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Progress gets to everyone at some point. In both interpretations of that sentence. As long as older and younger people exist together, there will always be that particular point of resistance. And there is no human on this planet that doesn’t know what I’m talking about, one way or another. Any meaningful journey involves the passing of time. In my case, for reasons that continue to be a mystery, NH 66 is a space-time mesh of personal, geographical, historical and hopeful fascination. That doesn’t change the fact that as roads and machines get more capable, people around me seem to be going the other way. And you will unfortunately see digressions of that nature as you read along.

RE 350, Jawa 350, NH 66

The first time I took NH 66 from Panvel to Goa, I was all of 19 years old (on my silver first-gen Pulsar 180 with an actual physical map book in a backpack), and it remains one of my favourite rides in the world to this day. This highway was built in the 1960s, and I’m willing to bet that it has seen more than its fair share of old cast-iron Bullets and two-stroke Jawas over the past 60-odd years. Today, however, NH 66 feels nothing like the road that lives in my memory. The same can be said of the Bullet 350 and the Jawa 350. The question is, which one of these bikes matches the vibe of NH 66 the best?

Our eyes and our brains have been defined by a rectangular frame for several thousand years — why has everything we look at today become overwhelmingly vertical? What sort of voluntary cognitive aberration is that?

NH 66 was originally called NH 17, until it got its new name in 2011. A 1971 movie called Bombay to Goa saw this road perform as a supporting actor. And of course, who can forget Dil Chahta Hai in 2000? I’ve ridden down this road 25 times in the last 22 years, which made this the 26th time. But after having sworn off this road in 2017 after a particularly horrible ride, all because of the reconstruction going on to this day, I only rediscovered it in 2023. And I learnt that it’s only become better, like the new Bullet and the Jawa. Time passes, things move on.

RE 350, Jawa 350, NH 66 z

By now you may have realised that this story is not about these two motorcycles. These two-wheeled machines were only a pair of conduits for a much larger thought — which, admittedly, remains unresolved indefinitely. In any case, there was a road and two bikes I looked forward to riding over a long distance, so nothing was ever lost. The fact that we were saddled with the inhumane tedium of making a video about it did take away from the experience itself, but it also enabled all the italicised thoughts you see here. Just for the record, though, a video is dehumanising to a writer. For everyone else, it’s a supposed win.

I was a younger idiot once, and now I’m a considerably older one. Nonetheless, the newer samples of our species baffle me on a daily basis. I call it convenience or entitlement, or both. Am I missing something?

The first part of NH 66 from Panvel to Mangaon is this — take all the supermoto tracks in the world, insert as many single-lane diversions and traffic-related danger as possible, and let ‘em have at it. The road surface itself switches personalities more times than James McAvoy in Split — slippery old tarmac, tempting new tarmac, paver blocks rippling as if they’re simulating a water body, gravel that’s waiting to catch your street tyres out, bumpy concrete, and everything you can imagine in between. However, on the Bullet and the Jawa, we didn’t have to suffer what the four-wheelers around us were. Uni-track machines are always more fluid on the move, as is their nature.

RE 350, Jawa 350, NH 66

I was riding the Bullet for that part, and I quite liked it. It’s not really all that different from the Classic, but its ergonomics did make a difference for the 183-cm person that is me. Even if it may have compressed my spine and shortened me by a couple of centimetres halfway into the ride, thanks to that soft couch of a seat. Nonetheless, the Bullet was definitely the better of the two for rough patches, even if it turned into a wet noodle if I pushed it too much. But pushing it was never the point with retro bikes, was it? Nope, we were simply pushing our luck, that’s about it.

A writer, by nature, is more thoughtful than vocal. That attribute may come across as awkward, even, these days. Because few people are familiar with silence anymore. I blame the low-grade tinnitus after riding motorcycles all these years.

As of now, after Poladpur, there’s a new tunnel that bypasses Kashedi Ghat which is only open for southbound travellers. It relieves people of a lot of old inconveniences and dangers, much like these new motorcycles with old names. And like the changing landscape of the road, of course, these two bikes feel nothing like their original namesakes. But if the old road itself is changing for the better, why shouldn’t these machines? In the as-yet unlit tunnel, I observed that the Bullet had the better headlight. Which is also what enabled me to notice construction debris that Manaal on the Jawa passed concerningly closer to. That was besides the many wet patches we rode over; the tunnel, despite everything, already seems to be leaking from its ceiling. And I made a mental note to not ride down it in the monsoon.

