[Warning: It’s long and it’s winding. And after a point, the point I seem to be making becomes cyclic (this was a pun I intended, but...). You've been warned.]
A friend recently asked me, “Do you want my cycle? I’m leaving town and I’d like to give it to you.”
Now for most people, this is not a life changing question. You either want to grab the gift horse with both hands: bridle, saddle, stomp, poop and all. Or you don’t and walk away with a nonchalant “Naah”. But the question flung me into quite a quandary, one I’m still recovering from.
Can I explain with another question? Of the people you know, how many cannot ride a cycle? I don’t know what people you are hanging out with, but I have the somewhat dubious distinction of knowing not one, not two, nope, not even three, but an entire four people who cannot cycle. And yes, all of them are way beyond that age when you’re supposed to be cycling your way to freedom. And yes, woefully, I happen to be one of them.
* * *
I trudge back into time and see what really happened to usher in this grave happenstance. As a snotty 2 year old, I owned a fancy little tricycle. Parrot green in colour, it looked like an offspring of the modern day autorickshaw, sans the pollution and the hood of course. It was my trusted stead and I, its somewhat unrestrained mistress. I’d cycle to and fro the little gallery of our little house, pudgy limbs working furiously to reach the mythical finish line. I’d whoosh to the balcony, in a frenzy of legs and flying hair, clocking times that would put a Little Lance to shame. Ting tong went the bell and off I’d rush back, pedal, pedal, pedal, Chandni to the doorbell! Of course the grownups with their talk of “do not open the door” (how could I? I was barely a foot or two off the floor!) tried to dissuade me but my daredevil driving continued unabated. A year later, I grew taller (yes, there was a time I was actually into that kind of thing) and no matter how I tried, the tricycle threw a tantrum and refused to be driven.
So there is no denying that I was off to an incredible start. But in the journey that should have replaced the two rear wheels with one, I lost all bearing. The tricycle was abandoned, forgotten and rusting into an unflattering greenish-brown, and I found myself courting the slopes ofMussoorie. The biped in me outshot the bipedal and for a blissful few years, I walked, those same pudgy legs carrying me around, as whooshy and breathless as ever.
The St. George’s Fete Day was something to look forward to. That particularly year, it flaunted a spectacularly spotless blue sky, the kind you have to squint to look up to, a cool pine-scented breeze, the kind that makes you crinkle your nose appreciatively, and a whole riot of stalls, the kind that make you whoop with fun. What more could a pigtailed 11 year old ask for? Armed with all of my precious twenty rupees, I headed to stall after stall, a hoop there, a softie here, a huge candy floss that coloured my tongue pink and a dive for a coin in a tub of soapy water. We giggled, as only a gaggle of friends can, we ran around hiding and seeking our way through the day and were generally exhausted sooner than we dreamt we could be. Around lunch-time the mike boomed, “We shall now announce the winners of the St. George’s lottery.” I hadn’t bought a ticket and now, in the throes of fatigue, couldn’t even muster the energy to fake some anger. I flopped beside Veronica and her cousin from Goa, the very despicable, Calvin incarnate, nose-digging, girl teasing Austin. He’d pull my pigtails, gloat he was in class 7 (which supposedly made him way older than me, I was in 6th), outdo every trick I laid claim to and was generally the perfect person an 11 year old can find to detest. The mike boomed into life again and called out ticket numbers. One by one, people won dining mats and books, lampshades and movie tickets. Finally, it was time for the grand prize. A shining new cycle, red and silver in colour. Even I, the biped who didn’t know how to pedal, drooled over it, and suddenly I broke out of my reverie (yes, the one in which I cycle my way through Austin, vanquishing him from the face of this planet forever and ever). In what seemed like excruciatingly slow slow motion, I watched Austin whoop and punch the air and then run up on his silly feet, up to the makeshift stage, to collect his brand new cycle! He grinned and posed, spiked hair and blue shorts, all trembling with unrestrained energy. Ugh.
