It started with the need to feel physically fit. Being at home for most of the time in the past months, there have been phases where sleep and eating rhythms were thrown off and sooner than later I began to feel not so healthy in my body. There was also the initial phase during the lockdown where one was religiously exercising everyday, eating right, and in trying to grapple with the new situation doing everything in a more or less healthy rhythm. Four months into the pandemic, a certain lethargy began to set into my bones. Indoor workouts weren’t killing it for me anymore. I knew I wanted to get out. And then it came like a lightning bolt! What with the clear skies and good-quality air, there never was going to be a better time than now to be cycling my way around.
We live on a very busy main street in South Delhi. With no cycling tracks in the nearby manicured parks, our children living in an independent house have had not many chances to bring their cycles out for a ride. The heavy air and smog for most times of the year didn’t help. So it was that many children in Delhi were growing up without being able to bike with their friends in the evening, or make a quick trip to their nearest grocery store as we did (because we could). That’s a troubling reality because children everywhere should be able to. Nevertheless, one could still embrace the bittersweet changes that every few generations experienced as we developed and modernised as a people. I too found myself accepting that our children would know a very different world from what we had shared with our parents. For instance, they didn’t know what it felt like to have a khaki-clad postman deliver a letter from your loved one that you had been waiting to receive. Very soon they may not know what a letter box even looks like. Every once in a while one was jolted by the thought that in the name of change and growth and development we had regressed rapidly and breathlessly, so much so that our children already didn’t know what it was like to have a blue sky and fresh air to breathe without fighting for it. And so when they gasped for air for most part of the year, in comparison it seemed to be a very small piece of their childhood that we grown-ups have had to take away, albeit with a very heavy heart and an often-reluctant mind.
But the clean air in the recent months in the course of the nationwide lockdown and thereafter cleared to some extent my smoggy will and made way for me to be hopeful still.
And so, despite the economic strains of the current times, my husband and I decided to invest in buying bicycles for both of us. The children’s bikes parked in the garage had been waiting to see the light of day. We went to Old Delhi, to the cycle market that used to be when we were young children, somehow expecting it to deliver with the same trust as decades ago. In anticipation of riding back home from Daryaganj, in North Delhi, we put on our shorts and tees, packed our sippers, and were all set. I had flung out of my mind any care about the fact that dressed in shorts, I would first have to walk through the stares and glares of all sorts of big and small men on the narrow, winding streets of the very old market. The thought of riding back through all of those stares was quite freeing already. As we walked around, the slowness in an otherwise busy place was almost endearing. Ancient arcades with carved arches were the entrance to these shops. At one such shop, through the arcade was seen a man snoozing with his back against the pillar at the centre of the room, one leg perched over the other and arms cushioning his head. His assistant was fixing a tyre for a customer outside the shop, and a few cycles were parked inside. When asked if the one we were looking for was available, the man, most annoyed at being awoken in broad daylight, informed us of the shortage of stock. We thanked him and apologised for disturbing his nap and moved on to enquire at other shops in the area. To our surprise, there was not much available and the answer was the same — the stock was indeed limited. A tad bit hurt at not receiving what we had expected from our trusted old place, almost like when a child does not find at his grandparents’ what he did each time he visited them (even when he may be visiting after many years), while knowing that the change is only real and to be expected.
We decided to move on, determined to make our purchase, to a relatively newer wholesale market. Here too we took a round around the shops, doing a recce, understanding that the scene had changed completely and buying a bicycle was not any longer the simple task it used to be. Choice can be overwhelming for adults too. By the time we understood which bikes would best fit our budget and need, the last available piece was sold out. We were duly informed of the shortage of stock again, this time with a reason too. After the lockdown, with most people still working from home and staying indoors unless it was essential to venture out, the traffic on the road had considerably reduced and had led to an increased demand for bicycles, so much so that manufacturers had not been able to keep up with the supply. Moreover, there was no certainty about when the new stock would arrive.
