old vintage bicycle in india
Riding the wind
by Sunil Sharma

The bicycle was rented from a cycle shop in a small north Indian town circa 1970.

Then such cycle shops were plentiful across the country.

That was an innocent era; idealism was a virtue in a nation recovering from the British Raj. Simplicity and honesty were the cherished values governing lifestyles.

Most folks and towns were middle class and people either walked to work or home; the preferred mode of transport was a humble bicycle that carried you, friends, or even little families, and nobody questioned your status by the size of your vehicle.

I was then an eighth grader: Lean-thin; wide-eyed; gawking at the speeding figure on the two wheels, waiting an initiation ceremony involving a sibling or a cousin — sometimes, a helpful friend telling the secrets of handling a bicycle, a prized possession.

A Sunday morning I was told to ride a bike by Father.

A hot summer morning when desert seemed to enter inside the cities and towns, scorching everything. The rite to passage had begun.

Merciless sun in a clear sky. A wide-open public ground as the arena of initiation.

And me, with my elder brother as my ad-hoc teacher.

Separated by few years but sanctified by the custom, an elder bro meant a boss-figure and an authority, not to be taken lightly, and respected.

I climbed the cycle; he was behind, pushing the steel contraption, yelling instructions I could never hear due to tension of being airborne; he asking me to look ahead, not below, as the general principle.

And then I was asked to go solo by pedaling furiously. I would try; ride the wind that would bite and sting — and Lo! I would slip and fall down few nanoseconds later, a defeated foot soldier of such a bloody urban expedition.

One hour we spent there on the dusty ground trying to dominate the beast that would not yield and throw me down, every few paces down.

Bro was breathless; angry; disgusted with my poor skills.

I fell down frequently, demoralized, hurt, unable to master the humble bike, while boys my age flew on it, taunting me nearby.

I understood the pain and humiliation of a fallen soldier at that time

The disappointment of a being a failure; the low spirits; the jeering crowds!

Why?

Why?
Mastering math and machine so difficult for poor mortals like me?

Would I die ordinary?

Or, God would be kind? I, too, will become a bright learner with superior skills?

Sadly, there were no oracles to guide.

My bro made the grim forecast, as brothers tend to do everywhere, all the time: You will never learn the delights of riding a bike. You lack that warrior spirit.

That finale was depressing, nay, crushing.

With swollen joints and grimy face I returned as a wounded hero for my Mother only

And as a hopeless novice for others in the family  —

Determined never to try any bike in my life!

PHOTO: “Vintage bicycle, India” by Kokhanchikov, used by permission.

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: This poem revisits the family ritual of learning to ride a bike that was often traumatic for many young kids in the 70s-80s. This poem explores that typical Indian experience in the broader historical and personal contexts. Looking back, I find today’s generation very smart, riding fancy bikes. Bicycles are now like the Dodo in most mega-cities here in India, replaced by the 100 cc motorbikes. Kids no longer ride the traditional bicycles, but prefer the imported brands costing a lot of money. How times change!

Profile picture - Sunil Sharma

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Based in Mumbai, India, Sunil Sharma is a widely published Indian writerHe has published 14 books: four collections of poetry, two of short fiction, one novel, one a critical study of the novel and co-edited six anthologies on prose, poetry, and criticism. He is a recipient of the UK-based Destiny Poets’ inaugural Poet of the Year award — 2012. Recently his poems were published in the UN project, Happiness: The Delight-Tree.