I purchased a bicycle recently, in an effort to boost my wellness. It was to be delivered in the afternoon – by approximately 4 PM, as I had been informed. I was excited for it to arrive. “Child-like excitement,” as a friend put it. The cycle came at 11:15 PM, deflating all my enthusiasm. I had planned to take a couple of rounds on it, but it was too late. Until my mother noticed the bell-head of the cycle was missing.
I immediately sprung up and cycled towards the delivery man who had turned about to leave.
All it took was that first hit of the wind and within a few pedals, I was back to being ten. I don’t know what it is about the age ten that nary a kid doesn’t have a cycle. Mine was a red coloured one. Sadly, I don’t remember much of its details – I can claim the bell rang a shrill trill when I rang it on the right side of the handlebar but the truth is, I only recall the red frame. I want to say it was manufactured by some brand with the letter ‘M’, but I might as well be planting a new memory at this stage.
My friends and I, we would cycle around the apartment complex like possessed beings, expunging our energy in going as fast as we could. Variations came – only one hand, no hand, sitting on the carrier, standing up. Injuries followed, as they ought to have. Every evening, the plan was fixed. We would cycle for a while, then jump into some physical game before someone’s mother called loudly and we scattered away. Sometimes we would exchange our cycles and feel the struggle in manoeuvring what that other person did so easily; walking in someone else’s pedals.
There is one game we played that comes to mind. We called it ‘London Tour Taxi.’ One of us would be the ‘passenger’ and go hide somewhere in the housing society. We had to find him and offer a ride to wherever he wanted to go. It made no sense, since:
We were not in London.
There was no touring.
It wasn’t a taxi.
We weren’t the sharpest crayons in the box. Most of us just rode in parallel with the ‘passenger’ seated on the carrier on one of the cycles. The only thing we gained was leg strength.
Most kids find the prospect of going downhill exhilarating. There is something about physics doing its job and your muscles signalling you’re on the verge of toppling that triggers joy. Doing this atop a cycle? Heavenly!
You would think all a hill could do for a kid was give it happiness. For me, it brought an unexpected rift in my friendships.
Two apartments away, there was a small hillock. You could cycle up and let go as gravity pulled you downwards, sweat flying off your face. But I wasn’t allowed to leave the apartment complex by my family, out of concern for my safety. Kidnapping, Road Accidents, Theft, Animal Attacks – they cycled through their reasons (pun intended). Most of my friends simply snuck out, embodying the motto, “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.” Soon, all I could do was listen to them describe their experiences. Within a few days, they started naming other kids whom they had met outside. I felt envious and insecure. I knew we were supposed to have friends at school and friends at home. But for my friends at home to have other friends in the vicinity? What betrayal!
It started becoming routine: we would cycle in the complex for a handful of minutes, and they would then leave while I stayed imprisoned – safe – and figured out how to kill time until they returned. Soon, their group swelled to a size that they would play cricket and football together, inside jokes aplenty. I was not fond of these sports, so I ended up ambling about with a ragtag group of other kids, most of whom I didn’t like or whose company I didn’t enjoy. I tried to cycle alone too, but the charm of going around in circles wore off when one didn’t have someone to compete against or banter with. Eventually, I had to learn it the hard way – my friends had other interests and I couldn’t bully them into following mine.
I had two close friends back then, one of whom I met through cycling. He was 6. I was 5. His sister was 2 or 3. He rode a cycle without training wheels, an impressive feat. My cycle however had the two training wheels and I tried to keep up with him. His sister trailed us on her tricycle. Within a year or two, my other close friend’s family moved in, making us an inseparable trio. Cycling around, being chased by dogs, learning to climb swings, and jumping and falling from heights and planks, we did all of it together. We lived next to each other, and eventually our families became friends as well. We got used to each other’s houses and rooms and toys. A lot of borrowing happened. Many viruses were introduced while sharing computer game setups in shady USBs.
It would seem that the subsequent shift from cycle to cricket and football would mark an inevitable rift amongst us but that was not really the case. I decided to swallow my pride, drop my bicycle, and go to the park and feebly ask if I could join them. I was quickly assigned to a team and the match started. I tried to hover around my friends, sticking to comfort, only to get acknowledged and introduced as ‘a’ friend, not ‘the’ friend.
Over the next few months, I found my way in this larger new group, making friends of my own, slowly improving my non-existent football skills, even watching the matches just to fit in. My cycle remained chained for longer and longer, barring trips to the oiling guy outside the society. On days when my friends didn’t turn up to play, I bonded with the others. The unspoken rules of boyhood friendships involved little complication – when they felt comfortable praising your sporting skills and insulting you the next minute, you knew you were golden.