We exchanged numbers with the shop owner and returned home to visibly disappointed children. They had been very excited at the thought of biking with their parents, although the reality of it seemed too unreal to them. It was now evident to me why it upset them more than it did us. A little glimmer of hope had been put out. Could they really go out to ride, the younger one joked, almost consoling himself and his brother to not expect the unexpected. I knew then that this was not just about our fitness anymore, it was also an investment in hope and optimism for our children. Our small step towards reclaiming what should have been possible for the young anyway.
The weather had become pleasant, cloudy and breezy all at once. It seemed like the perfect day to be riding along. I decided to go across the river and try the market there as a last attempt for the day. It felt to me that the time to wait had to end and I needed to make it happen. At this shop I found many professional riders, but what was more heart-warming was that there were many aspiring ones too. It felt like old times. Suddenly, a simple cycle shop which had been ignored in the business of our fast-paced lives had come alive again. This time it happened, and I found just the bikes we were looking for. Arranged carefully on the car rack, helmets in tow, we came back home. The children had been informed of our successful mission and they were ready and waiting with their bikes at the gate when we reached. Together we went out to ride. It was the very first time for the children to be riding on the main roads and to be riding at all in a very long time. The excitement was palpable and the happiness flowed. In a single file, one behind the other, we rode, and to communicate we even made a code! A certain number of bell rings meant we were okay; there was another pattern for when we needed to turn. On stretches where there was not much traffic, I heard the younger one sing along, making water wings as they rode through puddles of rainwater, ducking when the branches of trees on the roadside were too low, and exhaling with exhilaration when the cool breeze blew against our sweat-wet bodies. We were on our way to our friends’ place and the thought that they could simply ride and reach there without being driven was quite freeing for them, and I might even have sensed a feeling of pride there.
Our friends were equally excited to receive us. They welcomed us with lemon drinks and were quite eager to make us comfortable, more than usual, as if we had won a battle of sorts. They were inspired too, they said, to bring out and fix their bikes, which had been eating dust all this while. When I shared how there was no stress of finding a parking place either, the bike seemed like the perfect option to them as well.
It was a beautiful day, the ride was smooth, and cars and truck and bus drivers were considerate and kind, much to our surprise. Later that evening, when the children went to their beds, they recounted every little detail of the experience along with the new traffic rules they had learnt and drifted into the world of dreams.
As I lay recollecting the day’s events myself, what struck me was the ease with which we could navigate through the traffic, even with children, which was much the opposite of how I had imagined it all this while. The fear, I realised, was not so real after all. To wait for the authorities to make cycle tracks (I had signed the petition too) or to give up out of fear did not seem like the only available options now. And I thought to myself, what if instead of 4 bikes there were at least 50 on that stretch of road. The image of a scene like that was very reassuring. What if every stretch of road had many more bikers instead of the few odd ones we spotted once in a while? What if apart from riding for sport or fitness, at wee hours of the morning and disappearing from the worldview through the day, we began to ride, at least short distances if not long, for everyday errands and visiting friends and family nearby? This would render us more visible, and also those who ride for they have no other choice and have mostly been invisible to our eyes through the guarded lens of our car windscreens or cursed at for their audacity to be on the road despite their slow pace. Wouldn’t it make travel easier and safer for them too if they weren’t alone and had more of us riding with them, following the rules, co-owning the space with other commuters?
While our children do regular workouts and could easily ride the distance, my husband and I had not exercised for a while, but we have been riding 10 km for the last three days. The point is: if we can, you can too! Not only did it make the blood flow and rejuvenate us, it also tired us just enough to get us to sleep on time. We got our rhythm back again. Biking is a great option for fitness and health. It is also an eco-friendly way to commute and reduces the need for cars to a great extent. Isn’t it a wonderful gift to the childhood of our children? And a simple solution to many a problem?
So, dear friends and co-inhabitants of this earth, let’s bike it!
Saloni is co-founder, Ukti–The Delhi Waldorf School, and co-curator, Ukti Winter Fair, a platform for–and a celebration of–all things organic, natural, eco-friendly, and handmade.