(An occasional series on how what was once commonplace is vanishing as Mumbai changes)
Featureless buildings line a cramped, narrow by-lane near JJ Flyover in south-central Mumbai, but a row of bright-red bicycles against the wall of a shop around the corner add a splash of colour. On a table at this shop’s entrance lies a dog-eared ledger, just eight entries filling up the day’s page.
Lucky Cycle store, off Duncan Road, is not one of those rent-a-cycle shops in Colaba Causeway or Marine Lines that let you borrow geared bikes to explore Mumbai’s heritage on a Sunday morning.
The 70-year-old shop has been renting the sturdy Atlas cycles to the working class Mumbaiite who cannot afford a taxi, or to the small shop owner to make home-deliveries. It’s the common man’s rent-a-cycle and it is on the brink of extinction.
“Ours is one of the last surviving rent-a-cycle stores in Mumbai. In the next five or six years, you will not find us at all,” says Abdul Rashid of the store his father started 70 years ago. Five such shops in a half-kilometer radius have already shut down, and a handful more at Byculla and Null Bazar are barely pulling on.
These cycle stores are a relic of the 1950s, started by the people who came to this city to make a living. Rashid’s father, Abdul Wahab, was 25 and restless in Bangalore, then a sleepy cantonment town. He came to Mumbai with his younger brother. “My father was a cycle mechanic, my uncle was good at maintaining accounts. They had first decided to set up a cycle repair shop,” said Rashid.
The docks and spinning mills made central and south-central Mumbai thriving business centres — the big trading houses were at Mazagaon, Masjid and Cotton Green, but the smaller ones were nestled around Kamathipura and Mumbai Central. The areas surrounding Kamathipura had middle and lower-middle class dwellings, precariously placed between shady drinking joints and brothels. On its fringes were Kazipura, Bharat Bazaar, Sonapur and Chor Bazaar where thousands of labourers worked.
“These small stores supplied goods to wholesale shops in Crawford market or Byculla. Few BEST buses plied and the main roads were far away. Hand carts were the only way to ferry goods to main roads before they could be transferred to taxis or tempos,” says Mohamed Riaz, a resident of Do Tanki.
The labourers could not afford taxis that charged Rs2 for the first 2km. Abdul Wahab saw a business opportunity. He decided to turn his repair store into a rent-a-cycle one. He charged 50 paisa for half-an-hour. There were smaller cycles for children, available at half the price.
It was an instant hit.
“In the 1960s, a cycle would cost Rs400. The average monthly salary of a government servant was between Rs100-150. A small trader would make Rs200 a month. How many could buy a cycle?” said Rashid. “Even if they could buy one, there was no place to park them as 10 people would share a 10x10 tenement.”
“Carrying a parcel to Crawford market 3km away would cost just 50 paise. Hiring a taxi cost Rs8. It obviously worked our way. Our average daily income was never less than Rs50. We were rich people then,” Rashid said, as he remembers constant queues outside his shop.
“We had 35 Atlas cycles, as they are sturdy, and they were marked with a number. We gave cycles only to those we knew. The customer’s name, the time the cycle was borrowed and the cycle number were recorded in the ledger.”
In the ’90s, when private businesses opened up and more people got jobs, the concept lost favour.
“All of a sudden, people had money. Sleek bikes and scooters became household items. Who will hire cycles?”
Today, Rashid’s store has just 12 cycles, most of which he says stay parked all day. “We charge Rs15 an hour and I hardly make Rs500 a day. I’ve not purchased a new cycle in the last five years.”
Rashid knows it’s an uncertain future — his son wants to be a pharmacist, and his daughter, now in class 12, is not interested in taking over the business.
“The cycles require constant maintenance. Good mechanics are hard to find, and those available want high wages. With a meagre income, the business is becoming increasingly difficult to run.”