Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

A story from many years ago about the first bicycle I rode in the mountains:

It was a simple bicycle.

No gears, painted silver and red, odd size.

A person of average height traveled the road bordering our camp like a stiff Victorian gentleman. His knees nearly knocked against the handle bar to avoid which, he had to keep himself straight and proper on the seat. A tall person would have to be at the rear edge of the seat or off it on the luggage rack. The bright paint served to distract from the cycle’s manufacturing quality; the frame was heavy steel, the joints bore crude welding marks. It wasn’t a solitary specimen in remoteness. There were similar others in Mori, a settlement on the banks of the Tons River in the Garhwal half of Uttarakhand.

Dayal, who worked in the camp kitchen and owned the cycle, took good care of it. But there was only so much he could do to domesticate an animal rather wild from birth. When the cycle arrived, most of the male instructors at camp and the one or two ladies who could cycle were elated. Here was an engaging way to stay occupied after work, particularly if you weren’t the type who could keep on playing volleyball till eternity. I don’t like games. Squaring off to compete and then determining a winner and loser from the contest, never appealed to me. I think the value of competing must be understood in context. I am unsure of competition’s value as an ethic, in our crowded, congested times. At Mori, I used to run to keep myself fit. It provided solo time. But given a slightly weak left leg, cycling seemed better option than running. It was human-powered and not much different from trekking, you moved along taking in the ambiance. There was the Tons River always in sight by the snaking road, beautiful people and village children, who no matter how many cycles they had seen could never resist chasing one. Thanks to all this, the bicycle excited.

The cycle though, had other ideas.

It punctuated every trip with a slip of its chain.

You began the excursion with fanfare; a group of village children for escort. They would gather around in anticipation and then trot alongside, a laughing, giggling bunch of boys and girls. As the cycle started moving and you settled into a small procession on the road, the chain would slip dispatching the legs into a couple of quick spins. “ Gaya, chain gaya,’’ the older of the children would shout as break-down replaced procession for novelty. The two kilometers from camp to Mori usually featured at least a couple of such injuries to one’s pride. To their credit, the children were quite sympathetic to cyclist’s plight. They didn’t mock; they sat down on the road observing the cyclist put the chain back in place. When the job was done, they got up, happy to resume the procession. In due course it was possible to figure out who had been cycling from the grease on their palms. Following one too many chain-slips, the bicycle was hauled to the doctors. We stood in a circle around it, scratched our chins and put our heads together.  Its ailment was diagnosed as a sag in the chain. Everyone concurred. Its chain did have a sagged appearance like what happens to a man’s tummy after too much time with beer and idleness. “ Clipping a chain link should solve the problem,’’ cycling’s medics decreed. Mori didn’t have a cycle shop. But there was a man who fixed everything. He was the local go-to for anything in need of repair. Our cycle was admitted to his care. The quack clipped and the bike’s sagging, jingling belly popped right back in. The bicycle came back looking athletic, sudden run-away muscularity to its stance thanks to new belly-tuck.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

What neither the quack nor Dayal – or for that matter any of us – knew, was that the cycle’s real issue was attitude. I am yet to hear of a psychologist for bicycles – a bike whisperer. We needed one for the bicycle was challenging our capabilities. The damned chain continued to slip, to the point that fewer people now courted the bicycle and those who did, returned unsure if the experience was best called cycling or greasing. We cycled slowly, delicately, Zen-like attention in each pound of pressure applied on the pedals. All focus was on avoiding a chain-slip. Rather unconsciously, a new world opened up. Where cycling had previously been an offshoot of daily exercise, thanks to the extra attention, it now became meditation. We became monks on wheels. Our mind withdrew from the world we were cycling through to total focus on neural pathway between brain and precisely exerted force underfoot.  The village children no longer ran alongside shouting. They walked solemnly like little priests for a new order of self realization and world peace. Wisdom on Wheels: The Cycling Monks of Mori – we may well have become that hadn’t a rebellion against pattern, as old as the universe, struck.

