VILLAGE SKETCH—13, TESTING REAL LIFE ON A BIKE
Posted on April 27th, 2012

Arcadius

A sense of modest pride overwhelms me when I recall how I learnt to ride a bicycle.

I was just 9 years old then. I was a student in the fifth grade of the town English school.

Though small both in years and size, I was rather big in my aspirations. I longed to drive a car””‚a very big car. No matter that I would not see the road through the windscreen if I were to occupy the seat beneath the steering wheel! Perhaps I could stand a bit to command a view of the road and drive on like a man who matters””‚like, for instance, the principal of the school.

The principal affected a concerned look when he drove his car. He did not look sideways. I have heard senior students expressing appreciative sentiments about the expert manner in which the principal took turns at busy junctions. Surely, I also could do that! People would look on with incredible eyes if they were to see a brat like me driving a big car and taking risky turns!

So obsessed was I with the idea of driving a car that I must have dreamed of splendid performances of fabulous automobiles whenever I fell sound asleep. I must modestly concede that the hero of all such grand performances happened to be the dreamer himself. But who could blame me for that?

Often I used to tell my parents of my high aspiration. I needed a car and I should drive that car as soon as possible.

The only reply that mother could give me was that I would certainly get a car when the time came. Buying a car required a lot of money. She said that our family did not have enough money to buy one at the time; but that I could be sure of getting one if I did my studies well and became a big man.

How can I wait till I became a big man? Oh that would take a long time! How could I wait that long to do what I wished? Perhaps I should have told father to do something about it.

But father was in Colombo. He came home only once a week.

When father came home, I had to entertain him with various acts in my repertoire. I had to climb on to his shoulder or to sleep with him on his bed obeying whatever he asked me to do. Often he asked me to be right on top of him. While thus entertaining him, many were the occasions when I earnestly told him of my aspiration. He did not laugh at me. He promised to buy me a car as soon as his finances improved.

But those happened to be mere promises.

One day, during the Esala season, mother and I went on pilgrimage to the Dondra temple. That was the season when devotees crowded the sacred premises to beg favors from gods Vishnu and Kataragama. While we were passing a line of shops stocked with attractive items intended to catch the eye of inquisitive children, I noticed a fairly big toy car in one of those shops. It had a wooden body painted red, a steering wheel, a horn and a seat that could accommodate a person of my size. When I made inquires about this car, the shopkeeper placed me on its seat and asked me to do a trial run.

It was high fun to drive this tiny vehicle. I kept on driving it with the aid of its foot lever. Like the principal, I affected a concerned look and used the steering wheel to turn the car, tooting the horn all the while, Porp! Porp! Ah, how the people turned their heads and look at me! They stepped aside though not completely without amusement.

I insisted that mother should buy this toy car for me because she was not in a position to buy a big car.  I refused to come home with her unless she bought it for me. But mother pleaded that she could not do so because she had not brought enough money. When that pleading failed to make any impression on me, she affected a tough attitude and threatened to leave me at the mercy of a well-known Billa (kidnapper). It had the desired effect. I had no alternative but to follow her penitently.

Perhaps it was these failures at getting a car that turned my attention to the charms of riding a bicycle.

There was father’s Dayton bicycle at home. Now that father was in Colombo, Punchi Maama (Little Uncle), my mother’s younger brother, had become its self-imposed owner. He strictly preserved his ownership rights. He allowed no person to use the bicycle without his express permission.

I knew that Punchi Maama would not even allow me to touch the bicycle if I asked his permission to use it as the test vehicle for learning to ride. So I decided to use it without permission when he was away. Knowing that I would not be able to master the art of riding a bicycle on my own, I sought the assistance of my childhood companion, Ithali Maama (Italian-looking Uncle), the youngest son of Hene Achchi (Grandmother from Hena)

Though I called him maama (uncle), he would, at most, have been two years older than I. When he was an infant, an affluent lady relation of ours from Kelaniya who happened to visit our village had seen the fair round-faced tot and declared that he was just like an Italian! So he had come to be known as Ithali.

Ithali Maama and I planned the strategy of taking out the bicycle one morning when Punchi Maama had left for Matara on an errand. Because the bicycle was kept in the verandah, we planned to remove it when everybody else was busy in the rear portion of the house. When the opportune moment came we carried out our strategy.

