There can’t be more than an opinion on the benefits of wearing a helmet while riding a bike, but losing the helmet can be cathartic.
I crashed my bike last week. That’s a pretty shameful and demoralising thing to happen to someone whose bike is his soul mate. I took a few bruises but thankfully the bike only got her fender bent.
It was a silly crash. A slope, the rain, a lady darts across the street, brakes, skid, topple, blood, petrol... and a broken spirit. The bike is a living thing, an extension of the rider. Its engine struggles when I am sick. Its friction turns into a roar when I ride it in a bad mood. When my mind is clear it rides, as the mechanic in an engine oil ad says, like “makkhan” (butter).
After the bike and I failed each other, I lost my confidence in the street, the machine and myself. I couldn’t bear to look at her anymore. There was an unfathomable abyss we both were unable to bridge. After a day passed, the realisation sunk in that this dark energy tearing us apart was a manifestation of my own fears; those lurking doubts in my subconscious that I thought I had locked away.
The only way to break this spell was to go back to the way we had first discovered each other. I longed to listen to her, to feel her and to do away with the clutter that had piled up on our relationship. Breaking the promises I had made to my mother and grandmother, I left the helmet behind, kicked the starter and rode into the rainy Bhopal night.
It is only because I wore a helmet on that dark day, that I live to write this blog. It is the most utilitarian of all motorcycle accessories. Not wearing one as a routine is plain stupid. On the flip side: not only does the helmet restrict your field of view and reflexes, but you also ride faster as the resistance of air on your face that makes you instinictively slacken the accelerator, is blocked. Most importantly the helmet cuts out the little whispers of the bike that give you unique insights into life and the road ahead.
Bhopalis don’t care for helmets or traffic rules or signals or lanes. Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand (the bazaars), Rousseau’s General Will (the collective will of drivers) and even Maradona’s Hand of God (unpunished traffic violations) regulate the unclassifiable organism that Bhopal’s road traffic is. Police here are philosophical observers who occasionally nudge people in the direction of the law. Wearing a helmet here is truly a democratic choice.
I rode slower than usual— initially out of fear, but continued because I loved the cheerful hum of a 100 cc engine at 40kmph and boisterous hammering of the piston at 25kmph. These were the sounds and the addictive smell of petrol that made me fall in love with her in the first place. The wind in my face, the rain in my hair and the slush on her mudguard.
I realised that she had grown old. She struggled a bit on slopes, the click of changing gears betrayed fatigue. But she was my bike, the only one I can love. And when push came to shove, she could still step up to the traffic.
We rode past the Roshanpura crossroads, stopped for a while at New Market where I bought some gauze to dress my bruises. We admired each other in the drizzle, as I did the dressing gently resting my foot on her wounded fender. A sweet paan for me and some petrol for her and we rode further.
I began to listen and smell a world that had been cut off by the helmet all this time. I was one again with the bike and the street. I halted beside a trio on a automatic gear scooter at a traffic signal. The girl in the middle whispered to the rider about the girl behind her: “She’ll tell my sister that I was with you. You just watch.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “The weather is beautiful.”
A couple on a bike beside me looked at the trio disapprovingly. They looked like parents, worried that perhaps their children also rode triples— with their bodies fused with those of the opposite sex. I spied the lady sneaking a glance at my number plate, almost as if she wanted to distract herself from the trio. “Which registration in TN,” she asked the man I presumed was her husband. “Must be Daman Diu,” he said.
I smiled. The lights turned green.
We rode on. The chinking of coins of urchins totalling their collection at the Banganga slums, the twang of a cane on a barricade at the Polytechnic varsity, the whiff of nihari from Ghazala and the sounding of cream dropping into tea at Ghafoor’s. They were all now part of my ride. No longer was I like a horse with blinkers. I was a free Nilgiri Tahr in the sholas.
“On a cycle the frame is gone. You're completely in contact with it all. You're in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.”
― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values