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Wind in the face

Love stories are overrated and cheesy. But love and logic are at loggerheads when you are in love.

I have always been in love with cycling. Arms lifted at the sides, head held high, and nostrils sucking in the soft breeze, every ride down the slope was like a take-off. But after marriage, this love took a back seat. Not that I was not allowed, but because the circumstances were not favourable.

Married to a soldier posted in inhospitable areas, I was compelled to curb my carefree spirit. And the only indulgence I had was an occasional ride that I could manage when my husband was available.

About 18 months ago, we moved to Bhuj in Kutch. The great thing about Bhuj is its traffic-free smooth roads. Whether it’s a town or village, the roads are a welcoming paradise for bike-lovers.

So what was I waiting for? There was another obstacle, one which many women cyclists will relate to. Leaving my five-year-old daughter unattended didn’t seem right and once again, I had to quell my desire to ride. And then there was also that fear of the unknown: should I or should I not ride alone?

"A woman riding alone invites unnecessary attention," a friend objected.

"I don’t think so, people here seem calm and civilised," I retorted.

"Oh, but they stare at you."

"Yes, because they are curious. There is a difference between staring and leering," I defended.

For the past three months, going on occasional rides with my husband, I had noticed that the local people were decent and well-behaved. Now I wanted to break free from dependence on my husband.

"And what if your cycle breaks down?"

I laughed. I realised that there is no end to excuses. We all hide behind these excuses to justify our failed dreams.

Now was the time.

The next day, after my husband left for office and daughter for school, I wrapped up the household chores, packed my mini-breakfast and geared my bike. How much time did I have? Five uninterrupted hours. Not bad!

There is a smooth highway that connects Bhuj with the Mandvi beach. I decided to take this road, as it is not too isolated. It is a smooth road that passes through acres of barren land dotted with cacti and Kikar with just three or four villages.

I began my solo ride. My stomach lurched every time I thought that a car was slowing down next to me. I would imagine next day’s scary newspaper headlines, and in apprehension, my hand would move swiftly to the pepper spray tucked inside my jersey. For the first 20 km, I was as restless as a teenager on her first date. With narrow, suspicious eyes, I would scan the smiling faces I passed. Rudely, I ignored their cheerful waves. I was on guard.

Halfway, I stopped at a teashop. I noticed the stall owner watching me with curiosity as I wiped the sweat off my face. I avoided his eyes.

And then I smiled at him, a carefree, candid smile.

"Hiren Bhai," he introduced himself. "Are you an NRI?"

"No, I am from Bhuj."

"I’ve never seen a woman cyclist here, only some men cyclists on Sundays."

Three or four villagers had joined us and they were inspecting my bike.

"You must be tired; here, take the key to my room and freshen up," Hiren Bhai gestured towards a room in the backyard. With a smile, I took the key to the bathroom. When I returned, he had prepared two glasses of masala buttermilk for me.

As I was about to leave, he took out his notebook. "Here, can you please write something for my daughter," he asked me hesitantly. "I will tell her that I met a woman cyclist."

My heart had never felt that light and happy when I at last touched the sea after about 65 km riding alone on that highway.

That was the first of my many solo rides in Bhuj. And every ride was an enriching experience. It not only broadened my understanding of the local culture but also gave me a strong sense of self. Gradually, I have begun to sense a change around me. In our social gatherings, women approach me, not for advice on new fashions or a recipe but about my riding plans. Yes, it is doable. For me and for everyone.

More than the beautiful handicrafts of Kutch, the real beauty lies in its people. It also taught me that a city is not called civilised by the standards of its sophisticated technology but by the healthy mind of its dwellers. Be it a shepherd or a shopkeeper, everyone has a honest warmth. They are welcoming and free of any unhealthy gender-prejudice towards women.

On my rides, I have often met interesting people. There is a temple on a hill, about 10 km from the city, surrounded with an expanse of Kikar forests. There I had met an old widow who brewed tea for us and told about her life story, how she left her sons and chose to live here as the caretaker of the temple. I often think about her living all alone in that remote temple, her courage leaving me intimidated.

Inspirations are all around us, the world is full of stories. Once a week or so, I go for breakfast rides till Praveen Bhai’s dhaba on the Bhuj-Mandvi highway. He is fond of selfies and chit-chats. The last time, he told me the story of the crocodiles in the lake next to his dhaba.

With each ride, my apprehensions have become fewer and I no longer feel vulnerable or an outsider in this land. I am a person in love with her surroundings and with herself. At last, I am free.

neovartika@yahoo.com

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Printable version | Nov 30, 2020 4:42:51 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/wind-in-the-face/article32880685.ece

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