Though we took the vehicle down the front steps to the footpath leading to Habaradugewatte, neither Ithali Maama nor I had the slightest understanding as to how we should set about learning the difficult art of cycling. Anyway, this footpath was safe for our purpose inasmuch as it was covered on either side by a thick growth of cinnamon.

After careful deliberation, we decided that as a warming up exercise we should push the bicycle by turns with the utmost speed. Accordingly, I got hold of it and started running along the footpath as fast as I could. But before I could proceed along, I lost my balance and fell on the wayside together with the cycle.

When I got up and raised the unfortunate velocipede, it was quite out of shape. The handle had done a turnabout! Ithali Maama, who had an idea of what should be done in such circumstances, instructed me to hold the cycle, then sent the front wheel between his legs and carefully straightened the handle like an expert mechanic.

Thereafter we decided that when one was pushing the bicycle, the other should run on the other side of it as covering partner so as to prevent it from falling. That was a safer method of practicing.

On several other days we took out the bicycle on similar strategy. By trial and error we reached the stage when we could ride on the pedal, which we considered a very great achievement.

Punchi Maama now had suspicions that somebody was meddling with his only moveable property. Consequently he took the precaution of locking the cycle with a huge padlock whenever he left it behind.

A bright idea occurred to Ithali Maama, who suggested that we could get the vehicle out on the pretext of washing and cleaning it. One day when Punchi Maama was in a very good mood, I innocently offered my free services to give a thorough cleaning to his cycle. He had no objections to that offer and I started the cleaning operation straightway with the assistance of Itahli Maama. We repeated this operation on successive days with the idea of winning the confidence of the owner, who seemed to be pleased with our generous services.

We next suggested that we could remove all the muck from the mudguards provided we were allowed to take the cycle to the Ovita (water spring) where we could wash it. Punchi Maama had no objection to that either. His only stipulation was that we should be very careful with it and that we should not take it to the main gravel road.

From our point of view that was quite enough. As days went by we gathered enough spunk to practice cycling openly. Gradually, Punchi Maama also got used to this situation. He granted us a further concession that we could use his cycle for practicing if we could clean it every day to his complete satisfaction.

But soon we learnt that he was a sort of person who could not be easily satisfied. Every day we had to do the cleaning operation for over an hour. Yet when we brought our hard work to his notice, he would look at the cycle and say, “It is not satisfactory. I cannot see a shine anywhere. Do you think you can fool me?”

So we would get on to cleaning again. But how on earth could we polish the already rusty bars and mudguards? Ithali Maama had an idea. He suggested that I should go to the kitchen and steal some coconut oil. I did so. Then, he applied the oil all over the cycle and started polishing with a rag. There, it almost looked new! However, when we took the cycle to Punchi Maama, he would observe, “I am not completely satisfied. But since you have tired yourselves, you can take out the cycle for one-half hour.”

No sooner said than done. We would take the cycle to the footpath and ride on the pedal. I would watch how Ithali Maama did it. Gripping the handle, he would place his left foot on the left pedal and thrust it several times to propel the cycle. Then, he would place the right foot through the bars on the other pedal and starts pedaling at a good speed. His buttocks spun like a top!

Soon we decided that we should go a step further. Our aspirations were high and we were quite anxious to do cycling the way it was done by adults. That would be a mighty task considering the fact that our legs were still too small. We stood to lose nothing by trying, anyway.

We would place the cycle against a coconut tree. Then, one would get on to the seat while the other would adjust the cycle and give it a starting push. The one on the seat would start pedaling as best as he could though his legs cannot keep pace with the moving pedals. The buttocks move all over the seat in the mighty endeavor to keep the feet on the pedals. Failing in this endeavor, the cyclist and the cycle would fall on the ground lock, stock and barrel.

Because we had the will, initial difficulties did not deter us. Thus, it did not take long for us to pedal the cycle perched on the seat, like any of the adults.

We were quite anxious to flaunt our cycling skill to the villagers knowing full well that it took a whole village to raise a kid. These circumstances forced us to leave the confines of the footpath and move on do our practicing on the main gravel road so that all the passersby could see us. We mustered the guts not to kowtow to Punchi Maama by subjecting our plans to his imprimatur.

