The greatest invention that got the world moving was the wheel. And every additional wheel contributed to the advancement of civilization.
Today, in North America, a wheel on its own is just a spare for all the other combination of wheels that keep our society on the move. To every Canadian or American, the most important combination is four wheels – the car – to give us the basic mobility to earn a living. Two more wheels gives us a delivery van. Eighteen wheels and we have a transport truck. The more wheels on a vehicle, the greater is the engineering and technological sophistication of the loads they bear.
Now, in the Goa of my childhood, two wheels is all that was needed – like the bullock-drawn all-purpose cart and the ‘matchbox’. The cart was like a delivery van, and the ‘matchbox’ was the Goan version of a taxi. But then, there was the bicycle.
Most retirees – former clerks in Britain’s colonial civil service in Africa – owned a bicycle. It enabled them to facilitate anything from going to the village market to buy fish to making a trip to Mapuça to cash their pension cheque.
Owning a bicycle was the North American equivalent of a car in the driveway. But in Goa, it was a status symbol, because not everybody could afford one.
Bicycles had a ranking that was earned by their brand name in the same way we’d rank the Ford Pinto against the Chevy or the Cadillac in North America.
The most affordable bicycle was the ‘Raja’ that was made in India, but considered to be of poor workmanship. Then there was the upscale ‘Humber’, a “foreign”, made in England. It was sturdy and reliable, and it was the workhorse of people who wanted to own a better bicycle than the lowly ‘Raja’. And lastly, the bicycle that was coveted by all as the thoroughbred of bicycles – the Raleigh ‘Hercules’! This bicycle was also made in England, (or ‘Great Britain’ – which sounds more befitting of its lofty stature), and it exuded an aura of Imperial elegance..
I never owned a bicycle, but my best friend, Cyril D’Souza, would let me ride his dad’s bike whenever he got to borrow it. Another classmate rode a ‘Raleigh’ with an advanced braking system and a threespeed gearshift. The bike belonged to his older brother who worked in the Middle East, who let junior use it in the evenings. This bike was squeaky clean and sparkled in the dusty village surroundings. We looked upon it with awe as if it was a two-wheeled Rolls Royce. But I never got to ride it; buddy would only let me admire it from a distance or, if he felt generous, let me touch it.
The only time we got to ride a bicycle for a few hours at a time was when we had to “hire” one to go to Mapuça to purchase used text books from Bobe’s Book Shop, or to buy tissue paper and cardboard sheets to make lanterns for the church and chapel salves.
Kashinath, the goldsmith in Arrarim had four ‘for hire’ bicycles, and Dadhi the barber had two. Another barber in Cotulla had four.
Although the number of such bicycles were seemingly small, there always was one available when needed.
As for learning to ride a bicycle, we didn’t have kid’s bikes with training wheels. Instead, we developed our own learning method whenever somebody would be kind enough to let us try out their fullsize bike.
First, we’d grab the handlebars, put one foot on the pedal and push with the other foot to get the bike moving. This manoeuvre, after several falls, taught us how to maintain our balance.
The next step would be to slide one leg under the crossbar as soon as the bike got moving and, with both feet on the pedals, pump back and forth in 90° turns to keep the bike in motion. We graduated from this level when we were able to pump the pedals in full rotation. Certification as a competent cyclist came only after we were tall enough to sit on the saddle and reach the pedals. Ah … what a great feeling it was just to finally prove to ourselves that we were now on the threshold of adulthood!
Our childhood ambitions were modest. We didn’t reach for the moon; all that we wanted was to be able to reach the pedals of a bicycle!