When he realised that it could be a matter of life and death, he ripped the plaster off and hobbled towards the garage.
In the winter of 2019, a senior police officer’s wife who lived in a remote village in north Kashmir, was suffering from cancer and needed some quick medication. However, her physician was from another village. Without his advice, the patient’s life was hanging in a balance.
The top cop was resourceful enough but there was a serious problem on hand. All the roads leading to the doctor’s home were completely buried under snow. No driver in the area was able to manoeuvre a vehicle through the thick layers of snow. And that is when Fahim Ahmed Sofi came in the picture.
For Sofi, an expert off-roader who drives his 4×4 Gypsy like a child drives a toy car, such emergency was nothing new. It was a subordinate who had alerted the officer about Sofi.
Sadly, when the call came, Sofi’s right leg was in a plaster due to a fractured foot. However, when he realised that it could be a matter of life and death, he ripped the plaster off and hobbled towards the garage. Removing the cover from his 4×4 Gypsy, he attached a chain to its wheels and drove off. He managed to reach the village and brought the all-important man with him who gave the lady the life-saving drug.
If it weren’t for his passion for off-roading, not only would Sofi not have been able to save another person’s life but also his own because it kept him away from many a social evil.
Sofi was introduced to off-roading by chance. While on a trip to Nagasari with his family in the Kupwara district of north Kashmir, he noticed that a part of the river bridge they were supposed to cross was missing. Apparently, there was no choice except to retreat, but Sofi had other plans. Despite the broken bridge, he made up his mind to cross over. Amid his sisters’ vehement opposition, a resolute Sofi bravely drove through the river, navigating his way through muck and boulders to reach the opposite bank with his petrified family in one piece.
The adrenaline rush was so powerful that it inspired Sofi to become an off-roader. He modified his Gypsy by adding a variety of accessories. In addition to an electric winch, a snorkel and a hood, the changes featured a higher suspension with larger wheels and special off-road tyres.
“Gypsy is a bare basics mountain goat without even an AC or a power steering, but its go-anywhere prowess, punchy petrol engine and dependable mechanicals makes it a favourite among rallyists and off-roaders,” says a proud Sofi.
After making a few solo trips to several isolated locations of Kashmir, Sofi was looking for a group that would not only keep him company but also inspire him to explore farther than anybody else had ever gone before. His prayer was answered. An amateur club called Kashmir Offroad had already hit the road by the time Sofi mastered the craft.
The club would welcome enthusiasts from across the valley and journey through unpaved surfaces smeared with sand, gravel, riverbeds, dirt, snow, rocks and other natural terrain to the farthest reaches of Kashmir and, occasionally, to districts located in the Jammu region.
There was a lot more to visiting Kashmir’s numerous isolated regions than just their sense of pride and content. The participants would witness firsthand the flagrant devastation of Kashmir’s rich ecology due to deforestation, illegal mining, and pointless urbanisation in addition to numerous other acts of human misdemeanour. To get the attention of the authorities, they would use high-definition cameras to shoot photos and films, occasionally even deploying drones to capture footage, and post them online.
In these remote locations, where even the most basic healthcare services are lacking, the clubs carry food and medications to distribute to the nomads living there. In these efforts to promote peace and stability, the police and the army occasionally work together with these clubs to organise the off-road events.
“We expect the government to work with off-road clubs to bring not only healthcare and other basics to these forlorn places but also the significant message of peace because we volunteer to travel to these distant locations,” says Sofi. “The response of the government has been lukewarm thus far, but we are hoping for better cooperation in the days to come.”
According to Sofi, banks can play an important role in supporting events while promoting their products as well.
“Banks can make use of this opportunity to advertise their goods, schemes and deals in a more effective way because, on a given day, we drive nearly 300-500 kilometres across various districts and our convoys are viewed by thousands of people,” says Sofi.
Off-roaders, he says, can also play a significant role in educating the public, particularly students, about the dangers of drug abuse, which has increased among youngsters.
Overtime, many off-road groups, including Moto Explorer’s Club and Xtreme Offroads came up until Sofi decided to launch his own: Valley Offroad Association.
At the beginning of the year, Sofi finished second and received a cash reward of Rs 5000 at a Mudzilla competition hosted by his club, which attracted at least 10 participants from Jammu as well.
Off-roading, Sofi says, has been his best teacher. “It has transformed my outlook, actions, and thinking. Without this passion, I wouldn’t have been what I am today.”
Farooq Shah is a Srinagar-based senior journalist.