The rest of the summer holidays were painful. Austin showing up in every Chor Police game, riding his fancy cycle and stealing away my friends. Austin steadfastly airing my dubious distinction of being the Uncyclable One. And then one day, he did the unthinkable; he coaxed me into sitting on the cycle, pandering to my pride, for I was too proud (and yes, brazenly foolish) to admit I was scared to get on that unidimensional mode of transport. I got on and he wheeled me down a slope, shouting at the top of his voice all the way down. Eyes shut, the very picture of timorous fear, if I remember truthfully, I never forgave Austin for that gut-wrenching ride. Years later, I did (grudgingly) thank him for whipping the fear out of me. But summers in the hills are short, almost as fleeting as fables and fairies and a few days after the ride I was to never forget, Austin was gone. The holidays were over, the red cycle was packed and carried away to far off Goa. We mumbled promises to keep in touch, and of course never did (oh the naivety of those Wonder Years).
And soon I was shipped off to boarding school myself, where cycles and such adventures were relegated to history. And I remained illiterate in the language of all modes of transport. I’d listen to other girls' cycle-infested stories jealously, how they’d cycled to school at home, how they went to tuition on cycles, how they’d play and cycle and cycle and play till I had had enough. It was OK for me not to KNOW. I’d be FINE.
* * *
Years later, in another city, with another circle of friends, I found myself worrying over the carbon footprint of travelling by bus vs. car vs. carpools vs...yes, yes, cycles. The thought still rankled; it was never going to be an option for me. In my jhola chhaap milieu of environmentally conscious concerns, I’d have to forfeit the cycle. I trudged on, braving the bus and wearing out the soles, turning my stubborn back on cycles. Each time I wore my Re-cycle T-shirt, I’d feel like an imposter. I am a Walker, I convinced myself. That’s what I did, I walked. I couldn’t learn now, I thought to myself in mock horror. I was too silly to admit I’d like to learn, still too small to be big enough to ask for help.
* * *
On that very pitiable note, I relocated to a place where cycling was the norm. My supervisor cycled to university, my friends brought their groceries on their cycles, even the dogs ran behind cycles as I continued my lonesome trudge on foot. Then one sunny Sunday, Shri hollered at my door, “get out of that room. I’m teaching you how to cycle. ” I cowered and made hollow excuses, retreated and feigned illness, but he was adamant – he wouldn’t let go a chance of making me uncomfortable - he was what Austin would have grown up to become (or so I believe in more generous moments of nostalgia). Shri soon pulled me out of the confines of my cave and into the sunshine. Parked outside was his bike. And half the Indian student contingency of Reading. This was going to be quite a show! And so it came to be that I, Chandni Singh, resigned to be lifelong Uncyclable One, learnt how to cycle, not with cymbals crashing and hair flying (as I’d secretly hoped), but flaunting my unflattering chappal-pyjama-champu-oiled-hair attire, falling and flailing like a caterpillar leaning to fly, bruising and bashing better than like any self-respecting goonda.
Being the lazy lout that I am, it was only many months later that I cycled again, this time along the lovely Thames, trembling each time a dog or cyclist came my way, shouting out my novice status to every passerby (the cyclists laughed, the dogs turned up their noses) and generally trying to avoid falling into the water (oh yes, I don’t even know how to swim, what did you think?).
* * *
The last trip I took to anywhere was Auroville, the ideological bubble of silence and greenery near Pondicherry, a calm haven in the chatter that is India. Islanded in our pretty little room, Auroville offered cycles and motorcycles on hire to move around. The Co-Traveller (humsafar, the Hindi equivalent is so much more romantic) wanted to cycle but my boastful claims of having learnt cycling faded at the prospect of having to actually cycle. It had been almost a year since that idyllic Thames-side jaunt. I could fall, there would be traffic. And so the foolish fearful fib in me bubbled forth and we settled to walk. So much for being Lance. I was back to where I’d started from.
* * *
And so, when I was asked the “Do you want my cycle?” question, I dithered and mumbled, tried to buy time and wander away. But what’s an environmentalist without her cycle, what’s an Arien without her daredevil brashness? So in a spurt of misguided bravado and overenthusiasm, I have agreed to take the bike. Here’s to slopes and slips, whooshing past and (hopefully) flying hair.
[This post is brought to you by Desk DeathTM.]