I woke up early in the morning to complete the blog posts and then realised that I had less than 24 hours to go for the start of the record Drive. The condition of the roads to Manali and those in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra came rushing into my head vividly. Butterflies made the usual noises and doubts reared their unsolicited heads for a while. The loud “I will do it” resolutions banished the butterflies and the doubts in one go. Most of the morning was spent loading up the car, positioning the provisions within easy reach while driving and putting up the banner brought in by Muthoot Finance.
As George and I were chatting in front of the hotel Mr. Mustafa, the owner of the hotel, drove in and parked his car. George is a personal friend of his with many years of association. Mustafa is an artist and his many paintings adorn the walls of the hotel. As is normally with a genuine artistic creator he refuses to sell his pieces. George apparently, failing in his entreaties to possess one of the creations, has threatened to ‘steal’ them. Having no such honorable intentions I requested Mustafa the artist to give me an autograph. He invited George and me for a cup of tea in the restaurant and fetched a few postcard reproductions of his works. He autographed them for me with the word ‘Jully’ above his signature. The word represents the warmth and hospitality of the region. It stands for all the magical words like ‘thank you’, ‘welcome’, etc. Mustafa has incurred enormous costs to put up systems to provide hot water and running water even during winter. However, the hotel is fully booked during the season and is the favorite with visitors during the winter. The proof of its popularity I witnessed in the form of Gautham Gambhir, the cricketer, who recently led the Kolkata Knight Riders to victory in the IPL. I recognized him as he entered the hotel lobby and ran with my camera for a picture. Mustafa was kind enough to click a picture for me with Gambhir. He had come into Leh with Rohit Sharma, who was also residing in the same hotel, for a photo shoot.
Mishra and Avinav joined all of us and we had many sessions photographing the car, with the car, with the CRPF men, etc. Time was nearing for the flag off. There were many curious onlookers mesmerized by the branding of the car and delighted by the banner. It was decided that Mustafa, Mishra, Avinav and Tashi would flag me off in the presence of a large CRPF contingent at 4 am the next morning. We decided to hit the sack early to wake up in the wee hours for the send off ritual. Finally, this was it.