In the mid-1930s, my father rode to college on his bicycle. He lived in Basavanagudi and would ride every day to St Joseph’s college in the heart of the Cantonment area. Today it feels like a formidable distance filled with obstacles and jam packed with traffic. But Bengaluru then was a peaceful and sleepy town and his description of his daily commute in those days sounded almost idyllic to me.
He and his group of friends would ride along the broad traffic-free road, which is now known as JC Road, and past the newly-built majestic Puttanachetti Town Hall. It was a pleasant ride where they would often go two or three abreast, some riding doubles. When they entered the beautiful tree-filled Cubbon Park, they would sometimes take a break to sit and talk about movies and girls under the trees. St Joseph’s was a small boys’ college then, run by French Missionaries. My father used to say that since he hated French, he would spend extra time under the Cubbon Park trees whenever there was French class!
In the 1960s, I would cycle to college and so would many of my friends. Things had changed. In the 1930s, only a handful of girls went to college and though they were in mixed groups, they were kept isolated. By the 1960s the number of girls going to college had increased manifold. Girls were no longer expected to stop studying and stay in the kitchen after completing their Class 10 exams, and some colleges like Mount Carmel, which I went to, catered to only women. College opened up new worlds to us and many of my friends cycled from several kilometers away.
Cycling to college gave us wings. We could cover larger distances in a shorter span of time. We could visit each other’s houses and return before curfew. We could bunk college for an hour or two and pedal off to MG Road to pool in our money for a shared ice cream or to play our favourite songs on the jukebox in 3 Aces. On a Saturday afternoon, we could cycle up with a gang of girlfriends to Plaza or Rex to watch the latest Rock Hudson movie. We could park our bikes on Brigade Road and take a stroll. The traffic was minimal and cycling on the flat Bengaluru roads was a pleasure.
Our cycle stand was always crammed and extricating one’s bike was an art in itself. We had girls’ cycles with chain guards since most of us wore saris to college. All the cycles carried small metal license plates, regular tring-tring cycle bells, carriers with clips for holding books and cycle locks. Many cycles also had side baskets where more books and tiffin boxes could be carried. There were no bright colours or fancy fittings. Some had headlights which were powered by pedaling. The carrier was also used for taking friends doubles.
Courtesy: Gita Aravamudan
In the 1960s and 70s, although scooters and motor bikes were also in vogue, the humble cycle was still the common person’s preferred means of transport. People rode everywhere… to school, to college, to work, to tuition class, for music lessons. Vendors carried their goods from house to house on cycles. The cycle, in a way, was a great social leveler. It was affordable to buy or even rent. It was easy to park in middle class homes and required no fuel to run.
Cycles were used for fun as well as serious business. For street vendors and rickshaw pullers, it was their source of income. For young people with no financial commitments, it was a getaway vehicle. The boys especially would take off on long cycle rides to Hesaraghatta or sometimes even to Mysuru. Families would go on cycling picnics or shopping, carrying the kids doubles or perched on the handlebars. In movies, college boys and girls on cycles symbolised carefree youth.
By the 1990s, the cycle had slowly lost its sheen. The two-wheeler had become the conveyance of preference for those who could afford it. The roads had become more jammed with motorised vehicles, pushing into the periphery the cycles, the jutkas and the rickshaws. Cycling along the roads inhaling exhaust fumes was certainly not a pleasurable experience.
By the 2000s, the once humble bicycle had taken on a totally new avatar. Today, old-fashioned cycles are almost extinct. The bikes on the road are much more expensive, sleeker and more streamlined. They come in different colours with personalised fittings. They have gears and more efficient brakes. There are mountain bikes and sports bikes and sturdy utilitarian cycles meant for navigating urban traffic. There are foldable bikes which can be carried in the boot of a car and colourful ones for fun riding. The carrier at the back which was once an essential part of the cycle has disappeared and the basket for carrying stuff has appeared in front.
The riders too have changed. Some still ride to work or to school on comparatively ordinary cycles, but the numbers are drastically reduced. The serious riders like the green warriors or those who cycle for exercise use the more efficient and expensive cycles as they have to battle the traffic and go longer distances. The adventure seekers who ride into the mountains and across the country also used specialised bikes. Even the “hire cycle” which one could get from the neighbourhood hole-in-the-wall shop has morphed into the fancier app-based “pay and use cycle.”
Unlike the horse drawn cart or the cycle rickshaw, the cycle is still alive and kicking. But for how long? Perhaps it will continue to survive for longer than we imagine because of its proven ability to evolve and adapt to changing lifestyles.
Views expressed are the author's own.