[A sneak preview of the next Momentum Magazine column]
For weeks, the bicycles tormented me. From the moment Aloysius picked me up at the Mumbai airport and his car weaved around a one-speed, made-in-India bike toting a sack of rice; then another hauling six red propane cannisters; then another carrying an older lady with a grey bun and a gold sari – I was reminded that I didn’t have a bike.
I’d flown into Mumbai to begin a six-month sabbatical of living, writing and riding in Goa, India and decided to leave my bike at home. Once in Goa I’d settle into my father’s cousin’s house, I reasoned, catch up on my grandparent’s Burmese-Portuguese-Indian ancestry; then buy an Indian bicycle of my own.
Aloysius – who I’d been corresponding with for years and was familiar with my weakness for travel by bike – was completely supportive. He recommended I buy a bicyle in Panjim, Goa’s state capital, but he was willing to step into a back alley bike shop in Mumbai’s Dadar market to get the process started.
We wove around street stalls of limes, onions and oranges and ducked under gold Diwali lanterns. Tucked between a storefront offering “Xerox Copies” on their Canon printer, and another selling stainless steel tiffin containers, the small-but-tidy Singh Cycle Company looked promising.
Since I was a foreigner and this was clearly not a shop for tourists, 74-year-old Aloysius took the lead with what little knowledge of bikes he had. “The young lady wishes to ride a cycle all around Goa,” he started, “And she requires one with a basket.”
“I want it to be simple, and of good quality,” I quickly added, “And I want to use it for travel and transportation.” The young Sikh nodded and led us through the dark shop, out the back door and into the alley. A shipment of Barbie-pink bicycles rested against the wall, their thick steel frames still wrapped in cardboard and packing tape.
“Could I see one of the bikes without the cardboard?” I asked, leaning into the pile to examine the frame welds (terrible), brakes (low-end cable caliper), and wheels (steel rims). He couldn’t do that, he said, but he could tell me that the bike came with a kickstand, chainguard, rack, skirt guard, bell, lock and basket. All for about 3,250 rupees ($72).
I peered past the pink bikes to a dusty pile behind. They were also covered up, but I recognized them immediately: the Hercules- and Atlas-brand archetypal Indian bikes I’d been lusting after: elegant lugged frames, steel linkage brake systems, heavy-duty tires and a headtube badge to die for. “What about those?” I pointed.
The young man shook his head. “Those are WORK bikes – for sellers, and shops and hotels. And they’re not for ladies.” This made me bristle, but it was true: the bikes were very large and they had a tall crossbar. Stubbornness would not make that bike any more comfortable on village backroads.
“Do they come in ladies’ frames?” I asked hopefully. He shook his head again. “Ladies don’t work.” And it was true, in a sense: over the next few weeks – in Mumbai and then in Goa – I had to admit that I rarely saw a woman on a bicycle, let alone a woman on a “work” bike.
Once in Panjim, Aloysius and I dropped in at D.P. Shirodkar Company (whose business card shows a photograph of a full-suspension bike, a sewing machine, and a floor fan). They had more low-quality women’s bikes, and – when I tried a different approach and asked for the most EXPENSIVE bike they had – they showed me a low-quality women’s bike, with gears.
By this time I was more than a month bikeless and the GHEE-rich Indian food was starting to thicken my middle. Bikes sailed around me on every street and at every intersection and I was dry-docked. Then one day, I read the leather mudflap of an parked Atlas on my way to a cybercafe. “Raikar Sales” it read, “Dealers and Wholesalers in Bicycles, Tricycles and Spare Parts”. If they sell
parts, I reasoned, they must be a REAL bike shop.
Aloysius patiently took me there and followed me around the shop as I examined then dismissed one pink bike after another. Then, across the room (cue angelic choirs), I saw it: the Atlas Supreme DX, red and black ladies’ frame, one-speed, linkage brakes, bell, rear rack, kickstand, chainguard, wheel lock, 2,950 rupees but – warned Mr. Raiker’s son – no basket.
“No basket?!” I frowned, attempting to barter while a voice inside me screamed, yes, yes, YES, GET IT, I WANT IT NOW! “I’ll think about it,” I shrugged, taking his card and memorizing the business hours.
The next day, I carefully steered my new Atlas Supreme DX through Panjim’s downtown streets, down to the jetty, onto the Mandovi River ferry, and next to a fleet of work bikes loaded with large red ice cream coolers.
“New cycle?” asked one of the young ice cream sellers. I nodded. I must have looked very proud with my shiny new bicycle. I almost expected him to ask, “No basket?!” but he just grinned and gave me a head wiggle, and the ferry rumbled away from shore.