I am a professor of Chemistry teaching at Bangalore University. I am also involved in the environmental movement in Karnataka with some understanding of issues related to forestry, energy and conservation. I am an old fashioned socialist. I dream about an egalitarian society where every individual is able to realize her/his hopes, wishes and aspirations.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Reflections of a bicyclist-5
On my first day to the University, after being appointed to the Department of Chemistry (Central College) as a Lecturer in 1988, I innocently pedaled to work and was looking for a suitable parking place, when the office attendant (a kindly soul) sidled up to me and whispered that it would do no good for my maryada (loosely translated into English as ‘self respect’) to be found cycling. I was amused. Subsequently, he was amused too, to discover over the course of the coming months my full fleet of vehicles- one TVS 50 (since sold), one Kinetic Honda (still in service), one LML (originally belonging to my father, now kindly lent to my wife’s student), one Maruti 800 (since replaced by WagonR), one tricycle (tadpole trike) and one bicycle (Hero ranger, still in service).
The one vehicle that I truly enjoyed was my trike. That was Shekhar’s truly original invention. We made it in 1991, when the internet did not exist (at least, I did not know of it). Shekhar was familiar with the city market gujali (junkyard). We picked up a second hand ladies’ step-through frame from the Sunday market and went to a welder in Kalasipalyam and put in two front wheels (18” dia), a low seat with a back rest welded where you would step through. The pedals were located forward in between the two front wheels. The position was semi-recumbent. This trike design which is now widely available abroad and easily seen on the net (example cheetahracer) is now christened ‘tadpole trike’ to distinguish it from the rickshaw (two back wheels) trike. I rode this for nearly six months every day to college and tested it on all the slopes of Rajajinagar. The greatest thing about this vehicle was that I did not need to put my feet down on the ground at traffic lights when I had to stop. I leaned back in my seat, feet up and relaxed waiting for the lights to turn green. It was a great feeling- one that I don’t get to this day even in my new car. On up slopes, I could lean against the back rest and pedal with such vigour that I ended up with a bent crank (is it called the crank, the arm of the pedal?). I overtook most mopeds on up slopes. Looking at my low seating position, I was often mistaken for a disabled person. I remember once a policeman at KR Circle stopping traffic to wave me on and then being visibly surprised at the speed and dexterity with which I whizzed past him. Hardly the way in which disabled persons on corporation gifted vehicles move! The only problem was that I used to have knee aches for short periods (about 10 minutes) after long rides. I mistakenly attributed this to the recumbent seating position. Looking back I now believe that the knee ache could have been due to the fact that my seat was sloping slightly forwards (a problem with the welding) rather than backwards. So I tended to slip forward and my knee was taking some of my weight. I know this now as my current recumbent bike (a BMX modified with a boom over the front wheel) does not give me a knee ache despite the fact that I am now ten years older. I must confess though that I do feel more energetic and fit these days than ever before post twenties.
I would like to make a trike again or even a four wheeler ( But since the internet, I find that I have no new ideas. This world is populated with 7 billion other human creatures. Anything that I can conjure is already thought up by hundreds of others. The bright side of this situation is that you don’t need to spend time and energy thinking. Just survey the net- everything is there, pick what fancies you most and copy it! I can assure you it is great fun.
But between then and now, for the past approximately ten years, I became too busy with my career in Chemistry and neglected my main passion. My trike fell into the hands of street kids. But they made amazing use of it. They rode it doubles, triples, quadruples---. I once remember how an under-10 year old was riding it vigorously. He had to sit on the edge of the seat to reach the pedal. This left sufficient space behind up to the back rest. His identical twin sisters (both barely-able-to-walk-infants) sat behind clinging to the back rest, facing sideways, feet dangling in the air! Feats that adults would not dare. The trike gamefully put up with all this creative activity till some crucial weld gave way. Shekhar and I were too busy to attend to it. It lay rusting in Shekhar’s house and was finally shoveled into garbage. I am however left with a few photographs, which my wife (not an overt admirer of such eccentric tastes) thoughtfully took complete with a footscale to indicate size.

