The wind blew through my hair as I pedaled excitedly down the street on a “Junior” bicycle. I was eight and my brother had been teaching me how to ride a bicycle. On this Sunday evening, I had finally managed to maintain my balance and pedal down the street without my brother’s steadying hand on the rear of the seat. He had let go after the first ten meters or so and had been running behind with words of encouragement. I looked back to grin at him, but he wasn’t there! In my excitement, I had pedaled furiously and my brother had not been able to keep up with me. I panicked, veered to the side of the road, clutched the front and rear brakes, and promptly crashed into the electric pole and fell down in a heap!
This was sometime in the late seventies. We did not own a bicycle then. We used to rent bicycles from Manjunatha Cycle Works (MCW) over the weekend. The owner had bicycles in different sizes. He wrote our names down in a register along with our address and the time the bicycle was rented. It cost 50 paise for an hour (approximately 4 cents in exchange rates of the 1970s) and 25 paise for half an hour. Once he got to know us, he dispensed with the formality of the address. We started with riding the bicycle on our own street but as we gained confidence, we started roaming all over our neighborhood. Before I got started though, my brother had given me a primer. The left handle brake was for the rear wheel, to be used at all times. The right handle brake was for the front wheel, to be used only in emergencies. He didn’t explain momentum and moment of inertia to me, I was too young, but I experienced it that day when I panicked and clutched the right brake while cruising down the street.
Before I learned how to ride a bicycle, I was introduced to the evolution of the bicycle in the “Hamlyn’s Children’s Encylopedia.” The Penny Farthing with its grossly mismatched wheels fascinated me! I suppose even at that young age, I was fascinated by the stories behind commonplace objects. I could relate to bicycles at that age, the characters in the fiction books that I read had many glorious adventures on their bicycles. As I grew up, I was thrilled to read that Sherlock Holmes was an authority on tyre-treads. In “The Priory School”, a young boy has been abducted, a teacher murdered, bicycles are involved and Holmes is on the trail of the murderer. Holmes tells Watson “I am familiar with forty-two different impressions left by tyres. This, as you perceive, is a Dunlop, with a patch upon the outer cover. Heidegger’s tyres were Palmer’s, leaving longitudinal stripes. Aveling, the mathematical master, was sure upon the point. Therefore, it is not Heidegger’s track.” Unfortunately, his analysis of tyre tracks in the story generated controversy. Arthur Conan Doyle after experimenting with tyre tracks had to admit that he had made a mistake.
Watching a Bollywood movie today is sometimes a surreal experience. Fancy cars are par for the course and people take “day trips” to places half way across the world. There was a time in Hindi Cinema, before it earned the sobriquet of Bollywood, when the hero romanced the heroine on a bicycle. There was Dev Anand crooning “Mana janab ne pukara nahin” as he pursued Nutan on a bicycle. (Paying Guest 1957). “Saanvale salone aye din bahar ke” from Ek Hi Raasta (1956) had Sunil Dutt riding “triples” with the heroine Meena Kumari and Daisy Irani keeping in tune with a harmonica.
It was not just romance. The hallmark of an independent and “forward” girl was the song featuring the heroine driving a car. But the humble bicycle played its part with Saira Banu and friends riding their bicycles with gay abandon singing “Mein chali, mein chali” in Padosan (1968). There was of course Rajesh Khanna as the postman in “Palkon ki chaaon mei” (1977) singing “Dakiya daak laya” as he goes on his rounds delivering mail. In short, bicycles permeated all walks and facets of life in India.
In the age of the ration economy until the early nineties, when cars were for the ultra wealthy and one waited for years for a scooter to be delivered, bicycles were the mode of transport for middle class Indians. It wasn’t uncommon to see nattily dressed gentlemen riding a bicycle on the streets of Bangalore. An indelible image in my mind is of Mr Hartwell “Papa” Yates, my math teacher riding his bicycle, attired in a suit and shaded from the sun with what I remember as a cross between a bowler hat and solar topee. He rode his bicycle with somnolent grace lost in his own thoughts. Some of my brother’s friends claimed that he had measured the distance from his house to the school and divided it by the circumference of his wheel to calculate the number of revolutions of his wheel required to traverse the distance from his house to school. He rode seemingly with his eyes closed, lost in reverie, only to stop precisely at the school gate when the number of revolutions had completed. It was a good thing that Papa Yates rode his bike in the good old days of Bangalore, he would not have stood a chance in the manic rush of today’s traffic.
