Antonio, Bruno And Aloka

Bicycle: The Rider is its Engine

Farooque Chowdhury

A bicycle is a machine* most compatible with human beings-its rider. The human being is not only its rider; s/he is also its engine and its fuel. It is run by human power and the power comes from burning your fat! It is also the only transport lighter than its rider. A horse, motor cycle, car etc. are all heavier than the rider. The reason is already given above–the rider provides the engine and the fuel and the fuel tank. So in a way it is a most intimate machine and you will learn to treat it is an extension of your body”, writes T Vijayendra in “Bicycle: A beginner’s guide” in his amazing, thin book Bicycle, Selected Articles and Stories.

T Vijayendra, Viju to his friends irrespective of age, have “been writing about the bicycle since 2017”, the “Bicentenary year of the Bicycle”. Viju’s group, Ecologise Hyderabad, decided to celebrate the year. So there were a film show, bicycle rally and meetings. They used to run a facebook page on bicycle. The group, an organisation, also published four books on the complex machine, which is easy to run. The last pandemic boosted bicycle, and Viju wrote a series of articles, which were posted in Countercurrents, a leading alternate e-journal from South India, and published in Frontier, the famous Left weekly from Kolkata. The articles focus on environment, women, children, and people, especially the working classes. Viju’s articles highlighted political and ecological concerns of the group he is involved with. His writings also entered into debate between the ordinary roadster bicycle and the fancy high-tech and race bicycles. Thus, the articles stayed away from getting drab. With ten essays and two short stories, the Bicycle, Selected Articles and Stories (Ecologise Hyderabad, 2022) is in two parts: shorter pieces and not-so-short articles. While the shorter write ups mainly promote the bicycle and praise the machines, the longer articles deal with politics and market connected to the bicycle, a people-friendly machine. One short story in the book tells about a woman’s solo ride from West Bengal to Pondicherry while the other story is about children and bicycle maintenance. [“Preface”]

There’s a divide, which is told by Vijayendra: “The standard roadster cycle ruled the world till the Second World War. Thereafter the world got split into two camps”–the developed countries, and the so-called developing countries. “The bicycle in the West became mainly a sport-and-hobby bicycle and the roadster became a relic of the past. Most people changed over to cars or public transport. In the last few decades, though, because of awareness of global warming and pollution, the bicycle is once again becoming popular in the West, though still mainly for recreational purposes. Such usage, though, so far, has not reduced the car mileage per capita in the West.”

Within the poor economies, similar divide is also found–the rich persons own private cars while a part of the poor uses bicycles along with badly shaped and poorly managed public transport. Vijayendra tells about this reality of bicycle-divide: In the “developing” world, “there has been a class divide”–“the rich aping the West and the poor sticking to relatively older technologies”; “often seen through the prism of the debate about ‘India (rich) and Bharat (poor)’, which became popular in the last quarter of the 20th century. In the context of the bicycle, of course, the standard roadster represents ‘Bharat’ and the multi-geared fancy bicycle represents ‘India’. As a rule, those who have fancy bicycles also own cars, motorcycles or scooters, and they use the bicycle, like in the West, mainly for recreational purposes.”

The piece “Singing the song of roadster” tells about Ashok Behera. Ashok, a 36-year-old “mason from Odisha cycled 1,100 kilometres in seven days, all the way home to Ganjam district from Chennai, and his wife Namita riding pillion. Once again the roadster, a cycle design perfected more than 100 years ago proved to be reliable.” During the last pandemic, in the face of lockout, unemployment, and eviction from homes, many workers in India crossed thousands of miles riding their bicycles as they went back to their rural homes to their way of survival.

The piece mentions market: “[T]he standard roadster cycle still rules the Indian market. Out of some 150 million bicycles in India more than 130 million are the old type”, which “are manufactured by four well established brands” that “cost a little less than Rs 5000/- less than half the price of a decent smart phone.” Here’re tricks of capital: The transport cost and expenditure, part of livelihood cost and expenditure, include necessary value capital doles out to working muscles for producing surplus value. But, it appears on surface that working muscles are awarded an opportunity–a cheaper or less costly mode of transport from and to workplace, marketplace, medical and education centers, home, etc. The transport is driven by energy, which is produced from food the working muscles consume, and that food is part of necessary value. Capital, thus, reduces its expenditure on account of labour, as labour’s transportation cost is lessened; and labour bears the cost on its own shoulder–muscles that drive the machine, and that cost comes from food that labour consumes, which is cutting down its food-cost for affording transport-cost. A brutal exchange with a tender-looking approach! The total energy spent to cycle the total number of bicycles in an economy in a year tells the size of the portion taken out of necessary value, and that’s the extent of deprivation. This deprivation increases profit, which is made with the connections the commodity, here, bicycle, establishes.

While the working people producing surplus value are deprived, the working people contribute to environment–from minifying of air and noise pollution/expenditure of energy and other resources including metals, and temperature, health care costs, carbon foot print, etc., to increasing of global good and happiness. But, such a contribution to global environment and ecology by the working people goes unnoticed, unrecognised and without any payment by capital. Rather, capital increases burden on the working people. This process can’t go on indefinitely. The working people, therefore, should raise demand for bicycle allowance, part of ecology allowance, for purchasing and maintenance of bicycle that helps environment. It shouldn’t be limited to mills/manufacturing plants/factories only, but to be extended to agricultural workers, working people engaged in the so-called informal sector, students, office workers and town and city dwellers also. With Viju’s short piece, a length of a few hundred words, this demand can be initiated.

