Part 1 – Freedom on two wheels
When I was young, the bicycle stand at school was a little corner between buildings. Few students cycled. There were still cars and buses transporting students. Post 1983, it became increasingly challenging to rely on public transport which had started to dwindle, and private cars couldn’t afford the daily commute with the steady shortage of fuel. Soon the large pavilion built next to the school grounds to hold spectators became our cycle stand. It filled up over the next couple of years, bikes stacked so close to each other that their stands got in the way of each other and handle bars became entangled in the rush to store and remove before and after school. Rushing out of school in time to make it for after school activities became a challenge. Students started pulling their bikes out 5mts before the bell rang and lined up the exit gates by the side street. An additional watch man stood by the gate, guarding it zealously as if they were prison gates, not willing to open a second too early, a big wristwatch dangling on his left wrist and a menacing glare at whoever tried to push their limits.
I considered myself lucky. We were going to daily cycle the long trek from Thinnevely to Chundikuli and I was only in Grade 7 – barely 13yrs old. 40mts one way. My excitement at the prospect of freedom on two wheels was as high as the palmyrah trees dotting our compound. If cycles made the Jaffna boy look macho, it definitely made the girls mature, or so I was sure. I had strict instructions to stay close to my two older sisters.
My father now had the task of finding two new bikes. My eldest sister had been gifted one – the monster truck of bikes called ‘the Flying pigeon’. She rode it like Cleopatra – in charge of her universe. This included my other sister and myself. In the shadow of Cleopatra, my second sister was quiet and obedient growing up. I was the rebel, bold and boisterous enough to challenge authority at every corner. So, my middle sister ended up with a second hand bike, parted from a family leaving the city in the face of ethnic turmoil. My father had no choice but to get me a new bike, all the way from Colombo. I think it was a model out of China – all glitter and glam! A red sleek bike, with white cables and curved handle bars fit for a lady. Flashy enough to satisfy 12-yr old me (little did I know it also came apart just as easily). Thus started my bicycle days….
The mighty Flying Pigeon soared far on the first day to school. It didn’t help that we had to pass the Nallur temple area, where the annual festival was just concluding. This meant the streets were filled with truck loads of sand. As my able and athletic older sister on the ‘monster bike’ prodded bravely ahead through the sand, determined not to step off the struggling bicycle, my other sister and myself soon caved under the scorching sun and inches deep sand. Saving ourselves from sprawling on the hot sand, we jumped off our bikes and wheeled them through the sand, with sweat pouring down our faces. More humiliating was the pitiful look thrown back by ‘Cleopatra’. Egos aside, fear of being yelled for being late blinding our eyes along with the dripping sweat, we somehow made it through and panted our way back home, our tongues hanging out from exhaustion and thirst. First day back at home, there was enough rage and tears about our experience. That evening, the palmyrah trees looked shorter than I had envisioned.