Cycling in Calcutta gave me freedom, adventure and a very special friendship
I had an old bicycle, of the kind called derogatory bicycle dudhwala because the milkmen made their deliveries there, with their big cans of milk hanging on its frame. The bike was heavy, stable, and could roll at good speed on a flat Calcutta road, much to the anguish of pedestrians accustomed to languid, half-asleep cyclists. Its speed was the result of a change I made while stealing the wheel hub from my mother’s old bike and my cycling mechanic’s intervention on Bondel Road, which had been there for so long that it was rather a friend. Then, towards the end of my school days, I bought another bike, a green racing model with dropped handlebars that I won in a quiz. Racing bikes were new to mass production in the city at the time (although I know my great-grandfather had one in the 1890s), and I had the option of switching mine to a ten speed, but I decided not to. Calcutta was flat anyway.
By the time I started college, I was a seasoned cyclist from Calcutta, and in those pre-mobile days, I scared my dad by showing up home at 3 a.m. after that all public transport has ceased. I used to be stopped by police in the hope of a document. My usual response, “You don’t stop cars, do you?” Would dash their hopes and they would let me go on, realizing that I wouldn’t be intimidated to part with a few rupees.
For Presidency College, you could take the 240 bus from Ballygunge Phari, but it was so crowded at the time that you couldn’t breathe and you arrived at your destination sweaty as if you had been riding a bicycle. Also, it was not a pleasant ride. As a young man (not much talked about in the annals of the city) you had to part the hands of the many mashimas and meshomoshais who liked young bodies in closed spaces. There is no point in protesting – if it was a mashima, there was a risk that your protests could easily be reversed and everything would look like your fault: after all, older women were more often than not. harassed, not stalkers. As for the meshomoshais, homosexual desire being pushed into the shadows, consent was unthinkable. We had the choice but to squirm further on the bus. So I cycled.
The course was pleasant and quick. About seven and a half kilometers could be covered in 25 minutes under good conditions – on the side roads via Ballygunge Place East, past the Bondel Gate crossing, along Rifle Range Road, Dargah Road, CIT Road, Moulali, then to across Creek Row, right onto Nirmal Chandra Street and onto College Street. Or, earlier in the morning, along Gariahat Road, right on Gurusaday Road, through Rawdon Street, Park Street, and along Wellesley Street straight through Nirmal Chandra Street to College Street. This morning road was more dangerous for a racing bike, with all the dodges of the streetcar lines. I once cut a bicycle tire in half on a streetcar track at the corner of College Street and missed a class I was trying to do in 20 minutes. But there were still bike repair shops nearby, and one lesson too late, the bike was duly parked in front of Pramod-da’s canteen, the key left behind the counter with it.
The tradition was (as with most traditions, its origins are unclear) that the bicycle would be used to travel to College Street Market for the replenishment of the collective ganja supply. If the bicycle was not in front of the canteen at the end of the course, I would just have to wait, and when the bicycle reappeared, a circle would form, either on the playgrounds or on the terrace of the canteen. .
I’m not sure if those on the ganja track liked either of my bikes, but I personally preferred the faster racing bike. It was a pleasure anytime, except during the monsoons, when the dudhwala bike’s mudguards felt softer on your clothes than the racing tires which left an elegant mud-colored stripe on the back of your pants and your shirt while you are riding.
Both my bikes were well maintained, with few thanks to me. Credit for this achievement went to Gopal-da, my friend and bicycle mechanic who had a bicycle shop on Bondel Road since I can remember. My parents gave me my first bike on my 7th birthday, a children’s bike that I had learned to ride on and was getting pretty quickly. Gopal-da was the one who improved it, the one who took off the drive wheels, and the one who raised the seat and handlebars as high as they could. One day it got too small for me despite the changes, and it had to leave.
When I was 11, the dudhwala bicycle appeared in my life. I had ridden it for the first time in Delhi, where it belonged to my mother’s second husband, a specialist in German literature and film studies. I received it when Hauz Khas’s house was packed and the bike was transferred to Calcutta as a gift for me. It was still a bit tall for me – the lowest seat setting allowed me to pedal with the last inch of my heel and toe – but it immediately gave me the freedom of a city I hadn’t had before.
