A significant part of the growing up years, the bicycle was indispensable in conducting everyday life.
Man has always looked for some sort of transportation to get him from point A to point B faster. How could I be any different? It was the 1970s. I was studying in a college in Birgunj, as boisterous a border town as one would expect in those rambunctious years, when we lacked most of the modern entertainment outlets taken for granted today, and so had to make do with what we had. Thus, sports was a big thing; it was a safe bet that we could be found kicking a ball around on a football field after college. Early mornings, we would be running a mile or so, and then putting on the gloves for a bit of boxing. Of course, most of the day we would be in college, fooling around more than studying. All in all, we did the best we could to keep ourselves entertained. Friendships were important and deep.
Keeping oneself in sync with these various activities meant that we needed to be able to move from one place to another quickly. And, a bicycle was what made that possible. My Dad gave me a watch when I was in class ten; he gave me a bicycle when I entered college. Truly, it was a most valuable gift, the bicycle. It made me mobile. It made me independent. I understood what the horse meant to the cowboy. Actually, being an avid fan of Westerns, my dream was to own my own horse, however, living in a city, that was obviously not possible, so I had to do with a bicycle. Motorbikes were as rare as the Dodo, then.
In those days, Chinese-made goods were making their way into the country in a big way, with the government-run Sajha Sansthan importing and distributing all kinds of useful Chinese-made stuff throughout the country. This included lovely lady’s cycles and handsome men’s cycles. My cycle was dark green in color, as were most, if not all, men’s cycles. The lady’s cycles were more gaily colored, with curving handlebars and low seats. Mine was an all alpha male design. Tall like a thoroughbred, no-nonsense straight handlebar, a high seat, and looks that could only be described as sturdy and strong. A true man’s bicycle.
Most of my gang had the same type of cycle, with some riding Indian-made ones, of which, the Atlas brand was by far the most popular. It, too, was pretty tough-looking, and a common sight throughout the country, enjoying a virtual monopoly before the arrival of the Chinese cycle, which must have made a big dent in their market; did this competition also play a part in making Nepal more aware about the potential of playing the two giant neighbors against each other for its own benefit? Possibly. Anyway, the bicycle, being something that affected the masses, was a very important part of everyday life during those years.
For me, and countless other college-going kids, the bicycle was something we couldn’t do without, the absence of which made us feel as if we had lost our legs. We took great care of these fine means of personal transportation. Some of us went to extreme lengths to demonstrate how much we valued them by embellishing them with all sorts of accessories. One friend in particular, I can clearly recall, was outstanding in his efforts. His shiny-clean Chinese cycle gleamed 24/7, the seat had a custom made cover that not only was extra-cushioned, but made the seat a few inches higher than others’. His mud guards had colorful rubber fringes, his handles ended in tassels of multihued tapestry. His cycle also had high rear view mirrors, which were lacking in most other cycles. He allowed me to ride it a couple of times, and due to the meticulous care in its oiling, it moved like a dream. Needless to say, it put our cycles to shame. (A decade later, when we moved on to motorbikes, he gave his always ‘brand new’-looking bike the same tender loving care, as well, with special petrol filters, sparkling spokes, little flashing lights everywhere, and so on.)
Anyway, he was The One, in not only our gang, but in the entire city, with the best looking and best performing bicycle. Oiled regularly, and to perfection, a single slight push on the pedal was enough to set it gliding a fairly long distance. I did try to emulate his example, but my efforts at maintenance lasted but a few weeks. There was just too much to do, and it soon became apparent to me that it required too much work, along with quite a bit of technical knowhow and experience. It wasn’t so simple. Loosening the screws and taking out a part or two to be cleaned was one thing, putting them back where they belonged was another. Clearly, a mechanical bent of mind was called for, something totally missing in my makeup!
Cycling was a way of life in those days, cycling to college, cycling to the football field, cycling to our regular hangout, cycling to the cinema hall. The only time we didn’t use our cycle was when we had a date with a girl, in which case we took a rickshaw (again, a cycle, after all!). One of my fondest memories of those carefree days was riding my bicycle in the early morning, a song leaping out of my lips, to our meeting point from where we began our morning run to the Indian border. We frequently went across the border in our cycles to watch a movie in Raxaul, the Indian town on the other side, and if the movie had been especially good, we would ride back with gladdened hearts, often behind a tonga (horse cart) or rickshaw carrying some pretty girls. We were romantic. Rowdily so.
The bicycle is an inextricable part of many of my memories of those exciting teenage years, whether riding helter skelter to be on time for class in college, whether rushing to the expansive and welcoming green field to play football in the evening, whether pushing it alongside as I sauntered along beside a girl, whether half a dozen of us rode on the road, blocking traffic and eliciting honks and curses from irate drivers, whether riding it at blazing speed so as to be inside the cinema hall before the second bell rang. Oh yes, our cycles were always with us as our faithful partners. Our trusted steeds.