transport is cycling. So I guess both me and Achyutanand (director of It’s Not About The Cycle) knew that some artistic effort was going to come from the physicality of the trip.

The book is my perspective of the journey, and the film is a director’s perspective of the same journey. Since they both chronicle the same events, there is a fair degree of overlap, but a fair amount of dissimilarity too. For example, Shikaari isn’t mentioned in the film, nor is Timbaktu.

Your journey begins as a foolhardy adventure, and ends with an almost life-changing experience. Do you think this book will inspire more people to take up long distance cycling trips?

I certainly hope so. One of the basic premises to write this book was the hope that it may inspire a reader to do something similar — even if it’s a shorter than 500-km trip. The only reason I did it was because Shikaari told us the story of his journey and the idea fascinated me. 

If he hadn’t chosen to narrate the story, I would never have attempted it or this book. If Nautanki Diaries could inspire three people to undertake something similar — I’d say she’s done well for starters. I had a reader tell me the other day that she wants to start cycling after reading Nautanki... — which is great. Getting on a cycle is a tremendous act of independence.

Did you embark on any more journeys following this? You are also making a movie on man-animal relationship…

Unfortunately, I haven’t gone on another 100-km ride, let alone a trip of any significance. But another reviewer has just mailed saying she did Manali to Leh/Ladakh on a desi cycle. It’s something I’ve always wanted to attempt (on any cycle). The fact that she’s already done it desi-style is good motivation. Now if only I can find a six-week window!

Nautanki...being released in a book format though is the biggest motivation to restart cycling though. I can’t be the author of a long-distance cycle-ride and lug around a paunch which is what I’m doing right now.

Achyutanand and I are currently working on a feature length documentary that explores man’s relationship with animals against the backdrop of Jallikattu.

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