I am not competent to say whether it was admiration or amusement that we succeeded in kindling in the passersby. But I know that they took a certain interest in us. One day Nondi Baby, a lamed woman named for her disability, was returning from the market when she spotted Ithali Maama riding the bicycle. She got to a side with the utmost care and keenly observed the little cyclist even after he had passed her. Then she opened her loud mouth, “Oh, that boy! I don’t have to worry about using my chili-stone anymore. His buttocks could grind any amount of chilies!”

Ithali Maama and I next concentrated on the art of doubling. He would ask me to get on to the horizontal bar of the cycle while he rode on. I too would take him on the bar when I pedaled the cycle. Doubling was a rather risky thing. But gradually we got used to that too.

I remember the expert cyclist who flaunted his skills on the bitumen road facing the town English school both in the morning and the afternoon when the road was crowded with students. He pedaled his state-of-the-art Raleigh bicycle at breakneck speed in spite of the jostling crowds. Attached to the handle of his bicycle were a horn and a mirror in addition to the standard bell. He would sound both the horn and the bell while tearing through the crowd. There was a theory that he wanted to impress the female students. But then he impressed male students of my size too.

Once I made a silly attempt to mimic this conceited cyclist.by trying to whiz past a crowd returning home along the main drag after visiting the town market. I pedaled my bicycle at furious speed loudly ringing the bell to warn the crowd to give way. But soon after I merged into the crowd, I felt as if I were in a daze. I heard the people shouting and screaming, and felt the delivery of a few blows on my sides. When I came to my senses, I realized the mayhem I had caused by trying to be Superman. I picked up the damaged cycle and took to my heels before the crowd could harm me any further.

The crowd stopped by at our home to report the incident while I took cover at Habaradugewatte. Grandfather prohibited me from even touching the bicycle. He authorized Punchi Maama to spank me with a cane. But as days passed, everything was forgotten, and I was back on the road with the bicycle.

One day Ithali Maama was riding the bicycle with me on the front bar when we saw a policeman at Batawala Kanda coming from the opposite direction. Because “doubling” was unlawful, we immediately got down from the vehicle lest he would fine or arrest us. We walked toward him like penitent sinners. Fortunately, the policeman decided to ignore us completely and went on his way!

On another day, I was pedaling the cycle along the gravel road when I saw a cow blocking the road with its rope, which was tied to a tree on the opposite side at Mahawatte. Cycling at high speed, I rang the bell deliriously to warn the cow to give way. Instead, the heifer started to run about the road entangling both the cycle and me in the mess. That was the day that I was thoroughly mauled in my cycling experience. A villager named Godella, who had witnessed the whole incident, immediately reported this home. The result: I was barred from using the bicycle for a long time.

When I recall these experiences pertaining to the way I learnt cycling, I think I am justified in affecting a sense of modest pride.

Many years have passed by since those unforgettable experiences. Curious readers might want to know whether I have achieved my high aspiration of driving a car””‚a very big car. Yes, I did, but not until I left Ceylon for the United States in 1966. I bought my first car at age 32 after I got my first teaching job at a university in Warrensburg, Missouri.

To tell the truth, I have never even owned a bicycle in Sri Lanka although I used others’ bicycles to explore places like Weligama, Nattandiya, Colombo and Peradeniya. I bought my first bicycle in 1967 when I attended graduate school in Eugene, Oregon.

[Note: The original short version of this Village Sketch by Arcadius appeared in the CDN Saturday Magazine on 11 September 1965. Arcadius revised it in 2012. All 28 articles in this series will be released this year in a book titled VILLAGE LIFE IN THE “ƒ”¹…”FORTIES: MEMORIES OF A LANKAN EXPATRIATE (Bloomington, Ind.: iUniverse)]

One Response to “VILLAGE SKETCH—13, TESTING REAL LIFE ON A BIKE”

  1. AnuD Says:

    Good old days, I remember my days that my legs were not long enough when I sat on the Seat. I fell down in front of a Car. Driver screamed at me saying “Brother, are you trying to die ?”.

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