The sharing of a common activity reignited the closeness I had with my previous friends. We called each other every evening, lacing up our shoes. Our bicycles stayed untouched as we ran and thrashed about in the park, accidentally, and, once or twice, intentionally hitting uncles and aunties with our football, inviting their wrath. Eventually, I forgot about my cycle which would have started gathering dust by then had it not been for my mother’s efforts. Sometimes I went and half-heartedly cleaned it with a dusting cloth, doing little, I confess. I was asked to give it away or sell it, but I refused. Of course, I would get back to cycling.
Puberty brought another layer of closeness as we started taking walks together, at night, discussing the changes we observed in our bodies, comforted when someone else seconded what we saw or felt. We started coming over more and more to each other’s houses, playing video games, sharing songs, competing in hours of carrom tournaments, discussing crushes or lack thereof, and whatever counted as scandalous gossip by those standards. By now, all our cycles were gathering rust. I can’t remember in which year and to whom it was sold. On the wall hanging where the keys were hung, I still had a bunch of keys, one of which unlocked the cycle. I didn’t know where the lock was. With every year, the number of parked cars in the society complex kept on increasing. I spotted lesser and lesser children cycling or having the space to.
As the years passed, we went through the ebbs and flows of closeness, at times inseparable for weeks and months, other times, not speaking for just as long. We never had an argument or fight amongst the three of us, something our mothers told us when we were older, sitting around to exchange Diwali gifts, stepping into each other’s houses after a year or so. In college, our lives diverged more. We tried to make a routine of playing badminton in the evenings but it didn’t stick. Eventually, another crop of kids took over the practice of manic cycling around the apartment complex. Yet another group annexed the football area. We switched to slightly formal ‘Hi’s and ‘Hello’s as we spotted each other driving around in our cars and bikes. My mother purchased a stationary cycle to exercise on. She used it regularly. I, occasionally. I noticed kids opted to roam about on scooties, calling each other on mobile phones instead of going to their houses. Life went on.
The first close friend of mine shifted houses when I was in another city for my MBA. I returned in my semester break to find French windows covering the balcony of his previous room. When he lived there, the balcony door would always be open and I’d spot him sitting in front of his cooler, working on some gadget, wiring and rewiring things. It saddened me to realise I wouldn’t enter that house again. With all the changes the new family made to it and having overheard some of their conversations and interactions, I didn’t want to either. My other friend also left for his postgraduation. I received updates on his life from his mother. I followed him on social media and wondered why he didn’t drop a cursory text now and then. I made it a point to wish both of them on their birthdays but kept track of the fact that one of them never wished me back. My younger cousin’s bicycle, which now occupied the old spot of my bicycle, started rusting, much like mine. I thought of getting it cleaned and oiled, and upon sitting, realized the pedals were uncomfortable and the seat, non-adjustable. I dropped the idea.
This year, I have myself shifted to another place. Neither of my friends lived in their childhood houses when I left. We sold off my younger cousin’s cycle. He had outgrown it too, physically and otherwise. We brought my mother’s stationary cycle along. My mother informed one of my friends’ mothers that we were moving. I didn’t speak to either of them.
As I cycled after the delivery man to inquire about the missing bell-head, he volunteered to check his vehicle. Sure enough, it lay inside. Some speed bump must have knocked it off, he explained. I put it on and rang the bell. I noticed a reflector on the front tyre was slightly chipped. He made calls and suggested I could get a fresh one if I ran by their store soon. I thanked him and cycled back.
I now cycle around the new apartment complex, alone, daily. Almost daily. The same maniacal circles over and over. The same feeling of wind sweeping by, flicks of sweat flying off me. I pedal hard to challenge my muscles, feeling the lactic acid break them down. Anaerobic respiration, a memory of some Science class, comes rushing back. I think of another close friend, made later in life, who loves to cycle. I cycle past kids and older people, lost in my playlist, the automated voice reminding me of my time, distance, and speed. The Holy Trinity.
I no longer try to drop both hands off the handle. I don’t try to sit on my carrier. I have no house to knock on before beginning my routine. In those fractions of seconds when a song ends and the other begins on my headphones, I think of my friends. One of them is in the same city as me, just in another part of it. The other has moved outside, hundreds of kilometres away. I can’t remember when we last spoke, the three of us together. I’m certain neither will read this.
I take out my cycle, gingerly walking past the lying dog, signalling my desire to not bother him. I raise my leg across the frame and find my footing. I think of three kids cycling next to each other, laughing through jagged milk teeth. I adjust my seat and plop myself. I think of them cycling on skinned knees and elbows. I switch on the LED blinker light behind the carrier. I think of bells ringing outside a house, calling the kid inside to step out. I start pedalling. The automated voice tells me the estimated duration of today’s workout. I push past the pain in my thighs, and the memories of a ten-year-old riding a red framed bicycle.