I used to have an old bicycle, the kind derogatorily referred to as dudhwala bicycle because milkmen made their delivery runs on it, with their large milk cans hooked to its frame. The bicycle was heavy, steady and could make good speed on a flat Calcutta road, much to the anguish of pedestrians accustomed to languid, half-asleep cyclists. Its speed was the result of a modification I had made by stealing the hub off the wheel of my mother’s old bicycle and the intervention of my cycle mechanic on Bondel Road, who had been around so long he was more a friend. Then, towards the end of my school days, I got another bike, a green racing model with drop handlebars that I won in a quiz competition. Racing bikes were new to mass production in the city back then (though I know my great grandfather had one in the 1890s), and I had the option of upgrading mine to a ten-speed one, but I decided not to. Calcutta was flat, anyway.
By the time I started university, I was a seasoned Calcutta cyclist, and in those pre-mobile phone days, I would give my father a fright by turning up at home at 3 am, after all public transport had ceased. I was used to being stopped by policemen hoping for a handout. My usual response, “You’re not stopping cars, are you?”, would dash their hopes and they would allow me to proceed, realising that I wouldn’t be intimidated into parting with a few rupees.
To Presidency College, you could take the 240 bus from Ballygunge Phari, but it was so packed by then that you couldn’t breathe and you arrived at your destination as sweaty as if you had cycled. Besides, it wasn’t a pleasant ride. As a young male (this is not talked about much in the annals of the city), you had to ward off the hands of the many mashimas and meshomoshais who took a liking to young bodies in closed spaces. There was no point in protesting – if it was a mashima, there was a danger that your protestations could easily be turned around and it would all be made to look like your fault: after all, older women were more often harassees, not harassers. As for the meshomoshais, since homosexual desire was pushed into the shadows, consent was unthinkable. One only had the choice of wriggling further into the bus. So I cycled.
The route was pleasant and quick. About seven and a half kilometres could be covered in 25 minutes in good conditions – out the back roads via Ballygunge Place East, past the Bondel Gate level crossing, along Rifle Range Road, Dargah Road, CIT Road, Moulali, then through Creek Row, right onto Nirmal Chandra Street and on to College Street. Or, earlier in the morning, along Gariahat Road, right onto Gurusaday Road, through Rawdon Street, Park Street, and along Wellesley Street straight up through Nirmal Chandra Street to College Street. This early morning route was more hazardous for a racing bike, what with all the dodging of tram lines. I once cut a cycle tyre in half on a tram track at the College Street corner and missed a class that I was trying to make in 20 minutes. But then there were always cycle repair shops around, and only one class too late, the cycle was duly parked in front of Pramod-da’s canteen, the key left with him behind the counter.
The tradition was (as with most traditions, its origins are unclear) that the bicycle would be used to make trips to the College Street market for the replenishment of the collective ganja supply. If the bicycle was not in front of the canteen when I finished class, I had only to wait, and when the bicycle reappeared, a circle would form, either on the playing fields or on the canteen terrace.
I don’t know if those on the ganja run liked one or the other of my bicycles, but I personally preferred the speedier racing bike. It was a delight at all times, except in the monsoons, when the mudguards of the dudhwala bicycle were kinder on your clothes than the racing tyres that left an elegant mud-coloured stripe up the back of your trousers and shirt as your rode.
Both my bicycles were well maintained, with little thanks to me. The credit for the achievement went to Gopal-da, my friend and cycle mechanic who had had a bicycle shop on Bondel Road ever since I could remember. My parents had given me my first bicycle on my seventh birthday, a children’s bike that I learned to ride on and which I outgrew reasonably quickly. Gopal-da was the one to upgrade it, the one to take the training wheels off, and the one to raise the seat and the handlebars as high as they could go. One day, it became too small for me despite the modifications, and it had to go.
When I was 11, the dudhwala bike appeared in my life. I had first ridden it in Delhi, where it had belonged to my mother’s second husband, a specialist in German literature and film studies. I received it when the house in Hauz Khas was packed up, and the bicycle was migrated to Calcutta as a present for me. It was still a little tall for me – the lowest seat setting allowed me to pedal with the last centimetre of the heel and toes – but it immediately offered me the freedom of a city that I hadn’t had before.
