You Crash and then You Learn

Tue, May 29, 2012

As I picked up my bicycle, climbed on it and spotted the blood on my elbows and the bunch of curious onlookers in front of the pan shop nearby, I did not feel fear or embarrassment. I had an immeasurable amount of happiness welling inside me. I had finally done what I should have about 20 years ago - I had finally managed to crash my bicycle and leave with plenty of scars to show for it.

I am 25, and until two weeks ago I could not ride a bicycle. Two weeks ago, during a Saturday afternoon, I got on a bicycle and rode it around a football field. Well, what is so special about that, you might ask. It was pretty special to me because it was the first time I had rode a bicycle, where my definition of ‘ride’ is ‘ride with a level of confidence that removes the fear on falling down!’. When it finally happened, it was like what Kevin Garnett described when he finally won an NBA with the Celtics after years of disappointment with the Minnesota Timberwolves - “I Just Knocked the Bully Out”. Yes, I was emotional. No, I did not cry. But it had been a long time coming, and the journey was painful. Here is the story of me learning to cycle.

The beginning

As a kid, I did not learn to ride a bicycle. Looking back, I don’t know why. All my friends from childhood, who lived in the same neighbourhood as me learned to ride when they were small kids. I think I had developed an aversion to it even when I was a kid. It must have had something to do with me liking swimming in the streams and playing more than riding a bicycle. And yeah, there was the minor detail about neither me or any of my close friends actually owning a cycle. When I was growing up, I spent most of my time in a residential school. In there, bicycles were a part of your fantasies about the outside world. People talked about it, fantasized about it, but never rode one. Looking back, I wonder what I did during all those vacations I had. I played more football, swam more in the streams and generally went around the village. The fact that I did not know how to ride a bicycle did not bother me in the least.

The frustration

I began to notice this fact and get worried about it when I went to college. Where I went to colllege, Yamaha RX 100s were as uncompromise-able part of life as strike actions and political rallies. This realization soon turned in to a fear. I was keen on learning and tried it on numerous occasions in our football field. But college has an uncompromising way of dealing with such lack of abilities, and that meant that there was a big emotional barrier to overcome. I failed miserably. You see, I am kind of tall, and never fell down from a bicycle. I remember trying to ride the bicycle in the ground in pouring monsoon rains. I was not getting it. As the rain around me grew in force and malice, my impatience and frustration multiplied. That was it. I decided that I would never attempt it again.

But despite all those failings, the thing that did most to drain my confidence and enthusiasm did not happen on a bicycle. That important place in my life goes to a Mahindra jeep. Back in college, a group of my friends had this really old crazy Mahindra jeep. A lot of people used it to learn to drive or to hone their driving skills. My baggage of experiences (or the lack of it) meant that I never touched the driving wheel.

The shock

One fine Sunday afternoon, we were returning after lunch at this awesome, little place that served kerala rice meals and fish. (This place is called Ashwathi and I recommend that if you go to Trivandrum, you should totally go there.) One of my friends who was still learning to drive was driving the jeep and it had around 12 of us inside it. Another friend of mine - S - was instructing him. When we reached the hostel and the football field, S continued to instruct the other friend. All of a sudden, I was inspired. I wanted to learn this thing. It certainly had to be less painful than learning to bicycle, I thought. I asked S if he could teach me. S immediately said Yes.

The hostel campus has a road that goes around the five or six buildings and the road’s sides are dotted with big, tall cedar trees. I climbed to the driving seat and S took the other front seat. My other fiend sat in the back. I started driving the jeep dead-slowly in the football ground. After 5 minutes or so, I was growing confident and suggested that we take it to the road. S okayed it and we began slowly driving on the road around the buildings. My confidence was soaring by now, and I was growing comfortable with the idea that I could control this behemoth of a machine. I went around the buildings four times. We were on the fag end of the road, where a right hand turn would take us to the road that ran parallel to the football field. I took the right turn, and was bringing the steering wheel back to its normal position. The old Mahindra, like its million cousins was a pain to steer. I had passed the curve and I had not yet managed to steer the jeep back to the straight position. There was a huge cedar tree on the right side about 6 meters away. I was going at 20kmph and thought I still had a lot of time to steer it back. My friend sitting in the back did not think so and shouted out that we were headed for the tree. And then, all hell broke loose. I rammed the accelerator down, thinking it was the brake, and the jeep sped in to the cedar tree. I dont remember how fast it was, but it was pretty fast.