Perhaps the first substantial material possession that any child of our generation possessed was a bicycle. My friend Joe still remembers the bicycle he received as a gift on his birthday more than 50 years ago. The hint of pain was also evident as he recalled it being stolen on the streets of Brooklyn. We got our first bicycle in 1980. It was a Hercules bicycle, my dad purchased it from his good friend Mr. B.V. Kini. It had the original owner’s name etched on the handle. Most Indians take enormous liberties with their spelling, so the name read “B.N. Bingala”. I’m sure the original owner, Mr. B.N. Baliga was miffed but he had no option but to ride the bike with an alien name inscribed on it. Had the bike been stolen, he would have to convince the cops that he was indeed Mr. B.N. Bingala. The tradition continued with us gifting our daughter her first bike when she turned three. This was fancy compared to the bikes of my youth. Pink with training wheels and tassels on the handle bars. She rode the bike as we went on our walks, the exertion in the humid Florida mornings making her cheeks turn a darker hue of pink than her bike!
I had learned how to ride the junior bike but I was too short to ride the adult bike. So I rode “katri” instead. “Katri” or scissors involved sticking one’s leg through the triangle formed by the frame and crossbar of the bicycle, resting one’s armpit on the seat and riding the bike. It took some practice since the weight was concentrated on one side of the cycle. Stopping suddenly was not easy. I then graduated to “bar” where I could hoist my leg over the crossbar but could not sit on the seat since my legs did not read the pedals. This was progress but one had to be careful. One’s family jewels could be crushed if one did not maintain adequate clearance above the bar!
When it comes to songs, I’m sure there are several songs that reference bicycles but the two that come to my mind are Queen’s “Bicycle Race” and the old favorite “Daisy” (“But you will look sweet, upon the seat of a bicycle meant for two.”) The tune of Daisy was played by our school band for our club swinging performance on sports days. In the movies, Paul Newman shows off his riding skills to Katherine Ross in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” with “Raindrops Keep Falling on my head” playing in the background. There is the iconic flying bicycle scene in E.T. But on a more human level, perhaps no other movie captured what a bicycle meant to a family’s fortunes than the Italian classic “Bicycle Thieves” (1948). The story chronicles a father’s search for his stolen bicycle without which he cannot work and his family will starve. Considered as one of the great movies of all time, the neo-realistic theme of the movie was cited by the Indian greats, Satyajit Ray and Bimal Roy as their source of inspiration. The bicycle is still integral to the various hawkers who can be found all over India selling vegetables and fruits from baskets affixed to their cycle carrier.
The bicycle carrier (bike rack) served a very useful function. For one, you could ride “doubles” by having your friend sit on the carrier behind you. If you were going up a slope, he could also assist you by pedaling along with you. The showoffs would slide off the seat onto the carrier and pedal with an air of nonchalance. The more adventurous passengers stood on the carrier holding onto the shoulder of the rider. It of course also served its designed function of a cargo rack. It ferried school bags, briefcases, suitcases, groceries, small appliances, gas cylinders, bricks, and construction supplies. Search for the term “Jugaad cycle” on Google and you will see the various ingenious ways that the bicycle is used in India. (Jugaad is a colloquial word that can be translated to mean an innovative, frugal hack to solve a problem).
Towards the end of my High School, I rode my bicycle occasionally to school. The “Hercules” was a solid bike. Originally manufactured by the Hercules Cycle & Motor Company in Birmingham, it was then sold to Tube Investments and they have been manufactured in India since 1949. The Hercules was a workhorse but relatively staid in comparison to the BSA SLRs that some of my friends rode. At that time, I did not know that BSA stood for the “Birmingham Small Arms Company.” Based out of Birmingham, it started manufacturing bicycles in 1919. Ironically, Hercules and BSA are no longer manufactured in Britain but continue to thrive in India. My friend, Shreepal had a BSA SLR with a gear train. His bike did not have fenders, perhaps to reduce the weight. There was no chain guard either so he had to clip his pant sleeves to prevent them from rubbing against the chain. The bike obviously meant a lot to him as evidenced by the message he sent me when I asked him about it today.
We parked our cycles at the cycle stand in school. The stand was manned by “Cycleman”. “Cycleman” was an old gentleman who was hard of hearing. His job was to keep an eye on the cycles and collect coupons that had to be purchased in order to park our cycles. He took his job seriously and would stay late in the evening waiting for the after-school activities to end. Few students knew that his name was Anthony and he was an ex-soldier who had served in the Madras Sappers. He had apparently lost his hearing in a mine blast. He was reputedly an excellent hockey player who had played for the Sappers in his prime. The Sappers had one of the best teams in the country at that time, so playing them for them must have been an honor. Even though he had aged, his wiry frame hinted of his past athletic prowess.
In recognition of the longevity and versatility of the bicycle, the UN designated June 3rd as “World Bicycle Day” in 2018. This is not to be confused with “Bicycle Day” which falls on April 19th. On April 19th, 1941, Albert Hoffman accidentally ingested a minute amount of LSD while synthesizing it in the laboratories of the pharmaceutical company, Sandoz. He started feeling dizzy and experienced changes in perception. He rode home on his bicycle and after he got home continued to experience his LSD trip. This was probably the first recorded instance of someone going on a trip literally and figuratively on a bicycle!