One day, the Zen Master in me lost his marbles. I got bored of being gentle and meditative. I metamorphosed into a head banging rock star. I wanted speed, I wanted the wind in my hair or more accurately the few strands of hair on my bald head, and I wanted to work up a sweat. The children were left behind as I zoomed off on the uphill road leading to Netwar. The bike lunged like a horse breaking into gallop. The trick was to cycle with full contact and uniform pressure on the pedal at all times. It was the jerk of a break-and-resume pattern that typically caused the chain to slip. Not far from camp was a steep uphill climb and although the simple cycle had no gears, I made it up without any erratic jerks to the pedaling. Out of sight of the children – they had given up their pursuit by now – and out of sight of the camp, I halted to allow my hard breathing to slow down. Ahead, a gang of soot stained workers were repairing the road. Road repair crews in the Indian Himalaya are a story by themselves. The bulk of these workers hail from elsewhere, typically the states of eastern India (not to be confused with north-east) and sometimes from Nepal. You find them working in small groups. The road repair crew on the road to Netwar stopped their work to check me out. My bulging eyes and hard breathing, no more resembled monastic peace. Aware of being studied, I pulled myself together and got back on the cycle. I went past the repair team, turned the corner and then, the bicycle gifted me a chain-slip. Problem corrected and cycle positioned on a clearly uphill road, I whispered a small prayer, then got  down to getting self on two wheels moving.

The chain held, it held for some time, it seemed to hold longer – that was when I suspected a tremor in the handle bar. Was it beginning to lower? I felt a slouch gain on me. As with most bikes, the cycle’s handle bar was gently curved, dipping at the centre and rising towards the ends. Slowly, ever so slowly but ever so surely as it always does when things go wrong, my shoulders dropped lower and lower in tune with a handle bar that had come lose. Undone from the central clamp, it was dropping down. My posture resembled that of a buffalo. Even with head raised, the crown of the head, horns and neck tracked a straight line to the animal’s spine. Aerodynamic – yes, but aerodynamic with dancing handle bar was surely no recipe for cycling. And the cycle’s handle bar was dancing; having slipped down, it kept swinging forward and backward, it was also sliding sideways. When it struck, the sideways slide made man on cycle lose sense of symmetry and with it, direction. You drifted into travel at angles. The only way out was to grip the handle bar dead center, where it joined the head tube, making sure there was equal lengths of steel to either side. Your palms served as central clamp. But that made you wobbly on potholed winding roads. The traction of uphill helped. Somehow, I made it to my destination, the first major bridge on the road, at best two kilometers from camp. There I took stock. I had no tools, nothing. The solution to check the slipping and sliding handle bar was to wedge something into the clamp holding it. I inspected twig after twig from the roadside till I found one good enough to jam into the clamp. It appeared to hold. I could spare my hands the onus of being clamp. Going downhill would also keep the chain problem sidelined. The world seemed good. However, I had gravely under-estimated the bike’s capacity for creativity.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Bonding with the cycle, the rattle from the road traveled up its rim and spokes like hot gossip. It darted up through the fork and onto the clamp designed to keep the handle bar in place. The twig started getting pounded. It threatened to dislodge. I pressed the twig in; the pressure broke it. Now I had no means to maneuver the twig in place. What remained of it inside the clamp was squashed and poised to get ejected as chewed up twig bits. I brought my hands as close to the bar’s center as I could in an attempt to keep it clamped in. That’s the beauty of a cycle. Everything about it is simple, when things go wrong you improvise. Nothing complicated, only very simplified complications, as the next problem showed.

I was going downhill, my hands on the center of the handle bar. It posed a simple question: do I quit using the brakes, which are located at the ends of the handle bar? As the bicycle and I gathered speed, I shifted hands to apply the brakes and the lose handle bar having ejected the squashed twigs, gifted me a slouched position. It happened suddenly as the tips of the handle bar dropped low with that central clamp loosening. Then I discovered another little devil in the bag of tricks opening up. The smart little cycle had a weak back brake and sharp front brake. If I wasn’t adequately tactful, the front brake would send me flying. Wonderful! By the time I reached the road gang I was a mess, anything but Zen and trying my level best to look composed. The workers looked at me curiously. Something about my apparent cool and calm must not have convinced. I don’t blame them; I was worried. I needed my composure badly because at camp, it wouldn’t be a road gang of rank strangers who I would never meet again in my life, to cope with, but a bunch of high school students I required to spend the next week with. They would be scrutinizing my descent. If I got off the cycle and pushed it, that would mean I had failed in something as simple as cycling. Thanks to relentless competition, today’s students speak just two words – winner, loser. Who wants a loser as teacher at camp? Perhaps I was forgetting myself. I too was once student in school thick with competition. We have forgotten – failure is the biggest teacher there is. Like a general returning victorious from battle, I had to reach camp on the horse’s back. Just short of the final downhill slope and before becoming visible from camp, I jammed two twigs in, kept one hand near the center of the handle bar and the other on the front brake-lever. It was getting dark, so nobody got a close view of the strange shifts to position I kept making to retain balance. We arrived in one piece. I quietly informed Dayal of the handle bar, parked the bicycle near the kitchen and withdrew to my tent.

