Part 5 – Roaming and romancing
“Independence is a heady draught, and if you drink it in your youth, it can have the same effect in the brain as young wine does” – Maya Angelou
What fun it was to have the freedom of two wheels and to be young! I am pretty certain despite all the constraints of cycling in war ravaged Jaffna, every young person with a bike in the 80s also carries fond memories of friends, flirtations and filmy love affairs.
Young boys and girls thrived on ‘parallel riding’, the act of 3 or more bikes taking over the road and riding in parallel – a parade of sorts. It was a sign of youth having fun or establishing control on the road, or exuding power. All of the above having the same effect on our brains as wine did. A warm fuzzy feeling of giddiness. It also fit the Tamil concept of love from afar – “Look, but please don’t touch”.
The early school builders did not foresee the bicycle rendezvous. They most often built a boys only school not far from a girls only school. We had St. Johns and Chundikuli, Central and Vembadi, St. Patricks and Jaffna Convent, Jaffna Hindu Boys and Jaffna Hindu Ladies, so on and so forth, all of them not far from each other. When school ended, the roads around the school became congested with cyclists. Gangs of girls and boys planned their daily exit with meticulous precision. In the absence of cell phones, we were creatures of habit, establishing a steady pattern in our day to day lives, one that helped everyone know who, when and where people were at a given time. If you showed mild interest in someone, the bicycle trip began from school to home with one following the other, typically in a group just so that no suspicion arose. You followed each other in love and hatred. Sometimes, two groups tussled on the road with words and bicycles, vying for dominance.
As my good memory serves, Cleopatra had a following of those that were infatuated and those that enjoyed eve teasing her (sour grapes – realizing this fruit was beyond their grasp). This might also be how the athletic Cleopatra learned to speed up on her bike, though when she was with her gang of friends, they ruled the road – they acted like the UN security council. When the friends were around, we were not allowed to ride in parallel, but obediently fall behind in ranks. When she was alone on the other hand, she cycled so fast we ended up falling behind anyways. But both times what would invariably happen is that we would drop behind and join the group of boys who were following her or her gang! We would be putting our best effort and all of a sudden realize that we are actually riding in parallel with these boys. We were like Thomson and Thompson in The Adventures of Tintin – always running with the enemies. Someone had to feel sorry for us! Most times no one did and even if someone did, we did not believe anybody because our loyalty for Cleopatra had taught us to categorically ignore all boys cycling behind us! One time, I got caught to Cleopatra’s enemies and bravely fought a hard battle cycling alone all the way from Chundikuli well past Nallur and was confident that once I turned in to the lane around ‘Naatchimaar kovil’ (Hindu temple), off Temple road, it would become our territory. I heard a lot of yelling behind me and by now I also knew my Chinese bike was giving up on me as usual, with loud clanking and scraping rising from the loose metal stand attached to my bicycle’s back wheel. Just before the turn off to the lane, I felt someone or something pulling me backwards and sure enough, the stand finally gave up and fell on the road. Just then, the group of ‘enemies’ overtook me, turned around and yelled “didn’t you hear us – your cycle stand was falling apart!” No denying there are good souls on earth, only if we can get rid of our bias.
As for Cleopatra’s infatuated followers, I did unto them what Cleopatra did to us – I threw them a pitiful, scornful glance, and rode away (please forgive me).
Romancing on two wheels was to some a ‘cat and mouse’ chase, but for most it was a matter of practice makes it perfect. There was a certain degree of stalking but one word to the family patriarch or matriarch and the stalker was put in his place. For the rest of us, amidst the grim reality of war around us, it was what gave us teenagers our dreams. What made us aspire to become somebody, study hard or practice hard. This need to impress. It was mostly infatuation with purpose. It was our twinkling moments of happiness on mostly bleak days.
The fact was that you could have a really ‘twinkling’ good day if you planned your trip very carefully. Your hero/heroine would exactly show up as expected, outside their house on their bike, or around a particular corner just about the time you took that turn, or at that point up the street, slowing down to allow you to get closer but not ride in parallel. Subtle moves efficiently drawn up, passing one another as effectively as a secret service agent in disguise would do, fleeting glances at one another and a quick turn of the head in the opposite direction. As paradoxical as it sounds, the head turn was in fact an acknowledgement of your presence. Head down and a slight smile on one’s lips meant your ‘sky was filled with stars’!
I have to give credit where it is due – boys of my time really mastered the art of ‘hanging on to the gate’ outside houses. They would reach their homes or their friend’s house and slightly lean their bikes against the gate while not getting off the seat, plant one foot firmly on the gate or, balance the weight of their body on their thigh resting against the gate and use one hand to ‘hang’ off the top of the gate and move the bicycle back and forth like a circus acrobat. Usually you could hear the mother calling from inside after a while, “are you coming in or what?” As the tropical twilight filled Jaffna’s evening sky, and mosquitoes flew in to your mouth while you sped home, you would always spot groups of boys hanging outside the gates. One final twinkling minute of happiness in our uncertain lives.
No beauty nor indulgence came close to the fun of spending time with friends roaming the streets together on bikes. Tuition classes (Exam preparation/coaching classes conducted privately by individuals or institutions. Typically these were large co-ed classes) gave abundant chance for spending time with friends. Some of the happiest memories for me are cycling together for these classes. Sometimes we cycled so slowly that it was hard to balance the bike if you were riding ‘double’ (carrying someone on the back pillion or the front cross bar). We chit chatted all the way to and from, gossiping about others, giggling over our secrets, arguing and philosophizing and occasionally taking a shot at others on the street. Just being there with each other and for each other. Early morning classes before school had it’s own beauty… the quiet streets, the morning toll of bells at temples, busy store fronts unloading their wares, stray dogs still lazing in the middle of the road, before the scorching sun made the tar too hot to lie down, groups of students cycling towards the same destination, a quiet camaraderie in the air, and peace.
Jaffna, in my memories.