In the month of May this year, Jyoti Kumari, a 15 year old girl from Bihar, cycled 1,200 km from Gurugram to Darbhanga in seven days with her injured father riding pillion because of their inability to pay the rent that their landlord was demanding. First reported by the BBC, and later retweeted by Ivanka Trump, her heroic feat turned her into an overnight sensation and the epitome of grit and girl power.
A fair number of friends WhatsApped me the story. Throughout the pandemic, no other story was repeatedly brought to my attention. Why? Because I happened to cycle from Bangalore to Delhi in 2010 in 23 days and wrote a book about it. This is the tenuous thread that binds us together.
I was embarrassed that Jyoti’s odyssey rekindled memories of my adventure among my friends. There is no comparison between our journeys. One was a necessity born of harsh circumstance, the other the gentle niggle of a childhood dream. I was twice Jyoti’s age when I went on my “Bharat darshan” in a vain bid to discover my country. She just wanted to go home – with her father in tow. Her expedition was forced by impending starvation, while I was propelled by a drought of writing ideas. I had a bag strapped with sparse essentials to my cycle carrier, but she had a full-grown man, possibly the most essential person in her life, seated on hers.
Since that incredible feat, film-makers have bought the rights to her story; briefly she became the chief acrobat in an ever-evolving media circus; at the prompting of the sports minister, the Cycling Federation of India offered her a trial – which may possibly be the second-best outcome of her ordeal, the best being the resumption of her education.
This reminded me of the most compelling, captivating person I met on my trip, whose childhood had been corrupted by the iron hand of poverty. A boy named Naren, who, like Jyoti, was 15 years old when I met him at a dhaba a few kilometres from Agra. He kept plugging me with questions: Where was I from? How far had I cycled? How much longer would I go? What had I seen? How many states had I travelled? What was our country like? Who were the people I had met?
He, too, just like Jyoti, had been forced out of an education to help his family financially. His dream was to be a doctor. When I asked him why he spoke of his dream in the past tense, he replied matter-of-factly that circumstances were such. From dreaming of being a doctor, he had sublimated his dream to becoming a truck-driver.
Back then he had been working for two months as a cleaner of a dumpster, learning its machinations from “his ustaad” – the man who drove it. When Naren finished his chai and left the dhaba, I broke down. I was his age when I had first heard the story that made me dream of attempting a cross-country cycle-ride – which remains, ten years later, the greatest journey of my life. A journey so great that I wrote a book describing it with all the emotions and thoughts that long-distance travel on a cycle engenders; an adventure so vivid that I wrote Nautanki Diaries not once, but twice.
The cyclogue in literature
The body of cycling literature rests broadly on three distinct spokes – cycling as a touring chronicle and all its attendant adventures; books about professional cycling greats, their monumental achievements and their misdemeanours; and works dedicated to the evolution of the cycle and its rich history of innovation and enterprise. Indian literature is replete with travelogues on motorcycles, in cars, on trains, in trucks – but I hadn’t come across a “cyclogue”. I thought I was filling a void.
How wrong I was. A few years after I had completed Bengaluru-Delhi, I came across a cycling classic in the Mehrangarh Fort Museum. With Cyclists Around The World, written by Adi B Hakim, Jal P Bapasola and Rustom B Bhangara (published by Roli Books), tells the story of six young cyclists from the Bombay Weightlifting Club who set out from Bombay in 1923 to circumvent the globe (they told their troubled parents they were only cycling to Persia!).
Only three of the original six travellers completed the journey. Even this is surprising because their incredible feat of endurance traversed nearly 70,000 kms across Western Asia, Southern Europe, North America, China, Japan and South-East Asia through swamps, deserts, jungles, mountains and ravines where they encounter starvation, freezing conditions and even pirates in a journey that took four and half years to complete.
A paean to Parsi-ness, the enduring value of this book is that it casts time in the stone of the printed word, and allows us access to a period when Indians still measured weights in lbs, distances in miles, and money is annas and pies, when West Asia was still Mesopotamia and Korea was still the “Hermit Kingdom”. The Japan Times’s 1925 reportage of this herculean effort read – “It seems these stunts are necessary in this ultra-modern age if one has to secure any recognition”.
Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy chronicles Murphy’s tandem adventure from Dunkirk to Delhi with her cycle, which she christens Roz, no doubt doffing her literary lance to Cervantes. Her quixotic accoutrements for the trip include a pistol that she uses to fend off a potential rapist in Azerbaijan. When I finished my journey, I was asked repeatedly whether a trip similar to mine could be undertaken by a woman. Murphy’s book was published in 1965 two years after she completed her epic expedition, which shows that adventuring on a cycle is not specific to gender but dependent on the particular personality of the cycling itinerant.
The cycle has always been a metaphor for freedom and an explorer’s tool. One does much more than discover the natural landscape with it: one explores the inner geography of the body and maps one’s own mindscape. On a bicycle, you travel on your own steam, or the lack of it as the case may be. You are constantly in close contact with the climate, in communion with the surroundings and in conversation with the demands you make on your body or the protestations of it.
The beauty of travelling on a cycle is the pace of travel. It’s so slow that it allows one to take in entire scenes. During the pandemic, apart from stepping out of home to buy groceries, my only forays beyond the gates of my apartment complex were cycle-rides. As the lockdowns were relaxed, if friends wanted to meet my only demand was that we meet on cycles, where we could sit down and speak, shoot the breeze as we moved (and hence I have only met two friends in the last six months).
On one such occasion, while cycling with a friend, we took in an early morning scene – a security guard sitting on a pavement, a woman tending a steaming stove to a boil, and a child naked waist downwards laughing uncontrollably as it played with a stone – all three seemingly oblivious to the pandemic wreaking havoc on our nation.The man and woman’s faces were wreathed in smiles, a happy family scene if ever there was one, and we were privy to it simply because we were travelling slow enough to see these emotions etched across the trio’s faces.
