Part 4 – Weighed down by books, bags, baskets and memories
There are driving schools in North America, that teach you how to drive in winter conditions. They teach you to weave around, to slide and how to control your moving vehicle. In Jaffna, we have similar conditions with our pot holes on the roads. However, there you learn on the go. Wasting an hour on the way to school because you had to patch a tire will teach you very quickly, or walking half that distance pushing your bike in the sweltering heat will teach you. Most fender benders were caused by attempts at avoiding a pot hole.
A short time in to our first year riding to school, the monsoon rains came. We didn’t have raincoats then. Also, if you were between 14-18yrs of age, wearing a rain coat wasn’t the ‘thing’ to do. Holding an umbrella, on the other hand, earned a ‘bravo’. Being school girls, we had to hold an umbrella for 40mts one way riding to school and maneuver the bike with one shaky hand. The monsoon season not only brought a downpour, but enough wind with it as well. So, you could be holding the umbrella at angles to prevent the slanting rain from soaking your school bag and the uniform and all of a sudden, a gust of wind will blow your uniform skirt all the way up! Typically this happened at an intersection where there was more than the usual crowd on the street. In that split second, your hand will have to move more swiftly than Devasena reaching for the arrows (Princess warrior in Bahubaali 2) and transfer the umbrella to the fingers holding the handle bar and pull down your wet, sticky uniform all the way below your knees and transfer back the umbrella or, hide your face with the umbrella while you take your hand off the handle bar and pull that dress back in position. Honour and pride were just as important to the Jaffna girl as it was to Devasena. In the process, we would invariably cycle in to the deepest pot hole and splash our polished white sparkling canvas shoes with mud water. It was just the season to be wet, muddy and miserable.
On our bikes we balanced baskets with flimsy thin metal handles that made them oscillate on the handle bars, heavy books that you had to hold down with just your fingers (two on books, two on the brake and the thumb around the handle), tennis and badminton recquets that went across the handle bar and were longer than the handle. This you really had to keep in mind when overtaking other bicycles. Otherwise, the racquet clipped their handle and you got entangled with someone you really didn’t want to be in that close a proximity. Murphy’s law – it was that guy notorious for eve teasing or the drunk old man shuddering along, unfocused.
My bike was by all means an extension of myself. My life revolved with it’s wheels and evolved over the years, the wheels carrying my thoughts, my aches, my happiness and my sorrows. I remember the time my bike and myself raced to the nearest house with a phone, when my grandfather collapsed and died. I remember not allowing myself to think anything but staying focused on peddling. “push, push, push”, and memorizing our family doctor’s phone number. Getting to the house, an enormous weight on my shoulders, placing the most important call I have made to date in my life. Explaining to the doctor and in the process realizing my grandfather has died, but not accepting. The house owners listening in and understanding the gravity of that call, forcing me to eat something quickly, for they see that I am still in my school uniform and will probably not be eating anything for a while. They know I have cycled far from school and back again. I realize the depth of their actions – they are indirectly letting me know that my grandfather has passed away. On that ride back home, I mature a little bit more than my 16yrs. Both my bike and myself lost our most avid critic in life – our strict, disciplined, well wisher.
We rode to far away towns around Jaffna, once going all the way to Vaddukodai for a weekend tennis tournament. Our coaches huffed and puffed all the way, telling us stories of their bicycle days and yelling out “C’mon Chicago” whenever they were exhausted (I am now convinced it was adulterated water they carried with them on that trip). It was meant to be “Come or go, Chicago”, a phrase often used by their generation. I remember riding the bike for weddings, draped in pattu (silk) saree.
It is also while riding my bike, that I have witnessed some of life’s most tragic moments, when a life is lost. I remember riding my bike one morning after sending off one of my closest friends, who was leaving the country, and coming across the body of a young boy shot to death by the side of the road. Riding past him and later coming to know that we knew his parents was a heavy thought in my young mind. Another time I came upon an elderly man, who had fallen off his scooter to the ground, after being shot presumably just minutes before. Instinctively I remember getting off the bike and moving towards him, only to be told by the now few passers by, to move on. It was not wise nor appropriate for me, I was told. He was the father of a young student from the school I attended. In times like those, I remember gripping the bicycle handle and the touch of it bringing much needed comfort. I remember running my fingers over the bar, around the shape of the bell, clutching and releasing my fingers around the brake.
There are other times when my bike and I miraculously (there really is no other word more apt) escaped being victims of war. In those days when there were no cell phones or land lines, my parents relied on prayers and good deeds for my bike to bring me back home safely. We didn’t rely only on our two legs but also on those two wheels, to take us through narrow lanes (off the main roads) safely and quickly back to our families and homes. A bike seemed to be the most important worldly possession at that time in Jaffna. Cycling far to buy a loaf of bread, or a portion of a slaughtered goat or chicken was not uncommon. Word of death came on two wheels, sometimes in the middle of the night. People left shrouded by the same darkness, sometimes on their bicycles, sometimes leaving them behind – an indication that they really had to leave in order to fulfill a much stronger desire. It is their separation from their bikes, that typically came last.
One of my lasting memories of the war is that of a young woman who had just come to know of the death of the boy who had an adoration for her. My sister and I are stopped because of the crowd outside his house and find out he has been killed. We cycle with heavy hearts and she joins us from somewhere close to his house. She clarifies his death and listens to my sister detail what we have heard. She bravely cycles with us for another 10-15mts, until a group of her friends meet her and she collapses from her bike, in to their arms. We had cycled together in unison, immersed in the sadness of his death, and yet, for one of us, he was much more than a young victim of war. It is the memory of her silent strength that is etched in my heart, reminding me that many bore the effects of war, in silence.