Once upon a curious vehicle

Today I woke up into a bicycle video, that carried me a little away. It was an overwhelming assembly election news day for my state Kerala and my neighboring state Tamilnadu, where I spent almost 5 years of my life. After a mass hysteria of a month of election campaigns, a high voting turnout was reported. Cliché video clips of celebrities casting their votes and showing their electoral stain which took place in the media glare were enthusiastically aired and shared. But all of them were vanished in a wink when a video of a south Indian actor Vijay who decided to go to his polling booth nearby on a bicycle made a massive hit in social media as a sensational entry to the polling. Amidst the ongoing fuel price hikes, Vijay’s cycle ride was heavily interpreted by the netizens as a way of protest or a statement to the Modi government. However, later Vijay explained since the polling booth is so close and the road is narrow, thinking that it would be difficult to park, he decided to ride. Whether Vijay really meant it or not, doesn’t matter to people; for them it has to be clearly a political message, meaning the video met its purpose.

So, why did Vijay’s “kutti bicycle story” go viral? After all, what is so special about a person riding a bicycle?

Adults riding a bicycle is often treated as a symbol of simplicity ( like “Wow! look at that! that person is so rich and affluent to afford a car/motor cycle/aeroplane, but opts a bicycle over them! so humble!”) or financially lower status statement (poor man’s vehicle) by the Indian society. In the old times, the first signal of a family’s financial growth was marked when a bicycle is replaced by a motor bike and then to a car. Apart from these social prejudices, due to zero emission, a person riding a bicycle is also sometimes perceived as an ‘environmentally aware’ person (really?) or a ‘health conscious’ person due to the health benefits offered and a way to stay fit. There were times when knowing bicycle ride was one of the job requirements for India posts. Bicycles have pretty much gave to motor bikes in the last decade and most of the teenagers dream for a motorbike not a bicycle. It was only in the last year when the pandemic hit, many seemed to realise the value of cycling in India. Several Indian cities faced a ‘bicycle boom’ and as a result, more cycling lanes have been constructed in major cities. Many recent movies also started showcasing the actors/actresses riding a bicycle. India also witnesses a ‘bicycle’ revolution once in a while during the Uttar Pradesh Elections where, the strong political player, the Samajwadi party has bicycle as their election symbol claiming that bicycle signifies common man and a symbol of progress. Hmm, interesting!

Most of the Indians have at least some nostalgia related to bicycle. It could be own memory or a memory related to a specific person riding a bicycle; for example, the long wait for arrival of postman ringing the cycle bell, a fish merchant sounding the cycle air horn or a cotton-candy seller. Who doesn’t never ever ponder the old days of waiting for an ice-cream seller ring?! For most of the millennials and above, a bicycle was the first vehicle they dreamt for. It is the first two-wheeler they rode and a ‘bicycle balance’ was asked during learning to ride a motor bike. To me it was the other way around though. I first learned riding a scooter and then a bicycle. The first bicycle bought in my home was for my younger brother on an April 13th in mid 2000s , on the eve of Vishu. Until then, I never had a chance to encounter with a bicycle. My brother was on cloud nine almost a month. He neither ate and slept properly nor got off from the cycle. So I got an opportunity to get on it bit later. I was a teenager that time and grown up girls are not encouraged to ride bicycle on roads in my village though in cities that wasn’t so. I was therefore not groomed by anyone for cycle riding. All my bicycle wishes got deactivated and I never thought I would ride a bicycle again.

Years went by, but my deactivated wishes got reactivated when I joined for a Ph.D at a national lab CSIR-CECRI, in Karaikudi, a sleepy corner of Tamilnadu. To my surprise, I saw many scholars possessing a bicycle and later found that it was needed too, as the accessibility to convenience stores wasn’t great at that time. Soon my first month fellowship arrived, I bought a bicycle. I hated the conventional pink, girlish BSA Ladybird for no reason, so bought a rather unisex Hercules bicycle-Sparx RF. From then, it had always been my riding partner. As a popular cyclist John Howard said, a bicycle is a curious vehicle. Its passenger is its engine. It followed me wherever I went to; the tea/bajji/bonda kadai (tea/snack shop), to the weekly markets, cinema theatres, nook and corners of rural Karaikudi, always took me wherever it could during my ups and downs, when life seemed monotonous. It gave me immense independence. Often it literally said “come let’s get lost in the overwhelmed space of cars and motor bikes”. At times, I rode a bicycle just to ride a bicycle. I would argue that I did not get any great thoughts when I was riding my cycle, like Einstein claimed about his theory of relativity was conceived during a cycle ride. However, my mind wandered many times during the rides, though it never ever made me feel bad about myself. Whenever someone finds me walking, the first question comes-“Where is your cycle?” or “What happened to your cycle?” That was the kind of identity it gave.

My CECRI bicycle. Captured 3 years ago from CECRI campus.

Time flies. Many of my bicycle friends upgraded themselves to motor bikes or scooters. I didn’t want to as I was so comfortable and attached to my cycle and a motor bike was not that necessary for me too. Sometimes some of these ‘erstwhile CECRI cyclists’ slowed down to my speed when they find me on road riding to offer solidarity to me (really?) and we had conversations going on until we reach the destination. Meantime, cycle bell and mirror were lost, sometimes, like me, my cycle also got stressed out. As my cycle heals me so did I. I paid visits to nearby puncture shop frequently. The mechanic always behaved nicely, often serviced his Malayalam speaking skills on me and I don’t know why he always persuaded me to buy fish from the nearby market. Also, those visits had added advantages of visiting nearby bajji shops during the repair. So my visits benefited them too!

My five year ‘cycleful’ Ph.D journey came to an end when the time had come to say goodbye to my cycle after my defense. It was really awful. The good old bicycle days! After reaching Calgary, at times I miss my bicycle so badly. My instincts made me restless and consequently, during the last long weekend, I managed to find a used bike at a decent rate. I am not an avid cyclist or bike maniac and all I want to have is to feel good. Hopefully my good old days of pedalling will be revived soon and eagerly waiting to see what my new partner bike has kept in its store!

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