I was stuck at an altitude of about 11,000 ft above sea level with my imported Honda Civic. The car had stalled.
It was 1988, a time when a Maruti 800 was considered a novelty on the roads. We were on a road trip from Bombay – my wife, the three kids (ages 9-14). We were headed to Badrinath Temple, abode of Lord Vishnu in the Himalayas.
The nearest city which could service imported cars, was Delhi, over 550 kms away, passing through dangerous single lane ghats full of sharp turns and twists.
The traditional route to Badrinath was via Rishikesh. I was told that drivers needed special hill-driving endorsement on their licence to drive after Rishikesh. I did not have the endorsement and hence was not eligible to drive to that part of the Himalayas. But I still wanted to pursue my crazy idea of driving from sea level all the way to the top of Badrinath and to the base of Kedarnath at 12,000 ft above sea level.
If I drove through the traditional route, I had to pass through many check posts. Without a hill-driving endorsement I would have been forced to engage a professional certified driver. But, I wanted to experience the thrill of making those sharp and dangerous turns myself.
I changed the route. Instead of going through the traditional route via Rishikesh, I deviated from Gwalior to drive through Nainital and Almora and joined the traditional route at Karna Prayag.
There were no check posts on this road. Understandable because there were not many vehicles who’d dare to use this route. Over a length of 300 kms after Nainital, the alternative route was steep, full of sharp turns, single, 4ft wide and had a deep valley on one side. A stretch of about 200 kms to Karna Prayag, was completely isolated. I saw only 3-4 trucks in a drive of about 8 hours.
I did not know that roads could be so dangerous! We prayed for our lives. We made a promise to God that once we reached Badrinath we’d visit the temple in the evening and again the next day morning, irrespective of how crowded it would be.
We reached Badrinath late in the afternoon, checked-in to whatever accommodation we got, dipped in the holy hot water spring and paid our respects to the Lord. We then decided that we could move on to the next destination immediately, instead of staying till the next morning, which would save us a day.
We checked out of the rooms, packed our baggage back into the car and settled in the car to leave. When I tried to ignite the engine, the car refused to start! It was in perfect working condition when I had switched it off last. Try as I might, the engine cranked but refused to start.
Of course, there was no garage around and the one for this type of a car was far away in Delhi. The other option was to tow the car. But towing through a ghat stretch of sharp turns was not safe at all. We were stuck.
The car was in an open parking ground. There were quite a few cars and trucks around. I checked under the hood and apparently nothing was wrong. The battery was going weak due to repeated attempts to start the car.
A truck driver was watching me struggle. He said, screwdriver in hand, that he knew the mechanism of the car and could help. Another guy got interested too. As I was talking to him, the driver with the screwdriver suddenly unscrewed the screw of the carburetor top, breaking the original seal exposing the inside throttle valve. This valve is a vital part controlling the fuel and air supply to the engine and needs absolute accurate adjustment to run the car.
He proudly claimed that he broke open the seal. He did not realise the complication he had created! He tried to adjust the valve and screw it back but just couldn’t do it. The engine was now completely dead, no more cranking sounds either.
It was a much bigger problem now! The options we had were either to call a known mechanic from Bombay, a distance of 2000 km or an unknown mechanic from Delhi. This also meant we were stuck in Badrinath, at sub-zero temperature for a few days. Else we could tow the car through the sharp ghat curves at very high risk.
We were completely upset and worried. We just looked at each other and had no clue what to do. This is when we realised that we were in trouble because we tried to cheat the Almighty – you can call it belief or call it what you like.
Earlier while driving through the dangerous ghats, we prayed to stay at Badrinath atleast for a night and be in his audience the next day before we left. Now just because we were in a hurry to reach the next destination, we conveniently forgot our promise to stay overnight. We of course, decided to stay overnight.
We tried to forget the problem at hand and left it to the Lord to solve the problem. Even so, it was an uncomfortable night.
Next morning, we offered our prayers to Lord Badrinath, apologized for our attempt to leave earlier than promised and slipped in a special request to solve our car problem.
I went to the car, right from the temple. Yeah! It cranked, at the very least. The fuel though, was over-flowing heavily from the carburetor. The leakage was heavy enough to empty a full tank in 5kms. Only a trained mechanic with garage facilities could fix it.
We gave up all hopes. I considered staying back with the car and send my wife and kids to Delhi in a cab. I was leaning towards calling my trusted mechanic from Bombay. Heavy expenses aside, our vacation more or less ruined.
Just then, a guy approached me. He looked like he was about 30-35 years old.
He: I drive a private taxi for tourists. I think I can fix your car.
Me: Are you qualified and trained to repair imported cars?
He: No. I am not a qualified mechanic. I am uneducated. But I worked at Gwalior palace for a couple of years, where the king of Gwalior owned a few imported cars.
Me: Look, yesterday, one guy with great confidence damaged the seal of the carburetor and created more problems. I don’t want another problem.
He: You have no options, Sir. In any case, you will have to leave the car here and go. So there’s really no harm if I try, right? Believe in Lord Badrinath. Nothing worse can happen.
Me: Well. Ok, what will you do?
He: I will set the carburetor suspension mechanism right and start the car. I just need quick-stick-fast paste. I am here only for a couple more hours.
There were hardly any shops there, let alone one where I could get the required paste. I started asking the drivers and travellers around. One of the car drivers had one. The Gwalior guy adjusted the valve, sealed it with the paste. After 5 minutes, the engine cranked and started, but the fuel was overflowing, though in a manageable quantity. Some hopes from this Gwalior Prince! He wanted another attempt and I agreed immediately.
He: I want a 25p coin!
Just 25p? I managed to find one though 25p coins were rare during that time. He adjusted the float once again, sealed the screw and fixed the coin on top of it with the glue. After 10 minutes of waiting for the paste to dry, we tried the engine again.
Click started the car, but the fuel was still leaking. Still, not good enough to drive in the steep valley. Then our potential savior asked for a 10p coin and a metal wire.
Sure, why not? He opened the carburetor screw, adjusted the floating valve once again, fixed the screw, fixed the 25p coin, then stuck the wider 10p coin over the 25p coin and tied the coins tightly over the top of the carburetor with the metal wire. He ensured that the coins did not slip.
He confidently said, “Relax, pack your bags in the car and be ready to leave in half an hour. I will also be driving down the hill by that time and will follow your car, just in case there is more trouble.” We went to the Temple once again, loaded our baggage in the car and were ready to leave. We were not sure if it was just a dream!
Those 30 minutes were like 30 hours. We started the car after 30-40 minutes. The car at once started and no leakage!
There was nothing wrong with the car. The misfunctioning carburetor was created by our screwdriver friend. Why the car did not start on the previous day? God knows!
The Gwalior prince did not take a single paisa and said “Lord Badrinath who inspired me to help out. Thank Him for that. I assure you, you will have no problem till you reach a reliable garage in Delhi. You can then, remove all my decorations to your carburetor and get it tuned.” He was following us till we were through the most dangerous bits of our drive and then disappeared. His decorations of 25p, 10p and the wire remained on the carburetor for years and I had no ignition problems till I sold the car about 4-5 years after this incident.
For us this gentleman from Gwalior was no less than a God-sent emissary.
What does it prove? Honour your commitment, even if it is to the unseen Almighty? Or is it a marvel of the Indian Jugaad ? 🙂
Experienced and Written By: Badri Baldawa