After complex works such as If It is Sweet and Not Only the Things That Have Happened, Mridula Koshy returns to simple linear storytelling in Bicycle Dreaming. Rather surprising, since Koshy is a veteran at abstract writing and is known to revel in it. Her stories, replete with symbolism, tend to challenge the intellect and imagination of her readers. In this novel, however, she has chosen an easy confluence of form and subject that works pretty well. She told Tishani Doshi in a recent conversation (The Hindu), ‘I wanted to test the theory that I could tell a not-simple story simply.’ And this experiment seems to have succeeded.
The book begins with the thirteenth birthday of Noor (or Nooren), the daughter of a kabaadiwala in Chirag Dilli, who dreams of owning a green bicycle and riding it like her father through the streets as India’s first ‘kabaadiwali’. She shares her hopes and fears with her best friend, Haseena, who, midway through the novel, falls out with her and is immediately swallowed up by her own problems. The girls reunite much later, almost towards the end of the book – and close to Noor’s fourteenth birthday. In the meanwhile Noor develops a crush on her classmate, Ajith, a bright spark in her class who belongs to a Dalit family and is well aware of its significance in a clearly stratified environment. Eventually it is he who teaches her to ride a bicycle. At home Noor is torn between her parents; her mother has a soft corner for her elder brother, Talib, an ambitious young man looking to better his prospects in the world. Mohammad Saidullah, Noor’s father, is incapable of seeing eye-to-eye with him.
A few pages into the novel, one wonders if Koshy is guilty of the kind of writing many Indian writers writing in English are accused of – serving India’s filth and poverty to a mostly Western readership, on a platter (There are long graphic descriptions of muck and grime right at the beginning). But as one treads further, one realizes that the action is as much internal as it is external. We are looking at how heredity and a constantly changing environment impact the protagonist in the course of a year.
Right from the start Noor has been portrayed as a non-heroine, whose own thoughts and feelings find perspective first through Haseena and later through Ajith. And yet, like Erica Jong’s Isadora (Fear of Flying), Noor’s femininity and feminism find expression simultaneously and are often intertwined. Her choices are always her own. She is tentative, yet decisive; fearful yet proactive. She is the one who hounds Haseena until the ice between them is broken. In Haseena’s absence, she is the one who visits her siblings and sets the household straight. She follows Ajith around and realizes her feelings for him much before he begins to comprehend his own; she chooses to stay on with her father to cook and clean for him when her mother follows Talib to his new home; and it is Noor again who decides to visit her brother and her mother at his new house all by herself in the metro when the fancy takes her. Often daunted by her own desires, she nevertheless goes right ahead. In many ways, this book reminds one of one of Koshy’s earlier short stories, ‘The Large Girl’ with its brilliant portrayal of conflict within oneself and outside.
It is interesting that Koshy, at forty, hadn’t learnt to ride the bicycle. According to her, ‘To move my body at a speed that was not given to it seemed to me to be the freedom to be more than my body.’ The book apparently also owes to P Sainath’s essay ‘on women and bicycles in Everyone Loves a Good Drought’ and ‘Kaveri Gill’s Of Poverty and Plastic’. But most important were the picture book reading sessions Koshy conducted for some teenagers in ‘a weekly after-school club’, from where the idea of the novel actually emerged.
In spite of Mohammad Saidullah’s dying occupation and his humiliation by corrupt officials, he knows that he is not the lowest of the low. There are people in society worse off than him. Similarly, Ajith knows that his academic scores alone are not enough to pluck him out of his background. Both Noor and Ajith understand why the authorities turn a blind eye to students cheating during exams and why they cannot complain against it even though, in principle, they know it is wrong. Poverty, class and caste divide, gender stereotypes and overturning traditional roles, child labour, politics, corruption, urbanization and modernization, technological advancements and their implications, green initiatives (at government school level) are some of the major themes, apart from the more human and abstract ones such as differences between perception and reality, growing up and the turmoil of adolescence with all its love-hate relationships.
This book is not simply a commentary on social evils, but is also a deeply personal project. Koshy understands the people she is writing about, no matter how different they may be from her on the surface. Simple, sensitive, occasionally humorous, the style endears the characters to the reader.
Divya Dubey is the publisher of Earthen Lamp Journal and the Editor/Instructor at Authorz Coracle.