My cycle came into great use when I did my engineering at Mysore. Besides going to college, I used it to ride around the city. My cycle lacked a lamp (powered by a dynamo) and one night as I was riding my bike home from a friend’s house, someone suddenly leapt out in front of me with his arms outstretched. I braked instinctively and dismounted. It was a traffic constable, he waved me to the side of the road where a motley group of men were waiting listlessly with their bicycles. After a couple of other “law-breakers” were apprehended, we were taken to the nearby police station. We were all asked to purchase stamp papers from a conveniently located stall and sign our names on the blank sheets. We were then let off with a warning. Somewhere in the dusty confines of a police station in Mysore is perhaps a rat-eaten stamp paper with my signature on it. I’m hazy about the legalities of the use of stamp paper, however, as far as I understood it then, it was used for affidavits, sale deeds etc. Signing a blank stamp paper and handing it over to the cops was not a good idea in retrospect. Usually, if the cops were in a good mood, they would let the air out the tyres and the riders would have to then push their bikes to the nearest repair shop.
The repair shops were ubiquitous. Most operated by the roadside, sheltering under a tree or under some plastic sheets that were tied to a wall at one end. They had a few tools and a bucket of soapy water to detect punctures. Once a puncture was detected, the repairman would mark the spot, dry the tube throughly, sand it down lightly and expertly cut a patch from some old tyre. He would then apply some glue to the patch, place it on the puncture and then press it down and apply heat. The glue came in a yellow tube and if my memory serves me right, it was manufactured by Dunlop. A fixture at every bicycle repair shop was a cycle pump and a young boy who was barely 6 inches taller than the pump. This poor boy would literally put all his weight on the handle as he pumped air into the tyre. I didn’t think much of this at that point in time but I’ve watched these boys being roughed up by the shop owner whenever they made a mistake or whenever the owner just felt like roughing them up. Sadly, child labor was and still is a fact of life in India. Mark Tully in his book “India in Slow Motion” explores the deleterious effects on a family when their son loses his job at a carpet factory when child labor laws are enforced. It is a damned if you do, damned if you don’t, situation.
People take pride in their bicycles, decorating the bar and spokes with streamers. Tassels adorn the handles. During the annual Ayudha Puja (Worship of Instruments) in India, tools of the trade as well as vehicles find their place in the sun. The humble bicycles are cleaned and anointed with a paste of turmeric and vermillion. They are festooned with garlands and and are then worshipped ceremonially. To an outsider this might seem strange or primitive but to a Hindu, this is an act of taking care of an instrument that plays an important role in his life and is a source of livelihood. Bicycles continue to serve a useful purpose even after their demise. Knife sharpeners use a single bicycle wheel to power a grinding wheel which is used to sharpen knives. They form an integral part of push carts. Modified bicycles are the basis of cycle rickshaws. Makeshift wheelchairs rely on cycle wheels for an economic solution.
This has been a fairly rambling post but there is one favorite memory of mine when it comes to bicycles. One day, when I was roughly seven years old, the cycle rickshaw that used to ferry me to school did not show up. My dad decided to drop me at school on the way to his office. However, there was just one problem. His scooter was being serviced at the garage. Fortunately, the cycle he had borrowed from a co-worker had a small wooden seat on the crossbar. And so that morning, I found myself happily perched on that small seat while my dad rode the bicycle to school. He dropped me off and then continued to his office.
I used to watch my classmates getting dropped off by their parents on cars or scooters. There was no envy or resentment but at that age, it looked like a cool thing. I felt special that day! I don’t know if my dad ever felt bad riding the cycle to the school while being overtaken by cars that included the occasional Chevy Impala, a status symbol of that time. I’m pretty sure he has forgotten this incident, but it is still fresh in my mind and I have a silly grin on my face as I write this. It incidentally turned out to be the only time that my dad dropped me off at school.
I do have a bike now, it even has the gear train that I coveted as a young boy. I ride it occasionally on trails. The wind no longer blows through my hair as I ride the bike. I have a helmet on and even if I didn’t, the wind would only encounter the remnants of a tribe that is fast going extinct. When I rode the bike as a young boy, there was no purpose. I had all the time in the world and I felt as though I was a bird in flight. There was a sense of freedom that I only ever experienced when my exams got over in school and a long stretch of holidays beckoned. When I ride the bike now, it is with a purpose and it’s for exercise. I ride through beautiful locales but my mind is elsewhere, planning what I need to do when I return home or dwelling on past memories. I’m no longer that young boy who felt absolutely free from the cares of the world. The only gremlins that existed in my life then were home work and exams. Life has gotten complicated but I can’t complain. I’m just glad that the cycle of life continues.
The featured image is that of my daughter riding her bicycle in our patio in South Florida