Sitting on the grease-covered floor of his shop in Kozhikode, Mohandas (known to his customers as Mohanan ‘Chettan’) listens intently to an old customer who lists out the repairs needed for his old bicycle, which carries the marks of many a decade. Minutes later, he gives the same stoic attention to a schoolboy and his snazzy, geared cycle.
Mr. Mohandas is one of the few who have survived the churn which happened with the shift in the way the utility of a bicycle was perceived. In the past few decades, this machine went out of vogue as a preferred mode of transport for the majority. Now it is staging a comeback as a fat-burner and petrol-saver, thanks to the same motorised vehicles which once upstaged them. But only a few of the cycle repair shops that once dotted our cities have survived to meet this new demand.
“This shop has been here since 1950, when my father was running it. Everyone from the toddy worker to the government employee went in cycles then. Scooters were getting popular when I took over in the early 1970s. In this area alone, at least seven repair shops closed down in the past two decades,” says Mr. Mohandas, whose shop is near Malabar Christian College. Adapting to the change in technology has been a challenge for most of them. “The changes in design happened when they began making models targeting the youth. The work has certainly got complicated. Even the tools have changed. You can’t run a shop now with that old set of spanners and screw drivers,” he says.
The lack of new blood in the profession tells. A majority of the repair shops in Kozhikode are manned by men well into their 60s and 70s. “All of my children are reasonably educated and are working outside Kerala in various companies. I don’t think anyone has taken up cycle repairing in the past 20 years at least,” says Ahmed Koya, who runs a small shop near Kallai.
Mr. Mohandas, who one used to have three workers, now handles it all alone.
“Leave alone opening a new shop, no-one is even ready to work for wages in our shops. I work here 12 hours daily. Now, no-one likes to work more than eight hours. So, the few relatively young cycle workers have joined the shops selling cycles. They have to do only the simple assembly jobs there and need to work only fixed hours. Running a repair shop requires immense dedication,” Mr. Mohandas says. The skyrocketing rents have also forced some to shut down. A busy shop like Mr. Mohandas’s makes anywhere between Rs. 10,000 and Rs. 15,000 a month. Smaller ones like Mr. Koya’s make less than Rs. 4,000. The rent eats up a lion’s share of the returns. The past few years have also seen the closing down of most of the cycle rental corners, which used to add to the revenue of the repair shops and gave the first cycling lessons to many.
Going by the current trend, most of these traditional repair shops could be closed down in the coming decades. Dedicated repairing bays with an army of technicians at the shops selling cycles are already a reality in bigger cities. “In a few years, everyone will have to learn how to repair their cycles. All these are bound to close down soon,” says Mr. Mohandas as he tightens up the screws of a worn-down beast.