Reflections of a bicyclist-4

I joined Indian Institute of Science (IISc) for my Ph.D. Although the IISc campus like IIT, Kanpur, was a compact one, I still found that the two farthest points of my interest were a kilometer away. This was done more easily on a bicycle than on one’s feet.
For the first few months, I was bike-less for the first time in my life. That was 1980. I was awaiting ever more hopefully the arrival of my bike from Kanpur. Once it was confirmed lost, I decided to buy a new one. For the first time my father considered a Hero for by this time the Raleigh had gone out of production, the makers of Hero were well on their way to becoming the biggest bicycle manufacturers in the world and they had done enough to earn my father’s respect. My father now was pouring scorn over the Hercules! I took his advice and in fact he came with me to AS Char street to buy me the new Hero. I think those were still, days before the ATBs. My new black Hero cost me Rs. 400.
Like in Kanpur, in Bangalore too, a few students switched to bicycles on seeing me acquire one. Although my parents lived in Bangalore, I preferred to stay in the hostel. After two years of hostel at IIT, Kanpur and the amazing freedom it gave, I don’t think I could ever again adjust to life in the old style. I used to go home every weekend, typically on Saturday evenings on my bicycle and return on Monday mornings. The bike rides home were typically 12 kms each way and not exciting. To make them eventful, I would occasionally time myself and try to go faster than the previous time. I brought the time down to 32 minutes, which I declared as a world record. Now this time had to be broken! I thought long and came to the conclusion that this could be broken only if the slowest part of the journey could be speeded up! The slowest part was of course the Windsor Manor up slope (Windsor Manor was then just putting up its overhead bridge). To set a new world record, I had to speed up this part which I did huffing and puffing up the slope at high speed standing up on the pedals and throwing the bike from side to side as I pedaled. I reduced the time by a couple of minutes or so. On other occasions, I rode long distances without holding the handle bar. Those days you could do all this as the traffic was not heavy. I once went all the way home from the junction of Brigade Road and Magrath Road without holding the handle bar! I took the various turns by shifting my weight one way or the other. My handle was steady and I was lucky not to encounter traffic round the corners.
Around this time, I cultivated my other great passion- that for movies. At that time Blue Diamond theatre on MG Road (this theatre has been most unfortunately demolished) used to show some really good movies. These were all Hollywood or British movies- low budget, less heard of movies, but really good. They would be reviewed in the Indian Express every Sunday. I used to go with friends (some of them women) for the late night show on my bicycle. I remember on one occasion having a punctured tyre, late one night after the show was over. I could do little to get it repaired at 1 AM. So I came riding back with my friends on the flat tyre. A nail had pierced through the tyre and during the long ride had torn the whole length of the tube, which I replaced the next day.
At this time I discovered that a little boy next door to where my parents lived shared his birthday with me. This boy’s mother was a school teacher and I suspect she held me up as some kind of a role model for the poor boy. I am sure he secretly hated me, because he was not too good at his studies, while the only thing I ever did decently was study. She sent birthday gifts to me every year through her son, who was rapidly growing up into a lean and sullen boy. He was secretly disobedient, but the mother made a show of how her son was so much like me. In hind sight, it is a bit touching. While I am by no means short on self esteem, I nevertheless, refuse to accept that it should be worth anybody’s while to try and emulate me. The boy failed his tenth standard. This was a serious blow to a mother who wanted her son to do a Ph.D like me. The boy was largely staying home and occasionally trying to do some odd jobs. At this time, my mother suggested that I should gift him my bicycle to help him get around his job. I gladly did this and my mother gifted me Rs. 5000=00 to buy my own first vehicle, a TVS 50 carrying the number CAJ 5635. By then (1983) I had also married one of my movie-going, bicycle riding friends. I spent the next few years riding my TVS 50. By this time, MTBs had entered the market in a big way and I had been wanting to have one of them. My wife and I went to AS Char Street to the same shop where I had bought my earlier bicycle and I bought a Hero Ladies Ranger. This cost me Rs. 1100=00. I have this bike even today. Around this time, I became interested in making my own bicycles.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Reflections of a bicyclist-3
Bithoor also had its own share of wilderness. This was inhabited by monkeys- langurs, I think. They have black faces, slender long grey bodies and facial features of an old man. As they squat on the ground, their backs straight up, they reach waist high. With a flick of their long hands they can easily reach out to your face. They are aggressive animals and are not afraid of humans. I remember once trying to approach them. They were so human in their appearance, I was misled into believing that I could sit by their side for a friendly chat. The animal snarled and reached out to my face. I was taken aback and remember retreating very confused. I dared not go near them on later occasions.
