As a child, I always wanted a bicycle. Appa wouldn’t let me have one. Too risky on the road, he said.
In Belgaum, my cousins went to school on bicycles. My sisters borrowed theirs and learnt how to ride. I was too short back then. By the time I grew tall enough, our trips from Bangalore to Belgaum came to a standstill. But when Achakka and Anakka took away the cycles and I was left all alone, I would go to the backyard and stare at the cycle kept there. I wondered what it would be like to ride it.
It was Ajja’s (my maternal grandfather). I have never met him, but I know him through many stories, some photographs, the shape of my uncle’s face, the complexion of my mother’s skin, the discipline of Doddmama (Amma’s oldest brother) and the eyes of Renu aunty. I imagined him riding this large cycle to the police station every day, where he worked as a havaldar (constable), coming home after drinking and making merry to hear the sweet sound of abuse from Shama Ajji. Amma dates some of her best childhood memories to Ajja pacifying Ajji with love songs, teasing her till the angry red at the tip of her nose turned into an embarrassed crimson of shyness in her cheeks.
I never got a cycle. I tried asking Appa when he was happy, emotional, loving and drunk. He would say ‘yes’ when drunk, but forget about it the next morning. Finally, he announced that a cycle was about to be delivered to our home because of my persistent efforts. Elated, I ran to the door each time I heard the sound of footsteps outside. I dreamt of riding to school on my cycle. I would take my blue cycle and experience the sweetness of freedom. I didn’t ask which colour it was, I was convinced it was blue – everything Appa bought for Achakka was pink, for Anakka it was yellow and for me it was blue. Always blue.
Appa’s favourite colour is blue.
The cycle finally arrived. It was blue. But I cried loudly when I saw that it was a stationary exercise cycle. I was so angry with Appa for tricking me. It cost him five times more than a simple Ladybird, but his suffocating care wouldn’t let him buy me a cycle, my freedom.
I slowly gave up the dream of having a cycle. I told myself that Appa would feel bad if he didn’t drop me to college every day. Then, one day, a few days after I turned 18, Appa took me to the Honda showroom in Mekhri Circle. He had decided to buy me an Activa-i. It was going to be purple in colour (they didn’t make it in blue), and it was very light. I had already learnt to ride on Appa’s old blue Activa and used it to run small errands. Now I would have my own scooter and would be able to ride it to college every day.
But somehow, I wasn’t as excited as one would expect. Not having a cycle seemed to have permanently removed the desire of having my own vehicle. Nevertheless, Appa showed me the roads that had the least traffic and potholes from our house in Malleshwaram to Mount Carmel College. He showed me the same roads for a month as he dropped me to college every day. He slowed down at every speed-breaker and honked at every blind turn, instructing me to do the same.
On the way, he once stopped the vehicle and knocked at a small house. A bulky Muslim thatha opened the door. “Ashok! Andar aao”, he exclaimed as he embraced Appa twice. Appa introduced him to me and told him that I would be travelling by that road and if something must go wrong, I would know that I have an uncle who would help. My college was an eight-minute ride from home. What would go wrong, I really didn’t know. Appa didn’t even tell me the name of uncle. He just said ‘uncle’.
I waved at uncle whenever he was outside his house while on my way to and from college. For four years, I have waved at him and I still don’t know his name.
I came to love the vehicle I had no choice in selecting. It was Appa’s gift to me and was registered in my name. The tiniest scratch on it hurt and I was furious when anybody else took my vehicle. While I had my own vehicle that cost Rs 50,000, my heart would still skip a beat when I saw a small girls’ cycle in blue.
I didn’t get Appa’s logic. How is a scooter safer than a cycle? I didn’t ask, but the questions always remained.
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Doddmama once came home and I was talking to him about my vehicle. “It’s very light, Doddmama,” I said. He said Jennakka wanted to buy a Vespa too, but he wasn’t letting her. “She may very well buy it on her own, but I want her to buy a car. I will pitch in, but will not let her buy a two-wheeler,” he said.
It felt like he had something on his mind. He told me that since he had bought a Bajaj scooter, his daughter must now directly buy a car as her first vehicle. “We must move forward,” he said.
In a flash, I understood Appa’s reluctance to buy me a cycle.
Appa always wanted me to aim higher. When I scored 95 in English, he would say I must get a hundred. I told him they don’t give full marks in language papers. “Get 99 then,” he said. And I did. He was so proud that he didn’t believe it at first. Bicycle was 95. It was mine. The biked was 99. It was his. After my conversation with Doddmama, it became Appa’s and mine.
The dreams our parents have for us often weigh heavy on our fragile shoulders. But this was a caste dream. In our caste, to dream is to defy. To dream is to fight. To dream is to start the liberation process. When I started mine, Appa stood by and watched proudly and attentively, ready to anchor me before I could even fall.
A cycle is much like a Dalit. Nobody cares about a poor man on a cycle unless you’ve hit and hurt him. You’re scared the police will come after you. Fear after you hurt us, no conscience before you hurt us. A person on a cycle is always the first to be blamed when you’re driving. Bloody fools, they don’t know how to ride. Blame. Young girls riding bicycles may harm their hymen, very risky for character. Dalit women and shame. Cycles are exempt from following traffic rules. Lucky! Reservation. A helmet is not compulsory for cycles. We will compensate on your safety by letting you feel like you don’t need to follow a rule.
False freedom. A poor man on a cycle. Pity. You can’t ride the cycle in the middle of the road. Ruthless cars will abuse you or kill you. Cycles seek shelter by the side of the road. Happiest when forgotten. Living and working, at its own pace because however fast you cycle, the race is won before the whistle is even blown.
But you don’t lose hope.
Because we are capable of 99s in the language of the foreigner who oppressed the savarnas also. Because we look at old bicycles of our grandfathers and care to ask about stories. Because we dare to ask our uncles their dreams and take on their weight. And because our blue will always rescue us by having dreamt for us.
Featured image credit: Reuters/Anindito Mukherjee