The racing bike was an unexpected addition, a byproduct of the quiz contests that were ubiquitous in Calcutta at the time. In one of these competitions, the manufacturers presented their new bikes and offered them as prizes to the best individual members of the teams. Since quizzes at the time were a team sport, this left teams in the sticky situation of having to nominate someone for a special stage who would decide the winner of the bicycle. I was reluctant to be nominated because I wasn’t used to thinking laterally on my own. (That would change when I became an academic – the more lonely the thought, the better, I would say now, otherwise you are intimidated by conformity). In any case, I finished the round as the owner of a new bike, the second bike offered going to a woman named Barnali who was, I think, happy not to win the first because it was decidedly more embarrassing. to drive. It was also my first time on a bike with drop handlebars, and I fell twice during the triumphant but wobbly re-entry with the new machine. But after that, I was hooked for life: I can’t imagine not having one now.
It was Gopal-da who seemed most happy with the addition to my fleet. He gleefully examined it, made a few small adjustments, then made me an offer: He would now service and overhaul my bikes for free, as long as he could borrow the green racer for his annual cycling outing with his friends. I gladly agreed, and this was the last time I rode a squeaky pedal bike that slammed the mudguard anywhere, because Gopal-da was a wizard with machines.
Wheels in wheels
Over time, I came to spend afternoons sitting in the corrugated iron roof shed that was his store, the cool interiors smelling of cold cycle grease and the freshly brewed sweet tea from the stall. beside. While he was fixing something small on a bicycle, or teaching me about a new brake mechanism, we drank tea together. I like to think that Gopal-da and I saw in the era of liberalization in India: old, clunky, safe and solid cycles like my dudhwala bike were giving way to more fashionable, visually appealing machines, that Gopal-da believed he could not go the distance. He showed me the poor quality of the new brake mechanisms and expressed his horror at the twisted bits of wire passing for brake cords, insisting that they wouldn’t last a single monsoon in Calcutta. However, he vouched for the frame of my racing bike, which he said would stand the test of time. (As of this writing, said bicycle, now 34, is ridden by one of my students.)
Gopal-da was a muscular, stiff man with a lot of hair and a full beard. For me, it was the idealized, ambitious and slightly eroticized male body. He was a man made for lazy afternoons spent at work in a lazy and languid atmosphere. It’s possible that I shifted that awareness back then, but even now I can’t overtake a bike with a drop handlebars without ogling.
Around my second year in college, the unthinkable started to happen. Gopal-da has acquired a belly, a real Bangali Bhuri. It was around the same time, I think, that his tendency to borrow my racing bike decreased in frequency. Around the same time, Gopal-da’s daughter began to appear in her store, first as her father’s assistant, then (most often) as the store’s sole occupant and worker. My disappointment with Gopal-da’s fall from iconic status quickly established causal links between the three events, although a retrospective calculation would have placed Gopal-da at the dangerous age of around 40, when physical routines collapse on themselves and dream of a lazy present and the hard-earned and well-deserved future shakes some parts of men’s bodies. I was 19, approaching 20, and at least implicitly believed I was invulnerable, immortal, and invincible, so I had little or no sympathy for the situation. I never fully recognized my erotic admiration for the young woman, who I imagined to be between 15 and 16 years old. She was nervous, muscular, and wore men’s work clothes or cotton dresses as she casually lifted 25-kilo bikes on recycled bike chains hung from hooks. attached to the wooden beams which also supported the corrugated iron sheets.
And then one day the store was closed. The tea man next door could only tell me that Gopal-da had stopped running the bike shop: the black and yellow sign that had marked a world for me for so long had been demolished, and the shed padlocked was suddenly just another shapeless shape along an indefinable road. The tea man greeted me for about a year each time I walked past him and the nearby empty shed in the hope that the sign had magically reappeared, or Gopal-da or his daughter. But I never saw them again. After another year, I left town, and by the time I returned, it was not a place for cyclists. A completely different world had started to develop, as Calcutta was replaced by a new unknown place called Kolkata. Older pleasures seemed unusual and irresponsible. A high-ranking policeman advised me not to ride a bicycle: I had acquired political enemies and accidents could happen.
Benjamin Zachariah is a historian by training, working on comparative fascism and the politics of writing history.