The Motorcycle Diary
My favourite motorbike story concerns my friend D. D was a bit of a stud-muffin when he was a young man and he had his eye on a hottie in the college to which he was loosely affiliated. He pestered his parents into paying for what he felt sure would be a chick magnet. He made them get him a motorbike.
Unfortunately, when he did get his motorbike, he found that the hottie was besieged by young men on bikes and he would have to wait his turn. But since the hottie in question was an equal opportunities pillion, D’s turn came and the two of them sped through the evening, an auto got in the way, D slammed on the brakes but the hottie who was holding on with her fingertips to D’s shoulder — it was their first date, remember? — flew right over his head and on to the hood of another parked car.
Other than a scraped elbow and a very badly bruised ego, no harm was done but D never got her back on his bike.
Most other stories are much more gruesome. I was reminded of this when I was catching up with A, a friend from a decade ago. I learnt that A’s brother, who is D’s age, didn’t get off so lightly. A’s brother was on his way to college when he had his accident. It cost him a year and the operation didn’t take. It had to be repeated and that cost him some more time.
“He was on a motorbike?” I asked.
I thought of R, dragging his family out of poverty when he drove his motorbike into an oil slick and killed someone. The oilrig on which he had been working wouldn’t take him back, not with a civil suit pending against him. I thought of P, rushing home to be with his wife on his birthday and ending up in traction for six months as his spine recovered. P still shuffles when he walks. He has not worked since the accident, seven years ago.
I wonder if all this worries the makers of Dhoom and Dhoom 2 or the gentlemen who devise the commercials in which young men spin their bikes on the edges of cliffs. I wonder if all this worries John Abraham, who at this point must be the motorbike’s biggest brand ambassador. He knocked someone over too but behaved perfectly, taking the injured young man to hospital and paying his bills so he was back on the road and in the ads a few weeks later, India’s bad boy on his bad machine.
The motorcycle has always been a phallus substitute. Even if you think Freud was a dirty old boy with his mind in the toilet, you have to only look at the way that these machines have been marketed to know that there is a deep grammar connection between the idea of masculinity and the motorcycle. The car now seems like some old man’s idea of an extended self. This here bike, steel-hard, inner-thigh-hot, vibrating deeply, protruding from between your legs? Sounds like something familiar?
You might argue that masculinity has been redefined in the last twenty years, that it is now about responsibility and stewardship and keeping the promises you make. Tell that to a young man who can’t think beyond his testosterone.
Thus the cinematic cliché of the woman who peels off her helmet to reveal a mane of flowing hair — her breasts have been disguised by clever camera angles in her hunched stance on the bike — always plays with the notion of gender. Not what you expected, right?
But at least, she’s young and bodacious.
Imagine if a little old lady shook her salt-and-pepper curls out of the helmet.
That would be unthinkable.
After all, the motorbike is also associated with youth. Think back to Marlon Brando as Johnny, the leader of a biker pack. Halfway through The Wild One (1953, dr László Benedek), someone asks Johnny, “What are you rebelling against? His answer has the iconic quality of a quotable quote. “Whatcha got?” he sneers. The bike film got bigger in Easy Rider (1969, dr Dennis Hopper), with two young men sashaying their way through America, redefining what the continent meant, showing it to be a nation of dropouts and drug lust and thoughtless violence. And from there, on and on, past many deaths and much screeching sound effects to The Motorcycle Diaries (2004, Walter Salles) with Gabriel Garcia Bernal playing Che Guevara. The association between youth and the counter-culture and the motorbike continues.
Granted, young men will always lust after motorbikes. Death is always a subtle and seductive mistress to the adolescent because life, in the form of good loving sex has not had its chance, to make a claim. Our social structures are also geared to help them prefer death to life. Which do you think is the four-letter word a child should not use? Give you a hint. It’s a verb, transitive. Did you think of the verb ‘to kill’? To threaten someone with death is not transgressive. To mention death is not a social solecism. It is common for a child to say, “I’ll kill you if you tell her what I told you” or ”I’ll kill you if you mess with my comics” and no parent will twitch. The F word however brings on recriminations and tears and horror.
And so on the roads of every major metropolis and B town, there is a bunch of tearaways who are generally all-but virgins. As they rip through traffic, as they throw themselves into the wind, the older, the wiser shake their heads and wonder at how cheap life seems to be to them.
Especially surgeons. I was driving with one when a young man on a motorcycle cut in front of us.
“Donorcycles,” he said. “We call them donorcycles.”
“Would a helmet help?”
“Of course it would. But you have to have it on. Your pillion should have one on too. Or you might end up dead. Why don’t you guys write about this?”
(The writer is the author of Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb)