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And She Never Looked Back

T. Vijayendra

"Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think [the bicycle] has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a bike. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes the picture of untrammelled womanhood."
Susan B Anthony, the American civil rights leader, wrote in 1896

Aloka was actually looking back. Sitting on the rock, watching the rough sea dashing on the rock below her in Pondicherry, she was wondering how she lived 25 long years in Calcutta after her marriage. At first everything was fine (surprise! surprise!!). She was young, enjoyed playing ‘house house’, enjoyed cooking and feeding her husband and his friends, who were all in love with her, her singing Rabindra Sangeet and all that.

Then the daughter came and years just passed. Her husband got busy with his work, Aloka drifted in to animal care and dogs. She volunteered for Blue Cross where she met Parimal, a refugee from Bangladesh (her own grand-parents were from Jessore, Bangladesh) and they ‘clicked’ and got together like a house on fire. Parimal knew everything about dogs – breeds, habits, training, rescue, diseases, everything! He could even do minor surgeries. And Aloka simply adored dogs and she could never tire of taking care of them.

Things slowly changed. Her husband, at first, made fun of her. Then he got jealous of Parimal. And finally he began to abuse her and was even violent when he got drunk. Yes, as Aloka drifted in to her dog love, Nihar drifted into alcohol. The daughter, Shreya, who was a teenager by now, also sided with father because she also felt neglected. Then she also accused her and suddenly Aloka found that all her friends began to avoid her. Even her parents told her that her first duty was towards her family. And Parimal? He had his dogs and he did not need anything or anybody else!

Guilt, guilt, guilt! Aloka did not known anything else but guilt in her last years in Calcutta which had become Kolkata now. She was friendless, lonely and miserable. Only the dogs gave her love and reassurance. Surrounded with all this guilt feeling, Aloka could not understand what wrong did she do? Then she met Viju.

*****

Viju had come to Kolkata on his annual visit and was giving an informal talk to a group of naturalists on sustainability and equality. He also focussed on the bicycle, as 2017 was the bicentenary year of the bicycle. He said, ‘from an ecological perspective the bicycle is one of the most sustainable and affordable mode of transport. Almost anyone can afford it. It is cheaper than a smart phone! It is the transport of the future particularly when oil resources are depleting.’ He also talked about the forth coming book by his groups entitled, ‘Women and the Bicycle: Mobility, Freedom, Empowerment and Joy.’

After the talk Aloka shared a taxi ride with him. She told him a little about herself and said that she did not know how to get out of her situation.

 Viju: ’What do you want to do?’
Aloka: ‘I want to see the world and finish my French course in Kolkata, the examination for which is due in April.’

Viju: ‘Well, you can buy a bicycle, go to Chandannagar, stay with an old French lady, take care of her, do your French studies, appear in the examination and then go round the world on your bicycle. Ann Londonderry, a mother of three, did it in 1894!’ 

Aloka thought he was mad. It is so easy to talk. But she had to admit that his suggestion about moving to Chandannagar was reasonable. Chandannagar, like Pondicherry near Tamilnadu, is a former French colony and is located only 35 kilometres north of Kolkata. It is a small town with a population of just 166,867 (2014) and it would be easy to locate a French speaking Old lady if she did exist!

 Next day she told Parimal about the talk.

Parimal, said, ‘Well you can buy the cycle to start with’.

Aloka: ‘But I don’t know how to ride! And I am fifty year old!’

 Parimal: (in an exasperated tone) ‘Oh that! You can learn it in a day! And the age of fifty is fine (laughing) - free from pimples, post menopause freedom and frolicsome! Go to it!’

These men, Aloka, thought, they talk so easily. But they went and bought the ‘Lady Bird’ and kept it at Blue Cross. A new thing got added in Aloka’s life. Aloka would be up early morning (she had left her husband and was living with her parents), go to the school to teach the primary classes, come home, have a lunch and after a brief rest, rush to Blue Cross and took her bicycle lessons. Yes she did learn it in a day and was actually enjoying the wind on her face and the utter freedom she felt. Yes she would ride to Chandannagar soon. 

At the end of the month, she collected her salary, bought a track suit, a helmet, a pair of good shoes and was ready for the road. She just took one extra pair of night clothes, her toilet bag, a tube of ‘Odomos’, a water bottle and she was off to Chandannagar.