We survived. I had to shell out around 6k to repair the right side of the jeep. I had managed to spectacularly break the bumper, the suspension and the brake on the right side.

This incident left me with an absolute terror of vehicles and the road. When we finally managed to get the jeep repaired, my friends advised me to continue learning. I remember sitting there behind the wheels of the jeep in the football field - hands trembling, head shaking and heart racing. The fear of ending up killing somebody on the road and was real and strong. At that moment, I gave up. I decided that I would never attempt to drive in my life.

The fascination

Moving to Bangalore almost three years ago changed my life in more ways than one. Playing football, the thing around which my days revolved around during college ended up being something I did once in a while. Reaching places where people played football proved to be very difficult. I remember having to hop on two buses to get to IISc. to play a game of football on Sundays and I equally remember a game of football in a ground in JP Nagar being interrupted by one of those ultra-Kannadiga politicians turning up and decreeing that only Kannadigas could play. I did discover this awesome gang that played football everyday at the Koramangala Post Office grounds. I was a regular there for a long time. Walking for 30 minutes at 6:00 AM was proving to be difficult. I really wanted to be able to transport myself to different quarters fast. Bicycle, anyone?

The retry

I started trying to learn to ride. My brother, who is 11 years younger than me tried to help me. But then, it never took off. The pain and embarrassment of showing off my noob-ishness on a street where the onlookers were people who slightly admired me was too much. The learning sessions lasted about ten minutes each and ended with me being left totally frustrated with myself. This was not going to happen.

And then, it happened

I went to IISc on a Saturday two weeks ago. The desire to learn had returned to me. IISc has a big football field, an my friend suggested that I ride around the field. I rode the bike and after the initial struggling to gain balance, it just came to me. I could do this thing. I was doing it. It was far from perfect, but I was comfortable, and I had balance. As I completed my first round around the football field, I felt the kind of happiness that I have seldom felt in my life. I really could do this. Three hours of riding around the ground and 15 minutes on the road that increasingly looked like the road where I had the jeep accident later, I knew that I had cracked it.

The road

The following Friday I borrowed a friend’s bicycle. I was vary excited. I kept on telling people that I had to leave early, lest I end up under one of those sad-looking blue BMTC buses. The memory of riding the bicycle on to the road from the parking lot would live with me forever. It was around 5:00pm and that is not the kind of time when a cycling noob would want to ride on Bangalore’s roads. I was afraid, and I was not making up the fear about the buses. But I knew that this time no fear of life or failure would hold me back. In that crazy rush-hour traffic, I rode home. And no, I did not end up under a bus.

On the following day, I practiced for close to four hours. I was getting very comfortable. And on Sunday, I rode close to 20 kilometers, more than half of it on the Bannerghatta road. There was crazy amount of traffic, I was still afraid of the buses. In fact a blue BMTC bus almost knocked me out of the road. But that had more to do with the driver of the bus being a total moron than me making any mistakes.

The crash

I was returning from this ride full of pride and a more than healthy dose of confidence. I had rode 20 kilometers on some of Bangalore’s craziest roads and had done well. As I approached the place I live, I was riding pretty fast. On the penultimate turn, I sped before I had come out of the curve, and I the bicycle and me crashed hard on the tarmac. From the pain and the amount of skidding my body did on the tarmac and the flight of my spectacles, I guessed it would have been spectacular. I had a bunch of keys in my jeans pockets and one of those decided to embed it’s end to my thigh. There was a lot of blood. The pair of jeans survived, and so did my knees and elbows.

The aftermath

I regularly ride the bicycle to the office these days. I still have not mastered it. I am still afraid of the blue BMTC buses. I still get confused when that motherly lady with the small kid decides it is a great idea to step in front of a bicycle. But, what the heck? I will ride the bicycle like I should have 20 years ago - full of pride and joy.