There was also an amusement park with various play things for children. Most of these were in a run down condition. There was a merry-go-round there. It was just a circular platform pivoting around a central pillar. You were expected to hold its rim and run around and as the thing picked up some speed you could jump on to the platform and take a ride. Alternatively, you could ask a friend to give you a few turns. Actually something was wrong with its bearings so the platform did not rotate in a plane but climbed a bit at one part coming down with a gathering momentum a while later. I remember climbing on to it and my three friends giving me a turn. Then suddenly they decided to give me a ride of my life and gave it more and more speed. The platform lurched upward and came down with every rotation and I had to hang on to overcome the centrifugal forces. I clung on with growing excitement, my biceps straining. Then I put my foot down on the ground to break the movement and it halted with surprising ease!
Amidst all this activity, I also finished my M.Sc. in Chemistry. It was time to return home. I was thinking of doing my Ph.D in the same department, but a friend told me to explore Indian Institute of Science (Tata Institute) at Bangalore. So I packed my bicycle away and then left for Bangalore. That was the last I saw of my father’s Raleigh. The Railways misplaced it. For nearly six months after reaching Bangalore, I kept enquiring after it. I always got a negative reply. Then I stopped making enquiries. A further six months later when I went to the railway yard, I was told that it had just come within days of my last enquiry and they had kept it for several months. The demurrage had grown to over Rs.400 and so they had given it away to an Air Force person, whose bike too had been lost and who was making frequent enquiries. The person at the yard was very sympathetic and offered me any of the numerous bikes that were lying around, their owners, like me, in the dark about their arrival. I looked around- none of them was a Raleigh, none in a good shape and I declined the offer.

Reflections of a bicyclist-2

For my M.Sc. I went to IIT, Kanpur. That was in 1978. By then my Raleigh and me were inseparable. It was also the first time I was leaving home to stay in a hostel. My parents could not figure out why on earth I was dead set on IIT, Kanpur, when I had been offered a M.Sc. seat in every subject in Bangalore University. However they were resigned to my decision. My father put me into the train along with my bicycle, which had to go into the break van at the end of the train. Since my parents were hopeful of dissuading me from going, there had been delays in booking tickets for my journey and I finally found reservations only on what was then called ‘Link Express’. To this day, it remains the most fascinating train.
This train had three parts as it started out of Madras. One part was set to go to Delhi, the second to Trivandrum, while the third was for Hyderabad. It would come to Jolarpettai where it would meet up with a similar train from Trivandrum, having one part going to Delhi, another to Hyderabad and the third going to Madras. The Delhi/ Hyderabad parts would be put together here. The other two parts would meet up with the Link Express on the return journey. Here the Trivandrum-Madras part would be reinforced with the Delhi-Madras and the Hyderabad-Madras parts and proceed to Madras. The Madras-Trivandrum would be reinforced by the Delhi-Trivandrum and Hyderabad-Trivandrum parts and proceed to Trivandrum. Our original train would move towards Delhi, where at another junction called Khazipet, it would meet its counterpart from Hyderabad, having again three parts, one going to Delhi, the other two going (by now you know where) Madras and Trivandrum! Our train would now be bifurcated and the bogies from Madras, Trivandrum and Hyderabad, all going to Delhi would then be connected for the last leg. I will not try your patience with what the other fractions of the train do. I was to detrain at Jhansi and take the Jhansi-Lucknow passenger to reach Kanpur. This train took its ‘Bharat Jodo’ rather too seriously and the guy/gal who thought up this amazing train should have been given a Oscar for contortion. Expectedly, while I made it to Kanpur within 72 hours (by the way I traveled from Bangalore to Madras to catch this train!), my bike was nowhere to be found. It might have gone anywhere- Trivandrum, Madras, Hyderabad or even got stuck in Jolarpettai or Khazipet, where the complicated mass transfers take place.