The Bicycle tells about the Kolkata Cycle Samaj (KCS), an exception among bicycle clubs. History of the KCS makes the club an exception: “In Kolkata about a decade ago, under the pressure of car owners, the Kolkata police banned bicycle on more than hundred roads. They also started making cyclist pay a fine of hundred rupees for violating the ban. Naturally there was uproar. The greatest sufferers were the working class members for whom the bicycle was a necessity and their jobs involved in travelling on these roads. Kolkata Cycle Samaj was born with the objective of removing this ban. While they have not fully succeeded in it they have created a great awareness about the bicycle and urban transport issues all over the country and even abroad. Its facebook page has 5,800 members!” (“Neo liberalism and the decline of the roadster in India”)

The Kolkata Cycle Samaj is a story of a mobilisation and protest within its capacity. The KCS’ history tells about moves by the powerful: Encroach the commoners’ space, deny the commoners the commons.

The book also cites other bicycle clubs/organisations including the 22 Bikes in Bhubaneshwar and Pondicherry Cycling Club. All these are spaces for organisation, mobilisation and activities with participation by wider sections of society. Not only the working people, the women, white collar employees, environment activists, youth and students can also participate in this space/organisation.

Along with proposing activities, Viju also proposes slogans/programme /charter of demands for the bicycle organisations, which include:

#    Reduce or eliminate GST taxes on Standard Cycle costing below Rs. 5000/-. At present it is 12%.
#    Facilitate loans for cycles.
#    Provide kiosks for bicycle repair shops on convenient spots.
#    Provide cycle parking places in convenient spots, e.g. like railway stations, major bus stations and bus stops, cinema halls, shopping centres, etc.
#    Provide cycle tracks in all community sports areas.
#    Promote cycles by providing cycles to school children, police men, post men, telephone and electricity departments. Also to any other services that need a lot of travelling within city. [It should also be around city.]
#    Pedal more, pollute less.
#    Cycle to work.
#    Occupy all streets.

A number of these are political demands. These carry implications. These are to be taken seriously, therefore.
“Bicycle and women’s liberation” in the 56-page book presents a brief history related to women’s liberation, which is known to some, and unknown to some more:

“One hundred years ago, Alice Hawkins, a suffragette, cycled around Leicester (UK) promoting the women's rights movement, causing outrage by being one of the first ladies to wear pantaloons in the city. During the fight to win the vote the bicycle became not only a tool but also a symbol for the emancipation of women.

“The American civil rights leader, Susan B Anthony, wrote in 1896: ‘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.’

“Beatrice  Grimshaw, who went on to a life of travel and adventure, describes a girlhood of Victorian propriety, in which she was: ‘the Revolting Daughter–as they called them then. I bought a bicycle, with difficulty. I rode it unchaperoned, miles and miles beyond the limits possible to the soberly trotting horses. The world opened before me. And as soon as my twenty first birthday dawned, I went away from home, to see what the world might to give to daughters who revolted.’”

The piece makes the following comment on the basis of the history it presents:

“Women gained a significant amount of independence with the invention of the bicycle. This device gave them the freedom to travel outside the home of their own power. Bicycle riding also necessitated more practical clothing for women and led to significant changes to female attire in society. One individual from the time period watching female cyclists remarked, ‘It is hard to believe, that they were the same women who went out in the afternoon for the formal carriage parade’.”

Bicycle, a complex technology with wheels, spindles, spokes, chain, gears, tires, etc., with mechanism to transfer power to gain and control speed and to move forward impacted many persons in many ways–from economy to personal life, from practice to micro- and macro-attitude, from attire to society. It empowered persons to many extents, and disempowered some forces looking backward to some extent. It entered into confrontation with some forces, visible and invisible, loud and crook, conspiring to keep society static, but failing. The technology, as Viju writes, cheaper than varieties of cell phone, turns in as a tool to mobilise, protest, resist, and an approach to make a journey forward.

The book useful not only for bicycle enthusiasts, but also for learners, organisers, and activists covers many aspects and issues related to bicycle: learning riding bicycle, purchasing and maintenance of the machine, bicycle’s immediate future in India, improving bicycle infrastructure in city, neo-liberalism and Indian bicycle industry, role of bicycle clubs, bicycling and feminism, history of women and bicycle, the Bharat-India debate, capital’s entry in the area of bicycle, bicycle urbanism and urban cycling, rickshaws and four-wheel push carts.

The Bicycle Thief has Antonio and Bruno and a part of life they were within. Here, the Bicycle carries a tale of a lady–Aloka. She cycles from Kolkata to Pondicherry in search of new life, and dreams moving through the globe. Ann Londonderry’s 15-months long 1894-solo trip round the world keeps on ringing in Aloka’s head. Bicycle impacts Aloka’s life.

Viju’s Bicycle sparks similar dreams and encourages activism that appears simple, but helps create space for mobilisation against environment demolishing capitalist infrastructure designed by certain circles motivated with only-profit. The book claims itself Priceless, and All Rights Reversed–a new approach to a creation by a person involved with environment activism. To have copies, the book suggests: Write to the author for mailing an e-copy. Or you can download it from the net. If you want to pay for it let him know. He will send account details. Next edition of the book, it’s hoped, will take care of page numbers.

*BICYCLE: Selected Articles and Stories
by T Vijayendra
Publishers: Ecologise Hyderabad
Mobile: 94907 05634/95916 05634
Date of publication: 2022

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Vol 56, No. 35, Feb 25 - Mar 2, 2024