A woman biker’s diary
Growing up in Bombay in distant 1980s India, it was Grease 2 that introduced my high school class to “the idea of America”. The idea of America included the Pink Ladies and the T-Birds, shiny happy people who danced in school corridors, vroomed on motorbikes in fully-helmeted-disguise like Maxwell Caulfield (who was never heard of again), and probably, definitely, surely had sex with each other. Sex! Imagine that! We couldn’t. Life was made if the pimply metal-mouthed object of your affections tried to copy from your answer sheet during the mid-terms. It never occurred to me then to wonder why Michelle Pfeiffer didn’t zip in on a hot bike. That angle only came to me some three decades later while riding down NH1 towards Corbett National Park with seven other women. Yes. It’s true.
Anyway, most of my class and a large chunk of my generational cohort ran away to the great US of A, no doubt hoping the Land of the Free would be a lot like Rydell High School urf Riverdale High. But this isn’t a disquisition on the tragi-comedy of going to look for America and finding Trumpistan; it’s a meditation on the persistence of adolescent fantasy into middle age, on finding quietude in the roar of a motorbike, stillness in movement, and on arriving at a semblance of practical feminism on two wheels.
For as long as I can remember, motorbikes have left me slack jawed. My hormonal teens were made somewhat bearable by boys on bikes; I always rode pillion. On mopeds, on dirt track racers, on Bullets, I was that “chick” on the back of the bike. That’s what girlie girls did and though I wasn’t a girlie girl, I was great at pretending to be one. Indeed, I put on that persona for so long, I managed to play house and produce kids and morph into a Bharatiya nari in adulthood; a somewhat iffy Bharatiya nari but one nevertheless.
In between during the nuclear unit’s brief stopover in Pune, that wonderful town where everyone and their grandmother is on two-wheelers, I clocked up riding time ferrying the kids about on the gearless perfect-for-mummies Activa. I might have been doing the school run but in my head, I was blazing through Rajasthan on a Thunderbird, yeah.
Nobody tells you that your mid-40s are the next personality-transforming hump in your life after adolescence; the time when you decide you no longer give a damn about what your kids, spouse, parents, extended family, the world thinks of you. It’s both frightening and liberating. In my case, the gleeful departure of the first born – I see he’s doing a good job of conquering the world on Instagram, the only social media platform where we haven’t blocked each other – set off months of anxiety about the meaning of life. “Is this it? You live, procreate, and die? How does that make you different from street dogs whose lives follow the same arc without the bull of intellectualism, and the spiritual quest? Their sex lives are rather more uh polychromatic ‘tis true but, seriously, is this all there is?” On and on it went until one fine day, just like that, I bought myself an Avenger.
A month later as December folded into foggy January, I was riding solo to Sadri near Udaipur in Rajasthan to meet my friend, the camel activist Ilse Kohler-Rollefson, who is doing wonderful work with pastoralists there. Every rider I know raves about Ladakh, and everyone’s laughed at that Twitter joke about Bullets automatically riding themselves to Leh. Rajasthan is like the somewhat neglected younger sister whose beauty is revealed in ravishing slow-motion as you ride 585 km into it. Being on a bike for nine straight hours, stopping only to tank up and for the occasional chai, is the closest I’ve been to meditating. Bits of conversations with long-forgotten college friends overlay pictures of my children when they were little and jerky videos of old rivalries, old loves. “What did she mean when she accused him of that in 1992? Could that possibly be the true meaning of what he said in 1998?”
This state of being fully awake, in motion, in control, and yet also floating above, of having your mind range free is the most wonderful thing about being on the road. Being androgynous in biking gear, liberated of the male gaze, hurtling through the arid landscape comes next. Indian women are taught not to look too long or too hard at men, especially, to keep our heads down or gaze at a point in the middle distance, not cracking a smile at strangers lest they think character dhila hai. From within my biking hijab, though, I can look directly at everything – man, woman, beast and no one looks slyly back because… because they assume I am a man!
Travelling solo also taught me the world isn’t all bad, that Indian men aren’t all rapists or gropers, that strangers will run up to help when the bike skids on that turn to Kumbalgarh, that the tough looking guys at the roadside chai shop who remind me of Ranjeet and every other clichéd Hindi film sexual predator will make calls and importune mechanic friends to come by at once and fix my murdered clutch plates. My solo trip made me realise that I had been viewing the world through cracked glasses filmed over with prejudice. It also helped me ride myself out of an idiotic emotional trough.
Back home, I quickly became a member of the local chapter of the Bikernis, one of the largest women riders groups in the country and got to know a whole new set of people: engineers, doctors, design professionals, homemakers, entrepreneurs, all brought together by their love of bikes. And that’s how I found myself being part of an all-women’s group riding to Corbett National Park.
Delhi to Corbett isn’t like crossing the Sahara. Conquering 246 km over six and a half hours isn’t too arduous, but riding with seven other women you barely know is like something out of Roadies. You expect catfights and tears; you get mostly advice on how to keep your bike rust-free and intense conversations about, what else? Those forever unfathomable creatures - men.
If solo trips force you to learn things about yourself, riding in an all-women’s group teaches you that, damn unsynchronised ovulation schedules, the utopian feminist sisterhood can be achieved. Well, at least for the duration of the trip. It involves riding in formation, always keeping an eye out for the person behind you and trusting the leading Amazon, fitness instructor Anita Krishnan, who mentions nonchalantly that she’s already ridden through moonless nights, landslides and mountain streams in Leh. It means laughing into your helmet as Vidhi Malla, entrepreneur, and generally hot biker chick roundly tells off the hapless helmetless idiot on the Hapur Road who crosses her path. It means helping Sandhya Sreedhar, a cardiovascular operation theatre nurse at a large hospital, to her feet when she has a minor mishap. It means feeling absurdly cool when giant trucks make way for the riders because, hell, which tough trucker can stare down women on big bikes?
It also means attracting a lot of attention from random jerks with cellphones when the group stops for refreshment at the turn to Moradabad. I agree with veteran Bikerni Priya Meghwal, a mechanical engineer, that it’s unnerving to be staring at a wall of cellphones. But our unease vanishes when excited little girls accompanied by their sheepish dads rush up to look at the bikes. Even adult woman bound up to shake hands. We are being treated like celebrities! It’s all too much for the boys with the cellphones who quietly recede into the background.
At Corbett we shock the other women’s group who’ve bussed into the resort by displaying absolutely no enthusiasm for a jungle trek or to peer at tigers. “We only came here for the ride,” someone says.
And just like that I find the meaning of life: We’re only here for the ride.