Cycling with Meera Velankar and Sheetal Bambulkar is a humbling experience. I discovered this on the Eastern Express Highway in Mumbai one Sunday morning as they cooled down after riding 80-km as part of their training for a 200-km endurance ride –called brevet – on a tandem bicycle. Other Indian women have done brevets, but not on a tandem bike.
Determined to keep pace, I pump the pedals hard, making my bicycle go as fast as possible. As sweat pours down my forehead, I zigzag through the meager patches of shade provided by the occasional tree. Trucks speed past us, their cargo bays clanging menacingly. Meanwhile, Bambulkar, lighthearted after the long ride, chats with me as she effortlessly pedals her road bike – built for speed, it’s sleek, with dropped handlebars and wafer thin tires.
Ahead of us is Velankar. Clad in a bright pink jersey and pink cycling gloves streaked with black grease, she projects cool confidence. The road is hers and the men on two-wheelers, who make a wide arc around her as they pass, seem to know it. I notice our cadence is out of sync; I get the sense that they are slowing down for my sake.
Bambulkar and Velankar are part of a small but growing group of women in Mumbai for whom cycling is not a childhood memory but an adult obsession. Despite the inhospitable climate and road conditions, these women have made cycling part of their daily routine. They cycle to work, they cycle for fun and they cycle to take a much-needed break from the relentless demands of the office, housework and child-rearing.
They are women like Pankaja Date, a photographer who regularly goes on 60-km solo rides through the city and its outskirts on her single speed bicycle; for her, cycling is as therapeutic as it is physically exhilarating. Or Sharvari Kher, a homeopathic doctor, who starting cycling at the age of 40 and three years later, found herself fixing a puncture on the side of a highway in the middle of a 400-km brevet. Some are athletes, but many are not. They have professional jobs, many have children, and all are changing the city’s streets and the gender attitudes that shape how we move through them.
Sense of liberation
When Disha Shrivastava first cycled the 10-km distance from the city's scenic Powai area to her office in the suburb of Santa Cruz, she was terrified. The potential dangers lurking on the road –the cars kicking up dust, the open manholes, grates with gaps wide enough to swallow a tyre, piles of construction debris and the threat of leering men – seemed overwhelming. But after that first ride, she said there was “bliss”. Cycling changed how she related to the city. The fears, anxieties and inhibiting thoughts such as, “What will people say?” and “Am I doing justice to my family?” slipped away.
Sitting in a car disconnected her from her surroundings, but the bicycle has a charm of its own. “I felt that the roads knew me and I knew the roads,” Shrivastava said. Suddenly, streets that seemed threatening became a space of pleasure. “[On the bicycle] I feel so free. I can feel the air around me. Rushing down the flyover, the way the wind hits you – it’s amazing,” she said.
For Shrivastava, cycling has been a transformative experience. Her family once viewed the activity as an oddity, but her passion and the positive attention that it has garnered is now a source of pride. She has also tried to spread the joy, organising regular rides with a group called Powai Pedals, where she spends mornings patiently assisting new cyclists. Recently, Shrivastava started a group called Moms on Bikes, which encourages middle-aged women to return to cycling.
She now commutes to work on a folding bicycle thrice a week. Her colleagues, once curious about the strange object tucked under her desk, now consider it normal.
Other women are treading a similar path. Three times a week, Sheetal Bambulkar cycles past stalled traffic en route to her office in Powai. According to her, it’s a stress buster. “You unwind and you feel fresh,” she said. While they both travel on the same roads, her colleagues are frazzled by their commutes on two-wheelers and in cars. “While they are uncomfortable, they see how easy it is for me to commute,” Bambulkar said.
Susheela Rao, who works as an executive assistant in the commercial area of Bandra Kurla Complex, used to drive or take an autorickshaw to work. But a chance encounter with cyclists from Zero Emission, a group from Thane, sparked a long dormant desire. Pedalling down Mumbai streets for the first time as an adult brought back a heady rush of emotions. “[It was] something I hadn’t felt since childhood,” she said.
She now cycles to work regularly because of the accompanying sense of freedom. Rao said that cycling is particularly liberating for women accustomed to dealing with either household or work responsibilities. “When you cycle, you are only with yourself,” Rao said.
She is also encouraging colleagues to ride with her and nudging human resource departments to make workplaces more bicycle-friendly by installing showers and parking racks.
Sitting in a café after our ride, Bambulkar and Velankar discuss their cycling experiences. They are positive for the most part. “So, what is stopping the many would-be women cyclists?” I ask.
When I speak with male cyclists about obstacles to riding in the city, they talk about uneven surfaces, unpredictable traffic and potholes. But that is not what these women have in mind.
“Going out to work or a family function – that’s acceptable,” Meera said. “But people think you are crazy if you tell someone you are going riding.”
Velankar’s family is supportive, but out in public, at a traffic light or on the side of the road, she hears echoes of this idea: “First, people think, if you are riding, then you must not be married,” she said. “Secondly, when they learn I’m married, they ask, ‘Is there a problem with your marriage?’ And thirdly, when they learn that I’m happily married and have two daughters, they ask, ‘You are a mom, so why are you cycling?’”
Cycling is a physical activity like no other. Unlike going to a gym or walking in a park, it requires immersing oneself in the potential unruliness of the city, its streets and its public spaces. Perhaps this is why the bicycle has been embroiled in gender debates since its invention. The late-19th century image of women cycling around the countryside of France, the United States or India was seen by some as a threat to gender norms and by others as a sign of empowerment. On one level, the bicycle will always be a sign of freedom.
But today, empowerment seems an outdated concept – more the language of government and development organisations than characterising the complex sensory and subjective experiences of cycling in modern day Mumbai. The interactions with some of Mumbai’s women cyclists indicate that they are not only cycling to liberate themselves, but to transform how they relate to the city – to find moments of freedom in Mumbai’s streets, or to prove something to themselves, or simply to have fun. Most of all, they cycle, as the author of Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai’s Streets writes, to “engage city spaces on [their] own terms.”
Jonathan Shapiro Anjaria teaches at Brandeis University and blogs at cyclesheher.org