The apparent second stretch of NH 66 from Khed until Lanja is similar to the greatest of rally stages. And you do need to be a Dakar rider to cover it at any great velocity — and even if you were one, the Bullet and the Jawa wouldn’t allow it anyway. These are not motorcycles made for 500-km days, even on reasonable roads. On outright terrible ones, both were punishing on our bodies. Then again, the quest for the romance of NH 66 and these old names was mine, and I had to put on a brave face. Which, honestly, the bikes permitted me to do. Today’s machines are unquestionably more capable than their riders.

By now, I know that I’ll never really grow up. Not in the sense that convention dictates anyway. But I do understand responsibility and quality of work. When did these two items become optional?

At a point during the torturous stretch, I lost track of the road and led us down what looked like a familiar path; by now I’ve taken every available road to Goa and I was comfortably confused and assured enough to do so. That led to the mistake of succumbing to a beautiful stretch of bypass road, SH 175, and abandoning NH 66. Not that I was complaining, really, because I had switched to the Jawa by then. This stretch of road was pristine tarmac, the path I normally take to get to Goa, and it also meant not having to deal with my spectacles slipping down my nose on the Jawa. It is a rather stiff motorcycle overall, but it is also that much more predictable than the softly-sprung Bullet.

RE 350, Jawa 350, NH 66

However, that didn’t stop Manaal from scraping the Bullet’s footpegs in a series of inviting corners as I followed him. And then an old memory resurfaced which said, ‘There really aren’t bad-handling motorcycles; just riders not in sync with them.’ The same could be said for people. Anyway, before long, we joined NH 66 again, a little after it becomes the promised land for riders.

Time goes by, names continue under assumed status. Nothing is really ever the same, even if we like to pretend it is so. Or is it, because some well-paid executive told you it is?

The third part of NH 66 represents all the magnificent speedways of yore, glorious in every way possible, with the bonus of eye-watering scenery. And the Jawa then came into its own, pulling away from the Bullet at will, and only restrained by my uncharacteristic inclination to stick together. If the entire stretch from Mumbai to Goa was like this, I would invent an excuse to ride down to Goa at least once a month. Anyway, now that my hair has gone from black to white, waiting for this road to be completed, like NH 66’s old tarmac and new concrete, I suppose I can wait for another couple of years. But I didn’t wait for anything on the Jawa; it was basically a flat-out (100-kph, because of the Bullet) convoy heading to the state of mind called Goa (I borrowed that last bit from Bijoy Kumar Y).

There were many things I saw on NH 66 along the way, but the inexplicable ones have stuck in my head the most. The road was scalloped around a lone house’s boundary; I wonder who that holdout is. I also saw a WagonR driver on the opposite side of the road flashing his headlight at a cow who decided to cross the road; I’m not entirely sure what he expected.

And I remembered all the bikes I’d ridden down what is now an almost-unrecognisable stretch — my Rajdoot 175 with two old friends on two other two-strokes, a Hayabusa in my second year at Motoring, a misguided-mod of a Unicorn, and others; all when the road was narrow and dangerous.

All of it matters. Even if there will always be people trying to convince you that it’s okay to not care. Just look around and you’ll find them quite easily.

The road almost seems to be widening and maturing, as best as it can, in parallel with my mindset. Which probably means it’ll never be perfect, and I fervently hope so. Also, even after all these years, the act of crossing the border into Goa never loses its sense of occasion. And that’s also what bikes like the Bullet and the Jawa must provide. These two have to match up to that. Both of them do, just in very different ways. And, in the end, both submit to the ride itself. NH 66 does not favour any specific motorcycle; it only forms experiences, as it continues to reform itself.

The journey and not the destination — it’s one of the oldest clichés in the book, but with NH 66 it rides true, especially when I know I’ve to get to Goa. The road winds through some of the oldest mountains in the world, and it makes sure you know it. If you’re paying attention, of course. No road likes being taken for granted, I’ll tell you that. NH 66, as always, is never boring. For now, the road is like a kaleidoscope, messy but pretty nonetheless. It is a rhythm that you never want to end, despite the jarring bits in between. Imagine what it could be once it’s complete, and follow that imagination.

As with every road we take, no matter what we choose to believe, it’s not about transportation — it is all about being transported via and to an emotion. As the road has evolved, so have I (hopefully). It’s a masterpiece in the making, and it’s not just about times past anymore. NH 66 is also about many more fun times to look forward to. Motorcycles only made it better this time around, as they always will.