Josna Rege

113. Riding Like the Wind

In 1950s, 1960s, Childhood, India, Stories, United States on June 21, 2011 at 12:28 pm

My father used to carry me on the back seat of his bicycle and whistle as we whizzed downhill. When I asked if it was he who was making the sound, he would answer, “No, it’s only the wind whistling in your ears.” We both knew that he was teasing me, yet I always asked and he always gave the same reply.

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When I was given my first bike at age five I quickly discarded the little training wheels that came with it because my friend Colin, who already rode without them, teased me mercilessly and I couldn’t bear Colin calling me a baby. Once I was rid of them I rode all over IIT Kharagpur’s Hijli campus, sometimes with Colin, sometimes completely alone, as free as a bird. There were very few cars on the campus in the late 1950’s and everyone knew my family, so when we were not in school it was safe enough for my parents to allow me to stay out all day, returning only for the evening meal. Colin, an animal lover, would frequently fill his bike’s front basket with some living creature, take it home, and insist on keeping it, prevailing easily over his mother’s mild protestations. As with everything else, we rode our bikes competitively, but although Colin liked winning and was bigger and stronger than me, he made a noble concession: “You first me first.” I liked winning too, but I could live with that formulation.

While my parents could afford to be permissive, they still warned me not to talk to strangers, and especially not to go off with one, even if he said that he knew my father. But one day, when I must have been nearly six, the temptation proved too strong for me to withstand. I was out on my own that day and had ridden past the market, past the student hostels, down the broad, shady avenue to the main building of the  Institute. Hanging around outside, I met an IIT student who recognized me, though I didn’t know him. He said that he was going in to see a film and asked whether I would like to see the cartoon that preceded the main feature. If I hesitated it was only for an instant: I readily accompanied him inside. “Never take food from a stranger” was another oft-repeated admonition, but when he offered me a snack during the film I accepted that too, fully aware that I was breaking yet another of my parents’ cardinal rules. After the film I hightailed it home as fast as my short legs could pedal and arrived in the gathering dusk, just in time for dinner. I never told my parents where I had been and fortunately, they never asked (for I was a truthful child, if not always an obedient one).

My first big bike was a combined birthday and Christmas present when I was ten. It was a full-size woman’s model, Indian-made I’m sure, though I can’t remember the brand. Like clothes made a couple of sizes too big so that the child will grow into them, my bike was meant to last. Its handlebars were almost shoulder-high on me and I couldn’t pedal while sitting on the seat, but had to pump up and down furiously. Fortunately I had tremendous amounts of excess energy, so I was not in the least put out, but rather, proud of myself for being able to handle an adult-sized bike. When my legs were just long enough for my feet to reach the pedals, I remember my feeling of mastery as I steered a course as straight as an arrow, controlling the bike with legs alone—no hands.

My bike had several special features of which I was extremely proud. It had a kick-out stand, a back seat with a hinged clamp, and a headlight powered by a dynamo. The faster I pedaled, the brighter the headlight shone. And I was able to carry my little sister around on the back seat as my father had once carried me.

After coming to the United States where the culture and the roads were geared to automobiles, I never again used a bicycle the way I had as a child. In the 1970’s all the U.S. models seemed to be ten-speed racing bikes with hard, thin tires and seats higher than the handlebars, so that one had to ride with one’s bottom in the air and head down, craning one’s neck uncomfortably in order to see ahead. Then in the 1980’s came the low-riders, which my son rode and stunt riders used to perform elaborate wheelies but didn’t feel right for me; and by the 1990’s  when the bigger, sturdier mountain bikes came into fashion, I had lost the habit of riding altogether. Now we have two or three long-neglected bicycles out back, all tangled up in old grape vines, flat-tired and rusty.

Life has a way of coming full cycle. Our town prides itself on being bike-friendly and conservationist. It has a Public Transportation and Bicycle Committee, a beautiful bike path, and designated bike lanes on many of its roads. Perhaps it’s time to refurbish one of those old machines and hear the wind whistling in my ears once again.

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  1. Dear Jyosna,
    Nice piece.My bike was my freedom.
    My dad worked in jute mills, including Ludlows near Calcutta (Changail?),We lived in the officers compound and had total freedom, during my winter holidays from boarding school, to ride around all day leaving in the morning and coming back for meals unless a friends mother decided to feed us.As I got older I started to go into the local villages for sweets and to neighbouring mills where I had friends with whom we could find a variety of adventures.
    An important part of our youth in the subcontinent. When we discovered the joys of friendship quite a few of which we still maintain.
    Its amazing how familiar some of your stories feel.
    Cheers
    AM

    • “My bike was my freedom”: well put. I like the image of you and your friends roaming around from morning till night, farther afield as you grew older, being fed sometimes by your mother, sometimes by the mother of a friend. You’re right that bicycles were central to our lives and our friendships. Those sturdy, serviceable models not only facilitated our movement but also helped shape our sensibilities in a certain way.

  2. PS I also still cannot get used to the gears, handlebars and stunted wheels of the modern machineswish I could find a good old desi bike

  3. Hi Jojo,

    If you wish I can ask my Nephew-in-law the French pastry professor at Johnson and Wales (who is a bike nut and Mr. fix it) and has dozen’s of bikes in his back yard from Freecycle, if you can have one of them. I’m sure you can find one that “fits”. He and my Neice and their 4 month old (Simon) are going to France later this Summer, so that might impact when you get it.

    Ciao,
    Vincenzo

    • That’s so sweet of you, Vincent! If he really does have more bikes than he can use, I might well take you up on your kind offer. I’m sure, though, that your niece and nephew have their hands pretty full with a new baby and an upcoming trip, so let me first see if I can fit on Nikhil’s bike. It’s in pretty good shape and it’s a sturdy mountain bike with thick treads on the tires. The only problem I foresee is not being able to reach the pedals. Thanks so much and Happy Summer! Hope we can all get together before long. x J
      P.S. French pastry professor?

  4. This brings back memories of Ohio. Even though we lived in the suburbs of a big city (Cleveland), it was safe enough that my friends and I could bike to the swimming pool or to parks. I remember often being out in the dusk and trying to get home before dark — an absolute rule with severe consequences when broken! I bought a bike a few years ago, but was so naive after years of not riding that what I got is very heavy, thus not all that much fun to ride, although doubtless it’s excellent exercise. I then picked up a bike for $5 at the annual police auction of unclaimed stolen bikes, but it’s an odd and outdated model and impossible to find tires for. Maybe if I just paid attention and put my whole mind to it, I’d do a better job of finding something I can (and will) actually ride! Then we can hit the bike paths.

    I’m intrigued by the pastry prof, too. Probably better for me not to get too close to that one!

    • Yes, the desire is there, but I guess it’s just not strong enough yet for me either. Perhaps it’s partly because bike-riding seems rather artificial if one is putting the bike in the car and driving to a bike path where one does a round trip out and back. The feeling of freedom and control in childhood was in having wheels that took us where we wanted to go. I suppose we can still do that, but even with bike lanes the roads are so dangerous. Still, I am going to try to get at least one bike in usable condition. Let’s check back in with each other about this.

  5. I enjoy your pictures as well!
    Being from the mountains I did not get the chance to ride a bike until I came to California and learned as an adult. I do remember wishing we could bike around town like our friends
    in the plains!
    Bicycling through Vermont and up in the San Juan Islands across from Seattle, were trips I loved, however, and have many happy memories of those days!

    • Of course, bike-riding would have been near-impossible up in the hills, especially without all the gears that bicycles have now. I can imagine trying to take a bike round those treacherous curves on the way up to Darjeeling, with no sidewalks and jeeps and buses speeding past, terrifyingly close to the edges with sheer drops below. Vermont can be pretty hilly, though: I’m impressed.

  6. HI Josna

    Can you tell me when you used to ride the bicycle with training wheels? was it an indian made bicyle. Teh reason i am asking is in early 1970’s i too used to ride a bicyle with traiing wheels, but my wife claims that bicycle with traing wheels were not available in India at that time and only imported bicycle had those feature. But I clearly remember that my biclce was manufactured in India

    • Hello Suresh! I think you are correct. I am a lot older than you, because I think I got my first bicycle at age 5, in about 1959, and I’m sure it had training wheels on it. I am trying to remember more accurately but I’m afraid my memory is rather hazy. This was in Kharagpur, West Bengal, and I very much doubt if we could have got hold of or afforded a foreign bike back then. I seem to remember them bolting on, one on each side of the back wheel. I have no definite proof, but I feel that by the 1970s training wheels would surely have been available in India. That was the era of Indian self-reliance. Imported goods were heavily taxed or simply unavailable, and almost everything was Indian-made. Hope you have happy memories of bike-riding as a child. All the best, J

  7. I was a classmate of your sister, Sally at St. Agnes & stayed at B type. Got a lot of fond memories of that time though you left for boarding school in Darjeeling. remeber coming to your A type quarter then & playing with Sally & being served hot soup & food by Aunty. Your dad Prof. Rege was very loving. How do I get in touch with Sally on mail or any other contact details will be appreciated in my mail box. Saw that she is also a feature & content blogger. All the best. Tapas.

    • Dear Tapas,
      What a nice surprise to hear from you after all this–nearly fifty years! I have written to Sally and forwarded this message to her, along with your email address. Then she will be able to get in touch with you directly.
      Our parents are here with us in the U,S, and in fact I am currently living with them. I will read them your message as well.
      Warm regards to you and your family, and thank you for getting in touch,
      Josna (Jojo)

      • Hi Jojo,
        Thanks for the prompt response. I’m Prof. D K Guha’s( Chemical Engg Deptt.) son. Your dad might recognize him. I stay at Bangalore & work as a graphic print specialist. My mail id is tguha406@gmail.com. Our classmates at that time was Kunal, Rahul, Parimala etc.
        All the best to you & your family. Convey my regards to your parents.

        • Hello Tapas,
          My father remembers your father well, and was delighted when I read him your messages. He sends his best wishes. I have forwarded this message to my sister too.
          Be well,
          J

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