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Archive for the ‘Memoirs’ Category

One of my schoolmates shared a vintage Indian ad for a bicycle. It triggered off some nostalgic memories for me.

A vintage Indian ad showing an Indian woman in a sari riding a bicycle

I learnt how to ride a bicycle when I was around ten years old. When I was around twelve, my dad got me my own bicycle. During those days, the bicycles which were popular among pre-teens and teens were the models made by Hero and BSA. These models were cool and stylish and used to come in many colours – red and blue used to be favourites among young people. There were other brands which were popular among older people, like Hercules and Atlas and Philips which were heavy and sturdy. When my dad decided to get a bicycle for me, he took my uncle along. My uncle said that the best bicycle out there was Humber and the second best was Raleigh. Everything else was third. The prices seemed to indicate that – Humber was the most expensive and the second most expensive was Raleigh. I wondered why, because I couldn’t tell the difference between them and other brands. I had never heard of Humber or Raleigh before and none of my friends had them. Later I discovered that my uncle’s bicycle was a Humber. My dad asked me which one I wanted. Those days Indian kids were taught that they shouldn’t choose the best or the most expensive, because they didn’t deserve them, and they also shouldn’t choose the cheapest one because the quality of that wouldn’t be good, and so they should follow Aristotle’s golden mean and choose the one in between. So for me, Humber was out, and most other models were priced low and so they were out too. So Raleigh, it was. This is the kind of weird decision that people like me made those days, never comparing products and their features but using Aristotelean logic. None of my friends had a Raleigh bicycle or seen one, and as long as I had it, I was the only person I knew who had a Raleigh. Recently one of my schoolfriends told me that his grandfather had a Raleigh and he gifted it to my friend later.

I later discovered that Raleigh was a British company which was more than a century old and was a leader in bicycles once upon a time. Even decades after the British had left India, Indians continued loving and admiring British products and that showed in my uncle’s admiration for Humber and Raleigh. I wonder now whether the model I had was the original nineteenth century one and whether this was the bicycle Jerome K. Jerome wrote about in ‘Three Men in a Bummel‘.

Vintage British ads showing a young people riding Raleigh bicycles

The Raleigh bicycle that I got was heavy, but once I got used to it, it was good and I loved it. I started going to school in it and later to college. My first school was probably five kilometres away from my home and my second school was probably around ten kilometres away. Just cycling to school meant that I got a lot of exercise done naturally and it kept me very fit. I also went to the library and read a lot there, visited bookshops, went to movies, and helped my mom in buying groceries or for getting money for her from the bank. I didn’t do anything fancy with my Raleigh bicycle, but I took long rides in it, sometimes to travel from one place to another and sometimes for fun. It opened up new worlds for an introvert like me. I remember once I even took a ride on it to the university which was probably more than twenty kilometres away and another time I took a ride to the Agricultural college which was also of similar distance. My Raleigh almost never broke down when I was riding – it was sturdy and smooth and tough. A BSA bicycle which looked cool and stylish wouldn’t have been able to withstand the stress that I put my Raleigh through. Of course, the occasional issue cropped up. There were always tyre punctures which I had to contend with and once in a while there were major problems for which I had to take it to the bicycle service shop. The bicycle repair guy would tell me to come back after a couple of hours and collect my bicycle, but I would always stay and watch him work. When he removed the wheel and the inner parts of it and a lot of bearing balls came tumbling out, it was fascinating to watch! I didn’t know that a bicycle had so many intricate parts! The bicycle repair guy almost became my friend because of my visits to his repair shop and he taught me a lot of things about bicycles. When my sister got married, I invited him to the wedding. He didn’t come through. He knew what I didn’t know when I was young – that we were on different sides of the social divide and he would feel extremely awkward if he had come. I always felt that socioeconomic divides never mattered in a friendship and this is probably true when we are kids, but unfortunately, between grownups it always comes in the way at times, and makes things awkward, even if someone like me didn’t care about it.

There used to be bicycle races in my locality during festival times, when I was in my teens. These were not regular bicycle races, but were called ‘slow-cycle’ races. The competitors would ride a bicycle, but the winner would be the guy who rides his bicycle so slow that he comes last. The rules were simple – once you are on the bicycle, you can’t come off it or touch the street with your feet, and your bicycle has to be in continuous motion. It was a very tough competition, and most of the participants gave up halfway through, because they broke one of the rules. A guy called John was an expert in slow-cycle racing and he used to win every year. It was amazing to watch him expertly keep the bicycle balanced while at the same time riding it really slowly. We flocked every year to the street which doubled as the racing track to watch him showcase his brilliant skills and cheer him.