*****

She found Mademoiselle Simone, a spinster, daughter of a theosophist, in love with India and Bengali food and lived by giving French lessons. How the hell did Viju know? She readily agreed to have Aloka as a cook in lieu of lodge and board. She chatted and made Aloka talk in French, correcting her pronunciation and teaching new words all the time. It was a dream ‘total immersion’ programme of foreign language learning. Of course Aloka passed her examination with flying colours.

Aloka was ready for a cycle trip to Pondicherry. Chandannagar is a small town and she cycled everywhere. She also met some cyclists, was an informal tour guide to some visiting French students who loved the idea of cycling around town with a lady who knew the town and the French language. She picked up a lot of cycling folklore and some real knowledge about cycle – brands, prices, how to choose and so on. She was ready to replace her beloved ‘Lady Bird’ with the next generation of cycle.

Aloka was in touch with Viju on email. Viju was pleasantly surprised that she actually followed his advice. So few people did! Viju sent her drafts of the book, ‘Women and the Bicycle: Mobility, Freedom, Empowerment and Joy.’ The chapter ‘Bicycle and Woman’s Liberation’ and chapters on experiences of Indian women on bicycle were very inspiring.        

She called up Parimal and asked him to buy a ‘Montra’ bicycle for her. On the next Sunday he came cycling the new “Montra’ and took the ‘Lady Bird’ back to Kolkata. Parimal also had brought a lot of road gear. It contained a double saddle bag, which contained a good water bottle, a tiny sleeping bag and a small mosquito net. He would not take any money from her and said, I have been a refugee and know how it feels to leave one’s home. Any little help is always welcome in such situations.’ Aloka cried and cried because she knew that this was the final ‘good bye’ to Calcutta, to Kolkata and to her past.

... You shall leave everything you love most:
this is the arrow that the bow of exile shoots first.
You are to know the bitter taste of other’s bread,
how salty it is,
and know how hard a path it is for one who goes
ascending and descending others’ stairs...

Paradiso XVII (55-60)
Durante degli Alighieri or simply Dante (1265-1321)

*****

Aloka cycled back towards Calcutta up to Bali and stopped for a cup of tea and her small packer of 4 Parle G biscuits. She called them the Indian National Biscuit and carried dozens of packets with her to feed any and every dog that she met. She knew that on the road this was the safest food and dogs were her most reliable friends!

Her heart was heavy and eyes misty when she turned right towards Dankuni to reach the Bombay road. This was the final goodbye to Calcutta. She stopped again at Bagnan on the banks of Rupanarayan which would take her away from the Gangetic plains and bring her to Midnapur district, another break from the past.

But by now Calcutta was dimming and new experiences were occupying her mind and her heart. At the tea shop dogs came barking because of her strange gear and her helmet. The moment she removed the helmet and started talking to the dogs they were all wagging their tails. Then out came the Indian National Biscuits and they were all happy and sitting down near her. Children stood gaping and then she started talking to them! The adults were also gaping but soon gave it up. The tea shop refused to take money for the tea. It was getting dark and the shop owner’s wife asked her to stay overnight, which she gratefully accepted. After food she fell off to sleep immediately. Strange dreams came but she got up early morning, well rested and ready to start. And as she cycled away, women came out of their houses to gape at this woman who was cycling alone on the highway.

This set up a pattern of her travels. She aimed at 100 kilometres a day with small breaks at 25 kilometres. At some places she even met local bicycle clubs who asked her to give talks. Viju had given her lot of material and so she talked about the bicentenary of the bicycle, the history of the cycle, women and bicycle, government programmes of free bicycles to high school children, China and India and so on. She had no dearth of topics and for the audience everything was new. With time she improved on her skills of giving talks. By the time she reached Bhubaneshwar, an important stop for cyclists she was a seasoned cyclist.

In Bhubaneshwar she met Ajay Nanda of ‘22 Bikes’. 22 Bikes is an unusual cycle organisation. It takes care of all the necessities of cyclists under one roof, such as selling bicycles of all brands, accessories, repairing, servicing, bicycle-rentals, training sessions and the organising of regular bicycle tours and events. Ajay believes that forming a community and bringing together all cycle enthusiasts in the city through interesting activities and events will help in driving the concept of cycling into public life. 22 Bikes is more than just a place for bicycles; it promotes, encourages and aims to educate people on the benefits of being a cyclist. It also boasts of a library, which has around 50 percent of its books dedicated to bicycles. Aloka stayed for a week in Bhubaneshwar, resting and learning a lot more about cycling and cycle clubs.

