Part 2 – Repair and Maintenance (it’s all about looking cool)

In those days, most families in Jaffna owned one vehicle per household. The one vehicle would be a car or a motorbike. The vehicle pretty much stayed with the family for a couple of generations, until it fell apart. It was cared for more than those living in the house. Pretty much the same story as “Pannaiyaarum Pathminiyum” (a recent Tamil movie). Once cycles came in to the family, the same strict adherence to its maintenance and care was implemented by the head of the household. We had to wash and polish our bikes every weekend. My dad inspected every silver lining, in particular every spoke and where it connected to the rim. Rust was not allowed to set in. We inspected each other’s handiwork before his inspection just so we could polish more and more. Sometimes, I wished I had the second hand bike. I could have blamed the previous owner for minor blemishes. The only part that was easy to clean was the shiny bell. I always checked my ‘pottu’ on its shiny surface.

We soon learned to get our hands dirty and greasy. We learned the cycle chain was more important than the gold chain. This thing came off easily than the one around your neck. Usually in that important moment when you stepped on the pedal to ‘give gas’ and overtake somebody. You would lift off the seat and put your weight on the pedal, push with all your might and peddle faster and faster and faster…..except you realize you are being thrown forward and hear that loud croaking sound that tells you the chain has come off and is loosely hanging. Soon we learn to step off the bike with dignity (it comes with practice), pull that stand out, find a strong small dry stick from the ground around you and set to work with delicate accuracy and concentration. Hold the greasy chain with the stick and a finger and gently place it back on the hub. Girls taught to knit, sew and draw intricate patterns soon became experts at this. We also soon learned to wipe the greasy fingers on any available fresh leaves. We were not only beginning to look mature, but starting to act cool as well.

Initially, we befriended the youngest boy at the bicycle shops, by now conveniently cropping up every kilo meter, to help us pump air. It was a privilege when he waved his hand at us, got up from his all important job of helping the older boys and ran over to pump our bicycle tires. Soon we found it hard to part with the 25c – enough to fetch something at our school canteen if saved. Also, the kid began to put up airs, sauntering over slowly once it became known that he was indispensable to us. So some of us brave ones picked up the cycle pump and started doing it ourselves. It was not an easy act. I don’t mean, pushing the pump with all your might and deftly checking the tire every few pumps to see if it was filling up as expected. It was the white, starched school uniforms that got in the way. We had to tactfully tuck the pleated skirt of the dress between our legs, as tight as possible but not too much to ruin the ironed pleats. Too loose and you will get the black grease from the pump on your uniform. This didn’t come off easily and after a while, it was a matter or pride to carry the imprint, as a scar was to a warrior. This voluntary participation earned the scorn of the shop keeper who lost his 25c and encouraged hoots and cat calls from the boys – “Inge paar, Bharathy kanda puthumai penn” (check out poet Bharathy’s progressive woman). But soon it became accepted, though I never came across a bicycle shop owned and operated by women at that time. It was the boys, young, sinewy muscled arms, wiry bodied, no shirt, greasy sarong pulled up high above the thighs and wound tightly between the legs like a loin cloth, sitting cross-legged on the floor and working on patching up cycle tires all day. The owner spitting his beetle out and yelling at the boys to avert their eyes from the girls and concentrate on the cycle tubes they were working on. We, caught between the stares and the cat calls…..damn tube not filling up with air fast enough.