The good old bicycle
K S S Pillai
The virtues of cycling were sung from all corners of the world on June 3, International World Bicycle Day. Rightly so, as cycling had been a unique, simple, affordable, eco-friendly mode of transport for more than 200 years. Choked by emissions from automobiles, major cities are now laying exclusive cycle tracks. Some even keep bicycles at different spots for the use of citizens. The quote, “I don’t ride a bicycle to add days to my life. I ride a bicycle to add life to my days,” is being displayed at strategic points to attract more people to cycling.
All this ruckus about bicycles reminds me of my early days with them in my hometown. There were a couple of shops renting out bicycles on hourly basis. They would keep several vehicles in tip-top condition, bedecked like brides. Since cycling at night without lights was an offence, some of them had head and tail lights powered by a dynamo. For children, there were bicycles with wheels of smaller size. They also kept ladies’ bicycles that had step-through frames that allowed the rider to mount or dismount in a dignified way while wearing a skirt or dress. Most of the learners used the vast playground of the high school for the purpose.
On the day I ventured out to the main road on a bicycle for the first time, I was so scared when I found an old man walking in front of me that I forgot how to apply breaks. Within moments he lay sprawling on the road, the bicycle and I on him. Luckily, a relative of mine residing nearby saw the mishap and came running, barely saving me from a sound thrash by the onlookers.
There was a police inspector in the town, who was a terror for those who performed gymnastics on their bicycles. If one rode his bicycle keeping both his hands away from the handlebar, the inspector would suddenly appear before him, take out some tools from his pocket, and remove the handlebar. “It’s of no use to you,” he would say to the bewildered offender before letting him go. The same fate awaited those who drove the bicycle standing, their feet busy on rotating pedals. The inspector would take away the seat. His room was found to be full of handlebars and seats of bicycles when he was transferred to another place.
Since scooters had not yet made their presence felt, the bicycle was the usual family vehicle. It was a blessing for the poor as its cost was affordable, and it required minimum maintenance. There was no need to worry about the daily fluctuation in the price of petrol. Usually, the only care you had to take was to maintain the air pressure of the tyres. You could then use either the service of the roadside mechanic for a meagre charge or do it yourself with his pump. The worst that could happen was to find a flat tyre. You would then have to take the bicycle to the mechanic. He would remove the punctured tube from the tyre, show the offending nail, thorn, or similar things to the bystanders and repair the tube.
A whole family of four merrily pedalling through roads used to be a common sight. While the husband pedalled, his wife would sit behind him on the carrier holding a child, while the older one would sit on the baby seat fixed on the crossbar.
The bicycle is no more the monopoly of the poor. Fancy ones with gears, speedometers and other devices are now available in the market to satisfy the whims of the well-to-do. There are also cycle clubs whose members pedal through highways on holidays, wearing helmets. Health-freaks keep one specially designed for the purpose at home to do stationary cycling at their convenience.
There is no doubt many of our present problems would disappear if people got out of their automobiles and went back to the good old bicycles.
(The author is a retired professor of English. A regular contributor to The Kashmir Vision, his articles and short stories has appeared in various national and international publications)