It is easy to be happy, even if momentarily: this was the lesson we learnt that morning. Both of us noticed it, although we were lost in our own worlds. Che Guevera’s most famous literary work may well be The Motorcycle Diaries – a book about his 8,000-km journey across South America on a Norton motorcycle that spanned the Andes, the Atacama and the Amazon River Basin – but its genesis lay in a similar journey of close to 5,000 km that he undertook a couple of years earlier when he toured his home country Argentina on a cycle, although he had attached a motor to it.
Books about champion professional road-racing cyclists abound. Sex, Lies and Handlebar Tape reveals the scandalous life of Jacques Anquetil, and The Fallen Angel details the unbelievable puritanical attitudes of post-war Italy that led to the Supreme Pontiff issuing public nudges to cycling legend Fausto Coppi to return to his wife. They make for far more interesting reading than Half Man, Half Bike which focusses on the seemingly mundane exploits of the greatest cyclist ever – Eddie Merkcx. Merckx won with such boring regularity that he was dubbed the Cannibal because his appetite for winning was rapacious. But closer home India is going through a revolution in competitive cycling.
When it comes to fiction based on cycling, nothing is more widely read than Tim Krabbe’s The Rider. A sports journalist and a chess enthusiast, Krabbe wrote a book worthy of being a cult classic, which distils an encyclopaedic knowledge of the nous of bicycle-racing and the dynamics of the “continuously shifting braid of the peloton” into a short novella rich in muscular prose and dripping with cycling wisdom.
Consider these glowing samples – “What a cyclist needs is faith...and nothing is better for a firm and solid faith than being in the wrong”, or, “People think bicycle racing is about going fast...bicycle racing is a sport of patience’, or, “Racing is licking your opponent’s plate clean before starting on your own.’ Built on the solid foundation of a 160-km amateur race and told in the first person, The Rider is essential reading for anyone wants not just to understand cycle-racing but also to delve into the psyche of someone who constantly wants to cycle better. “Climbing is a rhythm, a trance; you have to rock your organs’ protests back to sleep.”
Cycling through Covid-19
This pandemic has been brutal, except to the cycle, which are flying off the racks. The coronavirus has shocked people into paying attention to personal health. Globally, the cycle as a means for personal mobility may never have enjoyed such prominence since the invention of the “safety bicycle” in the late 19th century and the subsequent patenting of pneumatic tyres by John Dunlop.
Across the world, in New York, Berlin, Paris, Barcelona, Tel Aviv, Bengaluru and Ahmedabad, local governing councils are planning extended networks of bicycle lanes. On a recent trip to the airport in Bengaluru, as the sun rose of the above the horizon, I realised a new age of cycling is dawning. I had never seen so many cyclists in one 40 km stretch.
People of all age groups were on the road, women were conspicuous by their numbers too – and the vast majority of them were recreational cyclists. It was a Sunday morning, after all. I wondered how many of them would consider converting their newfound love for cycling into something of literary value. As we enter what I hope will be the “golden age of cycling”, I am convinced that even if we do not see a glut of cycling literature, the cycle will become a more common feature in our writing. Lovers will go on cycling dates, protagonists will ruminate on cycles, the circuitry of novels will be punctuated by the cadence of cycles, action scenes with cycles at the core will proliferate.
But what I will wait patiently for is the writing of an individual for whom the cycle is at the core of their existence, for whom the cycle is a way of life, or a means to a livelihood (here I ignore the accomplished cyclist). I met many people like this on my trip from Bengaluru to New Delhi in 2010 – Vinod Kumar from Agra, who, despite lugging a 40 litre aluminium can filled with milk strapped to his carrier, cycled at such a furious pace that matching him was the finest stretch of cycling through my entire journey.
Or take the cycle-repair man who had his entire shop strapped to his cycle, and teared up when I gave him Rs 100 for servicing my cycle in an army cantonment in Maharashtra. Or the boy in Madhya Pradesh who had christened his cycle Night Queen, which bedazzled the starry night with its LED lights and attached transistor radio. Or the geriatric barber from Uttar Pradesh who also carried his humble open-air salon on his cycle. For them this delirium of discovering cycling during the pandemic will not exist. But for many others, the pandemic has elevated cycling from the prosaic to the poetic.
Remember the story that sparked my dream of cycling across India when I was 15? That story now has its own illustrated book. It’s called Shikari’s Cycling Adventure.
Jyoti Kumari’s story was widely read across the world, and rightfully so. But hers is not an isolated incident. What of the thousands of labourers and workers who begged for, borrowed, bought or possibly even stole cycles to transport themselves, or their families, back home? Newspaper stories exist of people escaping the trap of the metropolis to cycle back home to Orissa, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Will their stories be published in books once this pandemic wanes?
Wouldn’t it be incredible to have their stories preserved, stories of cycling thousands of kilometers not to fulfil a dream but to return home in desperation – in the boiling cauldron of an Indian summer, often dependent on the largesse of strangers, evading the policeman’s baton or benefiting from a policeman’s blind eye, banding together with other homebound people on similar journeys.
Imagine a love story blossoming on a cycle-ride such as this, or the shared camaraderie of strangers in the deepening cool of night, when the wellspring of hope gurgled resolutely through the cranks and the chains of a human being’s best inanimate friend – when the cycle became more than an instrument of freedom and was transformed into a vehicle of salvation amidst the scourge of this pandemic. I would give much to read, or even better, write, a story that would forever stand witness to these terrible times. Wouldn’t you?
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta.