Cycling in the times of Covid-19: From freedom to fitness to distancing

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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 two-wheel 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 eco-friendly, cool, fitness machine that is also the best socially distanced means of transport in these coronavirus times.

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