After packing up my Bike Friday in Singapore, I had not cycled for a full two weeks. Prabha joined me in Chennai soon after I got back there, and we had people to visit and a wedding in Trichy to attend. Besides, it had been pouring in Chennai much of the time and it was really gross out there. Net result: I did not reassemble my Bike Friday in Chennai at all, and in fact, even shipped it off to Bangalore in anticipation of a ride in Karnataka later in the month.
But the itch to cycle could not be curbed. We landed in Delhi two days ago, and after wet Chennai, the dry heat of Delhi, with temperatures in the high thirties, felt almost like I was back in Southern California. I saw no climatic barriers to cycling. However there was a barrier of a different kind: I had no cycle with me. But I can be moved to rare resourcefulness when the reason is right. I asked my brother-in-law’s driver to help me find one that I could rent, and he talked a friend who is a security guard in the building across the street into allowing me to ride his bicycle, and I was set.
It was an adventure in the beginning. After my rather fancy (if strange looking) Bike Friday, customized for my body, and geared specifically for hills, this honest bicycle took some getting used to. It was the standard sort of bicycle you see in India. Two wheels, a handlebar, pedals that turned a chain that turned the rear wheel, a seat of sorts, and not a whole lot else. You sit upright on it. Your seat cannot be adjusted and is relatively low to the ground, so your legs don’t stretch to their full length during a pedal stroke. It is not designed for efficiency or athleticism, but for short commutes, possibly with loads to carry. As I said, an honest bicycle. Here it is:
Besides these overall design features, in this particular cycle, the pedals themselves were crooked: the spindles on which they turn were bent. The rear tire had some big indentations in it, leaving it a hair’s breadth away from a puncture. Oh, and the brakes didn’t seem to work.
I rode off from Greater Kailash II (or GK Two as it is called by the upper crust), struggling to control the cycle. It was heavy to maneuver, and steering even a few degrees away from straight ahead needed superhuman effort. The crooked pedals made pedaling hard. I was wearing only sandals, and the unaligned pedals kept forcing them off my feet. Trying to keep my sandals on my feet then necessitated applying a countervailing force with my knees, and since I have bum knees, I was afraid that I would wake up in pain the next day. Once I managed to get the cycle going, braking was a fresh challenge. Pulling up hard on both brake levers seemed to have very little effect since the brakes were pretty much worn through, and I was thankful for the low seat: I could at least put my feet down and stop the bicycle.
By and by, I learned how to ride this cycle. On upward slopes (of which there were many, including some difficult ones), I learned not to reach for my nonexistent gears, but instead, to lean my body forward with each downward thrust of the pedal, left shoulder forward when the left pedal goes down, right shoulder forward when the right pedal goes down, to generate the required force. And once I got the hang of it, the joy of cycling returned!
I rode past apartment complexes named after rivers (Alakananda, Yamuna, Narmada) and turned right onto a road that ran past the medical school attached to the Jamia Hamdard university. I kept looking for the main campus of the university, which I thought was around here somewhere, but didn’t find it. Instead, I came to a T-junction, and turned left onto what appeared to be a main road leading out of town. It turned out to be the Mehrauli-Badarpur road, and I was soon rewarded by something I had not expected: a gigantic fort! It was the Tughlaqabad fort, built in the 1300s:
I had had the standard exposure to Indian history that students of the All India Higher Secondary Board used to get in my days, and I had learned a bit about the Delhi Sultanate. But I had since forgotten most details, and it was good to read up about this fort. It was built by Ghiyas-ud-Din Tughlaq, the founder of the Tughlaq dynasty, and father of Mohammed-bin-Tughlaq, himself famed for moving the capital from Delhi to Aurangabad and back to Delhi again. It was apparently never occupied, since Ghiyas-ud-Din was busy fighting wars in other places and was killed under the orders of his son Mohammed-bin-Tughlaq before he could return. (It must have been tough being a sultan: battles to be fought in distant lands, no good hotels to bed down during the night, constantly having to be on the lookout for sons eyeing the family jewels.)
The roadside along the fort was chock-a-block with monkeys. Here is a family, hanging out by a banana-seller, who seemed like he fed them bananas regularly. (Extortion by the monkeys? Feed us bananas else we will take them ourselves, and will make your life miserable in the process by overturning your cart and destroying your wares?)
In the brief time I have spent in Delhi, I have noticed that there are lots more bicycles on the street here than I ever saw in Chennai. And, (using the word honest once again) honest bicycles. Bicycles used for transportation. Bicycles carrying stuff. Bicycles used to make a living.
Take this fellow for example:
I was amazed when I saw him on the road: there was every imaginable sort of bag hanging out of every imaginable part of his bicycle. I stopped to chat with him. His name is Ajay Kumar Shrivastav, and he is from Bihar. He services the “last mile” in the recycling business: he collects all manner and make of recyclable objects from people’s homes, paying them small amounts for them, and then resells them to a wholesaler. On his cycle were bags of beer bottles, metal boxes, some old machinery including a discarded muffler from some automobile, a broken hard-shell suitcase, newspaper, and god-only-knows what else. He works all day, and takes home between three hundred to four hundred rupees per day in net profits. That is right around the minimum wage for semi-skilled workers in Delhi. He and I both agreed that cycling keeps us fit and is enjoyable, but I also knew that any further comment I made on this point would cross the line into patronization: he cycled out of dire necessity, whereas I cycled as a product of generations of privilege.
I didn’t get a chance to have a chat with this next fellow since he was busy with a customer, but I learned that his name is Mohammed Basheer. He cycles from place to place and sets up store: he sells brooms and other cleaning equpment out of his bicycle. That is a humongous collection of brooms sticking up from his handlebars, I wonder how he can see past them to cycle?