My father had a poultry farm once. Not very big, just about 1000-1200 birds. Big plot of land though; over 8000 square feet. The building housing the pens right at the back of the plot… farthest from the approach road. There was a huge berry tree in the middle of the plot, and a big flat rock right below it. I lost count of the number of novels I devoured around that tree, either draped on one of the branches… legs swinging, or on that rock leaning against the trunk of the tree… ants crawling down my back under my frock. The world around me just swam hazily away, while the world of Enid Blyton took on flesh.
There were always at least one or two servants in the farm. Rustic farm boys who would tend the birds and grow vegetables on the rest of the plot. I’ve never eaten as many beet-roots as I ate in those years… or brinjals… or tomatoes… or spinach. The fragrance from the coriander drew people from the neighboring colony to come with requests for some. The berries were the big, elongated green ‘benarsi bers’. Fleshy… and so very sweet. I’d sit reading, a bunch of berries in my lap, munching away.
I don’t remember the name of the boy who worked on the farm in that December of 1976. I think it was Ramu, but I can’t be sure. Dad doesn’t remember either. Anyhow, the boy’s name is not relevant.
Most of the boys who came to work at the farm were village boys… no formal education… no experience at ‘city’ things and ways. Almost all of them knew how to ride the bicycle though, which was good for they needed to be sent for errands.
Ramu didn’t know how to ride the bicycle. The boy who worked before Ramu had stolen the bicycle my father had at the farm. There was one shop in the market close by where you could hire bicycles… by the month… or by the hour. The hourly rate was 30p and the monthly rate was Rs 25. Ramu assured my father that he will learn how to ride in a week if only he had a machine. My father hired one for three months paying (after a lively bickering) Rs 60.
The very next day, Ramu began his battle with the beast. It was a bloody battle, with Ramu getting the worst of it all the time. Ramu’s knees were a mess in two days. I had winter vacation. From my vantage point on top of the tree, I sat watching Ramu in fascinated horror as he seemed bent upon discovering new ways of falling off that contraption. In Ramu’s hand, I swear the beast took on malevolent life. The handle bars looked to me like the cross frown of a demon. No, I am not being fey. Not at all.
After bandaging up Ramu yet again, my father told him, “This is a hired bicycle. Even if it falls and gets damaged it’s alright. When you feel yourself falling just let your foot rest on the ground and leave the handle bar. The cycle will fall, but you won’t.”
That’s what Ramu did. It was amazing… in a week he knew how to control the beast and do his bidding. Fascinating.
The next day when I went to the farm, armed with a new Enid Blyton, I had no idea history was going to make itself that day. Gleefully Ramu greeted me. Then, out of the blue he said, “I can ride the cycle, what a pity you can’t.”
I was 10 years old. But I swear I can feel the hot iron of those words all the way into my soul even now. Quietly and almost stealthily, I kept my book on the rock beneath the tree and nonchalantly asked Ramu where the cycle was. It was almost ten in the morning. Chill winter day… the day of my battle with the beast. I struggled all day. Never thought of going home for lunch. I didn’t fall even once… not a single scrape on my knees. At 5.30 in the evening, I rode the bicycle home.
I ran upstairs to our first floor flat and asked Ma to stand in the balcony because I wanted to show her something. She was wild with me of course, asked me where I’d been all day. I brushed her queries aside and begged her to just stand there. She must have seen the excitement in me, so she did as I asked her. Then I rode the bicycle for my mother.
Nothing in the world can compare with the pleasure I got from her amazement. When I went back, she gave me a hug and held me for a few moments… not saying a word. But then, there was nothing to say was there…?
I will never know why her approval has been the most important thing for me always. She was a strict woman. Her standards of performance were not only high, they were objective. There was never any gushing fawning about her just because I was her daughter. Quiet the other way round in fact.
She said to me once, “You are above average. [That was the highest praise she could give me :)] So for me, above average is the place where we start. When I tell you you did good, we begin there… which is already miles ahead of many others. Behave accordingly.”
When I began writing, she didn’t read me for a long time. Then I took a hard copy of the first training module I had developed. After she read it through, she came to talk to me. I asked her if it was alright. Stoically, she told me a few places where the grammar was wrong. Straightened out a few sentences. I made the corrections and asked her, “But how is it content wise..?”
She gave a slight smile and said, “It is stupendous.”
Stupendous. I will hug that word to me always. That word was given to me by my mother.
My Ma passed away on the 24th of January 2011. Today is the thirteenth day after her passing over. I am supposed to say farewell to her soul today. All I will say is, “Stupendous is one of the words you gave me Ma… and a hug that will last forever. Rest in Peace and don’t worry about anything. I got it covered here. Ok..?”
A Bicycle for Hire