a little over a month ago, i left my motorcycle (buce, short for bucephalus), with my bike mechanic asking him to use it. it seemed like the best thing to do. over the last 3 years, my time on the bike has plummeted to almost nothing. it was just standing around gathering rust and dust and corroding away for no fault of its.
it was one of those moments when you feel a chapter in your life ending. i have had this bike — an enfield thunderbird — for almost ten years. and we have had some magnificent times together. my brain is tattooed with memories of long and short bike rides — like that spectacular celebratory bike ride into ladakh in august 2005 after i quit business journalism for good, seeking to become a writer on environment and development. there are other rides, into the hills, or through delhi when i was angry and really gunning the engine, or in heavy rain on slippery roads — capacity building rides, i used to call them. or the ride down from shimla in the hills down to delhi. 330 km. done in five hours. an average speed of 66km for a track that had hills for the first 60. that was a ride where the bike and i had, as i remember telling myself during the ride, “slowed down to eighty” every once in a while.
other memories come to mind as well. like the snarl of the engine every time i took the fourth and fifth gears into the upper reaches of their power bands and then twisted the throttle. the bike would transform instantly from a good-natured, placid creature calmly thumping along into what dh lawrence would have called boanerges — son of thunder. i loved that sound, the instantaneousness with which the bike underwent that transformation.
over time, motorbiking began to feel balletic. a tight choreography of precise movements. take something as simple as taking the bike through a turn on a mountain road. the right hand eases up on the throttle as the turn draws near. the left hand draws in the clutch. the left foot taps the gearshift. the bike downshifts, starts to slow as we enter the turn. even as the foot reverts to its earlier position, the left hand gently releases the clutch. by now, i can see the end of the turn and so, the right hand gently squeezes the throttle open and the bike, given that it is in a lower gear, slingshots — with that glorious high rpm snarl — out of the turn.
and here is the thing. for downshifting, that is five actions executed in a tightly defined sequence by two hands and one foot in about a second.
here is something i had written to some friends ages ago while describing the bike. “nothing sticks in my mind as much as that bike ride to ladakh. i can close my eyes and summon up entire reels of images. and then, there are fragments. downshifting, leaning and then accelerating out of the gentle curves that comprise the highway that connects the hill stations of almora and nainital. or, another road, i forget which one, where, for a magical moment, the bike intersected with the shadow of an eagle circling in the sky. it was geometrically perfect. i saw the eagle’s shadow move on the road towards my bike. and then, the shadow covered the bike’s tank for a fraction. and then passed by. what are the odds of something like that? that a bike moving since morning from delhi and the shadow of an eagle circling since whenever would actually meet on a road?”
on each of these rides, the bike was exceptional. it would cause me no end of grief in the city — its electricals would always blow. the rear light would always die. the indicators were a pain. and god, i just remembered the instrumental console the bike had come with! it had been made — by some genius — with chrome-plated plastic and eminently-breakable ceramic. the same genius also ensured that in case one dropped the bike, this console would definitely hit the road.
so, here is my first day-long ride on the bike. i had bought the bike thinking i would use it for long rides — touring and the like. and so, i learn to ride the bike (that is another story. i did not know how to ride motorcycles when i got buce. i learnt on it. and, initially, used to fall off the bike every six months with metronomic predictability) and then, having mustered up enough skills, i riffle through the lonely planet, and head towards deeg, a small palace near bharatpur.
i get there. a couple of hours later, i am heading back doing eighty on the highway to delhi feeling decidedly cool and smug when a cow decides to cross the highway just in front of me. i stamp on the rear brake. i pull every lever in sight — probably even the clutch. more by luck than anything, i do not lose control of the bike, it slows, comes down to 20, punches into the cow, which falls down, the bike stays upright with me still on it. my heart pounding, i look behind to see if i and the cow are about to be run over — this is a interstate highway — luckily nothing so, whew. i look again at the cow hoping it has not broken a leg or something. luckily, it gets to its feet and runs off the road, scared, no doubt, of the moron biker who had rammed into it on an otherwise fine afternoon.
i get off the bike. my feet crunch on the broken glass from the headlight. the front of the bike is a mess. the front fender is bent. the headlight unit is broken and grotesquely askew to the left. that evening, i rode back to delhi in a foul mood with a new sound giving me company — that damned instrument console was emitting a high pitched rattling sound that made it impossible to hear the engine. this sound would vanish only when the bike crossed sixty and the rushing wind drowned out all other sounds.
really, the bike was a pain in the city with its niggles. but on the long rides, there would not be one false step. during the bike ride to ladakh, for instance, we had done 2600 km in 13 days. one day had 750 km in it. we went up hills. we forded streams. we spent nights in bitterly cold places, juddered up and down non-existent roads. but there were no problems. not once did the engine even skip a beat.
it is things like this which get bikers attributing soul to their machines.
which in turn resulted in a set of actions my mom and sis found very amusing — three hours every sunday morning would be spent cleaning and polishing buce, and first thing every morning, and last thing every night, i would gaze down on it from my balcony.
this warm affection is also why even when i was not riding the bike, i could not bring myselves to sell it. or to give it to anyone else.
not riding the bike was partly due to a drive to get fitter the last three years — a bike accident shortly after returning from sussex, pollution in the village where i lived while doing rural research, etc, have all taken a toll. and so i have run and cycled a lot, trying to get back in shape. and the fear is that if i have another bike accident, not only might all this work be undone, i possibly might not be to able to rebuild the lungs, etc, the way i have been able to this time around.
this fear was slow to show itself. i rode the bike around a bit between 2008 and 2010. but gradually, i found myselves buying more and more protective gear — the open face helmet was replaced by an imported full face helmet; i began wearing ankle length hiking boots and protective mesh jacket every time i got on the bike; and, finally, knee pads.
and yet, i felt vulnerable on the bike. it began to be left for longer and longer intervals at a friend’s place with me suddenly disinclined to even kick-start it once a week. it was startling, the rapidity with which the bike slipped from my thoughts.
i got buce serviced three or so months ago, guiltily thinking i should take it out at least once a week just to keep it healthy. as things went, however, i rode it around for some days. this time without the paraphernalia of protective gear — might as well use an heightened sense of vulnerability on the bike to ride carefully, i thought! but after a few days, buce was again standing around collecting dust.
what has also happened in the last couple of years is that i have come to vastly prefer cycling. there is a lot of projection of machismo with motorcycles. you see this in how bikes are styled, the aggressive garb of bikers, what have you. in contrast, there seems to be something much more honest about a cycle. but more on all that later sometime.
and so, this via media. buce goes to ashok, my mechanic. he will use it. so i know it is in good hands. if the urge comes upon me, i guess i can always reclaim it. though i wonder if i will. the completeness with which buce slipped from my thoughts makes me think this is not a temporary phase but something much more permanent.
ps – i wrote the post. searched around for a good concluding line. nothing comes to mind. so this is where it ends. with that cautiously definitive last paragraph.