Part 3 – Fender benders (high drama on the streets of Jaffna)

With an entire population from age 7 to 70 taking up bicycles as a mode of transport, it soon became evident that fender benders were a routine part of cycling. No one was exempted and it was a matter of pride how uneventful you could pull it off or, how much of a public display you could execute. We all had our share of stories, even Cleopatra. No one expects the queen to exhibit beginner skills but alas, it was the truth, though not conceded to date. To the horror of the township, it was a repeat offense too – at the same time, at the same place. This poor young boy presumably from a farming family would wobble on his bike with his overloaded crate tied to the pillion at the back, taking vegetables to the famed ‘Thinnevely market’ early in the morning and wobble right in to Cleopatra’s path while taking a turn at the T-junction by the Amman kovil (temple). Not once but twice. Each time the crate toppled and vegetables scattered, earning the scorching look from Cleopatra who bitterly complained at home. Soon my grandmother arranged for a pooja at the Amman kovil, to ward off the evil attacking her beloved grand daughter in the form of a young boy and his vegetable crate. The pooja must have worked, or Cleopatra quickly improved on her navigation skills. As for the young boy….let’s just say he was the first of many.

My second sister was the wise one in the family. The nerd while growing up. Someone who actually complained about the freedom a bike gave her. She had the best share of fender benders because you see, she didn’t ride her bike like a horse. Of us three, she was the one who always volunteered to sit on the pillion if need be. She didn’t care much for the art of balancing on the pillion seat so the rider could maneuver the bike better. So Cleopatra often yelled warnings to her, if she saw impending danger due to carelessness. However, it couldn’t always be averted. Once, she managed to bring down all the bicycles parked outside a building on the side of the road with her outstretched legs. Her arguments were always brief but valid – “I didn’t hear her with all that noise!”, “I couldn’t see where you were going!”, “Why did you ride the bike so close to the edge of the road?”. When words failed, she cried. Another time, those skinny legs my mom had faithfully oil massaged when she was an infant to make them strong, hit an old lady walking on the road and the poor lady took a tumble. This was my worst experience because I remember us jumping off the bike to help the woman but the barrage of rich, foul language that was released from her mouth made our eyes sting with tears. She must have been perfectly alright from the fall to release a litany of impressive words, most of which we were hearing for the first time in our lives. Paati (grandmother) soon felt better to continue walking while we shook like leaves all the way home.

At the peak of the Indian army occupation in Jaffna, when barricades were all over the place and we had to cycle slowly or get off and wheel the bikes across camp areas, my nerdy sister, our ‘Steve Urkel’ (Family Matters), pulled a stunt that scared even the mighty contingent. Right across the Jaffna kachcheri (secretariat) office, they had added gravel to the existing road. People avoided this area because you were surrounded by heavily armed men inside several fortified barracks. It is still a mystery how Steve Urkel ended up in the middle of this large street, watched by all and in slow motion riding her bike through the thick gravel, so slowly that the bike couldn’t make it through the soft, shifting ground beneath it’s tires….so it slides and Urkel goes sprawling right in the middle of this important location, all guns trained at her. Only because she is Steve Urkel, she worries more about her wounds and is blissfully unaware of all eyes on her, while I hold my breath a few feet away and wait for her to move as fast as she can out of the ‘limelight’. She did get a couple of nasty gashes that time. Poor Urkel.

As for romantic me, I tried my best to avoid fender benders, saving it for the perfect scene out of movies, for that one time, prince charming and me. I admit, I came close to that, but forget prince charming. Both of us, this boy and myself, approaching each other around a blind corner and taking the bend too fast, not because we intended to bump in to our ‘love connection’, but because I was notoriously late for everything. So picture ‘fast and furious’ taking a turn too sharply, two bikes realizing they are on for a major collision, both bikes avoiding each other and turning towards the opposite side of the road, both speeding up parallel to each other and crashing in to the wall on the other side of the road – next to each other, but not on top of each other. We both look up disappointed, realize we have to save our dream for another time, another person, turn our bikes away from the wall (no damage sustained by anyone or the wall) and politely ride off. It was such a letdown, even a ‘sorry’ would have looked exaggerated.

Now I know this is hard to believe, but we did have those ‘single vehicle collisions’ as well, due to other elements on the road. Once Cleopatra and Urkel were sent on a far away trip to Columbuthurai. On their way back, close to Kalviyankadu, the eagle-eyed ‘queen’ sees a snake slither across the street right in to their path and God forbid, wind up on the inside rim of her front bicycle wheel. Again, this sounds like a mythological story but her instinct kicks in and in a flash of action, she jumps off the bike and throws it away from her…… right in to the path of an oncoming tractor. Of course the shocked driver goes right over the bicycle and it is now bent. No snake was found but a crowd had gathered by now ready to beat down the tractor driver. How dare he damage the queen’s mighty vehicle? He apologizes profusely and carries the bike in the tractor to the nearest repair shop and has it fixed then and there, right before his eyes. In the mean time, word reaches the royal house hold that an accident had occurred and the queen is safe and the fault entirely lies on a ‘useless’ tractor driver who is now getting the bike fixed.

My fancy Chinese model with it’s white cable brakes soon snapped from my extensive use of the ’emergency brakes’. After a few attempts at fixing it, one cable was permanently wound around and tied to the handle bar. On the positive side, it was easy to now spot the bike in a crowd. One brake was sufficient. Plus, you always had your ‘foot brake’. No one borrowed it either. It was the last resort for anyone, even when I offered. The cable was undone and the handle was at a crooked angle (I thought it looked cool). It just didn’t look normal.