Amazingly, my bike turned up in the Kanpur railway station approximately a month later. In the intervening period I made many anxious trips to look for it. If only it could narrate its adventures, it could have made interesting reading. I was delighted. It looked a little battered, deflated, dusty and a bit out of sorts. I had it inflated just outside the railway station and rode back to my hostel. The IIT campus is approximately 16 kms (or is it 8 kms?) from the railway station. This was the best ride of my life. I had reclaimed a part of my past. I remember being nearly run over by a buffalo cart. That part of UP has some of the most amazingly buffaloes. They are huge, 20 feet nose to tail or so my impression is. They pull enormous carts- 20 feet long. You overtake these monsters at your own peril, especially if you are going around a circle at the same time. This is what I did. This 40 foot megalith can move at terrific speeds and the back of the cart swings out at you as it turns. These buffaloes can run with surprising agility.
Within the IIT campus, although the hostel and academic areas are located close together with catwalks connecting them, I rarely walked, preferring to cycle my way around. I remember many of my hostel mates also acquiring bicycles after seeing me use one. The sports day always had a bicycle race, which was always won by a character who could have fitted well in a bicycling forum. He rode a bicycle with thin tyres and a drop handle bar. He was thin and his wiry body hunched over his bike in a tight semi-circle. He was often the butt of our jokes. He was doing his engineering in some branch and lived in the hostel across the road from mine. I wonder for all his enthusiasm, if he is still cycling today!
The high point of my bicycling life in Kanpur was the trip we (three class mates) made to Lucknow, a distance of 70 kms. The journey took us nearly the whole day. While we comfortably covered 16 kms in the first hour, fresh from a night’s sleep, the latter part was very tiring. The land is flat in UP, but fierce gusts of wind were blowing slowing us to less than 10 km/hr. The afternoon was very hot and we rested 3-4 hours in the shade of the cane fields. We reached Lucknow, which was then a beautiful city, at 6 PM and went to Aminabad, where we sought shelter in a mosque. We stayed overnight there- the only inconvenience was being rudely woken up from our tired slumber around 3 or 4 AM, the time of the morning Namaz. After the prayers were over, we were allowed to sleep again. The Aminabad market is a lovely place. We toured Lucknow seeing the sights the next day, returned to the mosque for the night and then came back to Kanpur the next day. The return journey was not as tiresome and we were back by 2 PM.
I went with three other friends (one of whom was a ‘free loader’- he did not know how to ride a bike!) often to a place called Bithoor. This was some 23 kms from Kanpur and was the closest point of the Ganga to our campus. My free loading friend always rode behind me on the carrier. He often complained of ‘butt ache’ after each of these rides. I am amazingly in touch with all these guys to this day. One is a senior research chemist in a pharmaceutical industry in the US. The other is a professor of Biochemistry in IMTECH, Chandigarh. My free loading friend is a chemical engineer in Calcutta. Fortunately, he now drives a car.
I have many sweet memories of Bithoor. There was a small animal enclosure there. There I saw for the first time a rhino. It was a mother and baby pair. Rhinos come in two varieties. In one variety, the mother runs ahead of the baby and in the other, the baby leads the way. God has programmed them to run in tandem. This pair was the mother-in-the-lead variety. The enclosure had two trees- one stout and the other a slender twig-like thing. I saw the mother run round the outer perimeter of the enclosure with the baby close on its heels. Since the enclosure was small, the pair would pass the spot I stood at, once every minute or so. I stood admiring the speed of something so large. The rhino must have got bored running around and after a few rounds suddenly turned and ran across along a chord. This took her straight to the two trees. I thought she is either going to crash into the stout tree and bruise her nose (and her chief horn) or trample over the slender stem of the other one. I watched my heart racing and would you believe, how she deftly maneuvered her enormous bulk without so much as even touching either of the trees. She went straight like an arrow until her shoulders and then with a deft flick of her neck got her behind through at an angle. The baby did the same flick of the behind, although it did not need to considering that it was very small and had enough room. This happened many times as she repeated her new course several times over. I am unlikely to ever forget this. I only wish that humans had enough sense to offer such wonderful animals larger open spaces.