*****

After Bhubaneshwar she was on the cycle club map and cycle clubs on the way were expecting her, felicitating her and checking her cycle for wear and tear and repairs. By the time she reached Pondicherry, there was a posse of cyclists few kilometres outside the town who accompanied her to the reception that was waiting for her. It was a big meeting in the grounds and looked like a political meeting. In fact it was more like a carnival. Stalls were set up for idly, fruits, tea, coffee, coconuts, and handicrafts and so on. Only all the business was done on cycles. People had come on their cycles and there was a nice cycle stand for parking. There was a photo exhibition about cycles and livelihood, about benefits of cycling and of course about the Pondicherry Cycle Club.

Aloka gave a short talk. She said: ‘I am a Bengali and in love with French language, literature and people. That is, I am a Francophile and Chandannagar and Pondicherry are Mecca and Medina for me. I am coming from Chandannagar and I hope to make Pondicherry my home.’

This she repeated in Bengali and in French amid loud cheers. Then she gave a short description of her journey. She said, ‘I first learned cycling only 3 months ago at the age of 50!’ There was a first a gasp and then loud cheering from the audience. Continuing, she said, ‘I thank Viju for the idea, Parimal for helping me buy my first cycle and finally I thank my cycle Lady Bird and then the present Montra. The cycle has become, after the dogs, a real friend of all seasons.’

The secretary of Pondicherry Cycling Club welcomed her and gave her Honorary Life Membership of the Club. An old gentleman asked permission to speak. He said that ‘My name is Ashutosh Bandopadhyay and I am a third generation citizen of Pondicherry. Like Aloka I am also a Francophile, more so since I am married to a French woman.’ He called his wife Claudine on the stage and continuing, he said, ‘our children are all abroad and are not going to come back. I offer our home and Aloka can stay in our daughter’s room as long as she wishes with complete freedom!’ His wife Claudine added in French, ‘We will treat her as our own daughter. We have a big French library of books, music and videos and Aloka can use all of it and move further in her French studies.’ There were loud cheers for minutes.

Tears were flowing down Aloka’s cheeks. Everyone wanted her to speak again. The secretary offered her a huge handkerchief and Aloka wiped her face and blew her nose right into the mike! There was laughter in the audience and Aloka also smiled sheepishly. Claudine offered her moisturised paper napkins. Still when Aloka rose to speak her feet were unsteady and her voice was heavy. She finally managed to say, ‘When I left Calcutta I was homeless, lonely, friendless and miserable. I had only one friend left in Calcutta – a poor Bangladeshi refugee who was a dog lover. And in the last three months I got so much love and friendship that I am overwhelmed. But what happened today here is so much beyond my wildest dreams that it has left me speechless. I will be able to thank all of Pondicherry in coming years by my deeds and not by words today.’ Then she broke down crying and there was loud cheers and clapping for a long time.

*****

Aloka settled down in Pondicherry. She helped at home, cooking Bengali dishes and learning French cooking. She had learned some in Chandannagar also. Then she was active with Pondicherry cycle club, particularly in getting new women members and its programme of renting cycles to the tourists. She also prepared for her next level French examination. But Ann Londonderry’s solo trip round the world in 15 months in 1894 kept on ringing in her head. She was aware that the times had changed and that for an Indian woman to get all the visas was a tough proposition. So she decided to do it step by step.

First she decided to get all her documents under control. She got her certificates, Passport, Voter Identity Card, Adhaar Card and so on. Her hosts in Pondicherry and her friends in the cycling club helped her in a big way. They knew everyone in the bureaucracy. Then she would plan to go France and Europe. First she would do her own Tour de France and then take the next trip of doing Europe. She also applied for a fellowship for further study in French in France.

*****

Dear Reader, Aloka is still in Pondicherry, dreaming and planning. Wish her all the luck!

*****
Chamrabad, Chandankiyari, Jharkhand.
February 21, 2017
Mobile: +91 94907 05634

Frontier
Mar 7, 2017


T. Vijayendra may be contacted at t.vijayendra@gmail.com

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