Is there more to life? You wonder. There is something cruelly ironic about sitting in your basement den to watch a TV show about two men exploring the world on motorbikes. I sighed. And, I sighed once again when Ewan McGregor, at the start of his motorcycle marathon with Charley Boorman, filmed as the TV series Long Way Round, spoke of what biking meant to him, of getting away on his own, of getting back the decision–making power.
To a lot of bikers, that is the joy and high of biking. But, what do you think about when you ride pillion on a big bike? For some inexplicable reason, bikes have always fascinated me. Perhaps, it was because I had my first adrenaline surge on a bike. Not from the upward motion of a swing or the whirly buzz of a roundabout ride, but from sitting wedged between an uncle and the petrol tank of his Rajdoot and feeling the wind whip my hair into my face. Two and a half years old and I was hooked.
How does a child perceive freedom? For me, then, as it is now, freedom was the openness of a motorcycle seat, the speed and the sense of harmony between man and machine. I may not be in control of the machine, but the bike almost felt a part of me. As it crunched and ate distances, I knew a soaring triumph of the spirit. Somewhere deep within, I felt the heart-in-mouth adrenaline surge of walking the tightrope of mortality at every given point of time.
Later, there were sneaked bike rides intended to defy conventions and parental taboos, and the more legit ones with my brother. In college, my best friend kept the bike flame burning. He rode a Yezdi classic and he had a name for his bike: Ammu. He, Ammu and I did many rides. Our primary objective was to scandalize Ottapalam, the small town we studied in. In the early 1980s, in small-town Kerala, a college boy on a bike was bad enough, but to have a girl forever perched on it, and that too sitting astride rather than side-saddle, was a cock in the snook at small-town morality.
To be on a bike became synonymous with being bad. The meaner the bike, the more of a rebel you were. Being the biker chick of a bad-ass biker was a statement of subversion. The bike’s mean, the biker’s mean and, guess what, so am I. If I had known what it was to be a Goth then, I would probably have gone the whole hog.
Then, life happened, and, in my first days at an ad agency, a smart-alecky colleague who rode a puny red 100cc bike and who thought innuendo was wit sauntered up to me and said, “What’s red, hot and throbbing between my legs?”
As someone who grew up surrounded by boys, and with mean biker boyfriends (one of whom had removed the silencer from his bike so everyone knew it was him on the streets), I wasn’t going to blush or stutter. Instead, I raised an eyebrow and retorted, “Well, it may be red, hot and throbbing, but it isn’t big enough.”
It gave me a great sense of satisfaction to see the young man retreat with his red, hot, throbbing tail between his legs. But, the truth was, from being just a bike junkie, I was beginning to hone in on what I was really passionate about: big bikes. I was too young to have a mid-life crisis, which is how many men in their forties end up with big bikes. For me, it was about ruling the road rather than speed. And, I was increasingly reluctant to get on anything smaller than a Bullet. The pounding of a four-stroke Royal Enfield engine; the smooth curve of the petrol tank; the unflinching tiger-eye lamp throwing light into nooks and corners; the beast like growl of the 500cc engine producing 41.3 Nm of torque. When I was on a Bullet, prowling my way through wherever, its distinct thump, the Bullet sound, resounded through me, filling me with power, strength and with the unassailable knowledge that I wasn’t tied down to convention or expectations.
My brother was mad about bikes as well. And, he had a Bullet. We were yet to read the biker classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Early in the day, we drove through villages, the cowdung and wood-fire smoke curling up our nostrils, stopping for a chai at a rundown tea shop and feeling its warmth trickle through our bones; the hush of a forest in the late afternoon; the weaving shadows of the dusk; the stars in the skies.
Kaiga, Wayanad, Chennai, we rode through many places, and, even if we hadn’t read the book yet, it was just as Robert M. Pirsig had described it: “On a cycle, the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming. That concrete whizzing by five inches below your foot is the real thing, the same stuff you walk on, it’s right there, so blurred you can’t focus on it, yet you can put your foot down and touch it anytime, and the whole thing, the whole experience, is never removed from immediate consciousness.”
The Iron Butt Association (IBA) was still unborn then. If it existed, we may even have embarked on the saddle-sore ride of 1600 kilometres in 24 hours or less. It would have been the zenith of our madness to test our endurance and hunger for open spaces.
After my brother had a bad accident, with every year, my association with bikes dwindled. There was only a random ride or two within Bangalore with male relatives.
For a long time, I had wanted to know what it felt like to be on a Harley. In my mid-twenties, I remember watching a group of Hell’s Angels outside an old-fashioned street somewhere near Fort Worth, in Texas. Big, blond men in black leathers, tattoos and the glint of silver from the various metal things attached to their persons and the chrome of their bikes. I watched the long curving handles and the girth of the bikes as they got onto their Harleys and rode down the road, filling their space with sound and menace. The men were exactly as I had envisioned Lucifer’s army, and their Harleys sounded like weapons of mass destruction. These men and their incredible machines were seriously mean, seriously badass and seriously a magnet for someone as crazy about bikes as I was. And, though the rational part of me said these were probably racists running meth, if at that point, one of them had asked me to get onto to one of those bikes, I would have. Without a second thought or a backward glance. Such was the lure. But, a ride on a Harley stayed part of my bucket list.
Then, at a party, I met a man who was a serious biker. He had a Harley Fat Boy and a Ducati, and was as far removed from a Hell’s Angel as it is possible to be. But, he had IBA certification and a love for open spaces. And, so, I renewed my love affair with bikes, and this time on a Harley.
There is a new Harley out. Smaller in size, minus chrome and, as Top Gear magazine calls it, ‘a Harley that has gone on a crash diet’, the 750 Street is aimed at bringing in more women riders. But, just as I know I will never drive, I know I will never ride a bike. Even if it is a Harley. There is something to being a pillion rider. Something to being a bike chick.
Anita Nair is a well-known novelist. Her books include the better man, ladies coupe, mistress, lessons in forgetting and cut like wound.
Follow her on @anitanairauthor