Reflections of a bicyclist-I

My father owned a Raleigh bicycle. He cycled to work every day. He was an inspector of post offices and it was his job to visit different post offices everyday and inspect if they were working effectively. This involved some travel within Bangalore city which he did on his bicycle. He had his prejudices. Raleigh was the only worthwhile bike. All other brands attracted his ridicule. He also used a 22” frame. Frames of other sizes also were ridiculed. As a young boy, I happily inherited these opinions. I also inherited his bike, when he made the first moves to get himself a motorized vehicle. My older brother recalls all the vehicles that my father owned for various periods of time, but my first memory is about the Jawa Jet. It was a 50cc moped bought second hand. I think in those early days (mid-sixties) all vehicles had ‘starting trouble’. What this meant was that you could not get the bloody thing to work when it was late for office. It meant a trip down to the local mechanic, some expenditure and being late for office (and ditto when you tried to return home in the evening). This was also not an one-off incident. This would happen practically every day! My father found it often easier to leave the thing at home, grab the bicycle and pedal to office, even if it was in a huff. Finally he sold the thing and took his bicycle back from me.
The break came in 1969, when my father was allotted his Vespa. Those days, you had to apply for a scooter and wait your turn to get it. It took ten years to get your allotment. It was a silver gray MYQ 8895. For the first time we had something that would start when you wanted (after it had been given the mandatory tilt to the right). The bicycle became well and truly mine. I was ten and I learned to ride it. My father would hold the bike and run behind me. I remember the day when he let go without telling me. I continued to ride some distance, before I realized that he had let go. Terrified, I lost control and went straight into the drain.
I started cycling in the ‘Kathri’ (roughly translated as the scissors) style. The left leg on the left pedal and the right inserted through the frame on the right pedal. The left hand gripped the handle, while the saddle was held under the right armpit. This style is never seen today, as children’s bicycles have become very popular. Back in those days, the only bicycles you had were the adults’ bicycles (22” and 24” frames). The only way children could use these big bikes was by resorting to the ‘Kathri’ style. As you grew taller or more adept, you could graduate to the ‘bar’ (pedal over the top tube of the frame) and finally you took your place on the saddle! I started using the bicycle to go to school in my sixth standard. I have never really stopped since then. I cycled to school right through to my eleventh standard.
Later during my B.Sc., I briefly came to possess my brother’s Yezdi (MEE 3177). He was serving in the NEFA (now Arunachal Pradesh) and could not take it with him. I rode on it to St. Joseph’s College occasionally. I was one of the very few in college those days to have a motorcycle. St. Joseph’s College always had a good hockey team and during my time my college team boasted of over 4 members of the Indian national junior hockey team. We were one day scheduled to play St. John’s Medical College at their campus. Hundreds of us rode from our college to St. John’s on bicycles and motorcyles. I took a friend and roared and revved on my Yezdi. We outnumbered the hosts in their home ground and amazingly we lost!
My brother returned and took his Yezdi away and I was back with my old faithful. Around that time my father sold his Vespa and replaced it with a green Bajaj (MEN 3971). His Vespa had cost him Rs. 3000/=. In 1975, he sold it for the same amount and purchased the Bajaj for Rs. 5000/=. We all thought it was a good deal. But in hindsight, I wish I had his old Vespa. It would have been 35 years old today, only 15 years away from becoming a vintage scooter. I have now reached an age, when starting from now, I have not enough time left to wait for any of my vehicles to turn vintage in my life time. Keeping this in mind, I keep my eyes open on the streets for the old Vespa. Just in case, I sight it, I may try to buy it back from its current owner.
The bicycle always fascinated me. Come to think of it! It is such a simple device, converting a rotary movement into linear motion, giving you an amazing speed in the process.