The racing bicycle was an unexpected addition, a by-product of the quiz competitions that were ubiquitous in Calcutta at the time. At one such competition, manufacturers showcased their new bicycles and offered them as prizes to the best individual members of the teams. Since quizzing at the time was a team sport, this forced the teams into the awkward situation of having to nominate an individual for a special round that would decide the bicycle winner. I was reluctant to be nominated because I wasn’t used to thinking laterally on my own. (This would change when I became an academic – the lonelier the thinking, the better, I would now say, otherwise you are browbeaten into conformity). At any rate, I ended the round as the possessor of a new bicycle, the second bicycle on offer going to a woman named Barnali who was, I think, glad not to win the first because it was decidedly more awkward to ride. It was my first time on a bicycle with drop handlebars as well, and I fell twice on the triumphal but wobbly ride home with the new machine. But after that, I was hooked for life: I can’t imagine not having one now.
It was Gopal-da who appeared the most pleased at the addition to my fleet. He looked it over with glee, made a few minor adjustments, and then made me an offer: he would henceforth maintain and overhaul my bicycles for free, on the condition that he could borrow the green racer for his annual cycling outing with his friends. I readily agreed, and that was the last time I rode a squeaky-pedalled, mudguard-rattling bicycle anywhere, for Gopal-da was a wizard with the machines.
Wheels Within Wheels
With time, I came to enjoy spending afternoons sitting in the corrugated-iron-roofed shed that was his shop, the cool interiors smelling of cold cycle grease and freshly-made sweet tea from the stall next door. As he fixed something small on a cycle, or explained a new brake mechanism to me, we drank the tea together. I like to think that Gopal-da and I saw in the age of liberalisation in India: the old, clunky, safe and solid cycles like my dudhwala bike were giving way to trendier, visually more appealing machines, which Gopal-da believed would not go the distance. He would show me the shoddiness of the new brake mechanisms and express horror at the twisted bits of wire that passed as brake cords, insisting that they would not last a single monsoon in Calcutta. However, he vouched for the frame of my racing bike, which he said would stand the test of time. (As I write this, the said bicycle, now 34 years old, is being ridden by a student of mine.)
Gopal-da was a wiry, muscular man, with a great deal of body hair and a full beard. For me, his was the idealised male body, aspirational and mildly eroticised. He was a man made for lazy afternoons spent at work in an undemandingly languid atmosphere. It is possible I displaced this realisation at the time, but even now, I cannot pass a bicycle with drop handlebars without ogling.
In about my second year at university, the unthinkable began to happen. Gopal-da acquired a belly, a true Bangali Bhuri. It was about the same time, I think, that his tendency to borrow my racing bicycle declined in frequency. Around the same period, Gopal-da’s daughter started appearing in his shop, first as assistant to her father, then as (most often) the sole occupant and worker in the shop. My disappointment at Gopal-da’s fall from iconic status quickly established causal links among the three events, though a retrospective calculation would have placed Gopal-da at the dangerous age of about 40, when physical routines collapse upon themselves and dreams of a lazy present and future, hard-earned and well-deserved, turn parts of men’s bodies wobbly. I was 19, approaching 20, and at least implicitly believed I was invulnerable, immortal and invincible, so I had little or no sympathy for the situation. I never fully acknowledged my erotic admiration for the young woman, who I imagined was somewhere between 15 and 16. She was wiry, muscular and wore men’s working clothes or cotton dresses as she casually lifted 25-kilo bicycles onto recycled bicycle chains hanging on hooks attached to the wooden beams that also held up the corrugated iron sheets.
And then one day the shop was shut. The tea-man next door could only tell me that Gopal-da had ceased to run the cycle shop: the sign in black and yellow that had marked a world for me for so long had been taken down, and the padlocked shed was suddenly just another shapeless form along a nondescript road. The tea-man greeted me for another year or so every time I cycled past him and the empty shed next door in the hope that the sign had magically reappeared, or Gopal-da or his daughter. But I never saw them again. After another year, I left the city, and by the time I stepped back into it, it was no place for cyclists. An altogether different world had begun to grow, as Calcutta was replaced by a new and unfamiliar place called Kolkata. Older pleasures seemed irresponsibly quaint. A senior policeman advised me not to ride my bicycle: I had acquired political enemies, and accidents could be made to happen.
Benjamin Zachariah is a historian by training, working on comparative fascism and the politics of writing history.