I had a few close shaves while riding my Raleigh. Once a bus came in front from the opposite direction and I swerved to one side to avoid it and I fell on the side of the road on top of some stuff which was piled up there. My hand was sprained and I had to get a plastercast which stayed for a month. Another time a bus came very close from behind me and it was speeding and it hit my hand which was holding the bicycle handle and nearly knocked me off. My hand was in pain for days after that. The third time, I nearly got caught between a bus and a lorry – I was trying to overtake a bus which had stopped at a bus stop, but the bus suddenly started and accelerated and a lorry was coming on the opposite side, and I nearly got caught between them. I don’t know how I survived that day. I have to thank my lucky stars.

I also met one of my best friends of that time because of my Raleigh. I was going to college one day and when I turned into the main road, my neighbour was walking. It looked like she had missed her bus to her office. I asked her if I could help and drop her at her office as it was on my way and she was happy to take my help. As our leaving times coincided in the morning, at some point we started leaving together in the morning and I started dropping her off at work everyday. We had many wonderful conversations on the way. She had been working for a few years and so was a grown-up while I was a student and so still a kid from her perspective. She became a big sister and mentor to me. My own sister became jealous of this friendship and tried putting spokes in it and it was funny for me to watch, because my own sister never bothered spending time with me before.

I rode my Raleigh for many years starting from my pre-teens till my middle twenties. Even after I finished college and went to work, though my office was too far to ride by bicycle, I used to ride it in the evenings or during weekends, going here and there. Then I left work and went to college again. That was the last time I rode my Raleigh, though I didn’t know it then. When I finished my second degree and came back home, it was gone. My dad told me that one of our neighbours had asked for it, and as I was away and the bicycle was gathering rust, he had sold it away. I felt sad. I had never had a pet, though I loved cats and dogs, and my Raleigh was the closest to a pet that I had ever had. I had never given it a name, like people do these days to their bicycles. I wish I had. I mourned the passing of my old friend which had served me loyally for many years.

When I was a kid, bicycles were a common sight in India. Most families had one. Sometimes they had more than one. Boys and girls had different kinds of bicycles. Young women wore saris and salwars and rode their bicycles to school or college or work. Women riding a bicycle wearing saris was a sight which was unique to India. But with the passing of time, things changed. Italian mopeds and scooters and Japanese bikes started arriving in India. While in Italy, mopeds were regarded as fun vehicles which one rented and rode during the holidays while going to the beach, in India they became vehicles which people used for regular transportation, for going to school and college and to work. People graduated from bicycles to mopeds to scooters to motorbikes. And later when the small cars of Italian or Japanese design arrived, those who could afford them, got them. Once upon a time Indian roads were filled with bicycles, and every street corner had a bicycle repair shop. But with all these big changes happening, and with more and more people able to afford these bigger faster vehicles, both bicycles and their repair shops disappeared. Bicycle manufacturers closed down or they started making motorbikes. Today, there is a motorcycle repair shop near my home which services fancy bikes like Harley Davidsons and Triumphs and KTMs, but there is no bicycle repair shop.

A bicycle was never a lifestyle thing in India, except maybe among teenagers. People didn’t ride it because they would stay fit. People rode it because it was a medium of transport which was very affordable. It turned out that it also helped them stay fit. But with other modes of transport becoming affordable, the bicycle died a quiet death. I have heard people from my parents’ generation say that things were better during old times. I generally don’t agree with that sentiment – as humans we always have a tendency to be nostalgic about our childhood or our teens and say that it was a golden era. But on one thing, I would say that things were better during old times. There were bicycles around then and most people learnt to ride them. Bicycles provided exercise without us even realizing it. I cycled 20 kilometres to my school and later to my college everyday. I didn’t do any other exercise. I hated doing exercise. But I loved cycling. And it kept me fit, as it did millions of others. I miss that.

In recent years, when the Tour de France became suddenly popular in India, there was a brief revival of cycling in India. But the people who were doing it were different from those who cycled during old times. These new guys were corporate types who admired Lance Armstrong and other Tour de France winners and imagined themselves in their shoes. These were the guys who never rode a bicycle in their lives before and who probably regarded a bicycle and it’s rider with contempt, but who now wanted to do it, because it was regarded as cool. They started posting pictures in social media with captions like ‘Me and my Bike’. So suddenly new types of bicycles started making an appearance on the roads with gears and reflectors and riders who wore helmets and sunglasses. International bicycle companies realized that there might be a market in India and they brought their overpriced racing bicycles here. One of my book club friends had three of them, and the highest priced bicycle he had cost as much as a small car. But like all fads, this one also died after a while. The new bicycle shops which sold fancy bicycles and accessories started closing down.

I never owned a bicycle again. I rode my friend’s bicycle a couple of times, but otherwise I haven’t even ridden one in years. I hope I haven’t forgotten how to ride. Sometime back I thought I’ll revive my bicycling. I don’t think I have the confidence now to ride on main roads or highways, but I thought I’ll take rides in my locality and maybe go to the beach. I went to the bicycle shop and checked out different models. I told the guy there that I’ll think about it and get back soon. But I procrastinated for too long and the shop closed down. Maybe I’ll try again when normalcy resumes. It will be interesting to see how this second innings of bicycling goes.

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I read Emma John’s first book ‘Following On‘, which is on cricket, recently, and I loved it so much that I decided to read her newest book ‘Self-Contained : Scenes from a Single Life‘. This one came out just ten days back and so it is literally hot off the press.

The book starts with a party to which Emma John is invited. She appears to be the only single person out there. At some point someone asks her the inevitable question – whether she is single or has a partner. Emma John takes off from there and explores the single life from different perspectives – as a sister, as a daughter, as a friend who hangs out with guys, as a woman with many girlfriends, as a woman whose roommate and best friend is a guy who is gay, as an aunt who is single, as a romantic partner who finds it hard to settle down. Emma John is frank and honest when she shares her story and the story of her family and friends, and sometimes she takes an unflinching look at herself which must have required an incredible amount of bravery and courage. Sometimes it is frustrating to read about the things she does, but it is hard not to admire her courage in sharing it. Through the book Emma John highlights the good things that the single life has to offer, while also talking about the things that single people yearn for, which they don’t have.

I loved ‘Self-Contained‘. It is a beautiful, insightful, thought-provoking book. It talks about an unconventional facet of life which is becoming increasingly important in today’s world. I’d like to say that it is a celebration of single life, but I don’t think it is. I think it is a nuanced portrayal of single life in all its complexity. I’m glad I read it.

I’ll leave you with a couple of my favourite passages from the book.

“Some say there is a state of flow inherent to manual pursuits, a hypnotic effect that encourages a mindful calm, and it is true that you can’t act out your anger with a roller brush (at least, not without splattering yourself). That night was my proof, however, that you can both paint yourself into a corner and decorate yourself into a depression. The moon was high outside the window by the time I gave up.”

“I often had fantasies about living in the past. A privileged past, obviously; I wasn’t interested in the world my real ancestors inhabited, struggling to keep their dozen children alive in a Welsh mining village or blacking the stoves of an east London slumlord. No, my escapism was born from a heady mix of my two favourite TV shows: Poirot, starring David Suchet, and Jeeves and Wooster, with my comic heroes Fry and Laurie in the eponymous roles. Both aired on ITV during my highly impressionable teenage years. The lead performances were sufficient to colour me obsessed; the intoxicating production design evoked a universe of its own. I quickly applied myself to the books too, reading and rereading them long after the plots had ceased to hold any surprises. Then came Dorothy L Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey stories and Brideshead Revisited – both the novel and the Anthony Andrews version. From then on, I immersed myself in pretty much anything that involved aristocrats, monocles or spats. Whenever I was bored of my surroundings – which happened frequently enough – I wished, with a passion that outweighed reason, that I had been born into the pages of these golden-age stories rather than my dull, unglamorous real life. I reimagined myself as one of their characters: a sharp-tongued, shingle-haired socialite with a devil-may-care attitude and a cigarette holder poised seductively between her lips. Her outline was drawn from 1930s detective stories and shaded with the devastating hauteur of a young Katharine Hepburn. She had the wise-cracking wit of Dorothy Parker, the intemperance of Zelda Fitzgerald and the stylistic flair of Elsa Schiaparelli. She was the sum of everything I wished I could be but wasn’t.”

Have you read ‘Self-Contained‘? What do you think about it?

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