Ravi’s struggle in contrast was more severe. But the outcome was top notch. He had mentioned of a unicycle long ago. The day he was expected at camp, I returned from a hike with students to see a blue unicycle on the ground near his tent – small single wheel about knee high in diameter with a straight fork attached to it. Now a fork isn’t born nasty looking. In this case, a slim seat was all that stood between the fork-end and that critical piece of the human anatomy resting on top. Not for me, I resolved, then and there. Historically, the unicycle was our bicycle’s cousin, many times removed. Long ago, when England was ruled by Queen Victoria, Dayal’s steed had a great-great-grandfather abroad called Penny-Farthing. It was one huge wheel in front with a small one behind; the cycle’s name derived from the way these sharply contrasting wheels resembled the penny and farthing of prevailing British currency. Since wheel size directly affected speed and distance covered, some truly large wheels were built. The rider, seated atop the front wheel, could be five feet above the ground.

Personally, I cannot fathom its design just as I cannot fathom the madness in balancing on one wheel. But that didn’t stop the blooming of penny-farthing fans. Sample these two – in 2007, long after the model had faded out, a gentleman was reported riding a penny-farthing around the world; another in California attracted attention from the local police because his five foot-high perch prevented him from stopping at traffic intersections.  Lights turn red, vehicles stop and there goes man on penny farthing right through it all! While the obvious question that should bother anyone staring at the penny-farthing would be how the hell you touch the ground, cycling history does admit to riders expressing discomfort over the rear wheel lifting off when braking sharply. That’s the only thing that bothered the devout. In retrospect it all appears to have been less about personal discomfort and more about a quest. For the outcome of rear wheel lifting off was the outrageously simple hypothesis – why not use just one wheel? See, I told you, cycling is all about simplicity. The unicycle was living proof of that – a seat atop a wicked looking-fork on a single wheel.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Ravi’s initial attempts were hardly cycling. Clutching the post of the volleyball net for support he would mount the unicycle and half a pedal later, be thrown off his seat at the tip of that straight fork.  Ten days of persistent practice must have gone by before he could cycle some distance. Then he shifted to the road. I was a bit jealous for the unicycle took away some of the villagers’ attention from bicycle and me. We realized that our fans were fickle. The children couldn’t take their eyes off the unicycle. Soon, Ravi’s brief one wheeled-forays into the world beyond camp grew into extended trips nudging the kilometer mark. Finally, he was ready to cycle all the way to Mori. I followed at a distance on the bicycle watching people stop and stare at unicycle passing by. In the following days, Ravi cycled much farther (he has since become accomplished at the unicycle; in Ranikhet where he lives, he is known as ` circus uncle’) but one incident stayed etched in memory. Ravi had just left Mori for camp and I was trailing behind when suddenly a youth hopped onto his bicycle, pedaled fast one way, whipped around, came back and attempted to whip around again – he went sprawling right there in the market place. His friends sitting at a nearby shop, laughed. “ What are you? You fall trying stunts on two wheels and that guy went by calmly on a single wheel!’’ somebody quipped.

I wonder what our bicycle thought of the unicycle. Animals can be jealous; they can put on a show. Never heard of cycles behaving so but with all that chain-slip, lose handle bar and funny brakes, I just can’t be sure any more. I was posted at Mori for close to two months. My days on the bicycle passed by with small enjoyable adventures. Before I left Mori, the universe however served up some sad news. As the camp was winding up, we heard that one of the members of the road gang died in a case of electrocution. An overhead electric line had snapped and fallen on the road.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

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