Workers and girls
were riding to their
their heads to the sky,
sitting on the
of the whirling
as they rode by
bridges, rosebushes, brambles
does it have a soul,
and fallen there
a translucent insect
that will return to
when it’s needed,
when it’s light,
of each day.
- An Ode to Bicycles by Pablo Neruda
The bicycle has been given a short shrift in India as it still awaits a dawn and its own resurrection. It is the common man’s mode of transportation, yet the per capita of bicycles in India is a low 0.06 in contrast to China, where it stands at 2.26, which means that even this basic mode of transportation is denied to the vast majority of poor Indians. (The figures are for the years 1992 and 1995 respectively- Source. Since production increased from 9m to 11m between 1992 and 2000 in India, while in China it increased from 40m to 53m, I doubt that the per capita counts have changed drastically)
The Mao Bicycle (Flickr Source)
To a large extent, this can be attributed to the lack of political support the bicycle has managed to mobilize for itself. The bicycle has been low on the list for politicians and hence on the nation’s priorities. In China, Mao popularized what came to be called the “Mao Bicycle” and set the masses to literally ride the road to liberation. Mahatma Gandhi, however, did nothing of the sort as he did with the charkha. He did not ride the bicycle, preferring, instead the comfort of the Indian Railways, or whatever it was called before independence. The Samajwadi Party carries the bicycle as its election symbol, though you may not recollect ever seeing the portly Mr. Amar Singh ride one. A few years ago, Shiela Dixit, the Delhi Chief Minister, came up with the novel concept of bicycle clubs. It has not exactly created a revolution in the state as yet.
Nor has the Mumbai film industry (or Tamil or the other ollywoods) taken up the cause of the bicycle. There are indeed some old Hindi film songs picturized on the heroine and her friends riding the bicycle. But the hero invariably would ride at least a two wheeler, even the old Lambretta was preferable to the lowly bicycle. On the other hand, sometimes the villain and his cohorts paid a tribute of sorts by beating the good guys with bicycle chains. There has been a Chinese version of The Bicycle Thief, but no Indian one. Even in Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy which was stylistically inspired by the Italian classic, the bicycle was nowhere to be seen. The only exception that comes to mind is an old Manoj Kumar movie, Shor, in which he wins a cycling challenge by continuously circling for many days, spurred on by an inspiring song on the way.
The decline of the bicycle among the influential middle classes accelerated in the 1980s when the two wheelers started replacing the bicycle in the employees’ parking lot outside the neighbourhood branch of the State Bank of India. Even the milkman switched over to a Rajdoot motorcycle, leaving only the postman whose occasional presence now graces respectable middle class homes with a bicycle. Since a vehicle is as much a symbol of power as of prestige when it comes to the Indian road, anyone riding one is seen with at best a smirk, if not sheer disdain.
My first bicycle–a small blue Hero ‘sports’ cycle was bought in class six, expensive though it was, given my family’s means. I used it to ride to school, a good few miles away, along with my sister, robbing the rickshaw puller of quite a sum over the years. By the time I reached class 8, I bought the standard black Hero bicycle. It was bought by paying for it in instalments of Rs 10 per month through the influence of my grandparents and then transported to my home town on top of a bus. Till the third year of my college, I used the bicycle and then sold it off for one third of the price, switching over to first a Vijay Super and still later the LML Vespa. The gradual transition paralleled the ascending affluence of my family in the late 1980s as it switched from a fourth hand, 1973 Mark II model of the Ambassador car, to a Maruti 800. My cousins, growing up a few years later, would ride to school on a two wheeler.
This personal story, I believe, is more or less also the story of the decline of the bicycle in middle class families.
But there are more significant bicycles that come to mind. There was one that belonged to an old bearded Sikh man who could be seen on the roads of Chandigarh carrying a bag full of books. The man was a well known figure in the city, especially among the poor students. He would lend them books free of charge and deliver them right at their doorsteps, come rain or wind. There must have been some personal story, or tragedy behind such an act that we never bothered to find out. What stood out on his bicycle was the over-sized carrier at the back that he would place his bag on, it had a small wooden plank on top of the carrier and the large canvas bag with its books was tied on top of it.
Another memorable one is one one that belonged to the creator of the Rock Garden, Nek Chand. Somewhere in the eighties, the Haryana Chief Minister, Bhajan Lal, gifted him an Ambassodor car at a glittering function. After everyone had left, Nek Chand took out his old bicycle and rode back home- the next day, the local newspapers carried his picture riding a bicycle with the brand new Ambassador car in the backdrop. Perhaps he did not have the money to bear the cost of fuel, or more likely did not know how to drive a car. But above all, it was this bicycle that he had used to carry the refuse and broken ware to his then secret abode that later became the Rock Garden- an imposing counter as it were to Nehru’s modernist dreams.
This dream would have been impossible, Chand says, without his bicycle. He and his two-wheeled friend roamed the hillsides in search of materials. On some days, they traveled more than 20 kilometers, seeking out stones and debris that Chand would later transform into shapes of his imagination. Describing the conditions in which he worked, by cover of darkness, fighting off clouds of biting mosquitoes and snakes, Chand says, “I used to work alone in the jungle and my bicycle was the only means for me to get out safely.” Source
Nek Chand’s old bicycle is now part of the Rock Garden and prominently displayed there.
Nek Chand migrated to India from the Pakistani part of Punjab during the partition. I do not know how he traversed the distance, but many migrants used bicycles to scamper across the border. A friend in Chandigarh always used to ride a bicycle that was, to say the least, in a pretty ramshackle condition. The reason for his attachment, he remarked with similar sentimentality as Chand, was that his father rode from Lahore to the Indian side of the border on that bicycle. I also do not know if the owners of bicycle companies that forms the backbone of the economy of the industry in Ludhiana too crossed the border on bicycles, but it is a well known fact that it was mainly the refugees who contributed to the setting up of the industry in some of smaller towns and cities after independence/partition.
Some of them, like the Hero group have switched over to the manufacture of the lucrative two wheeler segment, symbol of the youthful entrants to the middle classes and on which Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan sang their best numbers.
The legendary Nek Chand, the master of recycling the broken pieces of material that build our modern cities, however, can still be seen riding a bicycle in Chandigarh.
And that holds out hope to the otherwise unfashionable mode of transportation of the working classes.
(See Rahul Banerjee’s post Cycling to Environmental Glory that spurred this Proustian excursion)