Cy­cling: From free­dom to fit­ness to dis­tanc­ing

As At­las shuts its last man­u­fac­tur­ing plant, a look at all that bi­cy­cles have meant to In­dia, from the Raj era to the pan­demic

Hindustan Times (Jalandhar) - - HTWEEKEND - POONAM SAX­ENA

Soon af­ter Par­ti­tion, a group of Hindi writ­ers — Bhisham Sahni, Nir­mal Verma, Krishna Baldev Vaid, Manohar Shyam Joshi and oth­ers — set up the Cul­tural Fo­rum in Delhi. For four years, writes Sahni in his mem­oir, Today’s Pasts (2015), they met reg­u­larly and read their works out to each other. And then cheer­fully went home on their bi­cy­cles (or on foot). That many of them cy­cled back was not a re­flec­tion of their fi­nances (or lack thereof). It was proof of the pop­u­lar­ity and ubiq­ui­tous­ness of this revo­lu­tion­ary mode of trans­port, in­vented in early-19th-cen­tury Europe.

Ear­lier this month, At­las’s last cy­cle fac­tory (lo­cated in Sahibabad, Ut­tar Pradesh) shut down, end­ing a nos­tal­gic jour­ney dat­ing back to 1951, when the com­pany first started man­u­fac­tur­ing bi­cy­cles.

In his well-re­searched, il­lu­mi­nat­ing book, Ev­ery­day Tech­nol­ogy – Ma­chines and the Mak­ing of In­dia’s Moder­nity (2013), the his­to­rian David Arnold de­scribes how bi­cy­cles, ini­tially the pre­serve of Euro­peans in In­dia, grad­u­ally per­co­lated down to well-off In­di­ans and then, as they be­came less ex­pen­sive, to or­di­nary cit­i­zens as well.

The bi­cy­cle of­fered In­di­ans many new free­doms, in­clud­ing the abil­ity to get around (pub­lic trans­port was er­ratic or non-ex­is­tent) and to ferry ob­jects, peo­ple and oc­ca­sion­ally an­i­mals (lunch­boxes, fam­ily, squawk­ing chick­ens) from place to place. By the 1950s, says Arnold, the na­tion had en­tered the ‘cy­cle age’; by the mid­dle of that decade, Hind Cy­cles and At­las were to­gether mak­ing 400,000 ma­chines a year (and there were bi­cy­cles still be­ing im­ported).

Writer Chi­tra Mud­gal’s mov­ing Hindi short story, Dashrath ka Van­vas, con­veys a sense of how de­sir­able the bi­cy­cle was, and how it could be in­vested with deep emo­tion: the pro­tag­o­nist Ra­manath has longed for a bi­cy­cle since he was a boy. But his stern, un­yield­ing fa­ther never of­fered a sliver of love, for­get a bi­cy­cle. Es­tranged from his fa­ther for years, Ra­manath re­fuses to visit him on his deathbed and does not per­form his last rites. Then, a few days later, a huge package is de­liv­ered to Ra­manath’s home. It is a brand new bi­cy­cle that his fa­ther had bought and kept for him.

Dharamvir Bharati’s iconic 1949 Hindi novel, Gu­na­hon ka Devta, is a pas­sion­ate love story and has noth­ing to do with bi­cy­cles. But it shows us how the cy­cle im­parted free­dom and mo­bil­ity. The book’s hero, the bril­liant young re­search scholar Chan­der, is of­ten found ped­alling down Al­la­habad’s tran­quil, tree-lined roads to go to univer­sity, to meet his friends or to run im­por­tant er­rands.

But it is as a means of ro­mance and plea­sure that the hum­ble bi­cy­cle lives on in the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion, be­cause that’s how it was im­mor­talised on the big screen. The twowheel con­trap­tion came to sym­bol­ise a new gen­er­a­tion of mod­ern young men and women who cy­cled for recre­ation. Ro­mance blos­somed when cy­cles col­lided in a tan­gle of wheels and han­dle­bars.

A fa­mil­iar trope in Hindi films was the gag­gle of stylish young women on their bi­cy­cles — Nu­tan and her ‘haseenon ki toli’ (or group of beau­ties) in Anari (1959); Asha Parekh and friends in Mere Sanam (1965); Saira Banu with her gang of girls in Pa­dosan (1968).

Of­ten, dar­ingly, the cy­clists were mixed groups of men and women. In the song Jab Din Haseen Dil Ho Jawan (Adalat, 1958), a bunch of ex­u­ber­ant young­sters in hats and dark glasses head out for a pic­nic on their bi­cy­cles and spend the day danc­ing and go­ing on boat rides.

But the most in­ter­est­ing — and prob­a­bly one of the ear­li­est — as­so­ci­a­tions of bi­cy­cles and fash­ion­able young peo­ple is in the splen­did 1941 film, Khaz­anchi, rec­om­mended to me by Yasir Ab­basi, a de­voted chron­i­cler of Hindi film his­tory and trivia. The movie opens with two groups of cy­clists (led by the hero and hero­ine) singing and rid­ing on the streets of La­hore. They end up, yes, col­lid­ing with each other; later the hero’s fa­ther ex­presses con­cern for his son’s safety, as though he were rid­ing a par­tic­u­larly fast, dash­ing ve­hi­cle. But our hero­ine’s fa­ther proudly de­clares of his daugh­ter, “Yeh toh cy­cle cha­laane mein us­tad hai!”

Today, the bi­cy­cle has prob­a­bly had its mid­dle-class mo­ment. Per­haps it’s time to cel­e­brate it in its new avatar — as an ecofriendl­y, cool, fit­ness ma­chine that is also the best so­cially dis­tanced means of trans­port in these coro­n­avirus times.


A group of cy­clists, masked and dis­tanc­ing,in Chandi­garh. More peo­ple are turn­ing to cy­cles around the world, as an al­ter­na­tive to the more risky pub­lic trans­port, amid the Covid-19 pan­demic.

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