Dust and streets.
A red bicycle.
My first love.
A father’s youth.
I am only eleven or maybe twelve. And I wanted a new bike. I wanted to bike around our new neighborhood. I wanted to feel motion, a motion that allows you to race with the wind.
My parents had moved to a suburb of Kolkata (then called Calcutta) named Salt Lake City. The year was 1981. This was a planned city with broad streets, but that was not always the case. In the early 60s, a shallow lake had been emptied out simply by pumping soil. Sand was added to create plots for building houses. A new settlement was in progress. By the 1970s residents had started to move in. The inhabitants of Kolkata jokingly called Salt Lake “a city of mosquitoes” due to a nearby canal that generated an onslaught of unwelcome but unavoidable guests. Suspicious of this developing suburb, they predicted that the evenings would be unbearable and feared that the new residents would become infected by the dreaded disease of malaria.
In those days, my father said buying land in Salt Lake was cheap, but there was apprehension that houses built on salt and sand would eventually collapse, get lopsided, or sink like paper boats. Such loss would put an end to the dreams of millions of middle-class Bengalis who were beginning to imagine building assets in a leftist state.
image: Ralph Dutt-Ballerstadt
When I was eleven or maybe twelve, I started imagining my independence, like that of the White children in the Enid Blyton novels. These children were allowed to discover their environments with little parental control. My own dreams—of discovering secret back alleys, stray dogs, tea stalls selling chewing gum, cats that were thieves, and a new bicycle—all peaked that summer. So when I said I wanted to bike around the neighborhood, without a second thought, my dad, who I called Baba, went out and brought home a slim Raleigh bike.
Apparently, the Raleigh had been left in the storage at our old red house for decades. Hidden behind steel trunks from Lahore—trunks engraved with my grandmother’s name, Asha Lata Dutt—and behind broken easy chairs made of cane, my father’s Raleigh was waiting to be given a second chance. Dust like a thick carpet covered every inch of its body, dust so thick that it could not be removed by an ordinary feather duster. Buckets of water and a heavy-duty brush with detergent was used to scrub it clean. My baba (as reported later by my uncle) was giddy with nostalgia as he touched the bike and expressed his excitement at this object that held his youth in a newly independent country, a trust still unbroken.
I had dreamed of a shiny new red bicycle with a braided basket in front and colorful streamers at the ends of the handlebars. Instead, what descended that day from the trunk of my dad’s blue Ambassador car was an old red bicycle.
It was a men’s bike. The paint was stripping off and hanging like dry, stubborn skin. The thin rims and chain were a bit rusted. The tires had hardened with cracks, like overused roads at the end of summer. The neglect was obvious, like a piece of excess furniture at the corner of a living room that the entire family had lost interest in.
It was crappy, and so I named it Crappy to reflect its pathetic state.
But after Crappy came to Salt Lake and rested for a few days, my father took him to a repair shop in the crowded Barabazar in North Kolkata. It is here where Crappy received his second life, as his old red skin became history, and he became green, like dirty moss, to give his aged body a new shine. Or more accurately, to provide a full mask to hide his blemished and abandoned state. For about three hundred rupees or so, Crappy got new tires, a steel chain, and a shiny new bell, like a Titan wrist watch.
As I stood on the driveway, expressionless and disinterested, Crappy descended from the car to meet his new reluctant owner. Me.
My baba enthusiastically said, “Look! You can now ride my Raleigh—the finest.” Noticing my disinterested eyes, he emphasized, “Made in England! It even has an R, like your name, engraved on it! This is classic. Take a look. Old is gold.” He repeated, “Made in England!”
My father’s obsession with this English-made bicycle was nothing more or less than his nostalgia for a colonial power that had once established their Raj in Calcutta. It was an odd conflict, I thought, with Baba’s frequent utterances of quotes by Gandhi, a man who was a staunch nationalist.
I learned that this ancient bicycle was my baba’s matriculation gift, and he rode this Raleigh daily from our ancestral home, the red house in North Calcutta, to Scottish Church College. Then, on the weekends, he rode to the Eden Gardens and the Brigade Parade Ground (also known as the Maidan) and the race course—all marking the beginning of my father’s freedom, post-1947, that coincided with the beginnings of a newly independent India.
Realizing quickly that my desire for a new shiny bike (like the ones the other middle-class kids had in the neighborhood) had been replaced by this “heirloom,” I settled. The height of the bike was much taller than me, and unlike new bikes, Crappy’s seat was not adjustable. I struggled to get myself on the bike and descend from it. My adolescent legs could barely touch the pedals. But once I was on, Crappy took me around the neighborhood. My route was rather predictable. I went straight up to the brown house with a newly painted white balcony, made a quick right turn, and biked until I got to the three-storied apartment building with six small balconies. Then I made another right turn by the playground and came back to our street and parked Crappy by the side of our house.
And then one day, I got curious and took a left turn by that apartment building. There was construction in progress, and I knew that a few children always played around the corner. Within five minutes of taking that turn, Crappy’s tire hit a brick. I lost my balance and fell off the bike. As I sat on the ground, I saw small traces of blood beginning to emerge against my scraped knees. And I saw a boy. He was a little taller than me, and his eyes were like marbles—soft, brown, and glassy. He told me to wait, and I waited. He ran back to his house and came back with a bottle of Dettol, a little cotton, and one Band-Aid. My entire body stiffened as he applied the Dettol against my skin. I felt the sting but held back my tears. Then he lifted Crappy off the ground, held the tires between his skinny legs to straighten the bar, and walked back home with me holding Crappy’s handlebar.
image: Ralph Dutt-Ballerstadt
For the next few months, my life changed. My route changed, too, as I explored new streets with the boy and his marble eyes. It was summer, and I felt the first butterflies in my stomach. I sensed longing, weak knees, rapid heartbeats like the sounds of escape. A small window called happiness opened and remained open. The boy one day carried with him two homemade sweets in a tiffin box. When we stopped at the local market and parked our bikes by a hibiscus tree, he told me that his mother was ill and he was scared. She had fainted and had to be taken to the hospital. His grandmother had come to stay with them. I wanted to tell him to hold my hands, but I couldn’t.
Then the monsoons arrived. My bike rides stopped. I watched the rains pounding against the streets and heard occasional thunder as the skies turned greyish black and remained the color of an overused blackboard for hours. The entire neighborhood and the city smelled musty. The monsoons did end, as they always do, and autumn arrived, turning the color of the evening skies into streaks of fire.
But the boy had left.
Crappy and I noticed a handwritten sign hanging from their balcony: To Rent. The window called happiness had finally shut.
A green bike.
A summer of love.
A father’s gift.
An heirloom, a boy, and two wheels—all left behind.
And then, last summer, I saw a Raleigh in Portland, near Hawthorne Boulevard. The same frame, height, and bright green. The bike was tied with a thick chain around a lamp post. I wanted to touch it, but couldn’t—just like that day, forty years ago, when I could not hold the boy’s hand. Instead, I smiled and walked away thinking of my father’s words. Old is gold.
My baba passed away in his sleep on June 5, 2023. He was just two weeks shy of his ninety-fifth birthday and had been bedbound for five months after having a mild stroke in January. A couple weeks before he passed away I had asked him about his old friend, the great Raleigh. His voice perked up. And then we both said together, “Old is gold!” I wondered if that night he dreamed of his youth, riding his Raleigh for miles and miles, taking those roads that once marked his own freedom.
TagsBelonging, Global and Local, youth, Freedom
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